The relatively-chaotic history of Northern Lights began in late 1975, when the three remaining members of a good-time bar band called How Banks Fail - Dan Marcus, Marty Sachs, and Bob Emery - plus new recruit Taylor Armerding, decided they were going to get a bit more serious about progressive bluegrass.
The name-game requirements were simple. Not too traditional, not at all Southern, and not too rural. Nobody recalls exactly who came up with Northern Lights. Probably it was banjoman Marcus, the organizer and educator. But it had most of what they were after ... not exactly urban, but not a suggestion that this was a band that played "Rocky Top," "Pig in a Pen" and little else.
Two months later, in December, the metamorphosis was complete, when the band had its "coming out" gig, opening for Lester Flatt and the Nashville Grass at a show for the Boston Area Friends of Bluegrass and Old-Time Country Music.
The next summer, while playing at the Berkshire Mountain Bluegrass Festival (precursor of Winterhawk) in NY, the group was approached by Paul Gerry, who was looking for groups to record on his home-based Revonah label. That led to the first album, NORTHERN LIGHTS, recorded in November, 1976. It was a clear example of the mix the group would display throughout the next 20 years. It went from the tradition of "Salt Creek" and "Wicked Path of Sin" to pop covers of "Ramblin' Man" and "Athens County" to Bob Emery originals like "Boards Across Your Windows" and "Delta Tide."
By spring of 1977, however, Marcus had left, replaced by Richard Hand. The group made it through the summer but dissolved in September. Armerding and Emery almost immediately formed a new group - String Fever - with bassist Rex Waters (an Illinois friend of Armerding, living in Cambridge to study at the New England Conservatory), and former Monroe banjoist Steve Arkin. That unit lasted until early 1981, when Waters returned to Illinois and Arkin moved to NYC with a publishing firm.
It wasn't until late 1982 that Northern Lights re-formed, following a call to Armerding from banjo prodigy Alison Brown, then a sophomore at Harvard, who was looking to do some part-time playing. Armerding had recently met guitarist Bill Henry, then living in Cambridge and attending the Berklee College of Music, and the three dragged Emery out of retirement to play bass. That group recorded the second Revonah album, BEFORE THE FIRE COMES DOWN, about 18 months later, again including Emery originals, a few pop covers, and a couple of Brown's imaginative instrumentals.
In mid 1984 the band fragmented again when Brown graduated and moved back to California. But Mike Kropp, a friend of Henry's from the CT/RI area, came in as a replacement; and the group continued to play local clubs, regional festivals, and an increasing number of arts-in-the-parks shows.
Within a year Northern Lights was fairly well established as the dominant progressive band in the area. It pretty much had that niche to itself, since the other active bands in the area (Traver Hollow, Joe Val & the New England Bluegrass Boys, Southern Rail, White Mountain Bluegrass, Green Mountain Bluegrass) were all traditional, while other progressives had either disbanded (Lost in the Shuffle) or were slowing down (Neon Valley Boys).
That lineup probably peaked in late '86 when it traveled to Louisville, KY, to finish third in the Best New Bluegrass Band competition hosted by Kentucky Fried Chicken. By then, Emery had already announced his departure to spend more time at his "real job" as an administrator at Boston University.
Before, or actually during Emery's departure, however, the group launched its third recording effort, a self-produced cassette with the most original material so far - four by Armerding, two by Emery, plus a Kropp instrumental. The album also signaled the arrival of Oz Barron on bass, who was playing regularly with the group by the summer of 1987.
It was on the strength of that recording that the band began its move toward national recognition. ON THE EDGE put Northern Lights on stage at the IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) "World of Bluegrass" Showcases in Owensboro, KY, where Flying Fish first expressed an interest in doing the group's next album. Two other elements contributed to the success of that weekend. Tony Rice was ill and unable to play at the Saturday evening Fan Fest; and of the 20 or so bands that would have liked to take his slot, Northern Lights got the nod. Then, minutes after the band left the stage, Peter Rowan asked Armerding to join him for the final set of the night, which also included Bill Keith on banjo, Mark Schatz on bass, and Jerry Douglas on dobro, with appearances by Maura O'Connell and Roy Bookbinder. The Rowan connection expanded during 1989 and 1990, with numerous promoter requests for Peter Rowan/Northern Lights sets.
May, 1990, marked a major turning point in Northern Lights' career - the release of the band's first recording for Flying Fish, TAKE YOU TO THE SKY. Two Armerding originals, "Winterhawk" and "Northern Rail," soared to the top five of BLUEGRASS UNLIMITED Magazine's National Bluegrass Survey within six months, with "Northern Rail" remaining on the chart through February, 1991. "Winterhawk" was one of the five songs nominated for "Song of the Year" by the members of the IBMA. The three instrumentals were also originals - two by Henry and one by Kropp. Guest fiddlers included Grammy-Award winner Alison Krauss and Berklee String Department Chairman Matt Glaser (heard on the Ken Burns Civil War, and more recently Lewis and Clark TV series). Peter Rowan contributed his unique vocal style to "Winterhawk."
