A few weeks ago I was up in Boston as a guest teacher at the Berklee College of Music, and I’m happy to report that the banjo is cool again. I was there for two days, working with students in the American Roots Music Program on everything from right-hand techniques to strategies for young professional musicians. Compared to my time there as a student roughly ten years ago, much has changed. These days there is a clear acknowledgement of the importance and popularity of traditional music. Acclaimed faculty are attracting talented students, some of whom will surely be a part of the next wave of exciting acoustic bands to hit the scene. Berklee is playing its part in the stringband boom with a program that’s barely five years old, but already significant. It was great to go back and check it all out.
I was a student at Berklee from 2001-2003. I started playing the banjo only a few years earlier as a freshman at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. I was relatively inexperienced compared to other players my age, eager to keep learning and working on my craft. I wanted to go to music school, and my main goal was to work primarily on banjo, rather than choosing guitar as a principal instrument, a workaround that other banjo players had used at in the past. Tony Trischka, my teacher at the time, suggested the Berklee College of Music as a place that might welcome the banjo, given its growing popularity. Read the rest of this entry »
We captured the Stringdusters monster fall tour with a bag full of awesome GoPro gear. Part 1 took you backstage (previous post), while parts 2-3 bring you a bunch of music as well as some excellent outdoor adventures. Can’t wait to get back on the road!
Ed Helms and Co. have a cool thing brewing out on the West Coast: The LA Bluegrass Situation. First they started a festival in LA, now roughly 3 years old, which has featured some of the biggest names in acoustic music (Gillian and Dave, Jackson Brown, Andrew Bird, the Steeps, the Dusters, Punch Bros, Sara & Sean Watkins, etc) as well as some of the biggest names in Hollywood (Ed, Steve Martin, John C Reilly, Will Arnett). But now they are branching out, thanks in part to the addition of Situation ring leader Amy Reitnouer. Their new site proudly proclaims the Situation as “Southern California’s home for everything bluegrass, folk and Americana.” It’s a resource for players and students, a calendar of relevant shows, and more. I was happy to take part in their latest ‘mixtape’ feature, sharing some of my favorite music–check it out here. Good things are ahead for Ed and his crew…
Here’s some of the first footage we captured with the new GoPro video rig, live from the Electric Forest in MI. We are gearing up to do this at most, if not every stop on the fall tour. Electric Forest was one of the first captures while working through all the formatting, software, wireless details, etc, but the footage looked good so I threw together this video. This fall it will be pics and video, from different angles (and cities) every night. This gear amazing–thanks again to the crew at GoPro.
Here’s some new original music I recorded in my studio over the last few days. I have a bunch of new cameras on hand, so I have been mixing in some creative live filming while tracking. Thanks to GoPro for the amazing gear. If you like the sounds, please grab this tune for free on my Bandcamp page.
Mainstream attention to bluegrass is picking up as the music evolves, reaching new listeners who are drawn to its depth and beauty. The emergence of a handful of high profile supporters/players is an undeniable factor in this recent growth spurt. Celebrities like Ed Helms and Peter Sarsgaard are bringing bluegrass to national TV and film, while music legends like Paul Simon bring its influence to new projects. Just like the scores of new fans, they connect with the authenticity of the music, proudly putting it on display for a much wider audience. But none have been more influential in recent years than Steve Martin. Long respected as an accomplished banjoist, a few recent collaborations with bluegrass titans Earl Scruggs and Tony Trischka inspired Martin to embark on a full scale music career. Only 3 years after releasing his first album in 2009, ‘The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo,’ he’s added a Grammy to his collection as well as IBMA Entertainer of the Year honors, which he shares with the Steep Canyon Rangers, now his steadfast ally on the touring scene as well as the band on his latest album, ‘Rare Bird Alert.’ The best news of all is that Martin’s banjo playing is top notch–he writes and performs quality, tasteful music, representing the genre and all of its elusive qualities very well. This is not a novelty, it’s just real bluegrass reaching a much bigger crowd than ever before.
