California Report: Jody Stecher discusses his new release and a lot more

Brooklyn born, San Francisco-based Jody Stecher is an old-time, bluegrass, traditional music artist like no other. He plays mandolin, banjo, fiddle, and guitar and has a long list of credentials, not the least of which is playing mandolin and singing in the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band. Jody and spouse/duet partner Kate Brislin, who are twice Grammy-nominated, have recently stopped touring, but that hasn’t slowed Jody down one bit, as he still keeps a full-time teaching schedule and has a new release he talks about here. His voice is as mountain as mountain can be, and the new release Dreams From The Overlook can be purchased from he and Kate’s web store.

Hi Jody, congratulation on the new release. Tell us about Dreams From The Overlook.

It’s a double CD. I composed everything on it – let me qualify that, I co-wrote two songs and one instrumental –  and a good number of the pieces came to me in dreams. Does dreaming qualify as composing? Maybe I “arranged” the dream music. The title is Dreams From The Overlook. Near where I live there’s a path uphill about a mile to a spot that overlooks San Francisco Bay, Oakland, Berkeley, the Golden Gate Bridge, and an old cemetery. That’s the Overlook. I’ve been walking up there a lot since the pandemic arrived.

How far back do the songs go?

Some are 20 years old. Most were put together in the past five years.

Who are the players?

Kate Brislin and Keith Little play guitar and sing harmony. Banjo was Tony Trischka, and Keith played a bit too. Bass was Ethan Jodziewicz and Paul Knight. The fiddlers were Chad Manning, Tashina Clarridge, and Tristan Clarridge. Tristan also played tenor guitar and cello. I sang lead and played mostly mandolin, but also mandola, guitar, banjo, and even uke on one tune. From this giant pool there are solos, duets, and up to octets. In addition, two songs were previously released on Bill Martin’s album, Out On A Limb, which I co-wrote with Bill. On those songs Sharon Gilchrist plays bass, Scott Nygaard plays guitar, and Bill Martin is on mandolin.

What’s the mix of songs versus tunes, and which comes easier for you?

More tunes than songs, which is why I asked Bill Martin for permission to include Fast Track To Richmond and Ragtop Ford. I needed more songs to create a balanced playlist, and since I wrote the greater part of those two songs Bill readily agreed.

Songs and tunes come with equal ease or difficulty. My previous solo album, Wonders and Signs, was all songs except for one instrumental, so I’d already recorded a lot of songs, and I had these tunes that people liked and wanted to learn. So that was an impetus to get this recording done.

Where was Dreams From The Overlook recorded?

It was recorded in three sessions in July, August, and September of 2019 at 25th Street Recording in Oakland. Scott Bergstrom engineered it and did some editing. The rest of the editing and all of the mixing was done by Dave Luke at Opus in Berkeley, with my input of course. 

The mastering was done at Coast Mastering by Michael Romanowski. I was scheduled to master, and a few days before it was going to happen the COVID lockdown happened. Eventually, I asked Michael to do the mastering without me in the room – the first time I’ve allowed that in 30 years. No problem! Each engineer made a significant contribution to the final sound and Michael put on the finishing touches. I’m delighted and thrilled with how it sounds.

Why did you do a double CD? It seems like a wealth of material that could have been spread out over two releases.

I did a double CD because I thought I was going to die. I wanted to record and release all my compositions. I did record them all, but some did not come out well. And now I have enough new songs and tunes to make yet another album. Eventually I discovered that my demise is probably not imminent after  all.

Good to hear. I love that catchy tune, The Snoring Sassenach, which has an ambiguous chord progression.

Thank you. The chords are normal major chords and the progression is regular and repeated. It’s the key that is ambiguous. Kate thinks it’s in F. You hear it as in G. I composed it thinking it is in C. I still hear it that way.

How are you able to achieve that wonderful balance between old-time and bluegrass styles?

