Interview: A conversation with Punch Brothers

Back in 2007, ukbluegrass interviewed Noam Pikelny at Sore Fingers Week. In April 2013, Noam was back at the bluegrass camp along with fellow Punch Brother Chris ‘Critter’ Eldridge. Thanks to Trevor Hyett of the BBMA, we were able to have an informal chat with them both.

UKBG: What’s happening with Punch Brothers? Apart from a few festival dates, 2013 looks set to be a year off for the band.

Chris: We were on tour for almost all of last year, and the entire fall of 2011 we were playing pretty much the entire time. And in the four years leading up to that we’ve been working pretty full time, so we just kind of got to a place where we’d finished the album and done all the touring and we felt like we should take a little breather. We’re all a little older now too so…

Noam: …except Paul Kowert. He doesn’t age at all.

Chris: Yeah, he doesn’t age. But we now value our time at home a little more. So that’s one side of it. And the other thing is we want to give ourselves plenty of time to write a record that we can really be excited about rather than just rushing through it like we’ve sort of done in the past.

Noam: Yeah, I think we’ve been touring so non-stop for the last few years that we had to sneak the time in to make the records happen. We’re really happy with how they turned out but there was a sense early on when we first started, that if we had time, we could really create something new with each other and discover some new music too. We had that when we first started when we did The Blind Leaving The Blind and How to Grow A Woman From The Ground.

The music is no less ambitious now but we had more opportunity to let things gestate at that time and I think we want to return a little bit to that kind of situation where we can see each other, work on music, go away and let things evolve, let people internalise things and work on things and not have this sense of meeting a deadline to get a record together.

The only way to do that would be to push a record further and further down the road or decide to tour less. We’d essentially got to every place in the world where we could play this record and most of the cities and towns we’d been fostering since the beginning we’d hit in the last couple of years since we started this tour. So it seemed like a natural time to stop.

Everybody else has projects on the side they want to work on and we have this desire to be home and working on music and come back here with more of a vengeance.

Chris: Having time away from the band and having other projects to work on is a really healthy thing. I’m doing a project with Julian Lage, who’s this really incredible guitarist, and as soon as I got off the road I just started woodshedding – practising 6 or 7 hours a day, which is something I haven’t done since I was in college. It’s been years. And just to have something very different, and very challenging, it’s a way to get really invigorated and really invested in our own personal relationships with music. And hopefully we can bring that back to the collective of the band.

Noam: It’s amazing how strange our lives have become from the constant touring. It really became all-consuming as evidenced by the fact that after we got home for a couple of weeks in February I bumped into Critter and I said, “How are you doing? What’s it like being home?”. And he said, “I’m really enjoying it but it’s really expensive. I spend $50 on food and then four or five days later I have to go buy food again.” And I’m like, “That’s called buying groceries! That’s how life and the world work!”

But we’d been gone for so long, and always on the go, that these normal activities had somehow been erased from our daily routines.

Chris: Yeah, it’s normal, that is normal, that is how it works! I’ve been washing my dishes; I make my bed every morning…it’s domestic bliss. It feels good!

Noam: Soon we’ll be spending a week every six weeks working on music. We are playing some festivals this year and we’re scheduling these little writing retreats around those dates. So the first one is a festival in South Carolina called Spoleto, which is in Charleston and we’ll stay for a week after that and start working on music which will be really exciting.

UKBG: Are you writing everything together now? Because originally it was just Chris Thile.

Noam: Yeah, Chris wrote The Blind Leaving The Blind but on the subsequent albums everything became more collaborative. At this point it really is open for anybody to bring what they want to the table. Chris is still the lyricist of the band and he is the de facto musical leader of the group, but it really does feel like a situation where everybody can contribute material-wise, arranging-wise.

What we do is really determined by the five of us. On some songs the material will lean in one direction towards one of the band members – maybe it was their initial idea. But a lot of the music really incorporates so many ideas from so many different people. They go through so many different interpretations that sometimes we lose track of where it started.

It’s really neat to have a group of guys to bounce things off and work with an idea that maybe you’ve exhausted and you’re not sure what to do with it. That’s what I think is the best part of the band, when you’ve run out of ideas for what to do with something and you can’t see how to connect the dots, you can bring it to the band and this group of fresh ears and we always seem to find a way between the five of us to see something through.

It’s a great situation. It makes it a little intimidating to do stuff without the band after seven years of having this cast and crew there. As you work on solo projects and stuff, without having everyone else in the room, you’re not used that feeling, it’s a little foreign. But it’s a good challenge and I haven’t fully overcome that in the sense that I’m still collaborating and playing with the guys in various ways – Gabe produced my record and I toured with some of the band for my last record….

Chris: Well, I have been fired from the band…

Noam: You quit! He quit from Noam Pikelny and Friends.

Chris: Noam Pikelny and Friends and Me. We had to rename the band.

Noam: Noam Pikelny and Friends…and Chris Eldridge. That’d be good. You told me, I think your words were, “You’re living a lie”. I think that’s what you said to me when I was talking about calling the band Noam Pikelny and Friends. You said “Stop living a lie”.

UKBG: What solo projects will you be working on during your time off?

Noam: I’ve got a few things in the works. I’m touring a few dates with Bryan Sutton, Ronnie McCoury, Luke Bulla and Barry Bales which as a collective is a group that has never played together before. But there are connections within the group; I used to play with Luke Bulla in the John Cowan Band; I played with Bryan Sutton with Chris Thile in the How To Grow A Band when Critter had his Stringdusters duties and Ronnie McCoury we worked with when he oversaw our recording of How To Grow A Woman From The Ground. He’s listed on the record as the “bluegrass guru”. And I’ve always loved Ronnie, he’s one of my favourite players in the world.

