Ben Hardesty, lead singer for The Last Bison, can’t remember a time when using goat toenails as an instrument seemed strange to him. Credit this to five years in Bolivia, where his parents served as missionaries and his dad, who is also a musician, hunted down exotic instruments. As Ben explained in an interview with Donkey Jaw, these years first sparked in him a “spirit of adventure and continual discovery.”
That spirit of adventure is fully on display with the band’s new album Inheritance. Here The Last Bison blazes a trail into unexplored territory by combining folk and bluegrass with classical music, complemented by rock and world music influences (insert goat toenails here). It’s a heady combination they dub “mountaintop chamber music.”
Hardesty and company got their bluegrass bona fides growing up in southeastern Virginia. His family settled there after moving back from Bolivia, and he quickly became enthralled with the music and history of the region, especially the Civil War. Hardesty attributes his love of history to being homeschooled, which allowed him the “flexibility to go places and see things and experience history first hand.”
That sense of history permeates the entire band, from wearing Civil War-period attire to brewing mead in their kitchens. The band also retains a strong sense of community—both Hardesty’s father and sister play in the band and the rest are long-time friends or part of the local homeschool community. Six of the seven band members were home schooled.
Their musical symbiosis is clear right from the opening title track. A casually strumming mandolin sets the listener in Appalachian hill country while rich cello and violin lines introduce sophistication and warmth. Soon Enya-like harmonies and a pulsing percussion open the vista wider and endow the music with grandeur.
“Quill” is a speedy little jam which showcases Hardesty’s expressive indie-rock vocals as well as the band’s spiritual side: “We will run away/from those who would lead us astray/searching hard we will fully rely/on the grace of the One crucified.”
Turning to the stranger side, but marvelously so, is the gently gliding “River Rhine.” Buoyed by meditative guitar, the music and lyrics flow down like water, carrying listeners along in the current. Here, as in much of the album, Hardesty’s lyrics are cryptic, resisting easy interpretation: “Oh for you to be/with your blood, kin and me … an embrace unforeseen.” But folded as they are in a rich tapestry of sound, the lyrics beckon for reflection.
The band’s unique combination has won it a diverse audience and support from artsy radio stations such as WXPN in Philadelphia, host of the NPR Radio program World Café. Now The Last Bison is playing across the country in secular venues and festivals, recently opening for Jars of Clay. Although band members occasionally find themselves playing some “nasty places,” Hardesty told WORLD that the band sees this path as the best match for their calling, which he describes as more missional than church-oriented. He said it reflected Jesus’ example of reaching out to the lost: “Go into the places where broken people are and hope that they see the light.”