Mark Growden grew up on the edge of a forest near the Sierra Nevada/Cascade Divide in Pinetown, Calif. The small logging town of less than 100 isn’t a cultural epicenter regularly churning out musicians, but after spending a lot of his childhood alone in the woods, it was the love of music that led Growden – playing the Roost House in Carmel Valley on Sunday – from the thick of the wilderness out into the varying landscapes of the country and all its different styles of music.
Each of his albums is recorded without any studio overdub in different places that fit with an overall theme. His 2010 release, Saint Judas, recorded in Oakland, reflects the intricacies of an inner city.
“There’s a lot of blues and jazz but there’s also art music elements,” Growden says. “It has an emotional complexity to it that I can only find in Oakland.”
The title song is a hot-to-trot accordion adventure through the dark and dank city streets after an early evening rainfall.
Growden sings with a silky and jazzy timbre reminiscent of Harry Connick Jr., and his lyrics yield harsh and tragic urban imagery a la Tom Waits.
“You like your whiskey neat as a military sheet, so you drink it straight from the bag/ But the kiss on the lips that whiskey is kissin’, they ’bout to execute an innocent man.”
The album also includes a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man.”
“It adds a nice contrast to the other songs on the album,” Growden says. “[Cohen’s] words have been a longtime influence.”
Growden’s newest release, Lose Me in the Sand, envelops a completely different landscape than Oakland: It was recorded in a Tucson, Arizona desert. The album – featuring Growden playing banjo on every song but one – is a true departure from his previous albums, which mostly showcase his skills on the saxophone and accordion, his main instruments. Fiddle, bass, harmonica, dobro and additional instruments interject skillfully with the ever-present banjo.
“[Lose Me in the Sand] is light and spacious like the desert,” Growden says. “All the musicians live in Tucson and they’re serious country western musicians; it’s not Nashville, it’s western.”
“Settle in a Little While” stirs up the twangy, dusty heart of the Wild West and sounds like it would be a perfect tune to accompany one of those bygone-era barn dances.
Appropriately, there’s also a banjo-heavy, lap-steel cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” on the album. Growden sings Springsteen’s ballad as if he’s feeling each word’s meaning as it was written down on paper.
“It’s all about the narrative of the songs,” he says. “Lose Me in the Sand is a banjo album about humility.”
The singer-songwriter’s place-specific recording style recently led him to New Orleans, the site he’s chosen to make his next album, expected to come out next year around this time.
“I’m using a lot of incredible premiere jazz musicians,” Growden says. “It’s going to have a blues horn element and basically be a hard-bop album.”
Where the well-traveled musician will find his next source of inspiration is anyone’s guess, but one thing seems clear: He’s going places.