Chris: Did you ever come up with a band name?

Noam: We came up with a few different things…we were thinking of calling it The Dixie Crime Syndicate. That got vetoed. My favourite was Equal Billing featuring Noam Pikelny… And in May I’m working on remaking a Kenny Baker album of Bill Monroe tunes…

Chris: …don’t give it away…

Noam: …don’t give it away?

Chris: The title.

Noam: Oh, ok. Well I guess I shouldn’t, but the record’s going to be called Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe. Gabe Witcher is going to be producing that record with Stuart Duncan, Ronnie McCoury, Bryan Sutton and Mike Bubb playing.

UKBG: Are you going to be playing the Kenny Baker parts?

Noam: Oh yeah, this is going to be my debut as a fiddle player! Yeah, I’m going to be playing fiddle and we’re going to be using it as the soundtrack to the exhibit at MoMA in New York where Tilda Swinton is sleeping in a glass case. And I’ll be playing my fiddle interpretations of Kenny Baker interpreting Bill Monroe…

No, I’ll be playing banjo but with all the intricacies of the fiddle. I’ve just been on a big bluegrass kick over the last year or so on the Punch Brothers tour. Just playing a lot of bluegrass when we’re off the stage and listening to a lot of it. So it seemed like a fun project and something I could do in the short term and get it into the studio sooner rather than later.

Chris: I’ve got this project with Julian Lage coming up. I’m actually flying direct from here to record with him. And we’re going to be doing some touring over the summer. And I’m planning on trying to make a solo record this fall. That’s my plan. And I play a bit with the Seldom Scene when I’ve got free time. I love playing with those guys, but that’s as much about getting to hang out with my dad. It’s kind of a great excuse…

Noam: …I should say, I love my parents as well…

UKBG: Anything else you’d like to say before we finish?

Noam: Sherlock! I’d like to thank the British people for Sherlock.

UKBG: For Sherlock? Is that where you’ve developed the dress sense from? Or is this just a coincidence?

Noam: Oh, the hat? I’m wearing this because it reminds me of the fragility of life. This hat was bought in Salt Lake City and has been on for most days of the last six months of this neverending winter. It was on the Punch Brothers bus and I put it on a halogen lamp. The lamp was off. I woke up the next morning and got my hat and put it on my head and it smelled really funny. And I looked at it and I saw there was a hole in it and all these burn marks. And I said, “What happened to my hat?!” and they said, “Oh yeah, your hat caught on fire this morning.” They didn’t tell me, they waited for me to smell the charred remains of this thing. And so, I decided to not fix it and it’s like a war scar of my time with the Punch Brothers. And that’s the truth.

Chris: That is the truth.

Noam: That’s not a lie.

Many thanks to Noam and Chris for taking the time to speak with us, and special thanks to Trevor Hyett and the BBMA for organising the interview.

Interview: Flats and Sharps

A few years back, ukbluegrass ran a feature on a young, upcoming band called Miles Apart. The members of that band have since grown up and most are now playing in various professional, touring groups – namely The Carrivick Sisters, Jaywalkers and The Coal Porters – and a new breed of young bluegrassers is emerging in their place.

If you were at Sore Fingers Week last month you would have seen some of these new upstarts; four teenage lads from Penzance, Cornwall who perform together as Flats and Sharps. Their performance in the student concert earned a standing ovation and saw them booked for a couple of festivals this summer. We had a chat with them about their band and their music.

Q: How did a group of Cornish teenagers end up playing bluegrass music?
A: Well, we all prefer listening to it and playing it. It is our favourite type of music because it’s simply, the best. There’s no electric wah-ing, or synths, just raw instruments, which is the best way to play music, we think.

Q: How did you meet and what drew you to the music?
A: We all met at the Cornish Bluegrass Festival in 2008 and played together quite a bit there. We didn’t really take it any further than that for a couple years until we all went to the same college. We played together there for a further 4 months before deciding to go for it and start a band.

Q: How long have you been playing as a band?
A: We have been playing as a band since February 2011.

Q: Your influences seem to be the more traditional side of bluegrass. What sort of bands and musicians do you listen to?
A: Yes, that’s correct. We listen to a lot of Tony Rice and the All Star Jam (Tony Rice, Sam Bush, Mark O’Connor, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas and Mark Schatz), Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, Dailey and Vincent, The Grascals, Blue Highway, Bill Monroe, Del McCoury Band and The Stanley Brothers.

Q: You got a standing ovation and incredible reception at Sore Fingers. Did that surprise you?
A: This really surprised us as we thought we would only get a bit of a clap because the musicians at Sore Fingers are incredible and we didn’t think we were that good. We were blown away with the reception that we had.

Q: How did you react to the support you received and how did you enjoy the week in general?
A: It was the best week we had ever had and it opened our minds to a lot of things on how to make a band work and things to remember while in a band. It was incredibly helpful. We were absolutely overwhelmed with the support that we received. It was amazing.

Q: You played some original material at Sore Fingers. Is this a big part of the band’s set?
A: It isn’t at the moment, we only have about 2 or 3 originals but that is one of our main aims, to try and write and develop our own material.

Q: Who writes the songs in the band?
A: Kirk Bowman writes all the songs in the band because he is the best at it, basically.

Here’s the band performing the self-penned I’m True as “Flatts and Tarts” with Dave Currie and Léo Guillot in the Sore Fingers student concert.

