Interview: Mike Marshall – Part 2

In the second part of our interview with the influential musician, Mike talks about mandolins, bluegrass and the future for both.

Read the first part of this interview

Mike Marshall has a prolific past and a busy future ahead, but what’s he excited about right now? The answer is his latest instrument, a 10-string mandola custom built to his specs.

“I got Lawrence Smart, who built my mandola which is the best mandola I’ve ever got my hands on, so I thought he’d be the guy to build a 10-string,” Mike explains enthusiastically. “I had him build me this 10-string which is really a mandola with a high E as opposed to a mandolin with a low C. It’s a big instrument and I had him do it with fanned frets so the C string is a longer scale length than the E string.

“The nut is angled pretty severely and the bridge is also angled in the opposite way,” he continues. “So at the 12th fret the frets are square but as you move in either direction they fan out. The C string is just a little bit under what a mandola would be and the E string is a little bit longer than a mandolin’s.

“It’s got a lot of sustain, so it makes me write in a totally different way than I would with a mandolin. It’s not so chirpy – more in the guitar range and more like an octave mandolin. It doesn’t work for bluegrass!”

It’s a strange looking instrument but sounds wonderful, with a deep cittern-like voice and Mike can’t wait to play it at every opportunity. “It’s very fun to have around, I haven’t touched the Loar since this thing came in the house!”

The way Mike enthuses about his latest acquisition it is easy to see his passion and love for the mandolin. It’s a passion that goes way beyond his own playing and to the future of the instrument in general. Indeed, he has a vested interest as a founder of the Mandolin Symposium, a camp for mandolin musicians that takes place each June in California.

The instrument is enjoying a surge in popularity right now with a young, talented generation of bluegrass musicians emerging on the scene. “Clearly Chris Thile has given the mandolin a nice shot, with all these kids inspired by him and taking it up. That’s pretty exciting for me to see,” says Mike. “I’m just sad that it took twenty years for Chris to come along. I mean, I’ve been kind of waiting.”

Thile and his peers have plenty of detractors who are quick to criticise the music they create. However, Mike sees this new generation as the next logical step in a long line of innovators. “There’s a natural progression that happens. What Bill Monroe was doing in the ’40s and ’50s was equally mind-blowing to old-timey musicians. It was like him and Earl Scruggs were from Mars or something!” he tells us. “I think it’s important for people to remember that the music, even though it’s traditional music, when it was created it was incredibly forward thinking and they were incorporating a lot of other styles into the old-time music.

“It’s hard to think of Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs as contemporary but I think in retrospect you have to. They were a product of probably the first rural musicians who had radio and so they heard a lot more music than the generation preceding them. They heard swing and classical music and other kinds of popular music. The generation before them, the only music they heard was the music they played for themselves. So if you wanted to hear somebody you had to go over to that next hill and check them out!

“And so Sam Bush and David Grisman came along in the ’70s and they were the product of another generation that grew up on LPs and transcribing stuff. They lived in the big cities and heard rock ‘n’ roll and Indian music and all kinds of classical and jazz. So they did to the mandolin what would be natural for their generation.

“Chris Thile, I feel, represents yet another leap. His generation has access to the internet and it’s an ideal that only now is starting to manifest itself. In some ways it’s kind of a messy period for musicians in that we have so much access now that the bigger question is ‘How do we focus? What do we decide to focus on and get rid of?’. Chris is one of those rare musicians that comes along every 50 years or so that has tremendous focus, an insane work ethic and is able to encapsulate many styles into one thing that he’s calling his own. Having the level of technique that he does, he is pushing the envelope in terms of what’s possible on the instrument.”

Teaching at the Mandolin Symposium, Mike has got to know yet another generation of mandolin pickers. “I know all the young American mandolin players. They’re taking the classical music aesthetic of tone and clarity and applying that to swing and bluegrass. It’s real neat,” he says. “I brought a group of them to France recently to the Lunel Mandolin Festival. The people of France flipped out – 15 to 18-year-olds playing this well. It’s kind of unbearable! At the Symposium they all hang out together and they all jam ’til 4am every night. It’s amazing and very exciting to see.”

With a discography that covers bluegrass, jazz, classical, choro and now Scandinavian folk, Mike obviously doesn’t believe in pigeonholing himself. It’s an attitude he hopes will be passed to these young players. “This next generation will hopefully learn that it’s important to come from a really deep tradition but also to push at the outer limits of where that tradition is going,” he says. “I’d like to think that music is like wind. It doesn’t have any national boundaries, age boundaries or even stylistic boundaries. Of course, that’s foolish because bluegrass is a specific thing and classical music is another thing – but they both touch me deeply and so how can you not want to play it all?”

So with all these youngsters becoming involved in the music, will the success of bluegrass soar in the 21st century? “Bluegrass goes through ups and downs of popularity,” says Mike. “As Darol Anger pointed out, it’s like the cicadas that come out every 7 years.

“It’s usually a movie that gives bluegrass another shot,” he continues. “You have Bonnie and Clyde, that Flatt and Scruggs did the music for. There was a big interest in traditional music right around that time. And the next big shot was Deliverance with Duelling Banjos in the ’70s. Then the whole Oh Brother, Where Art Thou thing came around, and with Alison Krauss and Nickel’s Creek’s popularity you have another wave of traditional music being recognised by average Joe Public. It’ll probably die back down again – but it’s always there.”

Read the first part of this interview.

Interview: Mike Marshall – Part 1

Over the past three decades Mike Marshall has established himself as one of the world’s finest mandolin players not to mention a master of mandocello, guitar and fiddle. With a strong foundation in bluegrass, but just as at home playing jazz, classical or choro, he is one of the most influential musicians in American acoustic music. In this first of two articles, we speak to him about his work with Scandinavian band Väsen and his experiences in Europe.

One of Mike’s current projects is a collaboration with Väsen, a three piece folk act from Sweden. They’ve worked together several times in the past, along with Mike’s long-time musical partner Darol Anger, and in 2007 released a CD. It features an interesting mix of North American, Scandinavian and even Brazilian music.

