On Friday, we received word that Danny Roaman (Jonah Tolchin‘s guitarist) would be accompanying Julie Rhodes at the famous Club Passim (formerly Club 47) Saturday afternoon, for the “Locals Covering Locals” showcase (produced by musician, Brian Carroll of Red Line Roots). Julie sang several originals and local favorites, including a cover of Jonah Tolchin’s “Mockingbird,” with Danny on guitar, alongside a second electric blues guitar, a thumpin’ stand-up bass and a smokin’ blues harp with that classic, taxi-cab microphone plugged into a dirty amp, howl. They were absolutely incredible! If you haven’t yet heard Julie sing, you need to. Julie Rhodes is the blues done right, with one of the most effortlessly authentic voices I’ve heard in years. There’s no doubt that we all will hear more about this incredible vocalist and her band in the days to come. Look for the release of Julie’s debut album (maybe this Spring?), produced by friend and mentor, Jonah Tolchin.
Additional performers featured at Club Passim were Jake Hill, Connor Millican and Haunt the House — a folk trio of guitar, accordion and stand up bass, who played a rousing set, which included Ian Fitzgerald‘s “Melinda Down the Line.” It’s inevitable that something great is on the horizon for this band. I can just feel it.
The Whiskey Boys took the stage last, with their virtuoso set of bluegrass/folk music of the best kind, which even included a cover of “Feel Good Inc” by the Gorillaz.
We spoke with Brian Carroll after the show, about his vision of organizing local musicians to support each other by performing each other’s music, locally. To say this event was a great success, would be an understatement.
After the show at Club Passim, we headed to Gallery 263 for Bill Scorzari’s show with special guest, Annie Johnson — a 4th-year Berklee student from Idaho, who along with her sister, Katie Johnson, opened with a half hour of Annie’s masterfully-written original compositions. Check out Annie’s music on Soundcloud.
Bill Scorzari then took the stage.Bill’s debut album was released this past May to critical acclaim, and can now be heard on Pandora. This night, Bill performed a collection of original Americana music slated for his second album, which is currently being recorded and produced by legendary audio engineer, Scott Hull of Masterdisk, right here in New York. Bill passionately delivered these heartfelt, real-life narratives, powered by his intense, pervading voice and sublime guitar.
An impromptu collaboration followed as Julie Rhodes and Danny Roaman joined Bill on stage to close out the night. Julie turned it on like a thousand-watt bulb, as Bill and Danny’s guitar work added to the glow. Check it out out here:
November 16, 2014 marks the THIRD ANNUAL GUITAR MASH BENEFIT CONCERT + JAM + AUCTION at City Winery NYC! Along with Music Director, MARK STEWART and Artist Chairs, TOM COLICCHIO (Top Chef) and CHAD SMITH (Red Hot Chili Peppers), the concert will feature performances by DAVID BROMBERG, CHRIS “CRITTER” ELDRIDGE (Punch Brothers), VALERIE JUNE, ROBERT RANDOLPH, DUKE ROBILLARD, SCOTT SHARRARD, NANO STERN and QUINN SULLIVAN.
Guitar Mash is a movement. From metal shredders to acoustic aficionados, Guitar Mash uses live events and social media to create opportunities for amateur and professional guitarists to play together.
Guitar Mash was founded in 2012 with the goal of creating opportunities for people to be actively involved in music, and to make music with other people. It was founded on understanding the guitar to be The Great Connector, that which gathers people around the proverbial campfire. What began as an untested experiment in communal music-making grew with the beautiful leadership of our musical director Mark Stewart into the acclaimed Inaugural Benefit Event at City Winery November 2012, and a series of “Campfire Jams” around the New York area, as well as stints at events like Make Music NY.
In addition to connecting amateur and professional musicians, Guitar Mash has helped people rediscover their potential to create, and has inspired many to reacquaint themselves with their guitars.
In anticipation of this year’s GUITAR MASH event, HEARTSTRINGS MAGAZINE interviewed Mark Stewart. In addition to being the Music Director for GUITAR MASH, the rather accomplished Mr. Stewart also hails as music director/instrumentalist for Paul Simon, founding member of Bang on a Can All-Stars and the Polygraph Lounge, and has performed with musicians including Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Joan Baez, Edie Brickell, James Taylor, The Everly Brothers and many, many more. During our conversation we discussed topics as varied as, touring with Paul Simon, his childhood family-band, Stony Brook University and didgeridoos…oh yes, and of course…Guitar Mash.
Lauren Jahoda: You were born and raised in Wisconsin — how did you end up in Park Slope, Brooklyn?
Mark Stewart: Well, New York is one of the centers of the cultural universe and I completed my graduate studies on the cello at SUNY Stony Brook (Long Island). I chose Stony Brook for two reasons — it had a world class faculty and also because of its proximity to New York City. So I thought when I was done with my studies, I would have at least some knowledge and also some gigs going on already in town and would start my professional life in what really is the most vibrant of American cities, culturally and musically. And so, that’s precisely what I did. That is, in a nutshell, how I ended up in New York.
So while you were in graduate school, you were gigging in NYC and the Long Island area?
Yeah, I was gigging in town and my name was starting to get around, but it was as a cellist. Also when I finished my doctoral studies in ’89, I got a gig as a college professor at Mansfield University in Pennsylvania. So 3 days per week I was out in Pennsylvania teaching at Mansfield and the other 4 days I was gigging with different groups.
Were you strictly playing cello at that time?
I was doing both (guitar and cello) by then, but I was known as a cellist in New York.
When did your career as a professional musician begin taking shape?
The first thing that changed things for me was that I got a call from Bang on a Can. They were putting together Bang on a Can Allstars, and they called me and asked if I was interested in being their guitarist. That was in 1992. Of course, I was thrilled to get that call and I started doing that. But that was only one music scene in NY. The second was two years later, when I resigned my college job and moved into town full-time. I got a call from the lead guitarist for the Broadway production of Tommy. He was having a hard time finding a sub and the problem was finding a real rock and roller who could follow a stick, a conductor. And he was speaking to a cellist friend of his and his cellist said, well I know a cellist who’s a real rock and roller and he gave him my number. So I got the call and I worked my ass off for a month to learn that book, and went in and succeeded and overnight I had a reputation as a guitarist. It was a strange fluke. You spend a long time working your way up, which I was prepared to do on the cello and was involved in doing just that. But with the guitar, it was overnight, just because of my strange skill set — a rock and roller who could follow a stick.