Q: A lot of bands prefer to concentrate on their picking skills rather than developing strong vocals. However, you’ve already got four part harmonies going. Was this your own idea or were you encouraged by more experienced bluegrass musicians to do this?
A: Harmonies is something that we all love and really want to achieve. We thought that most bluegrass bands either concentrate on harmonies or picking skills and we really would love to do both. The biggest influence on our harmonies would probably be barbershop vocals, mixed with the traditional bluegrass harmonies.

This was our own idea. We have listened to older bluegrassers – i.e. Tony Rice and Ricky Skaggs – to get some ideas and try out some of their songs. Greg from The New Essex Bluegrass Band helped us out quite a bit at Sore Fingers to get the dynamics right in the two songs that we performed in the student concert.

Q: Have you received a lot of help and encouragement from the UK bluegrass scene? Who has helped and/or sponsored you?
A: Yes, we got a lot of encouragement and sponsorship from John and Moira Wirtz (of Sore Fingers), also from the Cornish Bluegrass Association.

Further info

Flats and Sharps are playing at Orwell, Didmarton and the Gower bluegrass festivals this summer. For more about the band visit their official website, their Facebook page and their YouTube channel.

Interview: The Steep Canyon Rangers

The Steep Canyon Rangers celebrate their tenth anniversary this month. We spoke to their guitarist and singer Woody Platt about the band and their collaboration with actor and comedian Steve Martin.

The Steep Canyon Rangers hail from North Carolina and got together at college at the turn of the century. They are Mike Guggino (mandolin), Charles Humphrey III (bass), Woody Platt (guitar), Nicky Sanders (fiddle), and Graham Sharp (banjo).

Despite the non-bluegrass influences that will inevitably affect musicians their age, the Rangers still retain a very traditional sound with a strong emphasis on vocal harmonies. “We are very steeped in the traditional first generation bluegrass having toured with Curly Seckler,” says Woody, “but we then take that original format and write our own songs, which tend to have a more contemporary sound – while still being bluegrass music. We have been influenced by all types of music! I think that’s what adds to our fresh sound and style.”

Their music may give the impression that they have been playing bluegrass all their lives but in fact they’ve only been at it for as long as the band members have been together.

“We were often exposed to bluegrass music when we were young, being from NC, but we did not get into playing it until we were in college,” says Woody.

Other interviews with the band reveal those early picking sessions in college were just for fun and they never dreamt of playing out, let alone going professional. But the band now have several recordings under their belt, were named the IBMA Emerging Artist of the Year in 2006 and, with over 120 shows a year, they have become one of the hardest working bands on the US circuit.

They’ve already made a name for themselves in bluegrass circles, but it’s the current collaboration with Steve Martin that has really propelled them into the spotlight.

How did this unlikely partnership come about? “My older brother was a good friend of Steve’s wife, so we were introduced to her years ago,” Woody explains. “On a vacation to our home town she brought Steve and we were invited over for a jam…the rest just kind of worked itself out.”

Being Martin’s band means the Rangers are now playing to bigger audiences than ever before.

“I do feel like Steve puts us on stage in front of more folks than any other bluegrass setting could – TV, large concerts halls etc., ” Woody says, “and I think that Steve is, for certain, bringing bluegrass to more and more people – his fans buy tickets to the shows and they leave fans of bluegrass! It is a wonderful thing to see night after night!”

With his background in comedy, it would have been easy for Martin to take the same route with the banjo. Instead, the first CD released by Martin, The Crow, contained many great original songs such as Daddy Played The Banjo and the instrumental title track, that showed bluegrass and old-time could appeal to a mainstream audience without resorting to gimmicks.

And, for perhaps the first time, the music is receiving widespread exposure that doesn’t involve heists and car chases, creepy hillbillies or George Clooney sporting a comedy beard.

“Steve is a great banjo player and the perfect ambassador for the music!!” enthuses Woody.

The Crow was a collection of cameo appearances from various big names in the genre, but the new album, to be released in March, will be a joint effort from Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers.

“The new record will be called Rare Bird Alert and it features SCR and Steve as the players and we have Paul McCartney and the Dixie Chicks as guest vocalists,” Woody tells us. “We all worked closely on the arrangements and SCR co-wrote 3 of the tunes. We are very proud of the record. Steve is a joy to work and record with. He is so creative and unique in his playing.”

The year is set to be very busy for the band, who have their own projects on the go as well as the work with Martin. “We will be touring close to 50 shows with Steve in 2011 and over 50 shows as just SCR, so we will have a nice balance of the two,” says Woody. “We plan to record in October of 2011 as just SCR, but for now we are putting our energy into the Rare Bird Alert record.”

And anyone keen to see the Rangers may not have to wait long. Woody tells us the band will be in Europe, possibly including the UK, “early to mid July if all works out as planned.”

Interview: The Dixie Bee-Liners

This month US act The Dixie Bee-Liners play their first concerts in the UK with appearances at Fairport’s Cropredy Convention in Oxfordshire (13th), and at Cold Dog Soup’s mini-festival in Reading (14th). We spoke to the band’s singer Brandi Hart about their upcoming visit and the group’s recent release Susanville.

The Dixie Bee-Liners are a modern, dynamic bluegrass band whose sound may remind you of Alison Krauss and Union Station or Nickel Creek. They have been gaining a strong following in the States over the past few years and were named the Roots Music Association‘s Bluegrass Artist of the Year in 2008.

The band’s members come from various parts of the country, and now reside in Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina, coming together to tour. “I’m originally from Kentucky,” Brandi tells us. “Fiddler Rachel Johnson’s originally from Tennessee. Our banjo picker, Casey Henry is originally from Virginia. Bassist Sav Sankaran and Buddy Woodward [mandolinist] were both born in Pennsylvania.”