How did a couple of American west coast musicians get together with a Swedish folk group? “Darol Anger and I had been fans of the group for five or six years or more,” Mike tells us. “We knew about their music and actually learned some of their tunes and just thought they were the coolest thing ever. We were invited to a festival in Bloomington, Indiana and they were going to be there. We told the promoter ‘We’re crazy about those guys!’, so he put us on the bill with them and said ‘Here, you guys make a show.’

“From the first note we played together it was one of those instantaneous love affairs, particularly with the way that they groove,” Mike continues. “There’s a groove that’s very easy to find my way into as a rhythm player. Darol just connected immediately with them. The fiddle player and nyckelharpa player – the tones they make with their instruments is so similar to how Darol plays.”

It wasn’t long before a recording was in the works. “We hit it off instantly and decided right there, subconsciously, that we should probably make a record together. It was very easy. Everybody brought in a couple of tunes. We spent maybe a week together and bingo, there was a record. We even got them to play a Brazilian choro tune!”

Whilst some of the tunes on the record are traditional, much of it was self-penned with all the musicians contributing. Mike is impressed by the song-writing of the Swedes. “They write these tunes that are so amazing because they’re traditional-ish, they sound like they’re 300 years old but they’re like ‘No, that’s my tune. I wrote that.’,” he says. “It’s amazing, and not unlike what Darol and I do with traditional bluegrass. We know a lot of the traditional music and we write our own music that’s heavily influenced by it. They’re kind of doing the same thing with Swedish dance tunes.”

Mike’s input to the record was specifically aimed at the Väsen sound. The opening track of the album, Loke’s Troubles, was written especially for the project. “I wrote that thinking it was very much like their style and really hearing the sound and the groove that they get,” he explains. “Of course, it totally baffled them. They were completely scratching their heads – ‘What the heck kind of tune is this, man?’! That just goes to show that this music thing is baffling sometimes.”

Part of the appeal of Väsen is the incredible sound of the nyckelharpa – or key fiddle – a traditional Swedish instrument. It’s a sound that is rarely heard in American music and has won Mike’s adoration. “It’s essentially a hurdy-gurdy but instead of a wheel bowing the strings you have a free bow in your right hand. So you bow up towards your face and you’ve got a drone string and a couple of melody strings. Plus it has 13 sympathetic strings that resonate which makes it have natural reverb. With your left hand you’re pressing these keys which have pointers on them that fret the strings for you. You’re bowing the drone string all the while you’re bowing the other strings. It’s just bizarre and crazy.

“One of the things you don’t get from this instrument on CD is that you hear reverb and you think it’s electronic reverb, but when you’re in a room with one of these instruments it sounds like you’re inside a cathedral. But you’re just sitting in the living room next to this box. It’s quite amazing, they must have some really long winters up there to have invented this instrument!”

Mike’s regarded as a virtuoso on all sorts of stringed instruments – does he plan to add nyckelharpa to the list? “Oh, you’re kidding! I picked that thing up and it’s like walking and chewing gum times twelve! I couldn’t even get one note to come out!”

European fans will have a chance to catch this collaboration soon. “We’re going to Sweden at the end of March to be part of a gala event in a big theatre where they’re inviting all these different musicians that they’ve met around the world,” Mike says. “We’re just coming for that one show, which is a shame. They’re also coming to Wintergrass in February and we’ll play with them there. Very cool band.”

It won’t be Mike’s first visit to Europe – he was part of David Grisman’s band that toured the continent with jazz legend Stéphane Grappelli in the early ’80s. It is a time that Mike remembers with great fondness. “We started in London then got in this big tour bus with the two groups and toured around for a couple of weeks. Then Stéphane left his band and we went over to Brussels and started a tour of Belgium, France, Italy, Germany and Austria.

“At that point it became a quintet with just the David Grisman Quartet with Stéphane Grappelli. We would do the first half of the show and then Stéphane would come on. That was a mind-blower for me as I was the guitar player and we’d been touring around with Martin Taylor and Diz Disley being Stéphane’s players up until that point. In typical Stéphane fashion, there were no rehearsals, just turn up at the soundcheck and play the gig.”

Mike was only in his early twenties and was on his first trip outside of the States. It was an overwhelming experience for him. “I remember the gig in Brussels, Belgium – Toots Thielemans was in the front row so that was fairly mind-blowing. In France the whole front row would be friends of Stéphane’s and also Django’s so that was really nerve wracking.”

His memories of England are favourable. “It was great and amazing just to see the history of the places and meet the people and drink the beer and eat the food. Of course, the beer was insane. I remember one time being way out in the country and Diz Disley, being English, knew all the little cubby holes as we were driving round the country. He got the bus driver to take us down some little country roads to some pub with a thatched roof. A very tiny, little place – it was very, very cool just getting way out there in the country and seeing the locals.”

Mike definitely wants to come back to Britain one day, possibly as a duo with Hamilton de Holanda or even Chris Thile. Promoters, take note.

Read the second part of this interview.

Interview: The Carrivick Sisters

Twin sisters Charlotte and Laura Carrivick are one of the recent success stories in British bluegrass. The talented singers and multi-instrumentalists have been part of the bluegrass scene for several years, first as members of the bands Blue South and Miles Apart and now performing as a duo, simply named The Carrivick Sisters. They’ve just released their second CD and are currently gigging extensively around the country. We spoke to them about their rise to fame and their ambitions for the future.

The girls first started playing music at a very early age and discovered bluegrass soon after. “I started on violin when I was about 9 or 10 and got into bluegrass when I was 13,” Laura says. “I started dobro a year later when I was 14 after hearing Sally Van Meter at Sore Fingers.” Charlotte’s path was much the same. “Guitar was actually my first instrument, but classical,” she tells us. “As with guitar it was our Dad who made me want to play mandolin because he did and it looked like fun. I started playing mandolin when I was 11 or something – not very much though as I didn’t know what to do with it until Sore Fingers where I was lucky enough to be taught by Matt Flinner who’s now my favourite mandolin player. Soon after that I started flat-picking guitar too.”