How did you become the Music Director for Paul Simon, and eventually for Guitar Mash as well?
I was suddenly in the Broadway world, and I did that for about 5 years and one night I was playing the opening night at Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at Lincoln Center and Paul Simon was there that night. I was the head musician and at the reception at Tavern on the Green, he had a lot of questions for me, and the last one was, “Can I get your phone number ?”(laughs). So he came over just a couple of days later and we had a great afternoon together. A month later, I joined his band. I’ve been playing with Paul since ’98. And yeah, I get to play everything with Paul — guitar, cello, wind instruments, banjo…it’s just a lovely gig.
As for Guitar Mash, I grew up with a father and mother who led everything in song, so that was always very natural. We sang at home and we also had a family band called the Stewart Family Troubadours. 15-20 concerts per year. Medieval, Renaissance vocal music and instrumental music, and American folk music. We played from when I was 6, until I was 16. My two siblings– my older brother and younger sister– and my parents. So when I say “led in song”, my dad was an Episcopal priest and a very vibrant celebrant, he would get the entire congregation to sing and he would improvise call and response things. So I grew up seeing a lot of joy in music together. So Rebecca Weller (Founder/Producer of Guitar Mash) called me a couple of years ago with this idea and said people tell me you’re my man. That’s the short story.
That’s an incredible story. When did you begin creating music?
My earliest memories include music. I was probably singing at the same time I was beginning to talk. My parents were singing so much in the house. It was just a part of life. We love to crack each other up with songs. We love to pull up a song that someone hasn’t thought of in a long time. And when I was young, my parents were just so involved in music, not only in the church but they were involved in a concert in Milwaukee called the Milwaukee Pro Musica, and so they were in a professional group singing early music — music from the early 13′, 14′, 1500s. It was modeled after the New York Pro Musica, and it was led by Noah Greenberg in the 50s in NY. When they would come over, those remarkable musicians, that’s where I learned to play the cello. They would let me bounce the bow on the string. I wouldn’t use the word “create” music, I would say my earliest memories are always accompanied or led by music. A composer Charles Warnen says an interesting thing — when people ask him about creating music he says, “Humans do not create. Humans organize.” (laughs).
When asked what kind of music you play, in the past you’ve answered: “Well, I play a little bit of popular music, quite a bit of semi-popular music and an enormous amount of unpopular music.” I love your use of the word “unpopular” to describe experimental music — how did this reference come about?
I guess it was born out of a frustration with standard labels of music, but it was also an attempt to genuinely describe what I do in a succinct fashion. What I realized, looking at the way music is categorized, was that this was the most succinct way I could describe what it is that I do. I felt like it kept the standard labels out of it. There’s a reason we have names for things. There’s a reason the blues are called the blues, there’s a reason that techno is called techno, jazz is called jazz, classical is called classical…there are all sorts of reasons and there are all sorts of music in between and so many people who live in between those words or above them or with them. That’s one of the great things about NYC. Frank Sinatra kind of had it backwards when he sang, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere…actually in NY, you can make it in a way that you can’t make it anywhere else. The reason being that there are so many communities, cultural communities, in the city and so for me, that’s why I love NY. All the things that are going on here. All the different communities, all the different music, all the different schools of thought and schools of openness. This is the place.
I watched the fascinating video that Q2 Spaces (New York Public Radio) shot about your instrument lab, while inside your home. When did you start bringing life to instruments that were left behind?
Yeah. It started early. The seeds of it began in my family’s home. We had a music room and it was filled with sound makers of all different kinds, some of them fairly recognizable — old piano and a beautiful pump organ, a harmonium — and then of course, all the instruments the kids were practicing — violin, french horn, cello, flute, those kinds of things. Then there were also instruments my mom used when she was teaching public school — xylophones, kettle drums, tambourines and glockenspiels. It was a place where music would emerge no matter who was in there. My friends would come over and they wouldn’t be kids who were taking music lessons but they always had a great time in that room. I think that was my initial inspiration for what would then come to flower later in my life. But it was when I joined Paul’s band–when you’re on a pop tour, you’ve got some free time because you have a great community of people helping you out. I’m not carrying stuff and I’m not responsible for getting myself to the airport. What I’m responsible for is being in the lobby when I’m told and playing really well every night. So I had a lot of free time and, right away, I realized that I wanted to work on projects, and something that occurred to me immediately was that I wanted to play wind instruments. I had always played stringed instruments. So when we were in San Francisco, I wandered down to this wonderful store called Lark in the Morning and found a beautiful cheap didgeridoo, and I bought that and started playing wind instruments and discovered that every single cardboard tube or metal tube was a didgeridoo waiting to happen. When I discovered that, I realized there were a lot of simple sound-makers around us, just walking through the world. I just started making instruments of all different kinds and keeping my eyes open for those instruments that have been left or neglected in the dust bin of history. I think I said something recently that they used for a title — “The Island of Misfit Toys” (below) — I think I’ll stand by that analogy.
We have these wonderful instruments, pianos, saxophones, guitars, that do everything very well. You can transpose and play in all these different keys, we have this equal tempered scale…they do that very well, but I am being attracted to instruments these days that do one thing. They don’t do a million things. They do one thing and they do it really well. If you find a great lamppost that you whack and it rings in a beautiful way — ah! (laughs) There it is! It’s a perfect example — and you get your ear right in there and listen to all those overtones. You’re not going to be able to make an instrument that does that, but you can find an instrument that does that and because you just found that lamppost, you’re there! And if you’ve got a buddy with you, you can just say “lean in, listen to this…” and there’s an audience of two. And then you move on and that lamppost says “Finally, finally somebody realized.” That’s kind of what I’m into these days (laughs).
