Strangers No More

Well Known Strangers get personal on new album

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North Bay country band Well Known Strangers tell all in ‘TMI.’ Credit: Matthew Washburn

North Bay bluegrass music fans likely know the name Hellman. It was Warren Hellman who founded the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco, and his son Mick Hellman and the family who continue to run it. In addition, the Hellman musical family boasts bands and artists like Mick’s daughter Avery Hellman (Ismay) and the group the Well Known Strangers, formed by Mick and his other daughter Olivia Hellman.

“The original idea was to back up my daughters and help them spread their wings musically,” says Mick Hellman.

The Well Known Strangers first started as a barroom-ready country rock band. “Our favorite thing was playing these kind of rowdy songs,” says Hellman, who plays drums in the group. “We had a term for this, which was brutal country.”

After releasing a self-titled EP of mostly covers, the Strangers broadened their scope, both musically and thematically, for their upcoming LP, TMI, which gets a record release party on Sunday, Sep 15, at Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley.

The album features an array of Americana tunes, largely written by Olivia and the band, that gets personal quickly. The title track, a stomping blues-tinged number, is Olivia’s response to all the things men tell her when they’re drunk. The song “Look Me in the Eye” is a Generation X-inspired dirge about political disenfranchisement and frustration, and the album’s final track, “A Song For My Daughter,” is a letter from Mick penned to Olivia in the wake of a family tragedy.

Despite the heavy theme, TMI is still a raucous and exuberant album that keeps a rough-around-the-edges vibe while also offering robust harmonies and a newly developed tenderness in the music.

Shortly after recording the album, Olivia moved to Nashville to further pursue her career, and Amber Morris, who appears on TMI as a guest vocalist, now fronts the band when they play live. Even without his daughter, Hellman says the group is staying together because the group’s chemistry and camaraderie is strong.

“What we are talking about at the album-release party is honoring the discontinuity that happened between losing Olivia and gaining Amber, to put the album in the context of the changes that are being made,” says Hellman. “And to celebrate the new material we are working on with Amber, where the focus instead of the brutal country vibe is more country soul.”

Well Known Strangers perform on Sunday, Sept. 15, at Sweetwater Music Hall (19 Corte Madera Ave., Mill Valley. 6pm. Free. 415.388.3850) and Sunday, Oct. 20, at Twin Oaks Roadhouse (5745 Old Redwood Hwy, Penngrove. 3pm. $10–$25. 707.795.5118).
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