I recently spoke with Steve before writing a preview of his upcoming show in Charlottesville with the Steep Canyon Rangers. You can read the whole article here. We had met before, but this was a great chance to get a closer look at how the music side of his career came to be. I did some research that took me back to his comedy routine of the 1970′s. It had been a while, and I was amazed at how authoritative and musical Martin’s banjo playing was even back then.
Fast forward roughly 40 years and the banjo has taken on a bit of a different role. These days the comedy supports the music, and the music has evolved, but the commitment is the same. You just don’t get that good at anything without putting in a ton of time, and you don’t put a ton of time into something you don’t deeply appreciate and ultimately understand in your own way. It was clear from talking to Martin that the banjo is much more than a hobby, and now he has the accolades to prove it. Even more importantly, he remains humble and deeply appreciative of the ever-evolving bluegrass landscape. His collaboration with the Steep Canyon Rangers is a match made in heaven. I was lucky enough to see them play DelFest this past weekend, my first time seeing their full set. I have always loved the Rangers, as people and as musicians, and it seems they have made similar connections with Martin. He features them throughout the show, which contains a variety of excellent new music combined with the gut-busting/ridiculous humor that we have all become accustomed to over the years. Go see them, it is so worth it.
Our conversation ultimately led back to the source of everything banjo: the late, great Earl Scruggs. Simply put, Steve said “Earl gave me a third act.” Martin’s recent New Yorker article on Scruggs is required reading, giving us a glimpse into the appreciation/respect that has fueled his journey with the banjo. Before our conversation wrapped up, he shared one last profound thought that outlines the gravity of Earl’s influence: “Earl is one of the very few artists, in any creative field, where another musician actally gets credit for doing it EXACTLY like the original.” Music fans and pickers alike are lucky to have Steve Martin as one of the new ambassadors of the 5-string banjo.
In the unruly sea of kickstarter projects, here is one that’s definitely worth funding. Producer/director Anna Schwaber logged a bunch of time with just about every prominent voice in acoustic music (including the Stringdusters) to reflect on the history and tradition that make our music what it is. The Porchlight Sessions is equal parts beautiful film and valuable resource. Below is the trailer and also a cool kickstarter vid that features yours truly and two of my heroes, Alison Brown and Bela Fleck. Give it a few minutes and then give it a few bucks, this thing is going to be great.
Just like that, Earl has moved on. As the music world (from NPR to Pitchfork) commemorates the endless accomplishments of this rare genius, it’s clear that we’ve lost a ‘once in a lifetime’ musical figure, and there is so much to be in awe of. But as I sit here blasting ‘Get In Line Brother’ in my home studio, I’m just in awe of what it feels like to be a banjo player at this moment in time. It’s so heavy–sadness, celebration, gratitude, inspiration, amazement, etc. I literally have no idea what I would be doing with my life right now if it wasn’t for Earl Scruggs. It’s a powerful and humbling realization. So today I’m immersed in the beauty of his art and his influence, reveling in the joys of music and community, experiencing a newfound appreciation for what Earl’s done for me, and for us all. I have always loved bluegrass and the banjo, but it’s just never looked quite like it does now.
Earl was a living legend, long revered as the most innovative, influential and genius 5-string banjo player there will ever be. Very few people, if any, have done what he did: to invent/innovate the technical style that defines an instrument (a complex one at that!), and then go on to fully realize the creative expression and beauty that this new style is capable of. It’s a process that usually takes generations of players, the accumulation of influences, a collection of minds, and years of collective development. But somehow Earl tapped into the highest order of inspiration, creating a standard that defines not only an instrument but also an entire thriving genre of music. His style is the bedrock of everything that three-finger style banjo players will ever accomplish. I cannot think of another musician in any genre who’s influence is so universal on their chosen instrument.
Initially inspired by more contemporary figures, I came to Scruggs later than most banjo players. Ultimately it was Ben Eldridge who told me that I had to REALLY understand Scruggs’ playing if I wanted to be a complete musician on the banjo. I don’t remember his exact words but the message was clear: whether you want to be a straight-ahead traditional player or the most progressive banjo player out there, it all comes from Earl. Of course I had ‘learned’ a good bit of Scruggs’ music, but I never really understood it.