Mark’s involvement with GUITAR MASH has been equally as hands-on and community-building, as is his continuing request that we simply lean in and join him to experience the music that is there waiting to be discovered and realized in the world around us. So grab your guitar and lean in to the City Winery on Sunday, November 16, 2014, for GUITAR MASH and the music-led life movement that awaits you there.
By Andrew Kase
As the lights came on, shadows of the members of Bombay Bicycle Club appeared in the background. The show commenced as the music started on this rainy Wednesday night in New York City at one of the larger of CMJ’s list of venues — Terminal 5. As I listened to the crowd roar as band members rose up to the stage, it was obvious I was to become witness to an experience and event far greater than your average concert.
The assorted crowd instantly sang along to hits like “Shuffle,” “Lights Out, Words Gone,” and “Your Eyes.” With each song, the crowd was cheering more and more powerfully, as their fellow attendees jigged and danced along to the indie/alternative rock group’s eclectic tracks. This three-story venue housed the band’s massive screen backdrop, full of bewildering images of skeletons and album art, and released an exciting tangle of indie, folk, blues, and even a bit of electronic sounds throughout this radiant performance. Crowd-member and New York native, Roozbeh Ghanadi commented “My first impression was that they are an amazing band and they’re very lively!” The band played an extensive set list of songs, which included “How can You Swallow So Much Sleep,” “Feel,” and even several throwback songs. Lead singer, Jack Steadman, prefaced “Always Like This,” reminding us that they were going way back — a fitting introduction to a track from their 2009 album, I Had The Blues But I Shook Them Loose. Their varied set list pleased every kind of listener — from the long-time fan to the BBC newbie. “It’s been a good show. We both have listened to them before and I know some of their songs already, and heard a few new ones tonight,” said David Turner, another New York resident.
BBC approached the end of their night with a terrific digression, as member, Suren de Saram, sang a soulful, crowd-engaging cover of Robyn’s “With Every Heartbeat,” soon followed by a close to their much anticipated CMJ performance set. After a thunderous round of applause, which was certainly appropriate for the night, the group returned to the stage for an encore, and closed out their performance with their huge hit “Carry Me.” “I thoroughly enjoyed it,” said Haifa Barabri — Barabri was born and raised in London, and moved to New York. Barabri continued, “They really engaged the audience and I feel like I had a little dose of London in New York City.”
I knew long before our interview that The Last Bison was of a unique situation, considering four of the band members are relatives — three by blood (consisting of two generations) and one by marriage. Every part of their lives are interlaced with a remarkable kinship, that which defies all standards and limits. I arrived at the Mercury Lounge, headed past the curtain, down the dark staircase, and through the maze of stone walls and your usual basement piping, eventually to arrive at the small room tucked away in the farthest corner. The room was…to put it nicely…cozy. Not only in size, but also in temperature. I was greeted at the door by a gush of warm air, as well as by Carla, The Last Bison’s tour manager, who also happens to be the mother of band members, Ben (lead vocal/guitar) and Annah Hardesty (bells/percussion), and wife to band member Dan Hardesty (banjo, mandolin, guitar). Ben Hardesty (Carla’s son) immediately made note of my presence by calling out my name and inviting me to sit with him. As long as we were going to be in that small room, Ben and I agreed that excessive body sweat and odor would also be present for our interview and we’d come out better friends because of it.
Ben, then, called out for Amos Housworth (cello and Ben’s brother-in-law/Annah Hardesty’s husband) and asked if he wanted to participate in the interview. Amos quickly joined us. I sat on the wooden bench on the back wall, while Ben and Amos sat in their chairs directly in front of me — each leaned in towards me — enthusiastic and completely engaged in the moment, which I can affirm is how The Last Bison handles every moment and situation. The dynamic I felt as soon as I crossed through the doorway into that room was thrilling — I was no longer Lauren, their first-time acquaintance from Heartstrings, but more like the cousin they haven’t seen in a couple of years.
Ben fanned himself and then me, with his hat, and I pulled out my recorder and some of my materials and we began…
Amos Housworth: You planned out questions (laughs)?
Lauren Jahoda: I do a lot of research and always over-prepare (laughs). It’s the English major in me.
Ben Hardesty: I’ll try to be grammatically correct then (laughs).
LJ: The reversible V symbol is a big part of your album — it’s the title (VA), the album art and it’s the shape of the cabin, “the Wigwam,” where you recorded the album — was this intentional? How did it come about?
BH: Nope. We didn’t really know what we were going to do with the recording of this record.
LJ: What came first…the Wigwam or the title?
BH: We came up with the title while in the Wigwam.
AH: …but not as an icon.
BH: Yeah not as an icon yet. We went to record in a more prestine studio in town just doing single tracks, like pretty standard stuff. We felt it wasn’t capturing the life that we wanted it to…we had to record these core tracks live. We wanted a safer environment that’s more free and where we can more freely express our creativity and art. We grew up on this summer camp and there’s this building that sits in the woods, The Wigwam, it’s an A-frame building and it was used being used for storage. The director is a really good friend of mine…I said “Dwayne, I need this place. I need to record our practices and I need to do the album here.” And he was like “Okay.” Then I convinced the guy we were recording with, Jim Parroco, who runs a production company in our area, that I wanted to move the entire studio to the Wigwam for a week and at first he was hesitant but I told him to trust me, I really feel good about this and we did it. He said during the first session, yeah you were right. So I felt good about that.
We moved everything in there and we started recording in there and I said what if we name the album Virginia and at first everyone was like ehhh…and I was like well a lot of these themes in these songs and lyrics represent not only our state but what our state means to us…like why not? And then Annah, we were all posting Instagram photos of the Wigwam, had said it looks like an “A”…what if we flipped it upside down and just made the album a picture of this place and then it became what has driven the whole aesthetic of this cycle.
AH: Yeah Annah took a shot of the Wigwam and then Ben flipped it and was like ah, that looks awesome. Annah’s photo became the album cover.
BH: Yeah, it’s actually an iPhone photo.
LJ: Very cool. That’s incredible how it all came together that way.
AH: Yeah it’s pretty minimal but it just stuck with us hard.