The band’s two albums – 2008’s Ripe and 2009’s Susanville – were both released on Pinecastle Records. Susanville has earned strong critical acclaim and is often described as a “concept album”. So, what exactly is a bluegrass concept album?

“When I think of the term ‘concept album’, I immediately think of The Who,” Brandi explains. “A story, set to music, with a clearly defined beginning, middle and end. This is why Tommy works so well as a theatrical production.”

Susanville is actually a different sort of project, in that, rather than telling one long, cinematic story, it’s more of a collection of short stories. Think of it as musical vignettes with the over-arching theme of the open road weaving through every song. Each track on the cd tells the story of a person on America’s highways – where they’re going, what they’ve left behind. It’s sort of a musical road trip, allowing listeners to peer into the cars and trucks in these songs and learn a little bit about their fellow travelers.”

Whilst the band is very much a bluegrass act, it seems all sorts of music has worked its way into the DBL sound.

“Personally, I’m a huge fan of Dillard Chandler, Jean Ritchie, Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention, Cocteau Twins, Kay Adams (who makes a guest appearance on Susanville), Buck Owens & the Buckaroos, Wynn Stewart, The Sundays, Sam Phillips, Ray Charles, Big Mama Thornton, Dillard & Clark, and many, many others,” says Brandi. “My bandmates might mention names like Small Faces, Leadbelly, the Zombies, Georgie Fame & the Blue Flames, Martin Denny, George Strait, James Brown, the Byrds, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the list goes on.”

“As to how this multitude of influences comes together in our sound, golly, your guess is as good as mine! Of course, everything we hear influences us, whether we like it or not. We seldom consciously pull from our influences (although careful listeners will discover a nod to James Brown in the song Find Out). I’d say, like most artists that actively work to come up with their own sound, there’s a synergistic thing that happens at some point. Hopefully, we’ve become more than the sum of our parts, but ultimately, that’s for the fans to decide.”

Mandolinist Buddy Woodward has performed in Britain before (with the Coal Porters), but this will be the first UK visit for the band as a whole. Asked what they are looking forward to Brandi says, “Fish, chips and lager! No, seriously, we’re looking forward to meeting as many fellow music lovers as we possibly can. It’s going to be a fantastic trip.”

Audiences should “expect a healthy dose of the band’s original repertoire – bluegrass barn-burners, ballads, and instrumentals – as well as Appalachian standards that have become true American classics.”

This won’t be the DBL’s last visit to these shores, with Brandi hopeful they will be making more festival appearances next summer. “Our secret plans for world domination might just pan out, after all,” she says.

Further info

Find out more about the Dixie Bee-Liners at their official website or on myspace, Facebook and Twitter.

The band’s music is available at in both CD and mp3 formats.

Interview: Rabbi John

Gloucestershire band Rabbi John have recently returned to action after a long break, releasing a new CD entitled Further. We spoke to their guitarist, mandolinist and percussionist Jason Titley about the band and the album.

Rabbi John formed in 2004 when guitarist Jason Titley moved to Nailsworth, Gloucestershire and met up with local musicians Becky Dellow (fiddle) and Paul Bienek (banjo and vocals). Duncan Kingston soon joined the ranks on bass.

Their first album, Skin and Bone, mixing old-time, bluegrass and other roots styles, gained them many fans. The band was lauded by Tim O’Brien as “hard and strong and shining audibly like a diamond” and one critic even suggested they had invented a whole new genre, namely “New Timey music”.

A few festival appearances and the release of a live CD established the band as one of the best on the country’s bluegrass and old-time scene. But things hit the buffers when Becky had to leave due to family commitments and for a while it seemed Rabbi John were no more.

However, after a long hiatus, the band regrouped this year as a trio, performing at several festivals in the lead up to the release of their third CD, Further.

All three members have played in a variety of bands and genres, including but not limited to, rock, soul, skiffle, jazz and even an Anglo-Senegalese collaboration. The 13 tracks on Further fully reflect the band’s various influences but bluegrass and old-time still play a big role.

“The bluegrass element comes from my background and Paul’s, and the instruments we play,” Jason tells us. “Paul has been playing bluegrass and teaching it on banjo for many years and I have been playing it for most of my musical career. This was initially with my dad’s band back in the late 80s (The Buffalo Bluegrass Band) and then with Natural Hazzard in the mid 90s.”

On top of that bluegrass experience, Jason and Duncan are both former members of newgrass group Daily Planet, a band famed for its fusion of different genres and for pushing boundaries. Rabbi John are continuing in that same vein, though in their own unique way.

All the songs on Further are original and the writing is strong throughout, from the upbeat and bouncy Judgement Day to the sentimental Tomorrow’s Child and the folky protest song of Little George. Since this is a bluegrass website, special mention should be given to Rockit Dog, a rip-snorting banjo breakdown inspired by Paul’s dog, that should satisfy even the staunchest officers of the bluegrass police.

The tracks have been in the works during the band’s time off. “Paul wrote like a madman whilst Duncan and I had babies (not together) and were busy doing all that comes with them,” Jason tells us. “So when we decided to carry on as a trio we had a full album and then some to work up. Paul brings the songs in a raw form and then we arrange and sculpt them as a band. We are hoping to work up some of my songs and tunes for the next album.”

