Mandolinist Joe Walsh was the first person to study at and graduate from the Berklee College of Music, with a focus on the mandolin. While still a student he helped form the indie-pop-grass band Joy Kills Sorrow and joined long-running New England bluegrass favorites Northern Lights.
After a couple of years, many thousands of miles, and a couple of albums, Walsh stepped back from both bands in order to join the Gibson Brothers, as their mandolinist. He played for four and half years with the brothers, and contributed to their last three award-winning records. During that time the band earned many IBMA awards.
What would you like to drink?
I’m writing to you from London on my way home from Sore Fingers camp in the Cotswolds, [England] so I think I should make like a local and ask for some tea, thanks.
Do you want anything to eat as well?
Almost always. I like to try the local foods wherever I find myself. How about some fish and chips?
What’s your favorite food?
Usually it’s whatever recipe I’ve most recently been trying to master. Currently it’s roasted chicken and it was paella just before that.
And what would you have to drink with that?
Best case scenario is a nice white or blond beer. Allagash White, which is made in my adopted hometown, Portland, Maine, would be a perfect candidate.
What’s the nicest meal that you have ever had?
It’s hard to say. One great thing about being a traveling musician is that often people want to share their town’s best food and drink. The examples are all over the map, I suppose literally, but have ranged from really nice cheeses and wines in France to great B-B-Q and sweet tea while on tour anywhere in the south. Having said that, a meal at the Dillard House, in Dillard, Georgia, is pretty darn hard to beat.
Let’s talk bluegrass….. Where/when did you first hear bluegrass music?
I think it was on a family camping trip in middle school, when we were living in North Carolina. I must admit I was not really into it then, but I think it’s fair to say that I’ve come around.
Which of your own songs do you have a particular liking for?
I write a lot of tunes, more so than songs, and it’s a really special thing to hear them played by some other folks, but of the songs I’ve pitched in on I’m pretty proud of Mole in the Ground – I took the chorus that everyone’s familiar with “I wish I was a mole in the ground…” and wrote a handful of new verses, in the hopes of having a set of words that spoke to my experience in the world, and that I could feel honest singing. Obviously there are a lot of universal themes in bluegrass and old country music, but with some songs it seems that changing a verse or two, or even as little as a word, can make a song speak to the patchwork quilt experience that being a “traditional” musician in a modern world can feel like.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that we’re not all hunting groundhog for dinner anymore, and that I feel the music can evolve to reflect that.
What about a song written by someone else?
Cold Cold Heart comes to mind. It’s really hard to beat Hank Williams – the melody is so beautiful, it works even as an instrumental number and the words hit like a rock. It’s the kind of sad song where you’re almost glad for how much it’s bumming you out. That or the Kentucky Waltz – what a great melody.
Which particular album do you like best and why?
I really like the Del McCoury band’s record The Family. That was one of the first “straight- ahead” bluegrass records I really flipped for and I’m still blown away by it. Each of the guys plays their respective roles so well: I’ve transcribed a lot of Ronnie and Jason’s solos, and have learned so much from them. They always seem to find a way to play bluegrass imaginatively and be really creative melodically, without ever losing the drive and excitement. They were what got me to go to my first bluegrass fest and I still get excited any time I see that we’re playing the same festival.
You play a …. …
Gilchrist A-style mandolin most often these days, though I also play a Laplant F-style. I’ve been very lucky to get to spend time traveling and creating music with these two inspiring partners.
What’s your favorite bluegrass memory?
Playing the IBMA awards shows at the Ryman, with the folks that makeup my iPod playlists in the audience, has to be up there. Just getting to play on that stage ever was more than I could’ve asked for, and I’ve been lucky enough to play there a few times now. Or maybe this: we played a show in France a couple of years ago, and before the concert it became clear how much of a language barrier we could expect. Beyond the words “fromage” and “2pamplemousse,” we really didn’t speak much French. The music picked up where our language left off, though, and it was amazing to see how a few well-played and beautifully sung songs could bridge our two cultures and negate the need for a common language.
How do you keep fit and healthy when you spend so much time on the road?
It’s always a challenge. I keep a pair of running shoes packed in my bag, and try and hit the treadmill in every hotel and try and hit the salad bar in every restaurant. The key word in both of those sentences is, of course, “try”.
Are you a sports fan? Who do you follow?
I’m a fan of playing sports! But I don’t stay to up to date on any particular team or sport. I’ve always liked the Twins, the baseball team from my home state, Minnesota: it’s a great state, full of kind, classy people who don’t seem to need to brag or talk trash and I think the Twins do pretty right by Minnesota.
What hobbies do you have?
Crosswords, cooking, hockey and western swing guitar. I’m not particularly good at any of them, but they keep me learning and excited about life.
What is the last movie film that you watched?
I think it was A Late Quartet, which for a musician is a sobering movie.
Do you get much time to watch TV?
I watch Parks and Recreation when I change my strings, but beyond that I don’t watch a lot of television.
What would you be doing if you weren’t involved in bluegrass music?
Cooking? Timber framing? Maybe something in Alaska. In my experience you could do a lot worse than finding an excuse to be there.
Since parting ways with the Gibson Brothers in April of 2013, Joe has been touring with Mr Sun (fiddle player Darol Anger, guitarist Grant Gordy and Ethan Jodziewicz bass)), who are sometimes joined by Tony Trischka; and playing in a trio with Brittany Haas and Owen Marshall; as well as with folk singer Jonathan Edwards and stellar guitar player Scott Nygaard.
In addition to his work on the road, Walsh teaches mandolin at the Berklee College of Music, and is the associate director of the Berklee American Roots Weekend, a new camp highlighting roots music with some of the best folk/bluegrass/roots musicians in the world.
He makes his home in beautiful and surprisingly bluegrass-friendly Portland, Maine.