LJ: What equipment did you record with?
BH: This one was all digital because we had to do it fast.
AH: Yeah we had a very short time frame.
BH: Not because of any particular time or deadlines to meet…because we aren’t on a label right now. Because we knew if didn’t give ourselves deadlines, it would probably just drag on and drag on and drag on.
LJ: Did you feel the need to give yourselves a personal deadline because you felt like you were bottling up all this music inside and you had to just spew it out?
BH: Yeah. We had sat on the music and the songs for about a year and we were like we’re not on a label right now and we’ve been waiting to release it to do another album for awhile and we parted ways with the label in January. It was a humbling experience because it didn’t work but at the same time it was freeing.
AH: Yeah it was also freeing because we then knew what to do, we had been waiting on what to do…ya know should we do another album…what do we do…and there just wasn’t a lot of communication and it was like alright finally, let’s just do this. It felt right.
BH: I just had this wild feeling to just put it out there and if it fails, just release another record. Just go, go, go and just keep putting out music. So that’s what kind of just started this month with the record release. We have more music that’s supposed to come out hopefully soon again next year and then I’m ready to start working on another record.
LJ: How long did it take you to actually record the album?
BH: Well, um, we experimented in the other studio over the course of several weeks to just feel it out and when we had three songs done and we were playing them back, listening to them and they sounded okay professionally and production-wise, but there wasn’t life in them. That’s when we made the shift. We had six full days in the Wigwam. One day I did just 15 hours straight of drums. I had bruises on my legs from just getting hit by the sticks. Then other days would be 13 hours straight of just vocals and then we did a lot of the overdubbing back at that other studio because of time crunch. Very minimal though.
AH: Just to polish it off.
LJ: Did you sleep in the Wigwam while you were recording there?
AH: No we didn’t. His house is right across the road so…
BH: I slept close. I would just wake up and walk right over to the Wigwam.
LJ: I get the impression you guys do a lot of things that way…everything is sort of across the street or already with you…the band is obviously very close knit.
BH: Yeah a lot of the band is family. My sister, my dad…(points to Amos) he’s my brother-in-law…
AH: Yeah, I married his sister.
BH: …and the other two are our best friends. It wasn’t like I had to put an ad out on Craig’s list to start the band, I said to my friends let’s play music together and we became a band.
LJ: That’s interesting because often the process for musicians is first, recognizing and deciding that you want to pursue a career in music above everything else and second, finding your band, which can be difficult. What was coming together as a band like considering you never really had to “come together”?
AH: Yeah it was crazy different.
BH: Yeah I knew I wanted to do music and it was just natural for me to gather my friends and family rather than find others.
LJ: It’s a blessing. A lot of musicians would cherish that.
BH: Yeah, it really is.
LJ: There doesn’t seem to be, but are there any negatives to being together with your family all the time?
Amos: None. Definitely zero.
BH: I never want to get away. We grew up…I heard someone say this recently that families who grow up in smaller houses don’t need to get away from each other as much and we grew up in a really small house. And mom and dad’s room wasn’t like this off-limits room like it is in some cases. The doors are open, come lie down on the bed, talk, just like that kind of dynamic. And because of that being in a band really is no different. I cherish that I get to travel with the family. And see everything we get to see with the family. Ya know the people that you leave, you can never relate those experiences back to them, they can’t understand…The people I’m close to get to experience that and I don’t have to explain it to them and tell them and show them without them fully grasping what it is like. It’s special.
AH: And now we’re growing up in a band.
LJ: You guys really define the term communal, in the best way.
BH: I hope so.
LJ: Besides this interview (laughs), what do you guys do the day of or an hour before you go on stage?
AH: Ben and Theresa Do warm-ups. Annah and I like to go on walks. I like to find clothing stores.
BH: I like to make sure that anything that is in my body that needs to get out of my body is properly flushed. I know that sounds bad, but getting on stage and realizing you have to go and you’re going to have to hold it in for an hour and a half…yeah. It’s not pleasant (laughs).
LJ: I’m totally with you (laughs). Amos, do you go to clothing stores because it takes your mind off things?
AH: I think it’s because when you’re in a different city there are just new things to find and I just love clothes, whether it’s buying it or looking at it.
BH: We’re girly, we don’t care that we like to window shop.
AH: The only Wolverine store in the United States is down the road from here and we are huge fans of Wolverine. It’s a boot company. Both of the boots we are wearing now are Wolverine.
LJ: Oh awesome…I love those.
BH: I detox by sitting in sweaty rooms (laughs).
LJ: Me too (laughs). Did you all grow up in Virginia?
AH: Yeah, primarily. Andrew is originally from California, but has lived in Virginia longer.
BH: My parents were missionaries in Bolivia when I was a child so when I was 3 I lived in Costa Rica for a year and from ages 4-9 I lived in South America and so I went from the jungle to the Virginia marshland. I was bread and honed for adventure.
LJ: Ben, touring must have been somewhat familiar to you since you traveled so much as a child.
BH: Yeah, I traveled a lot in high school and I lived in England for a year after high school.
AH: I think it’s just our adventurous spirits. Just getting to see and be in different places is the best part.
BH: We did a 2-month tour last year, which is really long for us…it was 40 shows in a row. There weren’t many breaks, it was all just crunched in there…but you know how when you are on a run and you have a goal and you can’t give up until you hit it…it’s like that on tour. So you cannot give up, you cannot fall asleep, you just go, go, go. And then you come home and you sleep for like two days. We had a show in Tennessee, Teresa didn’t make it, she was puking in the hotel…
AH: I puked right before and again after. It was the worst I’ve ever felt in my life.
BH: I was so shaky and green. And it was a really important show with a lot of important people in the audience. We were supposed to do 5 songs, it was one of those showcases. They gave us 30 minutes and I cut it to 4 because after the 4th song, I put my guitar in my dad’s hand and ran off the stage to an alley behind the venue and I just puked. I could feel it come up during the set and I was like “No! I will sing!” And then after the 4th song, that was it. That was the worst. Sometimes you just can’t help it.
AH: And then during SXSW, Teresa puked right off the stage during the set!
