Here’s a real international bluegrass story, the tale of guitarist Rob Lifford, who grew up in New York, became passionate about bluegrass in South Korea, and ended up in Austin, TX jamming with the guys in Milkdrive.
And like those Austin alt-grassers, Lifford writes and performs his original instrumental music. He even enlisted the band to assist on his just-released short form album, Helium Taxi.
The eight tracks show not only Lifford’s ability as a tune writer and guitarist, but a flair for the sort of bluegrass-jazz fusion that David Grisman kicked off with his Dawg music style in the mid-1970s. His melodies are catchy, and the arrangements straightforward, making this a project likely to appeal to bluegrass fans with a taste for more modern sounds.
Though the soloing is quite strong on Helium Taxi, the tunes are the real stars, and Lifford deserves credit for putting together contemporary music that is both challenging and well-suited to the bluegrass ensemble. Assisting are Noah Jeffries on mandolin, Trevor Smith on banjo, Dennis Ludiker on fiddle, and Matt Mefford on bass.
When we first connected with Rob, he shared some details about his unique journey from rock and jazz to bluegrass and new acoustic music – and from NY to Korea to TX.
“I grew up on Long Island, New York (my hometown is called Nesconset), and spent much of high school learning rock and jazz electric guitar, and then spent much of college playing in jam bands and jazz bands. Never focused on performing my own material, though I’d been writing music on the side from the time I first started playing. I finally heard bluegrass in my early twenties and got hooked pretty quickly, picking up a mandolin and starting to focus more on acoustic guitar.
After graduating college and kicking around a few years aimlessly in various Ithaca, NY bands (I’d gone to Cornell), I decided to follow my girlfriend (now-wife) to South Korea, where we taught English for nearly three years. During that time, I listened to more and more bluegrass and progressive-acoustic music, and wrote a lot more.
In late 2001 we came back from Korea and settled in Austin, Texas, with no specific plans other than for me to get a chance to play some music again. I tried to start an act to perform my original stuff but couldn’t connect with players who’d be a good fit for the material I wanted to play, so I worked day jobs in PR and technology and mostly just played local gigs on mandolin with a more traditional bluegrass band, as well as some sideman gigs for singer-songwriters, for many years.
In 2005 we started a family and we’ve been very focused on raising our two kids, but by 2010-2011 I had enough free time to start daydreaming about playing my original material again. I’d already become a MilkDrive fan, and when I saw MilkDrive’s Dennis Ludiker and Matt Mefford playing with Trevor Smith on banjo as Dennis Ludiker Trio at the Continental Club sometime in 2011, it occurred to me immediately that they’d be a super fit for the music I wanted to play, so I approached them to play a random farmers’ market gig with me in January of this year. That was such a fun experience that in April I asked Dennis if they’d be interested in making the record with me during one of MilkDrive’s breaks from the road, and in early May we recorded it, all live, in a single session at the house in South Austin where Noah and Matt were living at the time.”
Helium Taxi is available now on CD and download from Rob’s bandcamp site, or from popular download vendors like Amazon and iTunes.