You know I grew up hearing early bluegrass back when it contained a lot of old time musical elements. Many years ago I was given a cassette of about 30 instrumentals, culled from live recordings of Flatt and Scruggs & and The Foggy Mountain Boys in the 1950s and early ’60s. The fiddle is central and it sounds very much like an old-time band. So the first bluegrass I heard already had that integration. A few years ago I read Lonesome Melodies. It’s a history of the Stanley Brothers. It’s got a lot of details I’ve never seen elsewhere, like the story of the pet alligator the Clinch Mountain Boys kept at the boarding house where they stayed in Bristol. And who do you suppose toured with the Stanleys, playing fiddle in the band? None other than the legendary Cowan Powers, who they admired. Apparently Cowan Powers died on stage while playing old-time fiddle with the Stanley Brothers. I could give you more examples. But my point is that early on, these were not quite separate musics as they are now. Old-time music and bluegrass are both inside me and they are integrated. I can separate them when appropriate.

Will this release be available on streaming services?

Not if I can help it. If it appears on streaming services it means it has been stolen. I’m trying an experiment with this release. The only way to get this recording is from me. Either directly when this pandemic is over, or through the website. I’ve put a bargain price on the double CD which has 31 tracks, several of which are medleys. MP3 downloads are also available at the website. Unfortunately, WAV downloads weren’t working right. Personally I recommend the CD as the sound quality is magnificent, thanks to the engineers.

Do you still have a lot of music students? I’m guessing you’ve had to move lessons online.

I have more students now than I’ve had in years. Yes, all online. That’s the simple answer. The compli-ma-cated answer is that I’d stopped taking new students except for people who live in my neighborhood, and I also kept old students. I wanted time to concentrate on some other projects that were not directly musical. Then last year three of my close friends died. I started thinking I might be next. This caused me to drop all inessential projects and get down to work on recording my songs and tunes, and concentrating on other musical things. This decision released energy. A lot of energy. I was relieved of a burden and I got right down to work. When lockdown arrived a lot of people were stuck at home and wanted to practice music. Old students and new students began to contact me for lessons. So now I’m teaching via Skype and FaceTime. There’s no impact on the household. I’m earning income, the students are happy, and, gosh, I don’t even have to wear pants! (I do though).

I’ve been enjoying your YouTube videos. What was the tipping point for you after all these years to start a YouTube channel?

I’ve had a semi-private YouTube channel for a long time. I decided to post some public videos because my old computer died. I got a new one and found I could make videos comfortably using it. Setting up a camera or a cell phone to make videos is a bit tedious for me. This new way is easy. I just sit down in the chair where I answer emails, and I push a red button play and talk, and then I push Stop. Easy! Also since the lockdown, I’ve been doing more online teaching, and I found that there were certain things I could tell all my students at once using YouTube. So it started that way. But then I got a new idea. Instead of teaching anything or telling anyone how I think they should play, I’ve made some videos where I show my learning process. I show the choices I make and play Not-Too-Terribly Wonderfully because this is repertoire I’m learning and people like to see that. Also, I’ve shown something of my process of creating a new tune or creating a new arrangement. 

When composing a tune, what is your approach to finding the chords?

If the tune is chord-based, I already know the chords. If it’s modal or some other kind of melody where chords are not obvious, I try different chords and see what I like best. Sometimes I chose chords for their harmonic function but sometimes their prime use is to move the tune along or to help define the shape, and I’ll use those chords even though there may be a bit of dissonance.

Can drone notes be used in most any fiddle tune or does it depend on the key, tempo, time signature, mode, etc.?

An unchanging pitch played at the same time as an ever-changing melody is used in all sorts of North American fiddle music, not just the archaic-sounding older music set in microtonal modes. For instance, look at the Texas contest version of Sally Goodin. The pinky holds down A on the D string while the melody moves up and down on the A string. When A natural is played on the open A string the pinky remains on A on the D string and you get a “rhyme” of the same two pitches. Some old-time fiddlers will avoid playing a single open D, A or E string. They play it in unison with the fingered note of the same pitch found one string below. You hear that a lot from old-style fiddlers in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia as well. 

