Although the Great Great Pines' faith in folk music seems unshakable, the acoustic duo's confidence wavered recently as they prepared for their turn at the Square Room's Sound Off competition. While the previous group dragged their mass of instruments off the stage, singer Laura Bost placed one tiny ukulele, dwarfed in the grip of a guitar stand, next to her microphone.
"I felt so inadequate," she recalls. Her partner, James Maples, says they couldn't help noticing how many competitors had half a dozen or more members, as well as sizable drum kits. It was a good time for the folk duo to remember they didn't sign up to blow anyone out of the water. They proceeded according to their mission, joined their voices and two instruments in a simple version of the Beach Boys' "Surfer Girl," and received a wholly positive response from the crowd and judges.
"This was more about the experience than competing with anybody," Bost says. Even though they didn't qualify for the finals, their experience met one tenet of the folk music mission: Play for appreciative and attentive audiences.
Until recently, Bost and Maples were known as Centralia Massacre, a duo that grew and morphed over time with a rotating group of cohorts. To become the Great Great Pines, they pressed rewind.
Bost and Maples started playing music together soon after they met in 2007 at Pilot Light, where Hudson K (Bost played guitar) and Centralia Massacre Collective (a solo Maples) shared a bill. Maples invited Bost to listen to his music online and, if she liked, sit in on a future show. Bost heard a natural kinship between his stripped-down, banjo-based sound and the simple acoustic songs she'd begun to write. Two weeks later, she sat in on one of his gigs. Maples says he was drawn to Bost's voice and her "newness"—she was just learning to play the guitar.
"In some ways our styles were very different," he says. "I was rough and, tempos be damned, just playing all crazy. And she was, like, ‘We've got to work on this.'"
Bost laughs. "I whipped him into shape," she adds.
The pair became Centralia Massacre, dropping the "Collective" but still occasionally dipping into their network of musician friends for guest percussionists, bassists, harmonica players, and the like. They started hosting shows in the Old City's Basement Gallery under the banner of Folk Fight. Folk Fight shows gave Maples and Bost the flexibility of house concerts, allowing them to achieve their live-performance ideals: all ages, no smoking, low pressure, cheap admission, early start times, congenial players, and attentive audiences. The musicians they hosted—locals and out-of-towners, young and old—flourished in the setting.
"It wasn't just another bar or coffee shop," Bost says of the boxy white space where as many as 100 audience members would circle the performer, sitting on the floor or standing against the walls. "It was a unique audience and a good opportunity for exposure to different ears."
After about nine Folk Fight shows, the Basement Gallery was preparing to close, and Maples says they were ready to let the series end naturally after a good run. The same went for Centralia Massacre, which played its last local show at 2009's Brewers Jam. "That band had pretty much done everything it set out to do," Maples says.
They played their first show as the Great Great Pines in February.
"We decided we wanted to go back to the root of it, to the really folksy side," Maples says. "We wanted to do the old-fashioned duets. Johnny and June. You can't beat it."
Bost has started playing bass, and they switch off on guitar and ukulele, with Maples on banjo. Only a couple of Centralia Massacre songs have made the cut for their current incarnation, he says, and they found themselves approaching those with the new aesthetic.
"At the heart of it, we have this great duet," he says. "We get to emphasize the voices and blend them, so our harmonies have massively improved. With our new songs, it's been a great chance to open up our songwriting a little bit and to explore new topics and work on the simplicity of having two voices."
While they concentrate on the material they plan to release on CD next summer, the Great Great Pines aren't hibernating. They still host occasional house concerts, and Bost plays regularly with Talking Heads cover band Same As It Ever Was. And they don't discount the possibility of having one or more of their musician friends—even a drummer—contribute. Folk music needs friends to participate as well as listen. Maybe it's that simple.