Idiot’s Delight

Alt-country band Frog Holler will make a stop at Conduit to promote its fourth album, a bit darker and more reflective than its previous efforts.

By: Jillian Kalonick
   The tiny town of Shoemakersville, Pa., north of Reading and west of Kutztown in rural Berks County, is not where songwriter Darren Schlappich ever planned on settling down.
   "There’s this natural thing that everybody might go through, you think you’re going to go out and conquer the world," says Mr. Schlappich, lead singer and lyricist for the band Frog Holler. "Then you turn 30 and realize you still live in the same town."
   That small-town claustrophobia has transformed into a badge of pride for Berks County natives Frog Holler. Todd Bartolo, Daniel Bower, John Kilgore, Mike Lavdanski, Josh Sceurman and Mr. Schlappich branched out from playing bluegrass to form a uniquely local folk sound, alt-country with a rural flavor. The band makes a stop at Conduit in Trenton, Feb. 27.
   "It seems like they need to call us something," says Mr. Schlappich of the label that’s been attached to Frog Holler — Pennsylvania Dutch Rock. "I said it out loud once and it took on a life of its own, if it gets people out there to see us play, I don’t think it’s negative.
   "Bluegrass is how we found each other. We met over that and I guess that’s the foundation, although to me we’re a rock band, but people still want to say bluegrass."
   Frog Holler’s fourth release, Railings, its third with the Bala Cynwyd-based label Record Cellar, was recorded at Soundgun in Philadelphia and produced by Edan Cohen. The album is a bit darker and more reflective than previous efforts, with Mr. Schlappich’s poignant lyrics reflecting a weariness known by any small-town inhabitant.
   "I wanted to experience recording in a different way," says Mr. Schlappich. "We just recorded the first three albums live and I wanted to build this piece by piece, and do something different."
   Railings is marked by songs such as "Virginia," the story of a lifelong friend lost to suicide, and "The Sweetest Sound," a demonstration of Mr. Schlappich’s sparse but striking songwriting.
   The band’s previous album, Idiots (2001), leans toward bluegrass, conjuring visions of back-porch summer jam sessions, and is full of tales about quirky characters. The album art, colored pencil drawings by Dave "Big Dutch" Nally, features the trappings of local life pulled from the songs — ghosts, stray cats, mills and bars.
   After the release of Idiots, Frog Holler debuted on the Americana charts and was featured on National Public Radio’s Here and Now. The band also has a fan base in the Netherlands, proof of a sound that transcends geography.
   A favorite sing-along at concerts, "Pennsylvania" is a rousing, unabashed tribute to the Keystone State ("I’m P-A Dutch and I ain’t learned much/ But I’m willing to try"). State pride is a rare thing to find at a rock show, but as Mr. Schlappich sings, "You know you’ve got a friend in Pennsylvania/ I’ll shout it loud and clear if you ain’t heard."
   "My father’s Pennsylvania Dutch, and this has made me take a look at that and figure out what it means," he says. Some Frog Holler members are Pennsylvania Dutch, but any young person living in Berks or Lancaster counties can identify with feeling trapped in Amish country, and dealing with the divide between them and an older, conservative generation clinging to tradition.
   Although "Dutch" refers to the Amish and Mennonites, it’s also a general term for the conservative German-American population. Mr. Schlappich owns a business cleaning bar taps, where he says he encounters that local stubbornness. "There’s tons of bars: I’m out in these really conservative moose clubs," he says. "I’m dealing with this element of society most people don’t get to see."
   The song "Idiots" on Railings (which continues Mr. Schlappich’s quirk of writing a song with the same title as the previous album) speaks to that struggle of living a creative life in a conservative community. "You see me and all my friends as idiots/ as if that serves as proof/ What’s that say about you?"
   A declaration in the liner notes of Idiots explains the title: "This recording was made with pride in Berks County, Pa. It is a celebration of the delicate balance between the area’s unique Pennsylvania Dutch history and tradition and a small group of creative, intellectual, strong-willed, open-minded nonconformists, or, as the locals call ’em… idiots. The song is king."
Frog Holler and Slo-Mo play Conduit, 439 S. Broad St., Trenton, Feb. 27, 9 p.m. Tickets cost $10. For information, call (609) 656-1199. On the Web: Frog Holler and Buried Beds play The Fire, 412 W. Girard Ave., Philadelphia, March 20. For information, call (267) 671-9298. Frog Holler on the Web: