It's a picturesque scene at the Mellor residence, nestled along the shore of Little Lake in South-Eastern Ontario. Lee Mellor, now the frontman of a budding bluegrass five-piece in Montreal, laughs and reminisces with old family friends. His father, Phil, returns from the boathouse with an armful of beers, while his mother, Lynn, offers guests to her abode a slice of homemade pumpkin pie. It's Thanksgiving weekend, and you get the feeling that Lee Mellor wouldn't choose to be anywhere but home.
Yet in twenty-four hours the young singer-songwriter will be back on a train, heading East in anticipation of his next gig. Onstage, Mellor will reunite with his band of Mudhounds - a skilled posse of musicians wielding everything from acoustic guitars, stand-up bass, banjo, mandolin, and fiddle, to kazoos and harmonicas. As always, their plan is to blow the roof off the joint.
In less than a year, Lee Mellor and the Mudhounds have established themselves as a staple in Montreal's bluegrass scene, alongside local veterans Little Birdie and the United Steel Workers of Montreal. Of course, the Mudhounds' goal has never been merely to fit in. Through his song-writing, Mellor has strived to redefine the genre by employing themes and images from the past and relating them to issues of the present.
"There are a lot of ardent traditionalists on the scene who insist on playing strictly straight-up bluegrass, but I think the best way to truly preserve the music is to adapt it...to tackle issues and gel more with the mindset of our contemporary world," says Mellor.
Though folk and bluegrass are not traditionally genres a 23-year old would gravitate towards, Mellor says he grew tired of the self-indulgence associated with much of modern-day music. After dabbling with rock bands for more than five years, his search for a more honest and genuine outlet began.
"I arrived at playing folk on the end of a spiritual pilgrimage," he says. "I was looking to find a genre of music that didn't lie to me...one that could tell me the way things really are if it wanted to."
Mellor spent the first five years of his life in an industrial sector of England, which he recalls as being blanketed by smog and pollution. Around the age of 4 he developed a chronic case of pneumonia, so doctors advised that his parents leave the area, before the affliction got worse.
"Suffice to say, by the age of five I already had a pretty strong idea of the environmental issues which are sadly affecting our world, and that influenced a lot of the way I think about industries," he says.
The Mellor family immigrated to Canada in 1987, and it was here that Mellor would grow up, sandwiched between industry and countryside in the small town of Bowmanville, Ontario.
"I grew up terrified of being tied to these factory towns, because I'd see the kind of social diseases they'd breed. So a lot of my songs are about characters trying to escape the vacuum," he says.
In 2004 Mellor made his own escape, packing his bags for Montreal with hopes of penetrating the city's vibrant music community. With him he brought little more than his guitar and old-fashioned sound, yet he's managed to make it all work in his newfound surroundings.
Although striking a healthy balance between the old and the new has proved to be a constant struggle for Mellor, even more troubling, he says, is trying to define where he is headed with the genre.
"I often call what we're doing "citygrass," for several reasons. First of all, it's not exactly bluegrass - it's also heavily influenced by Motown, traditional folk, and rock music. We just kind of steal the bluegrass instrumentation. Second, none of us grew up in Kentucky," he laughs. "And finally, I think that what we're doing is more akin to the grass in the city than the wild flourishing grass of the countryside."
"It feels like roots music has kind of been buried lately, so in a way, it's like our music is those little tufts of grass that sprout out between the cracks in the sidewalk, trying desperately to find some life."
In the end, Mellor says he would rather people listen to what it is he's saying, rather than how he's saying it. To him, which genre his music falls under is irrelevant, so long as it conveys a meaningful message.
"Lee Mellor and the Mudhounds are not really doing anything totally new," he says, "we're simply resurrecting an old tradition which seems to have died out since the grunge era...actually writing good songs!"
"Our society is so inundated with songs about nothing that we're starting to forget the importance of music as a medium for change - something that can inspire us to think, drive us to fight and heal us when we're wounded."
"Lee Mellor and the Mudhounds do our best to say something earnest and insightful every time we climb up on that stage. We're not just about making money, we're about helping people to find themselves again."
For more information on Lee Mellor and the Mudhounds please visit www.leemellor.com
Writer: Greg Hoekstra