Heading out on tour last year with country legends Willie Nelson and Alison Krauss, Pete Bernhard could hardly believe his luck.
“God, it was so cool,” said Bernhard, vocalist and guitarist for punk-Americana trio The Devil Makes Three. “That was the biggest ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe this is happening’ moment in my life.”
Together with his bandmates, guitarist/banjo player Cooper McBean and upright bassist Lucia Turino, Bernhard has experienced a lot of remarkable moments in recent years — such as touring with Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell and Trampled by Turtles and performing at Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, the Newport Folk Festival and Austin City Limits Festival. At the same time, the band has earned some fervent fans.
“When people grouse about Mumford & Sons and swear there are more interesting bands working in Americana these days, they’re referring to acts like The Devil Makes Three,” James Reed wrote in the Boston Globe. “Without claiming to be, this California trio … is the anti-Mumford. Their acoustic music crackles with an old-timey sense of swing and sophistication while sounding thoroughly down-home.”
But success didn’t come overnight. Bernhard said the band, which performs Friday with folk troubadour Joe Pug in San Luis Obispo, has built its fan base “the old-fashioned way.”
“We’ve done a lot of touring. We’ve self-released a lot of our records,” he said. “We’ve (taken) a do-it-yourself approach and used every tool at our disposal.”
Bernhard and McBean met in middle school in rural Brattleboro, Vt., united by a mutual love of old-timey music. After high school, the two headed west, eventually settling in Santa Cruz.
That’s where they met Turino, a New Hampshire native who learned bass to join the band. In 2001, The Devil Makes Three was born.
The band began by playing venues across the Central Coast – packing music lovers into SLO Brewing Co., opening for Todd Snider at The Graduate in San Luis Obispo and sharing the stage with Dwight Yoakum and Merle Haggard at the Pozo Saloon.
Wherever The Devil Makes Three performed, audiences went wild for the band’s raw energy and genre-defying sound, which combines elements of bluegrass, blues, country, folk, rockabilly and rock. “I usually tell people that it’s a little bit of everything,” Bernhard said.
“When we first started our band, we were in this weird, in-between region where no one knew what we were,” he said. “We weren’t a bluegrass band, so bluegrass bands didn’t want to play with us. We weren’t a rockabilly band so rockabilly bands didn’t want to play with us. We weren’t really jazz, so we didn’t fit into that category.”
“We have created a genre of our own,” added Bernhard, citing Fugazi and the Grateful Dead as two other bands that defined their own sounds. “Some of the best music ever made has been made in that style.”
Since The Devil Makes Three released its self-titled debut album in 2002, “We’ve experienced slow and steady growth. Every year is better than the last year,” Bernhard said.
The band’s latest album, “I’m a Stranger Here,” released on New West Records in October 2013, reflects more than a decade on the road. Individual tracks grapple with mortality (“Dead Body Moving”), relationships (“Worse or Better,” “Goodbye Old Friend”), drugs and addiction (“Mr. Midnight,” “Spinning Like a Top”), and the destructive power of nature (“Forty Days,” featuring the Preservation Hall Jazz Band).
Bernhard said the album reveals “some realization of the fleetingness of life itself,” noting that band members have seen a series of loved ones die in the past couple years due to accidents, drug overdoses and natural causes.
“I don’t want to perpetuate the myth that you have to have a terrible life to get your songs good,” said Bernhard. But, he acknowledged, “It is good cannon fodder. You can turn that into something good and something positive and something everyone can relate to.”
In addition to providing a sorrowful source of subject matter, Bernhard said such losses have made him reexamine his choices. He moved back to Vermont three years ago to be closer to his family; Turino also lives in Vermont, while McBean is based in Austin.
“When people start to pass away, you go, ‘What am I doing and why am I out here?’” Bernhard said. “In the same way I feel motivated by it. I have the opportunity to do things they didn’t get to do.”
Despite the hardships of life as a touring musician, he’s satisfied with his chosen career.
“It’s, as far as I’m concerned, the best job in the world,” said Bernhard, who has released two solo albums, 2006’s “Things I Left Behind” and 2009’s “Straight Line.” “We get to play our own music the way we want to play it and people support that.”