Can drone notes can be used in vocals as well?

Kate and I use drones in our duet singing sometimes. I’ll sense that she’s about to sing something brilliant that’s just a little different from the obvious harmony note, so I simplify my melody part so that it stays more on one note. In effect, I’m providing a drone below her flight of fancy. And the same thing will happen when I’m singing harmony. I’ll hold out one pitch so that her melody has a sort of platform below it. And she does the same when I sing variations. A drone — which is to say an unchanging note sounded along with changing notes — is used in any kind of music. 

How do you decide on the arrangement?

Things suggest themselves.

Can you expand on that?

An “arrangement” usually means the setting of an existing piece of music. The word does not pertain to structure. Some arrangement elements are key, pace, chords, instrumentation, vocal vs. instrumental, what sort of harmony, if any, use or absence of instrumental solos, and overall style. So for instance take something like Jingle Bells. It could have an infinite number of arrangements in myriad styles, but that would not affect the structure. Jingle Bells will still be Jingle Bells whether it’s done in Calypso style, or as a military march, or a bluegrass tune, or whatever. 

So when I’m arranging a tune or song, either myself or together with Kate, we try different keys and different instrumentation and different phrasing and pacing until we think it’s starting to sound good. Then we sing it again. And again and again. But then sometimes we find some things don’t work as well as we imagined they would. Maybe it goes on too long, so we cut one instrumental break or make it half as long. Maybe it seemed good to us fast in our imaginations, but when we try singing it we stumble on the words, so we slow it down.

Is it a similar process with fiddle tunes?

When it comes to composing a fiddle tune and determining the structure (AA BB or otherwise), this is more fundamental than arrangement. In the 19th century, and maybe the late 18th century as well, the four strings of the fiddle (the violin) were called fine, course, counter, and bass. The E string is thin, so that is “fine.” The A string is thicker, so that is “coarse,” and so on. The high part of a fiddle tune always includes some notes on the E string, so that part was called “fine.” The low part was called the “coarse.” But some tunes have more than two parts. Highland bagpipe tunes often have four parts, especially (but not only) marches. When they get played on the fiddle, the four parts are retained. I’ve composed tunes with two parts and others with more parts. I put in more parts when I still have more to “say” musically, if the two parts don’t complete my musical idea. 

Here’s where arrangement and how many parts there are come together: Every now and then I’ve come across a traditional fiddle tune that has two versions I like. One of the parts (usually the low part) is the same in both versions. But the high parts are very different. If I like both of these high parts, I’ll play the piece as a three-part tune. 

Have you ever composed a tune that you don’t feel is suited to your playing? 

I’ve composed some tunes that are hard for me to play. I practice them until I can play them.

Talk about your relationship with Warren Hellman (founder of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco).

He’d played five-string banjo several decades earlier and wanted to get back to it. So I took him as a student and we enjoyed each other’s company. He always had great jokes and true stories to tell. And I was able to help him out with his banjo technique and repertoire. We even wrote a song together. It was based on the disappearance and reappearance of a Fairbanks Whyte Laydie banjo. Warren’s wife Chris wanted to give him a Christmas present of a Whyte Laydie banjo. She remembered that he once had one and loved it. But he’d loaned it to a feller who’d married a member of his family. He had reservations about this person, and when the couple divorced Warren was so happy to be rid of him that he never asked for the banjo back. So Chris Hellman enlisted my help. I’m pretty good at finding instruments and assessing them from a distance. I did find a nice Whyte Laydie and the order was placed. Warren drove around for a while with that banjo (in its case) in the trunk of his car without him ever knowing it was there! 

