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.
As Williams worked, trying to ensure the fan didn’t fall into the ice, the group began brotherly ribbing about the trip to the DelFest site in Cumberland, Maryland, their music, and their families. Sure, there were almost 10,000 fans lined up to see the McCoury family, Keller Williams, Railroad Earth, Leftover Salmon, and other bluegrass royalty play, but an onlooker would never know it from the casual camaraderie of the Williams and the McCoury band. The musicians were clearly as comfortable as if they were going to just jam with friends, which in a way they were.
“Bluegrass has always been a part of my show,” said Williams when asked what led him to record the just-released album Pick”with the Travelin’ McCourys. “There are different types of music that burn in my head”like jazz, electronica”but it circles back.”
Fair enough. There’s a reason that Williams is known as a one man jam band, after all. One has difficulty summoning other musicians who move quite as easily among divergent formats”bluegrass to folk to rock to reggae and beyond”and playing it all with the ease of a multi-instrumental virtuoso with the joy of a fan, both titles that he holds. Indeed, Williams’ sets at DelFest, named after the much-loved and honored bluegrass stalwart Del McCoury, ranged from some of his classic hits to bluegrass tunes to “Hot Stuff” in tribute to the recently-deceased disco queen Donna Summer.
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.
For Vince Gill, the musical answer is to go home to bluegrass. Although he started his career in the genre and still truly loves it, he moved to mainstream country years ago. Now that he’s arguably starting a new chapter in his career, with the release of the album Guitar Slinger later this year, he’s taking pains to insure he doesn’t lose sight of his musical roots.
“Anybody who is thinking of a bluegrass career, I really wouldn’t recommend it,” said Gill with a laugh to a near-capacity concert audience at the Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria, Virginia last month. “I stopped playing it because I had hoped to own my own home someday.”
It’s a good bet, though, that Gill’s comment was really more tongue-in-cheek than anything. Although the line brought a great amount of laughter from the audience, Gill said by telephone from the Nashville home that he shares with his wife, singer Amy Grant, that a healthy bank account is really only one of the reasons he loves his career.
“It has never been to a point where it was a drag or I didn’t feel it was a complete success even just factoring in the people I have played with,” said Gill. “Gosh, it has provided me with a better life than I could have ever dreamed for myself…and it has nothing to do with [money]… I truly love the music.”
Any doubters need only have sat in on this four-hour plus concert during which Gill played a host of classic bluegrass hits”including “My Rose of Old Kentucky,” and “My Walking Shoes”” and talked about career highlights including playing with bluegrass legends Ricky Skaggs and Del McCoury.
With such a background, it’s likely no surprise that the eleven songs on his newest album are richly textured, moving from contemporary to traditional and from somewhat light hearted to dark.
That’s especially true on the album’s first single “Threaten Me With Heaven,” that Gill co-wrote with Grant, Dillon O’Brian and Will Owsley. Since the song was written, Owsley committed suicide.
“The the song has a profound impact on me now,” said Gill, adding that the loss of Owsley and other close friends in the past few years has truly made him take stock of his life. “It’s a powerful, powerful song. I feel like it’s the crown jewel of the new record.”
Bright spots in the recording of the record were the duet he did with Grant and the guest appearances of three of the couple’s daughters”Jenny, Sarah and Corrina.
“It was really cool,” said Gill of having his family work with him in the studio he recently built at his home. “They all can’t help it. Music has a [very strong] place in their lives. Having them on this was very sweet.”
Find out more about Vince Gill and his upcoming album on his Web site.