Their work is influenced by all sorts of acoustic music from folk, country and swing, but their foundation is very much in bluegrass. “After my first few weeks of having classical violin lessons and not being allowed to even put the bow on the strings yet I started to rebel, playing along (very, very badly) with Chieftains CDs,” Laura explains. “I got into folk music quite early on and found bluegrass through a series of books of traditional fiddle music. I probably would have stuck with sharing my time equally between classical, folk and bluegrass had I not found the bluegrass scene to be so friendly and welcoming.”

Their talents don’t end with their singing and playing, as much of the current album, Better Than 6 Cakes, is self-penned. They first started composing whilst studying GCSE Music, and have become prolific songwriters in the past few years. It would be easy to adopt the clichés of trains and cabins on mountains, but the twins have instead found their own voice and focus on local legends and myths from their home county of Devon.

These haunting tales of highwaymen and witches translate naturally to a bluegrass setting and could easily have come out of Appalachia, but there are some quintessential British songs too. “We do write a lot about the weather which I suppose is a very English thing to do,” jokes Charlotte. “As our old German teacher pointed out once – all we ever talk about is the weather!”

They’ve taken a year off between school and university and have been working hard with gigs all around the country. 2007 was successful enough and included an appearance at EWOB in the Netherlands, but 2008 looks set to be even bigger. Last year they won a busking competition and earnt a spot at Glastonbury in June, but July will be the pinnacle of their music careers so far with a North American tour in the works.

They’re booked for the Vancouver Island Music Festival and are looking to do gigs elsewhere in Canada and the USA. “We are very thankful to Doug Cox who got us that one. As well as that we are planning to play as many festivals around the UK as we can,” Laura tells us.

Whilst most bluegrass musicians would be happy with this level of success, the sisters have ambitions to progress even further and hope their gap year from university lasts a lot longer than 12 months. “The aim is to do music professionally,” says Laura, “and if that happens then I won’t go to uni at all.” Charlotte agrees. “The ideal would be not to go. Even though the course would be fun, I’d rather not have the debts!”

Interview: John Lowell

Guitarist, singer and songwriter John Lowell is a regular visitor to the UK and will be returning in the spring of 2008 to teach a songwriting class at Sore Fingers Week. We spoke to him about his plans for the course and his other musical projects.

John is eagerly looking forward to passing on his knowledge of songwriting at Sore Fingers Week in March next year. Chris Stuart and Darrell Scott have previously taught similar courses which were hugely popular, and John is hopeful to emulate the success.

He’s keen to attract as many students as possible and says his class will be “more fun than can be imagined. Imagine the most fun you’ve ever had, and then double it. Maybe even triple it. We’re going to be doing a lot of hands on stuff. By that I mean we’re going to be doing a lot of exercises, getting the stream of consciousness going and then writing songs. Not a lot of lecturing, but a lot of creating.”

“We’re going to cover different techniques of songwriting,” John continues. “Everyone has their own system for writing a song, but we’re going to get everyone to look at writing songs in a different way than they’re used to, in order to get the stream of creativity flowing stronger and maybe find a better way to approach songwriting.”

Everybody is welcome to sign up for the course, regardless of whether they’ve written before. “There’s no experience necessary to be in this class,” says John, “just a willingness to try new things and not be afraid to come up with a song that’s not the next big hit.”

John’s writing can be heard on recordings by his own bands Growling Old Men and Kane’s River, with numbers like Sarah Hogan, Richmond and Jerusalem’s Choir shining examples of his work. His talents are well-respected in bluegrass circles and his songs have been covered by the likes of Valerie Smith and Bluegrass Etc. “Songwriting is kind of an elusive thing,” he tells us. “The ideas can come from anywhere, or just pop into your head. From there, it’s what you do with them that counts.”

He adopts a meticulous approach to writing, with even the most minute details considered important. “I’m a believer in editing and re-editing the lyrics to any song that I have in the works,” he says. “If there’s even one line in there that I’m not a hundred percent happy with, I’ll work on it until I am, even if it means completely changing it which can easily lead to changing other lines with can lead to the whole song changing. It can be a mess but when it’s finally done, it’s almost always worth it.”

This perfectionism probably explains why, despite having several band members who also write, he prefers to compose alone. “I’ve tried to co-write with other people but with limited success. The songs that have come out of collaborations have not been all that great,” John explains. “It’s partly because I don’t have total control, and partly because I let things slide that I don’t really like, in an effort to be a team player.” But co-writing hasn’t always been a failure and it’s even delivered some gems. “There is a song on the Fishing Music CD called Madison Brown that three of us wrote, but we each had our own separate duties and we melded them all together.”

As well as a songwriter, John is also recognised as a fine guitarist and has taught the instrument twice at Sore Fingers in the past. He is well aware of the famous atmosphere generated at Kingham Hill School every Easter. “Sore Fingers is a blast. I’ve been a tutor twice now, and both times my guitar class was made up of stellar people. Every one of them was real treat to get to know and I had a great time. And then of course there’s the Captain and Moira. Sore Fingers would not be the same without their good natured, fun-loving leadership.”

But it’s not just Sore Fingers that draws John to the UK. He has become a virtual resident here over the past few years, with numerous visits to tour and teach. What is it about Britain that keeps bringing him back? “The Grolsch. No, just kidding. It’s the Guinness. Well, ok, although the Guinness helps, it’s really about the people. I’ve met some really great folks in the UK that I count as my friends now, and who doesn’t like visiting their friends and playing music? Add to that the fun of seeing new places and attempting to drive on the opposite side of the road.”

The standard of bluegrass in this country is also something that keeps John coming back for more. “I think it’s on par with the US. Granted, it’s a smaller scene, but the number of good musicians per capita is about the same. I’m impressed by the number of good bluegrass bands from the UK.”

John’s other musical projects include the group Kane’s River whose first two recordings were highly acclaimed and gained them many fans in Britain. They are currently on something of a hiatus. “Kane’s River is not doing a whole lot this year, but we hope to ramp things up in 2008. Everyone in the band is busy with side projects.”