Fiddling great Vassar Clements connected with Northern Lights in the summer of 1990, fiddling with the band at the Rochester Bluegrass Festival (NY) and several times thereafter. The fall of '90, the band made another personnel change, with Jeff Horton replacing Oz Barron on bass and vocals.
In April 1991, Northern Lights received the "Outstanding Country Act" award at the Boston Music Awards, the only bluegrass band nominated. The band also performed at the University of Rhode Island with folk legend Jonathan Edwards, doing both solo and joint sets, and another association was born.
Northern Lights' second recording for Flying Fish, CAN'T BUY YOUR WAY, was released in March, 1992. The album included 8 original tunes by band members and guest fiddlers Stuart Duncan, Vassar Clements , and Matt Glaser, and spent 8 months on the National Bluegrass Survey - two months at #3.
Taylor Armerding's son Jake joined the band full time on fiddle in November 1992, at the tender age of 14, after two years of occasionally hopping on stage to provide fiddle for a number or two.
In January, 1993, Northern Lights/Jonathan Edwards/The Seldom Scene sold out the 1,200-seat Sanders Theater in Cambridge, MA. This show was repeated in '94 and '95, and in 1997 with Chesapeake, which included three former members of the Seldom Scene.
Northern Lights' third Flying Fish recording, WRONG HIGHWAY BLUES, was released in February of 1994. This was the most eclectic album to date and included 8 original tunes and Jake's recording debut. It spent 8 months on the bluegrass chart and was the band's third straight album to spend time in the TOP TEN, reaching #9.
The band signed with Red House Records in the spring of 1996 and released LIVING IN THE CITY in July. This one ran the gamut from gospel to folk to rock and included two originals from Jake Armerding, 18 at the time.
The summer of '96 brought a couple of changes to Northern Lights. Contemporary Christian rock bassist Chris Miles replaced Jeff Horton on bass, bringing a more progressive sound to the band. Also that year, Jake entered Wheaton College in Illinois, so his role in the band became more sporadic.
A career highlight occurred on June 20, 1998, when Northern Lights provided the music for the "Car Talk" 10th Anniversary Gala at Harborlights in Boston, which included, along with "Click & Clack" the Tappet Brothers, Dr. Joyce Brothers, the Smothers Brothers, and the Flying Karamazov Brothers. Also in 1998 Vassar Clements reconnected with the band, and their association continues.
In early 1999 Jake left the band to pursue other musical interests, including recording his own album, CAGED BIRD. He graduated from Wheaton in May, 2000, and is pursuing his own music career in Nashville. January of 2000 brought yet another personnel change. After 17 years in the band, Mike Kropp left for business and personal reasons, and Dave Dick of the former Salamander Crossing took over the banjo duties.
In June of 2000 the band signed with Prime CD (now Fifty Fifty Music) , which released their next two albums: THREE AUGUST NIGHTS LIVE with Vassar Clements (Aug., 2000, recorded at 2 performances), and ANOTHER SLEEPLESS NIGHT (May, 2001). Then in June, 2002, John Daniel, who had been recording and touring with Brooks Williams, took over the bass duties after Chris Miles left to pursue full-time music employment in the NYC area.
June, 2002, marked the release of guitarist Bill Henry's solo CD, RED SKY, on Nashville label OMS Records. Bill's guest artists included Vassar Clements, Sam Bush, Tim O'Brien, Jonathan Edwards, current and past Northern Lights' members, and several others, and allowed Bill to explore a wide range of non-bluegrass music from celtic to folk/pop to jazz.
In the summer of 2003, founding member Taylor Armerding decided it was time to explore other musical avenues, such as performing more frequently with his son in the Jake Armerding Band and also with the Vermont-based Bluegrass Gospel Project. Former Sugarbeat lead tenor singer/guitar & mandolin player Ben Demerath joined the group in late summer, capably filling some very big shoes.
On the live recording, "Three August Nights", the Northern Lights are joined by friend and fiddle legend Vassar Clements. This gathering of extraordinary players is true to traditional bluegrass roots yet ranges from rock to jazz to classical and everything in between.
In April of 2001, Northern Lights are releasing their album, "Another Sleepless Night".
The following recordings by The Northern Lights Band are now available from Fifty Fifty Music: "Three August Nights" with Vassar Clements, and "Another Sleepless Night"