While looking for a Whyte Laydie I came upon a reasonably priced Bacon FF Professional banjo that was exactly what I’d wanted for years. So I bought it. The two banjos were delivered to my home within days of each other. Now something amazing was apparent when I looked at the necks of these two banjos. They were both made in 1909 in the Vega shop from when David Day (of Bacon & Day fame) was shop foreman. These two necks were not only identical in shape (though the fingerboards and inlay differed), but they were clearly made from the same piece of wood. But that’s not all. Warren found his new Whyte Laydie to be very much like his old one. And then he discovered a few old dings and marks and so on that were exactly like his old one. We looked into how this banjo had gotten into the shop that sold it. The original banjo borrower had consigned it there. So Warren got back his old banjo and I got its fraternal twin. We had fun writing the song. 

Much has been made in recent years about the “International” in IBMA, but you were playing Indian and other international music as far back as the ’70s. How did that evolve?

I would have arrived at playing different kinds of music one way or the other because I had so many personal connections with musicians, fans, and connoisseurs of different music from around the world. One big door was the fiddle. There’s hardly a place in the world that hasn’t incorporated the violin into its music. So when I was a teenager and in my early 20s if I heard a fiddle, I listened and I got curious.

As much as we all love the traditional sound, most musicians of any genre wander from the path.

Most working bluegrass musicians I’ve met are at least curious about other music. Many are seriously interested in other kinds of music, and often are good players in other genres. It’s always been like that, as bluegrass itself is a confluence of many streams. Most keep their musical interests separate. Who wants to hear a fiddler that sounds like a violinist? A guitarist who plays jazz chords in a bluegrass band is going to ruin the music. Each music has its own special beauty and musical toolbox. In my case, I’ve mostly kept my interests apart. But occasionally I’ve found a few things from music from other lands that can beautify my American music. I’ve used some rhythm patterns from Greece, Rumania, India, and other places in my solos. Only a person well-schooled in those musics would even notice. I’ve sometimes used a pick grip that I observed Armenian and Nubian oud players use when I was a teenager. One thing I picked up from the Indian sarod player Ali Akbar Khan was drawing a wide variety of tone qualities from whatever instrument I’m playing in any genre. The most blatant borrowing I’ve done can be heard on two songs on disc 2 of Dreams from The Overlook  Snowball Blues and If I Die In California. When a Greek guitar player accompanies a singer or instrumentalist playing a zeibekiko (which is in 9/8 time), he uses one of several common patterns. I use one of these patterns on one song and another on the other. Snowball Blues started out in the 1970s or ’80s when I was playing in a duet with Hank Bradley. We were mixing guitar riffs from rockabilly and blues music with Greek ones, and setting it to the zeibekiko framework. We were half joking but also half serious. If I Die In California, as the title suggests, is not meant to be funny. I recorded the two as a medley with the band, combining –  as I’ve done before, for better or worse –  tragic and comic elements in one musical performance. There are other small borrowings from other lands in my music. This is what musicians in all lands do and have always done. We’re always happily stealing from each other. This can be done well and it can be done badly.

What if anything do you do to avoid plagiarism when composing?

It’s been said that every possible melodic phrase has already been composed and played. That may be so, but some phrases are no longer remembered, so if you recompose ’em that’s ok. The problem with well-known or copyrighted music is that using more than a little is against the law, if you claim it as your own and get paid for what you stole instead of what you created. So if I compose something and then discover that, WHOOPS… it seems like I may have accidentally stolen it, I’ll change a note or two, or change the phrasing so that it becomes something else. Basically, I mess around and try different things until I get something that’s musically satisfying and not illegal.

Thank you Jody for your time and congratulations on the new release.

Copy editing by Jeanie Poling.

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About the Author

Dave Berry

Dave Berry is an avid mandolin picker, singer and songwriter who writes an interview column for the monthly California Bluegrass Association (CBA) members publication featuring California regional and national artists who tour California. He grew up in bluegrass country on the Ohio River right between where the Big Sandy and Big Scioto Rivers dump into the Ohio. The columns are also featured on the CBA website at www.cbaweb.org.