LJ: Teresa seems to have all the bad luck when it comes to getting sick.
BH: Yeah. She’s small. The guy who recorded our album he used to play for the navy, they would fly him out and he would play for aircraft carriers, and he got sick but he was right next to the water so he would play his bass and every song he would puke. And apparently every time he did the sailors would just scream “YEAHHH!!!” Every single time (laughs).
AH: What was the original question?
BH: It was how often do you puke on tour (laughs).
LJ: What’s the story behind the name The Last Bison? I know you used to go by just Bison.
BH: We were mostly home-schooled, so with that I was able to really focus on things that I found interesting. I spent a big chunk of time in high school studying solely civil war and post-civil war history and that era of American history because it wasn’t the century I was born in. It felt like it was history but it was still accessible. I liked that because it was still removed enough to be mysterious. I think that was why I was so drawn to it. I fell in love with that aesthetic and to me the bison is the most iconic animal of that era because it doesn’t just represent the power, it represents the vulnerability of America, but also the forward-thinking of America. It represents the best and the worst parts of us. I’m a Virginian, I love America, but I know that there are bad and good parts — that’s why I love that animal, because I feel like it represents both those sides of the American people and I love that.
LJ: That’s a great answer.
AH: Yeah that was pretty good (laughs).
LJ: I read somewhere that on stage you use a pile of goat toenails for a rattle sound…
BH: Yeah we do. We’ll use it tonight.
AH: My wife uses it and she smacks it on stuff. She also uses nuts (laughs) to make noises.
BH: When we were in South America, they use them a lot for music there and so we brought some back with us and when we started band we said we gotta use these.
LJ: That’s great. Did you guys have day jobs or commitments before the band?
BH: Not really. I just had gracious parents who believe in a dream.
LJ: Dan was the only one that actually worked. Andrew had just gotten back from Bible school. Teresa, Annah and I had just finished high school before we did the band. When we go back home a couple of us do little things…Teresa does some waitressing.
BH: We’re kind of in this juxtaposed position where I love it but I grew up in a tight family so I really want to start a family as soon as possible but I am incapable of doing so because we don’t really make any money. I want to be able to sustain a wife and a family but those are the challenges that come with it. You have to find ways to think creatively.
LJ: What do you see yourself doing in the future then?
BH: Putting one foot in front of the other. I’ll probably live in DC. My girlfriend lives in New jersey so we’ll probably meet halfway because she’s going into a career of serious government things.
AH: I would love in the future to be a producer or studio engineer…I’d love to work with other people’s music that I am not emotionally attached to…not because it’s no strings attached but because I’ve seen working with producers in the past that their insight is almost worth more because it’s not emotonial for them. They’re not hung up on something because it’s there. I feel like I would like to do that. I might be terrible at it but (laughs).
BH: There is this place called Mutiny DC and it’s just this small high-end clothing store and I’d love to own my own little fashion boutique or a mini fashion brand that is just one little store. If I had the money to do it or the capital to start a store like that in DC, I’d probably move there and do that.
We officially concluded our interview, turned the recorder off and Amos stood up to grab his cello to start practicing, while Ben and I continued to talk and get to know each other. We talked life, Shovels & Rope, the similarities between Ben’s hair and Brad Pitt’s hair in Legends of the Fall and more. We finally parted ways prior to their 11 PM performance at the Mercury Lounge and I made my way back up the stairs to the bar area on the main floor. Carla was at the merch table setting up and began showing me some of the materials they had for all to see. Among the items were pumpkin beer soaps, made from the scrap beer of a local Virginia brewery, in addition to a song/art book, which the band put together after giving many of their artist friends a song off the new album, VA, and asking them to create a piece of art in response to the song’s lyrics. The results were beautiful — each page represented an individual’s unfiltered visual interpretation to the music. Included among this handful artists are Dan Hardesty and his son, Ben. This book is yet another attestation to the continuing accessibility into the hearts and lives of The Last Bison family.
By Sharla McIver
There are few more beloved names in the world of country and bluegrass music than Ricky Skaggs and his wife Sharon (of the legendary country music family act — The Whites). The two have been close friends since their teenage years through music, first meeting at a festival where White was performing with her father Buck White and sister Cheryl and Skaggs was performing with Keith Whitley.
It was, however a bumpy road with a few difficult curves that finally led to them to becoming husband and wife 33 years ago. But through those difficult times and sometimes painful places, the couple has built a strong relationship founded first on faith, and second on family.
Although Skaggs has performed with the White Family at a number of shows and events over the years, another duet or duet album had yet to happen. Instead they chose to continue to focus on their individual careers: Skaggs with his award-winning solo career in country music including 12 #1 songs, 14 Grammy Awards and numerous CMA Awards including Entertainer of the Year in 1985. He continued on to have a highly successful career in bluegrass, in his native state of Kentucky, with his band Kentucky Thunder; White continued to tour with her family’s band. As a couple, they chose to focus on raising their children, Molly and Luke, and making their family and faith their continued first priority.
In 1987, after being married for about six years, the couple won CMA Vocal Duo of the Year for “Love Can’t Ever Get Better Than This,” the first married couple to win the award. The likely decision in the commercial world of music would have been another duet soon to follow their win, if not an entire album of Skaggs/White duets. But once again, the pair did not choose the seemingly obvious course. It wasn’t necessarily their personal choice, Skaggs explained. “We thought then it was a good idea. We loved singing together, we had a hit and the next step would be to do a record. But at the time we were on competing labels. And the label I was on didn’t want to have me recording with an artist on a competing label, even though she was my wife. At the time there was disappointment, but looking back it was probably a good thing. Our hearts might not have been in the right place at the time and our motives wouldn’t have been what they are now. Looking back I know God already knew that, and He knew then when the time would be right.” Apparently that time is now.