Growling Old Men, his duo with mandolinist Ben Winship, are much busier. They’ve toured the UK several times over the last few years and there will be another chance to see them here next summer. “Ben, Dom Harrison, Leon Hunt and I are booked at Didmarton for 2008, so we’ll definitely be around then making a racket,” John tells us. “I expect that we’ll do some shows around the UK before then too and perhaps in Sweden or Prague. There is a possibility of us doing the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow this coming January, but we’re waiting to see on that one.”

The collaboration with British musicians Leon and Dom was well-received at Didmarton in 2006, and the group have since decided to record an album together. “We have one that we’re working on right now. It started out being a sort of demo disc to send to promoters, but it’s grown a bit since then and it looks like it might be a fully fledged CD,” says John.

“It’s kind of cool to be in a transatlantic band with technology being what it is today. Ben and I recorded our stuff, Dom and Leon recorded their stuff and then we emailed the files to each other so the guys on the opposite side of the pond could add their parts. It all gets put together into music that sounds like we were all in the same room. I’m not sure what the CD will be called, but rest assured it will be something very witty and clever.”

Interview: Miles Apart

Didmarton Bluegrass Festival is one of Britain’s biggest bluegrass events, and attracts some of the top names from the US, UK and beyond. This year, on the weekend of August 31st – September 2nd, top US band Blue Highway will be headlining along with fellow American acts Mollie O’Brien and Rich Moore and Kathy Chiavola. There will also be a wealth of British and European talent on show, including a debut festival appearance for the youth band Miles Apart.

Miles Apart are a group of five 18-year-olds who all excel on their chosen instruments. They are John Breese (5-string), Michael Giverin (mandolin/vocals), Charlotte Carrivick (mandolin/guitar/vocals), twin sister Laura Carrivick (fiddle/dobro/vocals) and Kieran Mooney (double bass). The youngsters met at Sore Fingers Summer Schools several years back and have been considering forming a band ever since. The only problem, hinted at by the band name, is that they live so far apart. Charlotte and Laura are from South Devon, John and Kieran both hail from Somerset and Michael lives in Lancashire. Through hard work and much support from the bluegrass community, they have managed to overcome this obstacle and earn a spot at Didmarton.

They had been thinking of putting together a band for some time and it was an informal get-together that finally made it happen. “Laura and I had John, Mike and Kieran staying with us in Salcombe just jamming and having fun and we decided to go busking to cover some of their train fares,” Charlotte tells us. “After a little while busking the manager from a pub came up to us and asked if we’d like to play there that night. We didn’t have a set or anything and I have no idea how we managed to fill three hours but we did and so we decided to become a band officially!”

They quickly had ambitions to make the group a successful act. “After this gig, we decided to enter the BBC Young Folk Awards as a band,” says Michael. “Miles Apart was born.”

It’s unusual for youngsters to be so fond of bluegrass music and all the band members agree that Sore Fingers Week is the biggest factor to their continuing involvement and also the secret behind their musical talent. “I don’t think I would still be into bluegrass music if it weren’t for Sore Fingers,” says Laura. “Not only have the tutors helped me progress, everyone there has been so supportive and encouraging.”

Charlotte agrees. “Without Sore Fingers I would still hardly be able to play mandolin and would have never been introduced to flat picking,” she says. “I’d probably also still be playing folk music instead of bluegrass – eep!”

They are also grateful for the support given by various individuals around the country. “The people at the Totnes session have been very helpful,” Charlotte says. “Also Arthur Robinson who sells mandolins – he very kindly lent me a beautiful little mandolin for a year at the first Sore Fingers I went to after having compared mine to a plank! That got me into it more than anything.”

Michael is an active member of the Helsby scene, and was taught by Stuart Williams. “Stu (and everyone in Helsby and members of the House of Plank) has been unbelievably helpful to me as a person and a musician,” Michael tell us. “At every given opportunity Stu has put me up on stage. This has meant that I do not become nervous when playing to other people. He has also given me lots of useful hints on playing in a band and the role the mandolin has in an ensemble set up.”

John is a student of Leon Hunt, arguably Britain’s best banjo player. “Leon gave me the very best possible introduction to the bluegrass community by getting me into Sore Fingers which was the first place I ever sat down to jam with other people. He has always been incredibly supportive and encouraging – doing whatever he can to help us all out,” John explains. “John and Moira Wirtz are also key people in terms of helping the band out with advice and getting us all to Sore Fingers and playing at Didders. I guess everyone in the bluegrass community has helped us all out. And outside of the bluegrass community there have been all our parents who have put up with our rehearsals!”

Didmarton will be the first major gig for Miles Apart, but the members are not new to high profile performances. Michael competed in the mandolin contest at Winfield in 2005 at just 16 years old. “The whole trip was very humbling,” he tells us. “I went over to Winfield mainly to see what the standard of the competition was like – it was unbelievably high. Everyone played their pieces in a Chris Thile style – unfortunately, so did I. The people who progressed in the competition were those who did something a little different in style to the others. Upon returning from Winfield, I decided to listen to and study other mandolin players other than Thile. I will enter the competition again at some point.”

The Carrivick sisters are a band in their own right, and recently represented Great Britain at the EWOB Festival in the Netherlands. They find playing in Miles Apart to be a different challenge. “With a full band, your role is more defined – there are set things you need to do to get the right sound and also you have to make sure you’re not duplicating what someone else is doing,” says Laura. “In this sense, playing in a duo has a lot more freedom. Overall, I would say I prefer playing in a band though – its a lot more fun socially and there’s more scope for interesting arrangements.”

Charlotte also prefers the full band. “Personally I’d rather play in Miles Apart any day – it’s so much more fun and you can do a lot more with a five piece than a duo,” she says.

