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Ed Helms superfans have long known about his bluegrass obsession. Not only is the Hangover actor (soon to star in the upcoming Vacation reboot) the founder of the website The Bluegrass Situation and the same-name Los Angeles festival, but he’s been gigging around New York City and L.A. with his band, The Lonesome Trio, for decades. They’ve done stints at Bonnaroo, played at the Newport Folk Festival, maintained an annual show at the Parkside Lounge in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and even shared the stage with other high-profile aficionados like Steve Martin.
But now, 20-odd years after the threesome—Helms on guitar and banjo, Ian Riggs on bass, and Jacob Tilove on mandolin—met and began jamming at Oberlin College, they’re finally releasing an album. The Lonesome Trio,their self-titled debut, out today, is a collection of twelve songs that hark back to golden era bluegrass mainstays, like Bill Monroe, with traces of modern alt-country acts, like Old 97’s, Old Crow Medicine Show, or Ryan Adams.
“Our album isn’t for [just] anybody. I don’t have any idea that America needs this album,” Helms explained to Vogue.com over the phone from the middle of The Lonesome Trio’s album-release tour. “It’s just something we were excited to share. We hope it connects with some people. If that’s two people, fantastic. If it’s 10 million people, fantastic.” Read on to find out how Helms got into old-timey string music, what it takes to write a bluegrass song, and why he’d like to high-five David Duchovny.
So why bluegrass?
I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. I wasn’t surrounded by bluegrass by any stretch. But I did go to summer camp up in the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina. And my mom is from Nashville. Somewhere in there at a very young age, I think my parents picked up a cassette tape at a truck stop—Smoky Mountain Hits or something. It was just some string band music, and I really loved it. And then my first guitar teacher, when I was thirteen years old, was really into this stuff. I don’t think a lot of his students were, but I responded to it, and I think that excited him.
Actor Ed Helms makes his living off laughs, but he takes his passion — music — very seriously. In between roles in the Hangover films, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and elsewhere, the 41-year-old is a bluegrass renaissance man, playing several instruments in The Lonesome Trio and running The Bluegrass Situation, an all-things-Americana hub that hosts an eponymous festival in Los Angeles and just curated a stage at Bonnaroo for the third year in a row. With The Lonesome Trio’s self-titled debut released on June 16 on Sugar Hill Records, Helms explains why he digs deep for roots music.
You recorded this album in two intense weeks in a studio in Asheville, N.C. Compare the process of making an album to making a film.
They’re totally different creative muscles. The best comparison would be cramming on a script deadline: long hours, late nights and just jamming to get a script done. It’s sort of a similar neural pathway to making an album, just kind of holing up in the studio, working super late hours, long days. But it’s so fun. There’s something very pure about it. You isolate yourself; you’re steeping in this creative stew. It’s a really special experience.
Growing up in the shadow of Atlanta, Six Flags Over Georgia was a frequent vacation spot, but on this day in early November 2014, it’s no longer Six Flags, it’s Walley World for New Line Cinema’s Vacation. Ed Helms stands with Christina Applegate, Skyler Gisondo and Steele Stebbins in line for a roller coaster that for my whole life has been “The Ninja” but has been upgraded today to “The Velociraptor.” The Griswolds have arrived.
“Don’t forget to scream your faces off,” Helms reminds his “kids” during a take.
This new iteration of the Griswolds eagerly wait in line for their turn, and when the chain comes up they’re stopped. Ron Livingston of “Office Space” fame puts his hand out, holding the Walley World equivalent of a fast pass, and ushers his perfect, khaki pant-clad family in front of our heroes. They are in essence the anti-Griswolds, perfectly creased shirts and bright suburban smiles. After they walk through, co-writer and co-director John Francis Daley emerges in his cameo as a Walley World employee and puts the chain back up. “Last ride tonight,” he tells the distraught Rusty and company.
Actor and comedian Ed Helms has joined with longtime friends Ian Riggs and Jacob Tilove to form the group Lonesome Trio, and the group will release its self-titled debut album in June.
Helms, Riggs and Tilove — who met while attending Oberlin College in Ohio more than 20 years ago — wrote and recorded 12 original tracks during a two-week stint at the Echo Mountain recording studio in Asheville, N.C. The project was engineered and co-produced by Sugar Hill Records’ president of A&R, Gary Paczosa, with all three of the men lending vocals and instrumentation to the tracks.
“We decided right out of the gate that the three of us needed to do the whole thing,” Helms tells Rolling Stone Country. “But we opened the door to lots of additional instruments and layers. The only rule was that we do it ourselves. I’m proud of that. It was more important than any crisp perfection in the execution, and I just love it. That’s our spirit. There is no sound on that album that didn’t come from the three of us.”