Decades in the making, the couple have finally released a duet album, Hearts Like Ours, a beautiful collection displaying the faith, values and love that only time together through the years could authenticate. The collection contains honest, soul-searching and heartfelt love songs, about the good and the bad and the dreams we all have for lifetime love. A good measure of sound relationship advice is interspersed throughout. If you had asked the pair just a while ago, they would likely have told you a duet album was not likely in their future — “I had really decided it would probably never happen,” White explained. “We were invited to sing some songs at a couple’s event a couple years ago, and share a testimony, and we put together some songs. They were songs we had been singing for years. Ricky was really the one who brought in the idea of recording. The timing just felt right. We are at a place where we have learned some things together, about love and commitment, family and faith. I’ve always had the desire in my heart to do this, but if we’d done it back then it couldn’t have been what it is now, or meant what it means to us,” White said. “I am so happy that Ricky and I have finally done a duet CD, which we have wanted to do for years and I think our hearts are in the right place to do this now. It was great to pick songs together and share ideas about how we wanted to do them. I have always enjoyed making music with Ricky, so this album is the fulfillment of a dream of my heart.”
Her husband agrees — “Hearts Like Ours is a dream come true for Sharon and I,” said Skaggs. “Being married for 33 years, you get to know someone’s heart. I know hers and she knows mine, and we hope you can hear that on this CD. I loved getting to work with her.” Skaggs believes in White’s ability to find and choose songs, and although it was a joint project from beginning to end, he relied on her to choose much of the music for the album. The couple said they listened to a number of songs and put a great amount of thought into their choices, mostly reflecting on what message they wanted to send, and songs that were meaningful to them. And although Skaggs has produced a number of records, many of the technical aspects were a new experience for White. “That’s where trust comes in,” she said. “Ricky made the final call, and he listened to me if I had a strong feeling one way or the other. It’s not my area, but we both agreed that we would agree. And it really ended up being exactly what we both wanted.”
Although they don’t consider the album a gospel album, they do hope it will be inspiring to others. “It expresses our commitment to the Lord and to each other,” Skaggs said, and that priority is obvious in each track. Their faith and strong family values are evident throughout the album, from the acknowledgement that marriage is sometimes just difficult, and their faith in God is what keeps theirs working. Starting with the award winning duet “Love Can’t Ever Get Better Than This,” the pair chose songs that would best reflect their faith and family values, from the acknowledgement that marriage is sometimes just plain difficult, and their faith in God is what keeps theirs working on the song “It Takes Three.” The title track and the song “I Run To You,” serve as a clear proclamation of love and security between the two of them. Both were penned by Skaggs’ family friends, Connie Smith and Marty Stuart. “Home is Wherever You Are” comes across as absolutely genuine, in a way that might not be so obvious without the heartfelt love and spiritual connection between the two.
“Hold On Tight, Let It Go” features Skaggs on vocals and is a treasure of relationship advice for ALL relationships. The lyrics: “Hold on tight; let it go. Our love is always strongest when we let our weakness show. We don’t have to give in to the prideful winds that blow if we hold on tight; let it go,” are a few words any couple, young or old, and any friends, old or new, would be wise to heed. “Be Kind” features vocals by Skaggs and is a testament to the importance of simple acts like kindness and forgiveness in every relationship.
White chose the bluegrass tune “No Doubt About It,” most famously recorded by Flatt and Scruggs, after hearing it one day and deciding it would sound great as a male/female duet, and thinking it would be a fun song, a solid old bluegrass standard, to include among the others. As for something a little different from the theme of love songs, every person can relate to “When I’m Good and Gone” written by Buddy Jewell and Leslie Satcher, which features White on vocals. The song reflects on what we each want to leave behind when we are no longer on this earth; how we want to be remembered. Skaggs said he had joked a little about the song, saying, “You don’t want the preacher to have to lie about you at your funeral.” He added more seriously, “You want to leave something good for people to remember when you’re gone.”
The album is poignant, inspiring, and filled with a treasure of relationship advice for every couple – or any kind of relationship. And although none of the 13 songs they selected were written by either Skaggs or White, they are not at all opposed to the idea. Rather than focus on what will play on the radio or the commercial aspect of an album, they are focused on ways to incorporate some of the songs, or how to do some of the songs from each of their vast inventory of recorded songs, into their live shows. And for all of the fans already loving the album, there is good news ahead: the two are already discussing songs they would like to do together at some point in the future.
The CD can be purchased on iTunes, and it is also available on the Skaggs’ family web site, www.skaggsfamilyrecords.com. Fans of Ricky Skaggs may also want to check out his recently published autobiography, Kentucky Traveler, which has just been made available in a paperback version.
When I interviewed Greg Vandy, of American Standard Time and host of KEXP’s Roadhouse, I had asked him: “Who and what kind of music is currently playing on your iphone, ipod, radio, or in your car on your own time?” His response, simply and immediately, was “Israel Nash’s Rain Plans. Best album of 2014. If you like Neil Young at all…” As most do, I take Greg’s recommendations and leisurely listenings very seriously. I quickly turned to Rain Plans, the album I kept on hearing about, and fell under that 70s-inspired, yet modern and irresistible spell. Vandy was right — if you want to relive your Neil Young past time, Israel Nash is your ticket to reminisce, while also engage in what is distinctly current and trailblazing. Therefore, I jumped at the opportunity to interview them.
I met with Israel Nash at The Hatchery, located on the second level of the 4-story Acme Feed & Seed in Nashville, TN. We were joined by his band members, including Joey McClellan (guitar), Aaron McClellan (bass), Eric Swanson (pedal steel) and Josh Fleischman (drums).
The entire second floor is one enormous room with several bars and multiple groupings of comfortable, eclectic seating, from church pews to living room couches to high-back restaurant-style booths, and more. The decor is rural/industrial, if you can imagine it. The walls are covered in old metal printing plates with varied subject matter, pieced together like a mosaic. Old windows hang like pieces of art from the ceiling. It was a bright and comfortable setting for our meeting. We grabbed some refreshments from the bar and settled our large group into one of the booths. I was eager to speak directly with each of the band members to discover their personal thoughts and experiences during their time at AmericanaFest and beyond.
Lauren Jahoda: What I love about this album is that it has the versatility to be played either really gentle or really soft, but when you’re live you have the ability to blow it out and play really loud. Do you agree with that? Is this intentional?