In the creative realms, appreciation always precedes understanding. So it was then that I really started listening, and in turn appreciating. I remember going to Jon Weisberger’s home in Madison, TN, eating dinner and then listening in amazement to vintage Earl cuts from various points in his career. I can recall the deep curiosity upon hearing the banjo solo on ‘Why Don’t You Tell Me So’ from the ‘Mercury Sessions,’ my preconceptions of Earl’s style disappearing in real time. I remember buying ‘Tis Sweet To Be Remembered,’ and listening to ‘Foggy Mountain Special’ a million times on repeat with a giant question mark over my head. I was intrigued and baffled, but also totally entranced with the musical ideas and their effortless, perfect delivery. Then I started to get it, even just a tiny bit of it, and I remember playing ‘Fireball Mail’ for the first time, even though I had played it a hundred times before. It was totally magical, all of it, and a lifetime of learning was underway.
I am by no means an expert on Earl’s style the way some are, but elements of his playing, mostly his timing and authoritative delivery, are now the most important elements of the banjo to me. And when it’s time to play something straight ahead, his amazing lexicon of musical ideas cannot be topped and never will. It’s rich with nuance, a lifetime’s worth of hard work. The mechanics of the instrument are elusive, but somehow that perfect blueprint just showed up in his mind. Even for players with a much more modern sensibility, understanding Scruggs’ style is what puts all the ideas into context. It’s the roll, the melody, the timing, the tone. It’s perfect and it’s all Earl.
We as banjo players will always continue to innovate and evolve, and Earl wouldn’t have it any other way. But the mystery of how to make beautiful music with three picks and five strings has already largely been solved. He gave us the tools, and now we celebrate him with our music. It’s unreal. It’s beautiful. Thank you Earl Scruggs. We are forever grateful.
This was the best in-store yet. Mid day on the second day of two sold out shows with Yonder at the Orange Peel in Asheville, NC. We were late and about 250 people were waiting for us. Thanks to everyone at Mast General, where fans of music and the outdoors come together.
Andy Falco and I started playing together all the time when we moved to Charlottesville a year ago. Soon after, the Founding Fathers was officially formed. What started as an acoustic side project is morphing into something different, something much more experimental. We opened for Rubblebucket (unreal band!) this past weekend at the Southern in Charlottesville, mixing in a few new elements (loop pedal, percussion), but there’s more to come. We had several plugged in rehearsals a few weeks ago. We are experimenting with a wide range of sounds, drawing on our experience producing different kinds of music in our home studios and also our copious live experiences with the Stringdusters. It’s about playing our instruments live, as always, but putting that into a new and different sonic background. New songs, new toys, new musical journeys–we are excited to see where it goes.
I’m home in one piece, but part of me remains in the magical western US, where the Stringdusters just wrapped up our annual Ski Tour. Huge thanks to all the amazing people who came to see us. It was 3 weeks of pure bliss–14 packed shows and 6 days of epic skiing in 12 mountain towns across 5 states with an endless crew of Duster friends and family. What is it about these ski towns, where people effortlessly live the good life and considerations of the future never seem to extend beyond the next big dump of snow? It’s magic, the perfect place for our band to do what we do best: capture the inspiration of the High Country lifestyle to create a musical experience that celebrates life and our connection to each other and the world around us.
We rolled west from Charlottesville to New Mexico, kicking off with shows in Taos and Durango. Next up was Telluride–time to make our first turns of the trip. They’re still awaiting the heavy snow, but we got out under blue skies and had two great sold out shows at the Sheridan Opera House with Elephant Revival, a totally unique acoustic band from CO. Crested Butte was a full on blizzard, getting around 16 inches of new snow while we were Read the rest of this entry »
DelFest goes Letterman on the marketing for 2012. Check out their new vid below–we are excited to be a part of it. Last year I wrote an article about the festival after an amazing weekend with the whole McCoury crew. We are lucky to have them representing everything that’s great about bluegrass to such a huge and diverse audience. Big thanks to that whole team.