When the Fox TV show Next Great American Band was airing in late 2007, we covered the show each week. Right from the first episode, there were two bluegrass/acoustic acts in the running for this American Idol-style competition, and Casey Henry provided us with updates on how they fared in the audience voting after each show.
Though The Clark Brothers won the title – and we celebrated them doing so as a primarily acoustic string trio with bluegrass roots – it was Cliff Wagner & Old #7 that captured the interest of bluegrassers. They performed throughout as a five piece bluegrass band and entertained the judges and the audience with their humor and good natured efforts to fit with the more pop-oriented structure of the show’s music.
Wagner and crew made it through week 5 before being dropped by viewer votes, but built a sizable following online in the process.
Cliff plays banjo and fiddle and sings lead, Craig Ferguson is on guitar, mandolin and resonator guitar, Devitt Feeley is on mandolin and vocals, Lucas Cheadle plays bass and Stephen Mugalian is on drums.
We had a chance to interview Cliff recently about their appearance on NGAB, and how it may affect them as a band going forward.
What led you to enter the Fox competition?
“I was watching American Idol and they advertised the show with an address to send in a video of your band. I had a video that my bass player had made and we sent it in as sort of a joke. That video put us in the top 60 out of 8,000. Once they flew us out to Vegas for the audition we figured out it wasn’t a joke anymore.”
Had your band been together long?
“I’ve had this band going with different line-ups for about 6 years. Devitt and Craig have been with me for about a year. Steve and Lucas joined when we started the show. My original bass player didn’t have the time to participate in the show, and my original drummer went to the audition but later decided he didn’t want to do the show. Enter Steve and Lucas.”
How did you and the guys react when you learned that you had been selected?
“Sort of.. ‘uh oh, now we did it.’ We were nervous about being on TV and how we might be portrayed. Plus it was a big time commitment. All of our lives stopped for about three months.”
Did your approach change over the course of the competition?
“It never did. We did think about it though. Franklin Bridge added backing tracks to their performance. The Clarks went electric and added other musicians later. We decided early on we would interpret these songs they way we would play them live and people would like it or not. It was important to us that we got voted on the show for being ourselves and not trying to out “showcase” the other bands in some way.”
What sort of reaction did you get from the producers and the other bands in the competition?
“After the show where we were eliminated was over, many of the producers came up and told us they were sad to see us go and thought we had been eliminated too soon. The other bands were great to be around and are now life-long friends of ours. It’s cool because a band like dot dot dot… you think we would have nothing in common with became very close friends of ours. They even covered a song that I wrote and recorded it for us in their rehearsal space. I’m going to post it on my website. It’s hilarious!”
Have you seen much of an effect from the added exposure so far?
“Yes! I sold a ton of CDs, and have received thousands of emails from people all over the country that want us to come and play. We are working on new management and booking right now, but we will be hitting the road soon to say howdy to all those folks. I got recognized twice in the Memphis airport two weeks ago! Watch out Britney Spears!”
What do you plan to do to take advantage of the experience?
“Well… We will play out as much as we can and try to do some more TV. That’s the way to get your name out there. I plan to get on every TV show that will have us. NO more contests though, we’re done with that. We had fun, no regrets, but do it again next year? No thanks.”
Cliff especially wanted to thank the people who voted for them during Next Great American Band. Their tour schedule is regularly updated on their web site, and they have plans for their fourth CD release later this year which will include Honky Cat and Like A Virgin, two of the most requested songs from their NGAB appearances.