The album is helped along by a number of special guests. Casey Driessen provides the intro riff for the opening track Love Child, a funky little number that sounds like it was born to be played by the eccentric fiddler. “I first met Casey when I played percussion with him at a gig on his tour with Tim O’Brien and John Doyle,” says Jason. “We met again at Sore Fingers so I just called him up and asked him if he would play on the album. I could hear his percussive fiddle opening Love Child and I’m not sure what I would have done if he had said no!”

Matt Flinner provides some beautiful mandolin fills and breaks on a couple of tracks, including the gentle, laid back Just For A Day. “Matt is an old friend from the Daily Planet days when he toured with us on a number of occasions, so he was happy to be involved. He’s such a great addition to the tracks,” Jason says.

The strangest addition to the band is most definitely Arthur Brown, best known as The God of Hell Fire, who provides vocals on the song Shout. How did he become involved in this project?

“Arthur Brown…not the first person you imagine singing our genre (whatever that is),” says Jason. “I have known Arthur most of my life, he used to baby sit for me when I was a nipper – he was a friend of my mum’s.

“I played a few gigs with him back in the 90s and he just blew me away with his complete ownership of the stage and audience so when it came to do the album I e-mailed him. He said he would be in London for one night only so I drove down with a mic and a laptop and Paul’s lyrics printed out. He did 3 takes and Shout was born.”

Local musicians Kate Lissauer, Josh Clark, and Regine and Lauren Candler also contribute to the recording which is rounded off nicely with an indescribable bonus track. You’ll have to buy the CD to find out what that’s all about…

From a bluegrass point of view, Further is perhaps one for the adventurous listener, but Rabbi John have developed a unique and distinctive sound that should be enjoyed by any fan of acoustic music and good song-writing.

Further information

To find out more about Rabbi John or to buy any of their CDs please visit their official website. You can also hear samples from Further on their myspace.

Blog: Jaywalkers – BBC Young Folk Award

Earlier this month, teenage bluegrass duo Jaywalkers competed in the semi-finals of the BBC Young Folk Award. The band is 19-year-old Michael Giverin on mandolin and 15-year-old Jay Bradberry on fiddle, guitar and vocals. Jay has provided this report of their experience at the semi-finals weekend.

After an accumulation of weekend practices and general hard work upon discovering that we (Jaywalkers) had made it into the BBC Young Folk Award Semi Finals, we couldn’t help but be excited at the arrival of the competition’s audition weekend held in Stratford upon Avon. In the previous few weeks to the weekend itself, we had had several opportunities to perform our 8 minute set to an audience: a folk night held in Bromborough, Helsby’s monthly open mic night, a primary school assembly and finally, at the weekly session lead by Stuart Williams in Helsby, each Thursday. With kind wishes of luck and support from all of our Helsby friends, it was time to embark on our trip to Stratford upon Avon for the BBC Young Folk Award Semi Finals!

As you can probably imagine, at this point we were thoroughly thrilled at the prospect of where we were going, and even a somewhat stressful journey of crowded trains and multiple items of luggage couldn’t wipe the excited grins from our faces. Upon arriving at Stratford upon Avon station, we discovered 2 other semi finalist musicians also waiting for their transportation to the accommodation where we would be spending the following 2 nights. Shortly, our lift arrived in the form of Joe Heap; one of the many staff from organisers “Mrs Casey Music” that made our weekend such an enjoyable experience (MCM is a music events organisation formed in 1974 to develop the presentation of Folk music in this country).

After settling in our accommodation and eating etc, it was time for the introductory session where we met the weekend tutors: Damien Barber (of Demon Barbers Road show) and Tom McConville (“The Newcastle Fiddler”), as well as the rest of the Mrs Casey Music and AVLS staff. At first more of a formal take-it-in-turns-to-perform set up, the session, as the night progressed, relaxed as we became familiar with each other’s playing and music styles. One of the unique things about the semi-finalists chosen this year is how completely different all the acts were; we had group sessions that swung from medleys of traditional tunes and folk songs to blues and a rockier approach – even incorporating our own bluegrass roots into the music being played at times!

Early Saturday morning brought the departure to the Civic hall where we would be spending the remains of the day until after the concert was over. The day was based around a series of workshops lead by the 2 tutors and other professionals from the business, intended to develop our understanding of folk music’s place within the music industry and widen our skills as performers and musicians. Our first workshop, lead by Joe heap of MCM, was on the topic of stage craft, which involved us actively taking part in examples of the ways in which we can control our nerves and use our adrenaline to give us confidence and a comfortable stage presence. Damien then went on to share some of the secret behind compiling effective set lists and spoke from experience as he gave an insight into how to go about getting the gigs and festival spots we wish for. Tom McConville is probably one of, if not, the nicest person you ever could meet and made, not only Mike and I, but the whole group aware of the positives of linking playing music to posture by means of the Alexander Technique: the theme of another of our workshops. After a brief final lesson on the laws within the music industry and the payments we are entitled to, Jaywalkers had their sound check for the evening’s performance. Complete with professional lighting checks and general sound perfecting, we couldn’t have been in safer and more genuinely caring hands for the concert to come that evening.

The concert! Beginning at 7:30pm precisely, Jaywalkers were on first and despite the reputation of being the hardest spot in the running order, we were pleased that we could perform and then enjoy the rest of the show in its entirety. Our set was decided around the 8 minute time limit and began with an original arrangement of the traditional tune “Banish Misfortune”. The rest of our set consisted of a compiled song (Four Blue Walls) and tune (Toss the Feathers) which included a rather risky instrument swap for me from guitar to fiddle. Feeling we had played the best we could, Mike and I returned to our seats to watch our friends from the other 11 acts that we had made over the course of the weekend. Even with such a wide spectrum of styles being played within the folk bracket, the concert really was something to remember, with every performance so supported by the other semi finalists that it felt like anything but a competition.