Asked for their influences, the band name contemporary groups such as Nickel Creek, The Infamous Stringdusters, AKUS and Crooked Still. But their tastes range much further than that. “As a band, our influences are fairly wide,” Laura explains. “I tend to like the more traditional bluegrass styles whereas I think the others prefer newer stuff. We also take influence from pop, jazz etc.”

John certainly doesn’t want the band to adhere to a bluegrass ‘formula’. He explains, “I am much more interested in the more modern 5-string players who use extended chords in their playing and are generally more progressive in style. I love the traditional Scruggs style but I feel it has been done and it’s time to move on so I try to avoid as many cliche licks as possible! I listen to a range of musicians and musical styles but I guess the people who influence me most at the moment are the other band members!”

The band’s set consists of both covers and self-penned material and reflects their wide-ranging influences. “Our three instrumentals have taken strong inspiration from the instrumentals written by Bela Fleck for New Grass Revival,” says Michael. “Our arrangement of Orphan Girl came about after listening to Crooked Still’s version.”

What are the future plans for Miles Apart and what will happen to the band after Didmarton? “I’d love to carry on after Didmarton,” says Charlotte, “but with university and gap years coming it’s going to get even harder, so we’re not really sure.”

Michael is confident that the band can continue despite the difficulties. “I really enjoy playing in this band and can feel it going somewhere. I would love to keep playing as Miles Apart,” he says. “I hope someday, maybe next summer, Miles Apart could mount a UK tour and maybe release an album to go with the tour.”

Interview: Brian Wicklund and Bluegrass College

Bluegrass College is a new and exciting website designed to help those learning to play bluegrass. It offers lessons for mandolin, guitar, fiddle, banjo, dobro and double bass. Lessons are provided by some of the best musicians of the genre and come in the form of songs and tunes, with tabs, mp3s and videos provided for each individual instrument. Not only that, but the tunes are presented in various ways – three different speeds, beginner and advanced versions, and audio with solo instrument and full band.

This means that almost everybody can gain something from the vast lesson library available on the site, and even advanced pickers can learn a thing or two. We spoke to fiddler Brian Wicklund about the site, how it came about and the plans for the future.

The site was born at the British bluegrass camp, Sore Fingers, where Brian was teaching fiddle. “I was waiting in the breakfast queue with Ian Nicholls who was one of my students from bluegrass fiddle class,” says Brian. “I was asking him if he had ideas of how to better use the internet to teach bluegrass. His eyes brightened and he said he had been thinking about the very same thing for some time. He commented on the difficulty of getting good instruction in places like the UK which are far from the heart of bluegrass. It was out of this discussion that we dreamed up Bluegrass College.”

Brian and Ian joined forces with Andy Metcalfe, who was also at Sore Fingers studying guitar, and Peter Earle, a friend of Ian’s, to make the site a reality. They all bring their own talents and skills to the project. “Andy has experience in engineering and producing recordings and Peter is an IT specialist,” says Brian. “Andy, Peter and Ian all have extensive musical training and performing experience and have been smitten with bluegrass. They’ve been studying the music with a passion. All four of us partners have been enjoying having access to this great resource ourselves.”

Brian is an expert fiddler and teacher now, but his early days of playing were somewhat of a struggle. “I grew up outside of the inner circle of bluegrass,” he says. “Minnesota is about 800 miles from Nashville. There weren’t many pickers in my area when I was young. Without an instructor, I labored over old recordings for many many hours trying to figure out the bluegrass masters’ licks. Often after a great deal of work I was able to figure them out, but sometimes they were just too difficult to hear.” He is sure that the methods used by Bluegrass College will make learning much easier for budding musicians. “The lessons cover all of the bases with slowed down recordings, transcriptions and video,” he says. “Not only can you read what the master played, but you can practice along at a comfortable speed. You can also watch the musician play the tune on video and absorb the subtleties of their technique. Had a resource like this been available to me, I’d have progressed at a much faster rate.”

Brian insists that the site is not just a tool for beginners. “There is something for every player,” he tells us. “A number of my intermediate students are members. It has been really fun to watch them grow musically. They learn the easier version of a tune and learn to play it at all speeds. Then they learn the advanced version and learn it at all tempos. Then I encourage them to personalize the way they play the tune and use ideas they learn from both versions.”

Bluegrass will always be a minority interest, but the College seems to be doing well. “Membership is continuing to grow. We started up the company with all four of us using our own money to pay start up expenses such as the considerable recording costs to develop our lesson library. We didn’t really have anything left for marketing! However, even without much advertising, we are amazed how well it’s catching on just by word of mouth. We have had wonderful feedback from members all over the world.”

It’s not just the students who are benefitting from the site. Some of bluegrass’ most famous names have been asked to contribute and many are more than eager to help. Tuition from the likes of Rob Ickes, Butch Baldassari, Casey Driessen, Tim Stafford and the entire line-up of The Infamous Stringdusters is available. “Many of the instructors that we feature have been just as excited about the site as we are,” Brian tells us. “They’ve put together really thoughtful arrangements and haven’t held back on the advanced versions. They also done a good job of getting the word out to their students and fans. We have had numerous requests from musicians to be included on our instructional roster.”

Brian says the College will continue to grow and develop in new directions. This month the site introduced a new music theory lesson, something that was often requested by subscribers. Brian says that further developments are in the pipeline. “We plan on continuing to expand our library with new tunes and instruction. We’d like to include more tips from the instructors and a forum for our members and we will add new instructors to our roster.”

Interview: Becky Buller

American band Valerie Smith and Liberty Pike visit these shores in July for an extensive tour of England with their unique brand of contemporary bluegrass. The band are regular visitors to the UK, and Valerie has blended together a group of talented young musicians from various backgrounds to create what she describes as “a fun mix of sounds and styles.”

ukbluegrass spoke to fiddler, vocalist and songwriter Becky Buller, still a youngster on the scene, but one who’s rapidly making waves among her contemporaries.

A graduate from East Tennessee State University in 2001, as part of its bluegrass music programme, Becky soon found herself invited to join the band on a full-time basis. “Valerie has been a mentor to me these last six years. She’s constantly pushing me to try different things, venture into different aspects of music business. She believes in my abilities more than I do most of the time!”

