Bluegrass bands named in memory of biscuits, grits, grass and good ol’ boys top the bill. But it’s a pretty good bet that most bluegrass bands don’t immortalize a moment of shoe confusion as their career banner.
About 11 years ago, fiddler Noah Wall was just meandering along, studying her feet studiously — so’s not to trip over ‘em — when she realized she was wearing two different shoes. But instead of being mortified by her sartorial mismanagement, Wall looked down and saw her destiny.
“I don’t know why the words popped into my head, but I just remember, that was the moment,” Wall says of the day she and her bandmates became Barefoot Movement. “Literally, it’s so clear to me, looking down at my feet and saying, ‘Oh crap,’ and then those words came into my head, and I said to my bandmates, ‘What do you think about that name?’ And they were like, ‘Oh, yeah, we like it,’ and then it was shoeless from then on.”
The band, founded by Wall, 29, lead singer/fiddler and her husband, 29-year-old mandolinist, Tommy Norris, in 2007, added acoustic guitarist Alex Conerly, 34, in 2013, and upright bassist Katie Blomarz, 25, in 2015.
Once they hit the road under the Barefoot banner, they were committed to doing that, weather be damned.
“Generally when we’re indoors, we’re pretty safe,” Wall says. “If we’re playing outdoors ... we played First Night Raleigh a couple of years ago, and with North Carolina, you just never know. But this night, it was absolutely freezing, so we couldn’t go shoeless out there.”
That was the exception. The band regularly hangs 10 over the edges of stages round the country. “We’ve been shoeless in Alaska, and in Chicago as well, and if we’re indoors, as long as there’s not chicken wire or glass on the floor, which doesn’t happen too much, we’re pretty much always barefoot.”
Going barefoot continuously isn’t the only thing that sets the 2014 IBMA’s “Band of the Year” Momentum Award winners apart from many of their grassy counterparts. The Barefooters have a set list with several interesting entries.
Jimi Hendrix probably never envisioned a fiddle-led version of his 1967 classic “Fire,” but Wall jumps in, bare feet first, wailin’ like blazes as Conerly burns up the fretboard with flatpicking frenzy, and Norris’ mandolin makes sparks fly.
“I hope he would approve,” Wall says. “At this point, I’m not really sure if it’s a surprise anymore, but at first, it was nice for people at a bluegrass show to hear something completely different.”
The surprises keep on with a cover of Alvin and the Chipmunks’ 1958 novelty song “Sweet Christmas Don’t Be Late.” Wall came up with that one.
“On our Christmas show, we try to do Christmas songs that you don’t hear covers of as much. That one in particular, we just really loved the harmony, and I thought I’d never heard anyone but the Chipmunks sing this, so we worked it out, and it’s one of the ones that’s really fun to do during the show.”
The other unusual holiday cover is Darlene Love’s 1963 hit “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home.”) Phil Spector allegedly thought wife Ronnie (“Be My Baby”) didn’t pack enough of an emotional wallop so Love was brought in to belt it out.
“That one is a beast, but we do enjoy it,” Wall says of the vocal acrobatics required to do it justice. “It has the three-part harmonies going the whole time behind her, makes this really cool wall of sound behind her. For four people, there’s only so much we can do without big drums and all that stuff, so you have to utilize everybody as much as you can.”
Wall and her bandmates are advance ambassadors for MerleFest this year, touring with MerleFest on the Road as well as appearing on the main stage for the first time in their two previous stints.
“I love that festival so much,” the Oxford native says. “Being from North Carolina, it was always this beacon so far off in the future ... if I could ever play MerleFest. And I still feel that way. Playing MerleFest is the big highlight of our year.”
“My goal has always been to write music that makes people happy,” Wall says. “For me, it’s just about bringing people together instead of pushing them apart, reminding us of our similarities as humans, not our differences.”