It seems only fair to say that most creative individuals would love the opportunity to pursue their passions and add to the creative circuit in one way or another, particularly without the worry of tight funds. Enter: The MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant.
This five-year grant offers extraordinarily talented individuals $500,000 to pursue their goals and passions with no strings attached. Who better to receive this prestigious grant than Punch Brothers mandolin player, Chris Thile.
After ignoring the foundation’s attempts to contact him by phone, believing them to be automated election-year calls, Thile eventually got wind of their true nature.
“I’ve never felt so internally warm, Thile told the AP. My heart was racing. All of a sudden, I felt very askew physically. I was trying to catch my breath. . . . I thought, ‘Oh my God, did I win a MacArthur?'”
He had. After finding success with Nickel Creek, Thile then assembled the Punch Brothers in 2006, finding success, and now prestige once more. So what are his plans for the money? Thile has said he may use the grant to fund a chamber music project for a bluegrass quintet.
You can find the talented winner on tour with the Punch Brothers through December.
The brother and sister who embraced bluegrass as elementary school children in New England have such a solid, signature sound ” in the style of their idols including Bill Monroe and Ricky Skaggs ” that it feels as if they have always been part of the bluegrass community. Perhaps that’s because the music of the reigning Inspirational Country Music Bluegrass Artists of the Year is a true staple on radio, in concerts, and during high-profile events including the PBS television special Pa’s Fiddle and on such television shows as Fox & Friends.
Now Elaine and Lee Roy are again candidates for nominations in ICM award categories ” this time for Entertainers of the Year, Vocal Duo, and Inspirational Bluegrass Artist. As if that isn’t enough, the duo are ready to release their next recording this month. Elaine Roy took time out of her hectic schedule to chat about the duo’s music, album, and fans.
OS: New Day Dawning is a great title for your album. How did you come up with that title?
ER: I don’t even know who came up with the idea. We started talking and somebody said “New Day Dawning” and we wanted to write it as a song. There’s such negativity in the world so when it came time to name the album we thought it was the perfect title of the album.
OS: Well, I have to ask if it also signifies a new day or turning point for The Roys.
ER: We hope it’s a turning point! We’ve struggled long and hard to get where we are today. We are really grateful for all that has happened to us and we look forward to a new day dawning and great things ahead.
OS: Now this recording isn’t a full album. Why is that?
ER: Right, it’s seven tracks. I think for us it was trying to turn out more music quicker for the fans. When you record a complete album, that’s a very long process. We just wanted to get music out there for our fans.
Anyone who has attended one of this season’s music festivals and been lulled into the mind-numbing sameness of some performers will want to buckle up before Mayfield blasts onto the stage. Not only is his music a high-powered, joyous Americana with a dollop of rock, but Mayfield’s bouncing enthusiasm”jumping into the crowd, prodding them to join him in song”is beyond infectious. Think a Jack Black persona with first-rate Americana folk rock and you’re on the right track. Perhaps that’s why Mayfield is about the only person who may be surprised at his success, which includes recently raising double the cash he sought to fund his next album.
“I had no idea the first one would be so well received,” said Mayfield of his first album. “I’ve had lots of fans tell me that they proposed while listening to “Breathe of Love” or walked down the aisle while it was playing. I feel like it’s almost out of my hands now. I talked to [the Avett Brothers’] Seth Avett and he told me at some point, you will write something from a personal place and people will relate to it and it will become theirs, too.”
In a way, Mayfield has become part of the Avett success story, as well. It was the Avett Brothers”Scott and Seth”who “discovered” him when he was touring as the bassist for his sister Jessica Lea Mayfield. Soon Mayfield, who also wrote songs for Cadillac Sky, was sitting in with the Avetts at Bonnaroo and Merlefest. Not that the musical path has been completely smooth even for Mayfield, who was born into such a musical family and has found support among A-list musicians.
One reason Mayfield calls his group a “Parade” is that players tend to come and go. Sure everyone wants to play at such high-profile gigs as DelFest, which Mayfield and his players did after accepting a personal invitation from bluegrass great Del McCoury, but when the bar gigs roll around some players tend to drop out. But that doesn’t stem Mayfield’s enthusiasm in writing and performing his original songs not to mention an occasional cover or sitting in with Luther Dickinson or other A-list performers.
Few bands can appreciate the value of a year’s worth of free strings like a bluegrass band. For groups that contain banjos, fiddles, mandolins, upright basses, and guitars, re-stringing the entire band before gigs can be tiring and expensive. That is, unless you’re Chasing Blue. The Boston-based bluegrass group just scored an entire year’s worth of free Ernie Ball strings. Check out their melancholy tune “Bad Water,” which beat out the competition in the Alternative Country Channel to land them the prize. Congrats, guys! Just remember: you still need to do the actual stringing yourselves.