“She’s had me working in the office, making up press kits, learning how to book, leading the band when she’s with customers.” On the musical side of things, Becky’s solo album, Little Bird was released on Valerie’s Bell Buckle Records label in 2004 to huge acclaim, and rode high in the bluegrass charts, with a wealth of talented artists such as Rob Ickes, Adam Steffey and Ron Block guesting.

“I floated through the recording of Little Bird. It was so very exciting!” says Becky in an awestruck tone which underscores her youth. “I’ve been a fan of those guys since I was a kid.”

Most of the tracks on the album are penned by Becky. Indeed, it’s her songwriting talents which have been making the biggest waves of late, with songs covered by the likes of Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, IIIrd Tyme Out and many others, and a number of nominations for SPBGMA’s Songwriter of the Year award.

“Writing happens most often for me when the muse hits me right between the eyes. I do a lot of writing in the car, mowing the lawn or washing dishes. I guess I just get bored so I start singing to myself and suddenly there’s a song!”

It seems the band are really looking forward to the UK tour. Becky describes us Brits as “polite and stylish” adding “it’s like coming home for me. Bluegrass music is deeply rooted in the fiddle tune and folk ballad traditions of the British Isles and I’m deeply rooted in bluegrass. Plus, I’m a huge Monty Python fan, and I dig fish and chips!”

It’s a sad fact that of the thousands of school students studying the violin, very few seem to be making it through to the bluegrass scene. Becky has written magazine articles on beginning bluegrass style fiddling, and has some insight on this.

“Traditionally we fiddlers have been the red-headed stepchildren of the violin-playing world. I think many of our classical counterparts don’t trust us because we don’t need to read music; we make stuff up as we go along and that makes them nervous. Seriously, though, I think the most intimidating part of switching over from classical music to fiddling styles is improvisation.

“How do you get started? Practice arpeggios and scales; know the neck of your instrument. Learn a few basic fiddle tunes. Be really solid on the basic melodies. If you don’t know the melody, you can’t embellish it. Well, you can embellish it without really knowing the melody, but will anybody know what you’re playing? Then start adding licks into your break to make it more interesting, keeping just enough of the original melody so that folks recognize the tune. You can also pick up licks from your favourite fiddlers and incorporate them into other songs.

“The other thing the seems to throw veteran classical violinists for a loop when they are trying to learn how to fiddle is that off-beat emphasis. We use this shuffle quite a bit: one TA-ter, two TA-ter, etc. We also do an off-beat chop with the bow to keep time. The best way to learn this is by picking up an Alison Krauss DVD. She is the queen of chopping on the fiddle.”

It seems Becky has many fingers in many pies, and she’s also currently recording a duet album with Valerie Smith. “We’re taking a fairly simple approach, focusing on strong lyrics, melodies and harmonies with as little instrumentation as possible. We’re both big fans of the Louvin Brothers; Skaggs and Rice; and The Oak and Laurel record by Tom Rozum and Laurie Lewis. We wanted to put together a record along those same lines.”

A new solo record is planned for to follow that, but in the immediate future the European tour awaits. Becky describes the Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike sound as “modern bluegrass bordering on the convenient catch-all of Americana. We add so many jazz and folk elements to the music that it’s hard to really pin us down.”

Did we mention she can also play a mean clawhammer banjo too? We’ll leave the last word to Valerie Smith:

“I really can’t say enough about Becky’s talent, as she’s one of the greatest up-and-coming songwriters in bluegrass today, she’s a great singer, and a multi-instrumentalist too. She is also producing our next project on Bell Buckle Records. I can guarantee she’ll be someone to watch for many years to come!”

Interview: Daily Planet

Daily Planet are one of the most well-known bands on the British bluegrass scene. Since their formation in the mid-90s they have gigged all over the world including a performance at Telluride, and collaborated with some of the genre’s most famous names such as Tim O’Brien and Matt Flinner. This month, Daily Planet – Live, the first Daily Planet album in nearly ten years, is released. We spoke to banjo player Leon Hunt about the band, the new recording and his solo work.

Almost a decade has passed since Daily Planet released their last album, The Big Scoop, and the band have played relatively few gigs in that time. In fact, they might have fallen entirely off the bluegrass radar were it not for the high profile of Britain’s foremost banjo player, Leon Hunt. Leon has maintained a strong presence on the scene with his own solo CD Miles Apart as well as collaborations with the likes of David Grier and Growling Old Men. So what happened to Daily Planet?

“We played fairly tirelessly for a couple of years after The Big Scoop,” says Leon. “I think we notched up something like 14 festivals one year, but when it came to do another album we just didn’t have he energy for it. I went off and did a degree and a few theatre jobs and various gigs in various guises and the rest of the band individually became equally busy away from The Planet.”

The bluegrass scene has itself evolved somewhat since then. New bands and festivals have popped up, and there’s a fresh new young interest in the music. However, despite having laid low for some time, Daily Planet still sound contemporary and remain very relevant. They play the sort of music that it’s difficult to listen to without thinking to yourself “that’s not bluegrass”. Closer inspection might suggest that their music is indeed about as unashamedly bluegrass as you get get. Whilst playing Celtic music. In a jazz style. On keyboard, drums and jaws-harp…

Their new album, a recording of an all-too-rare Daily Planet gig in Bath in December 2006, sets out its bluegrass credentials with fiddle and banjo opening up Morning Would, a trademark Hunt instrumental, which the band proceeds to take all over their colourful musical spectrum with accomplished ease. A bluesy Jamie Matthews sung Lost my Mule in Texas follows to keep the audience on its toes, before The Planet do a bit of Celtic spliced with a New England bluegrass standard, if such a thing can exist.

The band has seen various members come and go over the years. The current line-up brings Leon together with Henry Sears on fiddle, Dom Harrison on guitar and bass, drummer Tim Robinson, Mike Cosgrave on keys, and Jamie Matthews on vocals, harmonica and the aforementioned jaws-harp. Not a mandolin in sight.