After a late night of takeaways and music and a morning of a 7:00 fire alarm (not very well received), final sessions, and goodbyes, we travelled home in a tired but cheerful state after such a fantastic weekend. Monday came as the bearer of good news as Jaywalkers received notice that the judges of Saturday’s panel had selected them to go on to the finals held in London on the 5th of December along with 5 other acts from the weekend. We would like to take this opportunity to thank all of our friends from Helsby for the support they have given us over the duration of this competition and the months before it.

Interview: Cadillac Sky

The 20th Didmarton Bluegrass Festival takes place between August 29th and 31st at Kemble Airfield, near Cirencester, and will feature a line-up of bands from the USA, Europe and Great Britain. Over two decades the event has grown from a small-scale gathering at a pub to arguably the biggest weekend on the UK bluegrass calendar.

Headliners this year are Texas five-piece Cadillac Sky who release their second album, Gravity’s Our Enemy, on August 19th. We spoke to the band’s singer and mandolin player Bryan Simpson about the new record and their upcoming visit to England.

Cadillac Sky, formed in 2002, are Bryan Simpson (mandolin), Ross Holmes (fiddle), Andy Moritz (bass), Mike Jump (guitar) and Matt Menefee (banjo). A small-scale independent release, Talent Show, came in 2003 before the band signed for Skaggs Family Records.

Their first proper release – Blind Man Walking – followed in 2007. The CD, with its alternative rock-tinged take on the traditional bluegrass sound, was a huge success and has earnt the band two IBMA Award nominations for Emerging Artist. The group has been constantly touring since then before entering the studio earlier this year to record Gravity’s Our Enemy.

Bryan and the band are pleased with the outcome. “Yeah, I am happy with the new CD – really excited to share this big piece of music with the world,” Bryan tells us. “It will be interesting to see what people think. I mean, all we’re trying to do is make music that we like.”

Bryan, as well as being singer and mandolin player in the band, is also the main songwriter. His skills have been recognised outside of the band with his songs being recorded by various country artists. His inspiration can come from real life situations or sometimes the slightly more surreal. He tells us how Andy Falco of The Infamous Stringdusters gave him a bit of help with one of the new songs. “He walked into one of my dreams, sort of Bob Dylan style – guitar thrown around his neck, blowing on a harp, humming the melody of the first few bars of The Wreck. I woke up wishing I had written that, around 4 in the morning, only to realize I could still write it – so I did.”

The new recording was produced by mandolinist Mike Marshall who was excited about the project when ukbluegrass interviewed him back in February. What did the band think of him? “Mike is the man! Official guru of C-Sky! He was an awesome presence to have in the studio – just real laid back – but very focused,” enthuses Bryan. “He was the there in the studio while we were tracking every minute that we were in there – and trust me, that is not a given when it comes to producers. He’s just got such great vision, and co-producing this record with him was priceless.”

Blind Man Walking was a brave statement for a new band still looking to find an audience. It covered all sorts of genres and influences from the gospel of Sinners Welcome to the rock-style ballad of Homesick Angel and the near pop of Insomniac Blues For Matthew and Motel Morning. Bluegrass was not lost in the mix, with the album’s stand-out moment being Never Been So Blue – a heart-rending tribute to Bill Monroe. How does the new CD compare to their first offering?

“I do know that it is a different record than Blind Man Walking – which we made three years ago almost to the date of Gravity’s Our Enemy‘s release date,” says Bryan. “We’ve been travelling, basically tied to each other’s hips for the last three years – playing together, listening to music together, learning each other better – and I think you can hear a greater trust on this record, and a different kind of spirit that comes from everybody feeling so invested in this project.

“I think this is the most colourful record we’ve ever made,” he continues. “Blind Man Walking has a great spirit about it – has a certain youthful exuberance about it – and we didn’t want to lose that for sure on our sophomore release. We just wanted to add to that more layers, and throw more colours on the canvas.”

After months of relentless touring in the States, Cadillac Sky will make their first British appearance at Didmarton. The band are excited about the upcoming visit. “I am looking forward to getting know as many people as our time there will allow,” Bryan says. “That’s my favourite thing about travelling around, other than that hour and a half on stage – meeting people, and getting to be a part of their lives if only for a brief moment. To borrow from Matt, our banjo player, ‘Humans are amazing’.”

The band have developed something of a reputation for putting on an energetic, exciting show. Bryan told us what Didmarton attendees can expect from their performance. “It will be very ‘live’,” he says. “Hopefully they’ll be able to feel it breathing as we perform. And they should come expecting to have a good time – those are always the shows that turn out the most memorable for us – when the crowd just turns everything else off, and just lives in the moment with us.”

Further information

For more on Cadillac Sky, please visit their official website and myspace. For details of Didmarton Bluegrass Festival, please visit the Didmarton website.

You can buy Cadillac Sky’s albums from at the following links:

Interview: (more) Growling Old Men

The four members of (more) Growling Old Men will be very familiar to British bluegrass fans. The half-English, half-American quartet has toured twice in the UK and all four have taught at Sore Fingers at least once. Featuring Leon Hunt on banjo, Dom Harrison on bass, Ben Winship on mandolin and John Lowell on guitar, the band has now taken its act one step further and produced an album, Shuttle Diplomacy.

The history of the band stretches back quite some time. Leon and Dom have been working together for years as members of Daily Planet, and Ben and John have played together in various groups including Kane’s River and, of course, Growling Old Men. The collaboration between the two halves has been in the works since the late 1990s when Ben and Leon first met.

