Bill Evans and I met up one morning at this year’s Folk Alliance in Kansas City, Missouri. He had just finished teaching beginner banjo to a handful of workshop attendees. Folk Alliance has added a free, and might I add, robust lineup of instrumental workshops to their conference.
As we strolled from the convention center, through the twists and turns of Kansas City’s elevated glass walkway system, I couldn’t help but recognize the similarities found in this mixing point – symbolic and purposeful avenues of connection, bridging traditional roots and foundations with new design and destination. From masters of architecture and music to new visions of functionality and design, Folk Alliance in Kansas City seemed to capture the powerful confluence evolving in Bill’s life.
Chatting the entire way, Bill and I reached a quiet interview spot – the hotel where he was staying. For the Artist2Artist podcast (listen below), I distilled the interview down to just a couple of the many topics we covered, namely:
Bill’s passion for collaborating with the elder Masters in bluegrass music — making sure that their particular style of banjo playing is passed along to other musicians in the spirit that their music was meant to be played.
Bill provided an interesting and revealing look at the business side of the music industry for artists who are trying to make ends meet. Listen to the audio file just below.
BUT, since today is tax day, and I’m kind of weary of dollar signs, income and deductions – I decided to focus here, in this column, on the musical contribution of our bluegrass Masters, because in this currency we call life, those contributions are fruitfully returned.
Concentrating on you?
So this happens to all performing musicians. In fact, it’s a constant for many. You are on stage for a show and it’s one of those dreadful nights where you are getting in your own way. Your total focus is on the neck of your guitar, banjo, bass, fiddle, mandolin or perhaps the strings across you resonator guitar. You are staring so hard that you could drill a hole right through your instrument – concentrating on the rhythm, ready to deliver that scorching break. Look at photos of your band, other bands, solo acts – you’ll see what I mean.
Most of us professional musicians know that we should have our heads up, ears wide open and listening to the music going on around us. This allows us to really enjoy the performance scene as a whole, relax into the groove and most importantly, include the audience on the ride with us. We all get this, at least I hope we all get it.
Furthermore, and really where I’m going with this – that good rhythm and well executed break you play? – you most likely picked up by studying another. If you were savvy, you studied the style of the actual musical artist who created that particular way of delivering the notes, attacking the strings, or driving the rhythm. Or if you are *kind of lucky* – one generation torchbearer down from the originator is where you gained the knowledge. Do you remember who it was? Do you honor that gift given to you by sharing the information with your audiences – or jam session colleagues – or the next person who studies your musical style? Bill Evans got me really thinking about this, when he said:
“I had a great revelation years ago, it really is about the audience. It’s not about me, or *how good I am* (air quotes) – it isn’t about me. When I started thinking about what the audience needed from me to get the message across, I started shaping my show that way. Bela Fleck is great at this. You go to a Flecktones concert and there’s a huge stage, could be thousands of people, and he’s looking at the audience in the first song and trying to make a visual connection. When I put the audience first and started thinking about what the experience is for the person who may not know anything about this music and their experience of the banjo… I think what could keep them in their seats and engaged?”
Tip of the hat
One of my musical fantasies (other than forming a band that includes Andy Statman and the late greats Jerry Garcia & Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen) is to hear one professional bluegrass band or musician take a moment on stage, before launching into a song and say “hey, listen closely, I’m gonna play a break on my instrument, and I stole-got-learned this lick from the guy/gal who created it, and their name is _____ . You’ll want to hear it because what they came up with is cool.”
I believe that part of our job as professional bluegrass musicians is to not only play the music and sing our hearts out, but every so often to give a bit of on-stage *tip of the hat* to the person who influenced our art. What’s wrong with showing the audience an example “once-removed” of how it is suppose to be done and enlightening them with the name of the artist who done it just that way? Marty Stuart doesn’t let a show go by without these types of gratitude moments.
Never assume your audience members know as much as you do about the back story of your musical style.
Who does it for you? Could it be J.D. Crowe, Sonny Osborne, Bobby Osborne, Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Tex Logan, Earl Scruggs, Mother Maybelle Carter, Jesse McReynolds, George Shuffler, Ralph Stanley, Everett Lilly, Byron Berline, Riley Puckett, Snuffy Smith, Marty Stuart, Bobby Hicks, Mac Wiseman, Tony Rice, Stuart Duncan, Bill Keith, Barbara Lamb, Jack Cooke, Mike Marshall, Tony Trischka, Jerry Douglas, The Dillards, Missy Raines, Bela Fleck, John Hartford, Rhiannon Giddens, Andy Hall, David Grisman, Benny Martin, Rob Ickes, Norman Blake, Nancy Blake… ?
For me it’s Fletcher Bright
In the Artist2Artist podcast, Bill Evans highlights his time spent with his musical heroes Sonny Osborne, J.D. Crowe, Bobby Osborne, Del McCoury, and Fletcher Bright. Bill’s mission is to keep the music alive by keeping their names prominent and in the forefront of music audiences on whatever stage he performs.
And to wrap this up, I gently encourage you – this year – if you are a performing bluegrass musician – take a moment on some stage, give your audiences a preview of the lick or style, give credit where credit is due – and then, when it is time to play your break, don’t stare at the neck of your instrument. Instead, get out of your own way and look your audience in the eyes and pull them into the moment, knowing that the moment isn’t about you, it’s about the artist who gave you the moment.
Here’s a video of Bill Evans & Fletcher Bright as they recorded a fiddle tune in Fletcher’s den at his home on Lookout Mountain, Tennessee for the album, Fine Times at Fletcher’s House. By the way, the fiddle lick I stole-got-learned from Fletcher comes at 1:24. Keep an ear out for it, because what he came up with is cool.
Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your comments, so please add them below. And, if you have not listened to my interview with Bill Evans, scroll on back up and enjoy the podcast.