Leon insists that the band does play bluegrass. “We definitely have our own take on it but I think it still fits,” he says, before opening up the classification somewhat with “it’s traditional music, mostly Celtic, mixed up with improvisational music such as blues and jazz.

“The Rolling Stones played blues music, The Beatles played rock ‘n’ roll and country music, Django Reinhardt played swing. If any of those guys had slavishly copied their American counterparts they probably wouldn’t be the names that roll of the tongue so easily now. I’m in no way comparing Daily Planet to any of those guys…”

Daily Planet music, whatever it may be, is just one strand of Leon’s amazing banjo talents. Recently he’s been doing “everything from playing African stuff for Sekou Kieta’s record to playing the banjo with a Bic biro for Goldfrapp.” Plans to record with Growling Old Men suggest he’ll soon be returning to bluegrass. But like on the new CD where Jamie’s comment “back to bluegrass” leads into a haunting keyboard intro for Clinch Mountain Backstep, nothing is ever that simple.

This album is Daily Planet at their best – uncompromising, unashamedly unclassifiable and “unbluegrass”. It will leave music fans wanting more, and bluegrass purists polishing off their letters of complaint. And you suspect that Daily Planet wouldn’t want it any other way.

Interview: Ben Winship

Mandolin player Ben Winship was in England last month to teach at Sore Fingers and play a short tour with John Lowell, Leon Hunt and Dom Harrison. We asked him about his thoughts on British bluegrass and the plans for his own music camp to be held in the Rocky Mountains in August.

Ben taught one of the three mandolin classes at Sore Fingers and his impressions of the bluegrass camp held in the Cotswolds are very positive. “It was a blast. It was a lot of work, which was compounded by staying up too late picking every night,” he says. “The overall atmosphere was a great combination of being very relaxed and low key, but also very professional. All the staff were top notch.”

It was his first time teaching at Sore Fingers, but he has been involved in many other camps in the past. In fact, last year he started up his own, set in the idyllic Grand Targhee mountain resort near the Wyoming/Idaho border. The base for the camp, 8000ft up in the Tetons, allows students to partake in much more than the music with hiking, mountain biking and chair lift rides right on their doorstep. The Grand Targhee bluegrass festival immediately follows and has a spectacular line-up including the Sam Bush Band, the David Grisman Quintet and Yonder Mountain String Band.

The camp is held for 3 and a half days between August 7th – 10th, and features some impressive tutors including Mike Marshall on mandolin, Scott Nygaard on guitar, Brian Wicklund on fiddle and Tony Trishka on banjo. John Lowell will be teaching a songwriting course. “The teaching staff is awesome, as is the setting,” says Ben. The camp has been small-scale so far, but he has ambitions to change that in future. “Last year was the first year and we had 22 students. We hope to at least double that this year,” he says. “Because the camp is still in its infancy, we are only offering one teacher per instrument – I see that as a drawback. As a teacher, it’s really hard to teach a mixed ability class, so hopefully in the future we can offer more.”

So how will the Grand Targhee Bluegrass Camp compare to Sore Fingers? “We won’t be serving any yorkshire pudding and I don’t have as much hair or as cool an accent as John Wirtz,” he says. “Other than that, we will probably offer more elective workshops, but less overall class time as it is only 3 and a half days.” Ben will also be implementing some of the things he learnt from the British equivalent. “I am going to steal the one-on-one instruction idea from Sore Fingers. We won’t have scratch bands, but everyone will be encouraged to play in an ensemble.”

Ben is currently involved in several bands and collaborations. He is a member of the newgrass band Kane’s River, part of the acoustic trio Brother Mule with fiddler Brian Wicklund and bassist Eric Thorin and is one half of Growling Old Men, a mandolin and guitar duo with John Lowell. He is going to be busy over the coming months with quite a few projects in the works. “There’s a couple of CD projects – an old time CD with Thomas Sneed, a new Brother Mule CD planned for June and Fishing Music Volume II,” he tells us. “Also, lots of gigs and the festivals this summer, plus I’ll be teaching at my camp and the British Columbia bluegrass camp in late August.”

Of Ben’s bands, Growling Old Men are the most familiar to British audiences and they are becoming regular visitors to these shores. They toured briefly with English musicians Leon Hunt and Dom Harrison after Sore Fingers, and the same line-up played a few gigs in Britain in 2006 including Didmarton Bluegrass Festival. The band may well tour again soon either here or in the States. “It all fits together pretty easily when John and I play with Leon and Dom,” says Ben. “Hopefully we’ll do more of it on both sides of the pond. We’re talking about making a transatlantic recording soon and there are murmurs about another UK and/or Europe tour. We may do Didmarton again in 2008. I would also like to play over there with Brother Mule.”

Ben is impressed by the standard and popularity of bluegrass in the UK. “I can’t claim to be an authority on it, but I’d say bluegrass is alive and well in Great Britain. The 25 year ongoing gig in Leeds says a lot, as does the vitality of Sore Fingers,” he told us. “I met and heard a lot of great young players, so I’d say it’s not just an old people’s sport.”

Finally, asked to compare the British scene to that in the States he states simply, “We have better accents here for singing hillbilly music, but you have better beer.”

Interview: Noam Pikelny and the Tensions Mountain Boys

Noam Pikelny is a young banjo player making waves in bluegrass circles. He is part of Chris Thile’s How To Grow A Band who will soon become string quintet the Tensions Mountain Boys. Noam spoke to us at Sore Fingers Week where he was teaching.

This was Noam’s first time in England, and he certainly seemed to enjoy it. He got the hang of the Sore Fingers concept quickly, not just teaching in class but socialising and jamming in the bar in the evenings as well. This way of running camps, where the focus is on the social aspects as well as teaching is “starting to catch on, but is still a fairly new thing” in the States, he says. He compares the week to the Augusta camps in Virginia which were the original inspiration for Sore Fingers. Noam has attended as a student and, like the British equivalent, Augusta has one or two teachers for each instrument and encourages socialising amongst the students and similar activities such as forming scratch bands.