“We first met when Leon was playing with the Planet,” Ben says. “Matt Flinner helped them get some gigs in States and we had a few summers when we played the same festivals. They also played a small gig in my home town. Subsequently, Leon toured for a while with me and Matt in the Judith Edelman Band and another time he and Jamie Matthews came over to play some gigs with me and Matt. So Leon and I have a long history and we’ve also stayed in touch about recording stuff because we both have our own studios.”

Despite knowing each other for years, they still needed a catalyst to get them playing as a group. How did the four of them come together as a band?

“We didn’t really mean for it to happen. It was mostly accidental,” jokes John. “No, actually we started playing together largely because of John Wirtz and because we knew Leon already. I had taught at Sore Fingers in 2004 and when Ben and I came out with our Occupational Hazards CD, I sent a copy to John just because I thought he might like it. As it turns out, he has no taste and he liked it a lot and wanted to hire us for Didmarton Bluegrass Festival. He suggested that we get together with Leon and Dom to put together a few more gigs, and there you have it.”

The band played at the 2006 Didmarton festival and toured briefly around the same time. They toured again in the spring of 2007 when Ben and John were teaching at Sore Fingers. “After our second tour we decided we enjoyed doing it enough to commit to recording an album,” says Leon.

The most remarkable thing about the new CD is that the band was never in the same studio when recording it. In fact, they were never even on the same continent. The decisions about tracks, the arrangements and the recording were all carried out across the Atlantic.

“Some of the stuff was arranged the last time we all played together,” says Ben. “On the rest of the stuff, whoever sang the song or brought it to the band usually had the vision of how it would be played. There was some emailing back and forth and rearranging, but it went surprisingly smooth.”

“It was a bit like a game of tag,” Leon tells us. “Ben and John did a load of recording, sent it to us and we did a load more recording and sent it back. I think some of the sessions went back and forth between the UK and the US four or five times.”

This long-distance production explains the album’s title, Shuttle Diplomacy. Ben tells us, “Shuttle diplomacy is a means of conducting foreign policy via airplane (I think the term was coined when Henry Kissinger was trying to broker a peace deal with the Arabs and Israelis). Seeing how we rely on airplanes to make this collaboration work, it seemed like a fitting title.”

He continues, “It was originally going to be called Bangers and Grits, but all the potential cover images seemed really gross.”

The album is a collection of eleven songs and tunes, most of which come from the back-catalogues of the various members. From the Growling Old Men side are Georgia Buck, Crooked Jack, Rye Whiskey and Somewhere Down the Road.

“We put songs on there that we had been playing live, which of course were songs that had already been recorded,” explains John. “That’s why there are a lot of remakes of previous Growling Old Men tunes. Hopefully they are better, or at the very least…different.”

Leon and Dom brought a few Daily Planet tunes into the mix.

“Dom and I originated the instrumentals over here,” says Leon. “We’ve never recorded Off to California and Cherokee Shuffle before but have played them a lot live. Bodum was recorded as a Daily Planet tune eons ago but somehow found its way into our collective repertoire on the tours.”

Ben has a much simpler explanation for his choice of tracks – “because they were easy…” he says.

The album also features many special guests from both sides of the pond. Fellow Daily Planet members Tim Robinson and Jamie Matthews make an appearance, as well as fiddler Brian Wicklund from one of Ben’s other bands, Brother Mule.

All together they help make this album an extremely enjoyable listen and make it hard to believe that the recording was put together on opposite sides of the globe.

The band will be back together and touring the UK later this summer, including another appearance at Didmarton, and plans are afoot to take the group further afield. “We’re hoping to do some stuff in the US and Canada next summer,” Leon tells us. “There are already a few things in place so that’ll hopefully come together.”

Interview: Toy Hearts

The Toy Hearts are well known faces on the British bluegrass scene and have established a strong reputation and loyal fan base over the past few years. Their second album is due for release soon and they have several festival appearances lined up for the summer including EWOB next month. We spoke to members Hannah and Sophia Johnson about the band and their music.

Hannah Johnson was born and bred in Birmingham. For clarity she explains that’s the one in the Midlands, rather than the one in Alabama. For the lead vocalist for the Toy Hearts, it’s perhaps an explanation that needs telling.

Hannah, together with sister Sophia Johnson are the driving force behind the band. Their debut album, If The Blues Come Calling, is one of astonishing maturity and quality that could easily have hailed directly from the southern Appalachian states.

Aged 22 and 25 respectively, they’re a young pair which forms the core of a family band which has been going now for some 7 years or so. Most of If The Blues Come Calling was written by the two, and blends a good deal of traditional bluegrass with a fair amount of western swing and a touch of blues.

Completing the line-up are dad Stewart on banjo and dobro, Howard Gregory on fiddle, and cousin Lauren Rogers on bass.

Stewart’s musical career spans five decades as a dobro, banjo and steel guitar player in a plethora of bands, theatre, musicals and TV shows, and though obviously proud of her upbringing, Sophia is keen to point out whose band it is. “It was definitely mine and Hannah’s decision to form the band, and dad was obviously thrilled, but people assume he some how brainwashed us into it, which is totally not the case!”

“I have always been around music, and as my dad’s profession is Musician on my birth certificate it follows that there was lots of music in the house when I was growing up. However, dad has totally allowed me to pursue my own musical path, he has always been there to support me, but he has never pushed me toward anything.”