Israel Nash: That’s cool. Um. There is such a difference between making a record and playing live. They don’t have the same energy. I think it’s two different things, ya know. I mean live, we are louder, a lot louder than we are in the studio.
Band: At heart we’re all rock and rollers, so we all want to tear it up live.
LJ: Do you all come from a rock and roll background?
IN: Yeah! Classic rock, 70s era … these ideas of albums and legendary shows or whatever that is, we all kind of have a deep obsession with that.
LJ: That inspiration definitely comes through on the albums and during your shows.
IN: Yeah. Before we made the record we were obsessed with old records and had conversations when listening to those old records, like, “How do you make it sound like that?!” A lot of it is also comfort in a studio and being an artist and an understanding of how all this works. That changes a lot, ya know, from being a kid playing the guitar and making albums in a serious way, when it’s a committed project, ya know. So I think it was about discovering all these albums that we all liked and figuring out how to make it all come together somehow and in some way. We recorded the album to a 16-track Studer tape machine we got. We’re very much about the session. We all stayed at the house for two and a half weeks and just lived there and made the album.
LJ: So you just live and breathe the album for that period of time?
IN: Yeah and that’s how the guys used to do it. When you had these big legends who can just rent out these big spaces. And I feel like now in studios, you get your 10 hour block and you go back home and I like the idea of committing to it being all about the project. So that’s what we did.
LJ: Where did you record Rain Plans?
IN: In my house in Dripping Springs, Texas.
LJ: Did you build a studio?
IN: No. We did it in my living room. We basically just took all the furniture out. It’s a really big living room with tall ceilings and stuff and our engineer is in the room with us, Ted, and so we had a lot of gear but it looks like a studio…in the pictures and stuff (laughs). But, it was the house. The kitchen was behind a big tapestry that we put up. The idea was that we could all be there and chill out, it’s out in the country.
LJ: That’s great. I’m sure devoting that time together and creating the album makes the experience that much more meaningful. You recorded your second album, Barn Doors & Concrete Floors, in a barn in the Catskills, correct?
LJ: We’re from New York, so we’re familiar with the area and love the Catskills.
IN: Oh really?
Aaron: It was right on the border of where Pennsylvania kind of bumps into New York. Right near the town of Liberty.
IN: I know that was a small town close by.
LJ: Yeah. Right by Route 17, I know it well.
IN: Yeah! The diner over there…what is it? The Liberty Diner?
Band: The Roscoe Diner.
IN: Yeah! The Roscoe Diner — it was probably only just a few miles from that place. Yeah, we found it on Craig’s List and it was just a house that had an old barn. We went up to the studio, or the house, with the engineer and we were like “we can make a record here.” So we just got all the stuff together and just lived there. So that was the first experience that I had with that. It was all these guys, except for Josh (laughs)…he’s forgiven me…but that was the first time to get into that for us.
LJ: Recording and being in an unconventional space like that…
IN: Yeah. It’s very serious to me. Ya know, I don’t care too much to be in the studio to make a record. I feel so much more comfortable in that setting. I feel the comfort. The comforts you have individually and shared…it goes into that. The spirit and good time. Making good music and being at ease.
LJ: I agree. That’s important. You will probably never do it the other way again.
IN: No way. Like “Joey’s gonna come in and lay guitar parts down at 3 or 4 o’clock!” – I know people make great records like that, but it’s just not me.
LJ: Since having done one album in a barn in the Catskills and Rain Plans at your home in Dripping Springs, TX, do you think you will do the next one in your home again or somewhere new?
IN: No. I’m going to build a studio on the land. That’s the plan for the next few months.
LJ: What kind of vision do you have for that studio?
IN: Well I don’t have very much money, so I’m building the cheapest building I can. There are these quonset arch buildings that come in kits, you can make one for 12 grand or something and all you need is a slab of concrete and a bunch of guys.
Band: (laughs) We’re still looking for those.
IN: The plan is to build a studio space that you could live in and eventually it would hopefully become open to other artists as well. We like analog-type studios that have places for people to live and we have 15 acres in the hill country, so just to be there for a week or whatever, and make records.
LJ: Israel, you’re originally from Missouri. Where are the rest of you guys from? How did you all meet?
Band: We’re all from different areas but we all lived in New York at the same time. That’s where we met. The three of us have all known each other for a long time, we’re from Texas originally…
IN: (joking) They used to be brothers.
Joey: We’re still brothers.
Band: Then we all moved to New York and we met Israel. We needed a drummer and that’s when we met Josh.
IN: It was close knit and ya know, these guys were all from Texas originally and we had played SXSW a few years ago and I just really liked the weather and the vibe. There comes a point when you’re in New York when you’re like “What do we do now?”…ya know. All of us had the same idea originally…like, we’re going to go to New York, live in the big city, which was great at the time.
LJ: Was your move from Missouri to New York spontaneous or planned?
IN: It was very short-planned (laughs). It was fairly spontaneous. I mean, we had enough time to plan for a garage sale and a few other things. So yeah, it was.
LJ: Did you feel there would be more opportunity for you in New York?
LJ: You did find your band there.
Joey: We all had a fantasy of New York. Bob Dylan and all of the bands we loved were there…that’s like the pinnacle…New York is the place you want to be. It’s mysterious and all that so, we all kind of had a vision of what New York was.
Eric: It’s magnetic. I never had been to New York until 3 months before I moved there and I went there and I was like okay, I have to be here.
IN: I mean, it is a cool place to be, especially during that period of my life. Especially after you’ve been there for awhile, you know the city and you’ve developed friendships and that’s the most rewarding thing…developing the friendships and relationships that I’ve had the opportunity to get close to people you know and love. It kind of makes everything else easier.
LJ: We’re you guys on the first two albums as well?
Band: Not on the first album, but on the second one, yeah.
LJ: I watched your performance on KEXP and I remember that you were picked up by a small label in Holland and that the reception of your first two albums was a lot stronger in Europe than in the US. And with Rain Plans, there has been a tremendous and positive response from the US. Why do you think that is?