He says that Sore Fingers is “a gold mine for students to be around other musicians. Talking with students, some people live in areas where there are no teachers or other musicians that they can jam with. In the States in most towns or cities you could find a couple of people or some teachers.”

He believes the standard of playing in the UK is first rate. “People here are just as capable if not more so than the students and players in the States,” he says, adding that if he was asked to return, “I would do it in a heartbeat.”

~~~

Noam’s current project is Chris Thile’s new band. Comprised of Thile on mandolin, Gabe Witcher on fiddle, Chris Eldridge on guitar, Greg Garrison on bass and Noam on banjo they have gigged for the past year or so as the “How to Grow a Band”. Bryan Sutton has guested on guitar when Eldridge was playing with the Infamous Stringdusters. Their debut recording How to Grow a Woman From The Ground was released last September to critical acclaim and combines a traditional bluegrass feel with more progressive ideas. However, the plan for the band was never to be a bluegrass group but in fact a classical ensemble.

“Chris wanted to write a string quintet, a piece for the five bluegrass instruments and voice,” Noam says. The band got together through existing friendships. “Chris has known Gabe for years and me and Chris got introduced a couple of years ago at Telluride,” explains Noam. “I introduced Greg to Chris, and I knew Chris Eldrige very well from Nashville and festivals.”

The band clicked from the first moment they all played together. “We had the chance to all jam together and a light-bulb went off in Chris’ head – ‘here’s guys who could actually bring this music to fruition and play some of my ideas’. Not to suggest we’re the only people who could do it, but I think Chris had a feeling that we had the potential to do it. We were also his age and so could be there – just spend a month rehearsing.” he continues. “The likes of Edgar Meyer, Bela Fleck and Mike Marshall are very established musicians and wouldn’t have the time to do it. He already had some ideas for the piece in his head and once we started jamming together he started writing out the piece with us in mind and us playing it.”

The music is not strictly classical but is “striking a marriage between folk music and formal music. He’s got into it mostly by working with Edgar Meyer – he’s started studying composition with Edgar and he’s really taken Chris under his wing.”

Chris is also relying on the other band members to contribute through improvisation and their own understanding of the music. “He could write a melody for us that we take and apply on our instrument in a way that’s idiomatic. For example, he would write a slow moving melody or something he could sing or hum to you. Then you have to take it and play it on your instrument and play it like a banjo player would play it, not just play the same melody,” he explains. “That’s combined with stuff that’s really highly composed and orchestrated – he’ll send us a score for the music and essentially it reads like a string quintet. There’s sections where he’s written out for two whole minutes every 16th note that you have to play and there’ll be sections where it has chords just like a bluegrass chord chart and it says ‘improvise’ or ‘roll’ or ‘play back-up’.”

However, it soon became clear that the band would not be able to launch straight into this new project. They met to record a demo of the first part that Chris had composed. “He didn’t have the piece finished, and we had really intense rehearsals for two weeks on 10 minutes of music just to see if we could do it,” says Noam. Unfortunately, those initial recordings did not go to plan and “we realised that we should play some simpler music together to help get to know each other. That’s where the idea for the How to Grow a Band came from.”

As the How to Grow A Band they have performed and recorded as a bluegrass band, but over the next few months the classical piece will be added to their set. However, they will continue to play other music as part of the show. “Tensions Mountain Boys will not be a strict classical ensemble,” he explains. “The piece is about 45 minutes, it’s in 4 movements and it is called The Blind Leaving the Blind. That will be half of the show and the other half will be a collection of songs – bluegrass and some original, some fiddle tunes.”

The Blind Leaving the Blind will become the main focus for the group later this year. “It became clear that this is what we wanted to do full time so we had to figure out how to make that a reality,” he says. “Later this year, late fall, it will be transitioning into a full time band. It’ll be running on all cylinders by January.” When they recorded the first CD the whole band stayed at Chris’ one bedroom apartment in New York which was not an ideal situation. This time the whole group will be moving to Chicago to devote all their energies to the music. “We will become the Tensions Mountain Boys once we have the piece recorded and we start touring with it as part of the show. The plan is to record it in September and it should come out in January next year.”

“We got to play it for the first time as a whole piece in New York at Carnegie Hall in March” he says proudly, saying that this was a “very stressful place to play for the first time.”

Asked about the band name, Noam says they were destined to become the Tensions Mountain Boys from the start. “All these events kept happening – everything kept going down with an extreme amount of stress and tension,” he says. “For example, when we were trying to make the first recording just as a demo we were working on it for two weeks, and three or four days and nights of trying to record it. It was about two in the morning on the last night in the studio and we all thought ‘we still don’t have it’. We were really stressed that it hadn’t been done and the tension was mounting!”

Such events were not restricted to the music and Noam recalls a moment when things nearly went very wrong. “Chris and Gabe bought some candles to put on the floor of the room we were working in. Being musicians they’d never unwrapped a candle before and didn’t realise you had to take the paper wrapper off. So they lit these candles and put them down on the floor then late that night we were going back into the room and there were the candles in flames sitting on the end of an oriental rug with tassles. Another two minutes and the whole rug would have been on fire and we would have burned down the place. At that point we thought ‘we really are the Tensions Mountain Boys, we really have to call ourselves that!'”

Similar bad luck has plagued them ever since. “When we tried to get to New York for the gig at Carnegie Hall our flights were cancelled due to bad weather and there was no way to get there,” he says. “We flew to Baltimore and tried to drive to New York which is usually a 3 hour drive and it took us 11 hours with all the snow. We were not enjoying it and we thought we had picked the right band name.”

They will almost definitely be coming to the UK to tour. “Chris loves coming here and he almost feels that the audience here understands him better in some ways. He’s always had a great response here with Nickel Creek.” In fact, the band almost made it across the Atlantic earlier this year. “He was so excited about bringing this ensemble here that he almost tried to fly the whole band over for the BBC Folk Awards show but we couldn’t do it because of scheduling. But it’ll happen sooner or later – it’s part of the plan.”