That support has enabled Sophia to become a fine guitarist, and her flatpicking skills receive regular plaudits. Playing since the age of 7, initially classical, then graduating on to electric and doing the school rock band thing, she says “it was really when I started getting into Clarence White that I realised how much I wanted to be able to flatpick, and I wanted to be in a bluegrass band.”

It’s a thorough guitar grounding that encompasses a huge range of styles from flamenco to gypsy jazz, blues, rock and roll, which shows through in the Toy Hearts’ music. Sophia also sings in the band, but is happy to back-up her sister on the vocals.

“Hannah is definitely the lead singer,” says Sophia. “I love to sing harmonies with her and just try to match her voice. Hannah spent a lot more time learning to sing, when I learned to play the guitar. Where as I listen to Tony Rice for inspiration in my guitar work, Hannah will listen to Lefty or Hank for her vocals. I feel I express myself better as a guitarist than a vocalist, playing and writing are enough of a challenge.”

Hannah’s vocals are arguably the distinguishing sound of the band. “I’ve been singing since I was about eight, and I was in a large youth theatre for ten years in which I performed in plays, choirs, and musicals in Birmingham, London and Germany,” she tells us. “But without doubt, what I have always loved to sing from a very young age were songs by the likes of Dolly Parton, The Everley Brothers, The Johnson Mountain Boys, Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline and Alison Krauss.”

You’ll certainly hear a fair smattering of songs by their like at a Toy Hearts gig, together with Monroe classics like Can’t You Hear Me Calling and standards like Old Home Place and John Henry. The band is clearly built on a fine bluegrass heritage.

With this upbringing, the quality of the writing on If The Blues Come Calling which was released last year shouldn’t come as any surprise. “It was only when we started writing together that we decided to record an album,” Sophia tells us. “we did everything ourselves from writing to recording and producing it. It was a great learning curve for the three of us. The skills we learned through the process of making the album should stand us in good stead for the next CD.”

The second CD, When I Cut Loose, is well on the way. When we spoke to the band recently, they’d just completed the studio phase and it’s planned for release some time the next couple of months. Says Hannah, “We may have eleven tracks again, all of which we have written. On the album there will be lots of fast paced numbers and one of my favourite songs The Angels Sing to Me which my sister and I wrote after we came back from Nashville in 2006.”

2007 was a busy year for the band, with the album, appearing at festivals across UK and Ireland, and supporting Ricky Skaggs in Wolverhampton in August. If The Blues Come Calling gained favourable reviews in both Bluegrass Unlimited, and Maverick Magazine, of which they are justly proud.

Already this year, the Toy Hearts have completed a tour of Texas, including playing at the South By Southwest festival in Austin, and have a number of festival appearances lined up for the coming months, not least as the UK’s sole representatives at EWOB.

“We are all very excited about getting the chance to go to EWOB”, says Hannah. “The band has been performing for seven years and we feel ready now to go and make a good impression, with our own material at its strongest. We hope to be performing in Europe much more in the future as there is a lot of work and a large bluegrass fan base.”

Interview: Southern Tenant Folk Union

The second album from Southern Tenant Folk Union is released this month. Revivals, Rituals & Union Songs is another genre-defying collection of original songs from the London based band. We spoke to banjo player Pat McGarvey about the album and the band’s unique take on American music.

In their short existence STFU have risen to be one of the busiest bands around. Formed in early 2006, the band released its eponymous debut album in January 2007 to much critical acclaim. They fuse a blend of just about every roots influence imaginable including bluegrass, old-time, Celtic and gospel.

The Union line-up is led by banjo player Pat McGarvey along with lead vocalist Oliver Talkes, Peter Gow (guitar), Frances Vaux (fiddle), Matt Lloyd (bass), and Eamonn Flynn (mandolin). All the band members have previous experience in roots bands, most notably McGarvey who was a long-time member of The Coal Porters.

The new album, Revivals, Rituals & Union Songs is a collection of 11 original tracks and gets your feet tapping from the off with Never Got The Best Of Me, and brings a mixture of moods with a broad folky appeal. Most of the Union members have contributed songs for this album: McGarvey’s own Back To Front, for example, is a glorious Celtic soul fusion, whilst Cocaine (by Flynn) has an undeniable Eastern European feel. McGarvey describes the latter of these as “a million miles from bluegrass,” adding that it “still sits perfectly in with our sound.”

Whilst Southern Tenant Folk Union’s work certainly cannot be described as pure ‘grass, you’re still likely to hear hints of Old Crow Medicine Show and Gillian Welch plus plenty of Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers. However, there are so many influences here that the music feels uniquely British.

Born in Belfast, and now residing in Edinburgh, McGarvey is sceptical of his own direct Celtic influence in the music. “I’m a world citizen and don’t particularly feel this little collection of islands, however wonderfully tolerant and beautiful they might be, are anything special on this small sized planet in this vast universe,” he says, “and we should sometimes reflect on that before we make our arm sore waving flags around.” But he goes on to add “there’s something to be said for the musical sensibility that people of Celtic descent (like me) sometimes have. It seems totally plausible that musically beneficial genes are passed down through the generations like anything else.”

The band is still relatively young but has already enjoyed support from the BBC and publications including Maverick and Uncut. “It’s almost two years ago right now that we had our first rehearsal with all six members, and I’m very happy we’ve been able to get started well as a band and am now looking forward to whatever exciting adventures and mystery solving we get up to in our van on tour this year,” says Pat.

Adventures will surely abound. STFU are becoming regulars on the British festival scene and have a busy schedule already lined up for 2008. The band will be on a nationwide promotional tour through March and into April which will see them playing venues across England, Scotland and Wales. They are also once again booked to appear at the Cornish Bluegrass Festival in September.