Joey: It’s like the age-old question – no one really knows the answer. We played in another band and we did well in Europe and we had the same issues as well. It’s like, ya know, you always want to make it in America.. it’s like the big prize. I don’t know why it is.
IN: I mean I think partially for what we’ve been doing, the team was evolving in Europe. There wasn’t really a team evolving in the states. There’s always the other side of what we’re doing, ya know, it’s not just playing music and writing songs, there are so many other people involved in Europe that had a team that hadn’t been developed in the states until the second album. I was just like, well, I got work in Europe and I play music for a living so I’m going to go there. I’m hoping to play a little more in the states and get a little work and I’ll be alright.
LJ: It definitely takes patience.
IN: There’s not much left (laughs).
LJ: (laughs) Well, you’ve played AmericanaFest so I feel like that’s pretty good.
Band: It was a great way to start off the tour for us.
LJ: You just played at the High Watt, and you’re playing again tomorrow at the Bootleg BBQ, right?
LJ: I’m really looking forward to that. Where are you headed next?
IN: In terms of the tour or in terms of today?
LJ: (laughs) Both!
IN: I think we head to Knoxville on Sunday and then we are on tour until late October and then today…
Band: It’s certainly a possibility (laughs).
IN: What day is it?
IN: Yep, we’ll be right here (laughs).
LJ: It’s very clear with Rain Plans, that your move to Texas was a big inspiration for the album. What’s motivating your next album?
IN: I’m working on new stuff and we’re planning on getting into the studio in February or so for the new album. I think that move for me was way bigger than just a move…it was a life-changing thing for me on many levels, which has so much to do with the move but also so little to do with the move. As an artist, it definitely changes the music and what’s going on but I don’t think I need to move again to make an album or anything. The bigger thing is having the confidence and knowledge, I don’t know, I just have a much clearer idea of how it is…the expectations and different roles. Rain Plans was very much written with these guys in mind and the songs were very much about coming together and each of us giving pieces of ourselves to it and if you listen to the album and listen to each of these guys play and you’ll hear something completely different. It’s like wow, it’s someone owning their…it’s amazing to work with people who are serious about the craft…it’s part of you. Whatever it is…your passion. It’s fed by nothing else.
LJ: You look at people in the audience and they get it, the don’t take that for granted. It’s very much appreciated here at AmericanaFest.
IN: I think there is something really cool about…ya know, like last night and even today, there are people giving you compliments…it’s not like “hey, bad ass show. Cool guitar part.” It’s appreciative. That was our experience in Europe too. People thanking us for giving them something. It’s really great.
LJ: I really enjoy the song “Iron Of the Mountain,” can you tell me about creating that song?
IN: Um…I’m gonna make up something really cool (laughs). No, “Iron Of the Mountain” is a song about… iron represents blood and blood of the land and family and being married to the land in some way that’s bigger than us. That’s kind of what that song is about – and being on the road and being in the country and making up for lost time. It’s so simple, to me, ya know. As a songwriter, I like to just be honest…So that song is just about family.
LJ: It’s a great song.
IN: I’ll make some demos of ideas and share it with the guys and then before we make a record, like with Rain Plans, I sent them the songs and then re-sent the songs with just me on guitar because I don’t want to be like overly…I did these things so you should do those things. I don’t like to get into that. That’s the reason you have players here and all these guys like to play their instruments better than I can play their instruments, ya know. I feel like there’s some magic that comes together when people prepare music fresh and just kind of collaborate. I think with that song…(to the band) do you remember recording that song? I remember Eric because he has a big solo at the end.
LJ: Pedal steel is my favorite. It just stings you, ya know…
IN: Yeah…church in a box.
Eric: If you try playing one, it will quickly become not your favorite instrument (laughs).
LJ: I’ve heard it’s extremely difficult to play.
IN: Our European fans asked, is that a keyboard? (laughs)
LJ: How did you get into playing pedal steel?
Eric: Um, I’ve only played for three years. Basically, with Barn Doors, he had some pedal steel on it that I didn’t play on and when we went on tour and he said well hey, I’d love to have a pedal steel player and it was something I had always considered doing anyways, so I just learned it.
IN: Yeah. I didn’t even know he bought one. He said he got one and I was like, what?? With Rain Plans, I had this idea that I wanted pedal steel on every song because with Barn Doors, it was a post-album thing. It was like $150 for every song to get this guy on pedal steel. I thought, it’s almost done, we don’t need it yet. I really wanted pedal steel on this album and Eric does it in a way that’s really unique.
Eric: They don’t know that I really don’t know what I’m doing (laughs).
LJ: It adds a lot. It seems like you guys have a great dynamic going.
IN: I don’t like the idea of hired guns and these guys are changing… These guys are my friends and I just like making music and hanging out with them. Ya know it’s so easy for someone to make music and it be all about me. No one’s more important here. From you guys, to fans, we’re all here. People are just doing things. You need people around you that you care about and who care about you. I think once you find that, it’s alright.
LJ: That’s what it’s all about.
Our arrival at AmericanaFest on Wednesday began the way it always does — with a celebratory local beverage. We knew Yazoo Brewing Company had crafted a smoked IPA just for AmericanaFest and dubbed it simply, “Americana,” so that us crazed festival goers could not only listen and talk Americana, but drink it too.
With the assurance that we would inevitably sample Yazoo’s “Americana” free of charge at the festival’s upcoming parties and BBQs, we headed to Jackalope Brewing Company on 8th Avenue S.
The bartender greeted us, wearing a Jackalope shirt with a message on the front, which, in just three short words, would foretell the events and our experiences to follow over the next 4 days. The Jackalope message reads:
And we did.
Keep your eyes focused here on Heartstrings in the days to come. While recovering from severe AmericanaFest withdrawal, we will post coverage of some of our favorite venues, performances and our amazing interviews with Joe Purdy, Israel Nash, Joe Pug, Jonah Tolchin, Nathaniel Rateliff, along with notable and unexpected encounters and our reviews of local eateries, accommodations, transportation (in case your wondering about all those large pink mustaches you saw on the grills of passing cars) and hotspots for good old-fashioned Tennessee warmth and hospitality.