In the matter of weeks, the Toyota Pavilion at Montage Mountain will be swamped with square dancers as folk-based festival Susquehanna Breakdown takes over the weekend. Headlining acts include Greensky Bluegrass, Keller Williams, Cabinet, and The Wood Brothers—but among these tycoons of twang, my attention caught Serene Green, a Pennsylvania String Band birthed in Bethlehem.
The first time I had met Michael Johnson and Quentin “Cue” Fisher—the founders and core of Serene Green—was in my dinky row home sophomore year of college. Of the current members, only Johnson and Fisher made up the adolescent band (they had grown up together and started playing music in middle school). They played renditions of Wagon Wheel as our kitchen crowd grew with neighbors clapping and dancing along.
Since then, I’ve kept a watchful eye as Serene Green matured into a serious string group, building a familiar name as they picked away at their developing sound.
“Probably back around 2011 or 2012 we [Fisher and Johnson] worked up enough songs to book gigs, and we’ve basically been just playing wherever we can…It’s slowly but surely been bigger stages, better venues, and more people. It’s a journey, but that’s what it’s all about. We’re totally into the work and dedication it takes,” Johnson said.
Like any band’s progression, Serene Green went through a number of transformations, even featuring a drummer, before settling with a quartet of string players.
They had met Steve Leonard (better known as “Banjo Steve”) while opening for Still Hand String Band, a group Leonard has been involved for the last six years. After a few jam sessions together, Serene Green started booking him for gigs too. Now it seems that when Leonard isn’t playing for one band, he’s picking along with the other.
“Here and there, there are gigs where we perform as a trio, but for the most part, Steve is in the band,” Johnson said. “He’s a big part of our sound now.”
Leonard also locked in the connection completing their band: Shane McGeehan. With a deep, archetypal country voice to match the sounds of his upright bass, McGeehan was just the piece Serene Green had coincidentally been in the market for.
Since then, the four have been working, booking, and playing nonstop. As their effort shines through in gigs and lineups, it has also materialized into their first studio album. Including all original tracks, the intentional timing of their album release is all in preparation for what will be their biggest gig yet at Susquehanna Breakdown.
“We’ve wanted to play at this festival for a year or so now, and we couldn’t be happier with this year’s lineup,” Johnson said. “We look up to a lot of this year’s artists.”
And that’s just the first stop for Serene Green’s summer. Although they’re not on the lineup, Serene Green will be picking all weekend at the campsites of DelFest and on official lineups for Bobstock, Zucchini Moon, A.F.B.A Music Festival, Cornstock, and Heritage Festival in Jim Thorpe (not to mention countless of shows stuffed between).
Their pal John Cherry at Evolution Custom Coach is making sure they’re well equipped for the ride. Cherry renovates buses into livable, RV-styled vehicles (picture a big-league version of Pimp My Ride).
What ride is he hooking the boys with? A full-length school bus.
Serene Green will be driving this bad boy cross-country on what is possibly their most exciting adventure of the season: Telluride Bluegrass Festival and Band Competition. One of twelve bluegrass bands in the country, Serene Green will be performing in front of panel of judges for a Main Stage spot at next year’s festival as well as a pile of new equipment.
But unless you plan on trailing their talent out West, be sure to WAKE UP and catch Serene Green play PA at Susquehanna Breakdown on the Breakdown stage at 11:30 a.m. Saturday May 20, 2017.