Let me note that it’s probably not cool to use myself as an example, but I’m guessing that a lot of folks wonder if the musical joy they experienced as kids can be recaptured. After attending this year’s DelFest during Memorial Day in Cumberland, Md., I have to believe it can.
I had originally intended to let Del McCoury tell you about DelFest, that just wrapped up its fifth season and is busting at the seams with attendees (the area’s local newspaper reports expansion plans are underway). We’ll let you hear from Del, of course, but after reading the non-stop CMA Fest coverage, the Bonnaroo dispatches, and the excellent Kindle single “The Same Coachella Twice” by Sean Howell, I thought some personal perspective might be useful, too.
Let’s start with some background about McCoury, who was a legend before the title was handed out like flyers advertising a tent sale. McCoury was first the banjo player, then lead singer and rhythm guitarist for Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys. We could go on and on about his career, which he put on hold for more than a decade so he could be close to home and help raise his family. Highlights include a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Endowment of the Arts, membership in both the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and the Grand Ol’ Opry, and that’s just for starters. You likely get the point.
Or part of it.
The real point is that although he’s a hero to many musicians”Bruce Springsteen, Jon Fishman of Phish, Paul Stanley of KISS”he has never chased musical trends. And from what musicians tell me, McCoury never held those who did in contempt. Instead, he takes enjoyment and inspiration from all music, including that which he wouldn’t play.
The band’s 2011 album with Steve Martin Rare Bird Alert went to No. 1 on Billboard’s Bluegrass Chart and won a GRAMMY Award nomination. The band’s 2010 album Deep in the Shade stayed in Billboard’s Top 10 Bluegrass chart for eighteen weeks. Headlining gigs at MerleFest, Bonaroo and other high profile events have followed.
Now the band is set to join with Martin again when it co-headlines DelFest, named for founder and bluegrass legend Del McCoury, the annual bluegrass extravaganza on Memorial Day Weekend in Cumberland, Maryland.
Although other events with Martin will follow, the band’s main focus this year is touring behind its just-released album Nobody Knows You.
Steep Canyon Rangers guitarist and lead vocalist Woody Platt took time out of his jam-packed schedule to talk to OurStage about the past year and just where Steep Canyon Rangers is headed in the near future.
OS: It had to be great working with Steve Martin and playing all the high profile events you’ve done in the past year or so. How did you work in a new record, too?
WP: We had great success with Steve and we wanted to follow that up with a solo record from us. The exposure we got through Steve was great but we also want to work on just our own music. When we’re traveling, we are usually out ten to twelve days in a row and sound check isn’t until about 4:30 so we had some time [to write, demo and otherwise develop the album]. We worked very hard on it last year. Charles [R. Humphrey III, the bassist) and Graham [Sharp, the banjo player] are very, very serious about songwriting and very good at it, so they worked on [the new songs] all the time.
Steep Canyon Rangers certainly grabbed a lot of attention when they collaborated with Steve Martin on projects including the GRAMMY Award-nominated Rare Bird Alert, but they’re much more than those collaborations.
The International Bluegrass Music Association [IBMA] Entertainers’ of the Year are proud to continue working with Martin”including at the much anticipated DelFest in Maryland during Memorial Day Weekend”but they also have a jam-packed schedule sans Martin as they support their just-released album Nobody Knows You.
It was time for us to do a solo record, said Woody Platt, guitarist and lead vocalist. We had great success with Steve and got great exposure but we still want to play our own songs.
So much for the impartial journalist, right? But really, if I hear one more band tell me they embrace new members and then stick with the tried-and-true”well, you get the picture. The result, as we all know, is same-old-same-old until the “new” members leave because they aren’t creatively challenged. Yes, the music world is alive with bands that have morphed into their own tribute bands.
But I digress.
No one would have blamed the members of the much honored Mountain Heart, really, if it stuck with its strictly bluegrass formula. After all, that’s the ticket that won them the 1999 Emerging Artist award from the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) and plenty other awards and kudos thereafter.
Of course, the band mates all had their musical chops down long before that. Founders Steve Gulley and Barry Abernathy had plenty of musical street cred before enlisting Jim Van Cleve, then a teenage fiddler they had worked with in Quicksilver, to join them. Adam Steffey, who had worked with Alison Krauss & Union Station, and bassist Johnny Dowdle were also part of the band.
It’s so telling of the current band members’ attitudes that they announced their newest members withticker-tape-parade enthusiastic announcements while still paying tribute to those who were leaving.
Consider the announcement they made late last year when multi instrumentalist Seth Taylor”who the band called “one of the most talented young ‘musicians’ alive” joined the band. Even though Taylor has played with everyone from the Charlie Daniels Band to his “unofficial mentor” Brad Paisley, it is still the rare musicians who will laud a new member in such a way.
And what a refreshing change that is to read. No wonder their new music, which is still based in bluegrass, mixes in more than a fair amount of country, jazz and other formats (don’t worry”they haven’t gone all rock on us though there is rock and R&B in the sound, too!).
