Before he caught mid-’90s punk shows at the Rat and the Middle East in his late teens, Pete Bernhard grew up in Brattleboro, Vermont, absorbed with the pre-war blues and fingerpicking that were first introduced to him by his hippie dad.
“I was 12 or 13 years old, and a lot of my friends were into metal,” says Bernhard, now 37. “It didn’t make you very cool to be into [that old-fashioned] music at the time, but it worked out OK now.”
Indeed, he’s gone on to play major festivals like Bonnaroo and Newport Folk as frontman for the Devil Makes Three, a trio with fellow guitarist/singer and banjo player Cooper McBean and upright bassist Lucia Turino, re-energizing old-timey folk, country, blues, gospel and ragtime. All three went to high school together in Vermont before relocating to Santa Cruz, where they formed the Devil Makes Three nearly 15 years ago, before folk-rock became the new rage.
“We’re just lucky to be doing [this music] for quite a while now, and [we’ve] watched more people get into it over the years,” says Bernhard, whose group headlines House of Blues on Jan. 26. “When we started out, it was actually sort of hard to get a gig. Just the fact that we were an acoustic band, it was hard to get a show.”
Yet much like in Brattleboro, where Grateful Dead-inspired bands were popular during their youth, the Devil Makes Three stood apart from Santa Cruz’s jam-rock and jam-grass outfits and steadily outgrew small bars and house parties. “At the time, there were no other bands like us,” Bernhard says. “So that helped.”
Now, after four albums of original songs and lots of touring (“I don’t even like to think about how many shows we’ve played,” he says), the Devil Makes Three has come full circle in a couple of ways. While McBean moved to Texas with his fiancee, Bernhard and Turino returned to Vermont to live closer to their families. And last August, the group released Redemption & Ruin, an album of roots-rock covers.
“It was an idea that we’ve been kicking around for a long time,” Bernhard says, “to take a bunch of artists that we really like and let people know who our influences were… It’s sort of a mishmash.”
Songs on the album range from a brisk barrelhouse-bluegrass sendup of Tom Waits’ “Come On Up to the House” to the blues of Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson (“Drunken Hearted Man” goes back to one of the first albums that Bernhard got from his brother, also a musician like their father, uncle and aunt).
Redemption & Ruin also includes such high-profile guests as singer Emmylou Harris, mandolinist-
fiddler Tim O’Brien, Willie Nelson harp ace Mickey Raphael and pedal-steel mainstays Dan Dugmore and Jerry Douglas, whom the Devil Makes Three befriended when they shared a tour with Alison Krauss. A moody take on Hank Williams’ “Angel of Death” even adds twang-rock legend Duane Eddy.
“We did it while in Nashville, in the center of where all those people live,” Bernhard says of the album, co-produced with engineer David Ferguson (Johnny Cash, John Prine, U2’s Rattle and Hum). “This one was way more collaborative than anything else we’ve done. We actually recorded live with these musicians, which we’ve never done before. We had everyone in the room and just went through a song, found a track that we liked and moved on. The arrangements were pretty open-ended.”
The album was a particularly big step considering the trio has only toured with a drummer the past two years. “It really does lend itself to playing bigger venues,” Bernhard says of the road band, supplemented at times by a stagehand on fiddle. “It’s still stripped down to be honest.”
Lean, mean and honest in a way that echoes what he heard in Boston punk bands like the nascent Dropkick Murphys: “Usually they’re songs that are true, like folk music too,” Bernhard says. “There are political songs, hard-luck songs… We used to love the energy of going to a punk show, so we embraced that.”
The Devil Makes Three plays House of Blues on Jan. 26.