“The funny thing about the record Mountain Heart is that it started as bluegrass,” said Van Cleve. “In 2007 [lead vocalist Josh Shilling] joined the band and that was the first day of the new era of the band. We have grown so far beyond any one [musical] description.”
And that growth started right away because Shilling, a talented Nashville songwriter as well as a key that unlocked more of the Mountain Heart band’s creativity, wrote or co-wrote each of the four new songs featured on the group’s live album The Road That Never Ends. The title track reached No. 4 on the Billboard bluegrass charts. That foreshadowed the success of the band’s next studio album That Just Happened, which went to the Top 10 of the Billboard bluegrass charts.
The funny thing about this story is that the band’s sound engineer first heard Shilling sing live and told the band they needed to hear him. Although his vocals weren’t in keeping with the band’s tried-and-true formula, Van Cleeve, Abernathy and the others rolled the dice and invited him to join. Now the band, that includes Jason Moore on bass and Aaron Ramsey in mandolin and dobro, just might need to clear more room on their trophy shelves.
“It was a gutsy call,” said Van Cleeve with a chuckle when talking about adding Shilling. “It could have gone in a lot of different ways but we had faith. He’s taken us to some amazing places musically.”
Find out more about the band and its music, including upcoming tour dates, at their Web site.
Back in August, Live Wired shared with you some of our favorite live recordings courtesy of the Pro Performance Videos Channel on OurStage! We’re back again with even more videos we think you absolutely need to watch. This time, we had the chance to talk to the talent behind some of the performances we loved about the multitude of factors that go into making a live performance great. Read on for some first-hand experience on how bands prepare for the big show and how different the whole experience is.
First up, we have Andy Rumsey from Spokane, Washington who amazed us with his emotion-filled voice and great stage presence in his performance of “The Slow Vibration” on March 31st at The Empyrean. We all love the simple, raw sound of a singer armed with an acoustic guitar, but there’s something about seeing the spectacle live that adds so much more. It’s clear from watching Rumsey on stage that he loves what he’s doing. Even though he doesn’t have a band behind him for support, he keeps his energy high the whole time, and his passion is so clear and contagious. After speaking to him, there seems to be two main factors that make these kinds of performances possible. First, is the audience. Andy told us that he loves interacting with the crowd and that they “in some way help to shape” his music. More importantly, is his pure love for singing. He told us that he is constantly singing, explaining, “I can’t say that I ever feel more natural and relaxed that when I am singing”.
Go ahead and call Yonder Mountain String Band a bluegrass group if you want to, but if you take in some of their shows this summer”such as one at FloydFest in Floyd, VA on July 30 or their headlining gig at Red Rocks Ampitheatre in Morrison, CO on Aug. 20”prepare for a surprise.
Not only will the band likely debut some of its new music slated to be released in 2012, but all of their songs will showcase why they are revered as one of the most progressive bluegrass bands out there. Their signature sound not only swirls rock, pop and hints of other genres into the bluegrass mix but the players’ expertise have made them a darling of jam band aficionados.
“It’s cool there are a lot of other voices [in the] bluegrass world,” said bassist Ben Kaufmann. “I feel kind of like [our band is] part of an icebreaker. We’ve proven you don’t need drums and electric amplification to attract a young audience.”
Of course, bluegrass fans know that those who follow the genre are passionate about what constitutes true bluegrass. The father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe, was a strict traditionalist who didn’t enjoy any type of variation in the sound. Not so strict is Del McCoury, who was a member of Monroe’s band and is now thought of by many as the leader of bluegrass. McCoury has not only championed progressive bluegrass bands but has mixed his own music with other genres including New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
A love for both traditional bluegrass and the new grass movement is what initially brought banjo player Dave Johnston and Jeff Austin, who plays mandolin in the band, together musically as students in Urbana, IL. Their collaborations continued and expanded after the two moved west and met Kaufmann and guitarist Adam Aijala.
Yonder Mountain String Band, which officially formed in 1998 and was playing legendary venues such as San Francisco’s Fillmore within a few years, sees their band as one of the pioneers in further opening up the genre to younger audiences.
“I see us being an important band because we have kind of taken the starch off the collars and church out of the music,” said Johnston, noting that although they don’t play more pop-oriented bluegrass, they are still fans of that part of the genre. “It’s kind of like we have fulfilled an essential need because kids come to see us. Although we’re based in bluegrass and new grass, we don’t try to limit our sound or what we want to do.”
That’s one reason younger audience respond to the sound, the band mates say. Pure forms of country, rock and other traditional genres are almost non existent in contemporary music.
“Country isn’t one thing, rock isn’t one thing, and that’s where music is going,” said Johnston. “We have existed our entire careers not caring what genre our music is from. We are looking for a blend of genres and experimentation…We aren’t looking for hits, we are looking for good songs.”
For news about the band, go to their web site.