Let me say this about that

Chris JonesOne of the most challenging aspects of hosting radio shows is doing interviews. What are the most relevant questions to ask? What are questions other people might not have thought of? How do you get the shortest possible response from someone who has a reputation for the 15-minute run-on sentence, or how do you draw someone out who tends to respond with answers like, “Yeah, I guess,” or “I don’t know, it’s just the way it is”?

Luckily, from time-to-time there are IBMA seminars for broadcasters about this sort of thing, and you can sometimes seek out the advice of fellow program hosts who are known for their interviewing skills. What about the artist side of the microphone, though? We don’t tend to talk much about how to be a good interviewee. Sure, the big name artists signed to major labels often have media experts who are there to coach them on being a good guest. They’re part of the entourage that includes the masseuse, the hair stylist, and the astrologer.

We don’t get that in the bluegrass world. We’re just thrown out there to be interviewed, sometimes by people who aren’t necessarily that good at their end of the equation, either. The results can be messy, or sometimes just awkward.

A friend of mine, and a regular reader of this column—we’ll just call her “Elizabeth”—suggested that it would be fun (if that’s the word) if bluegrass musicians answered questions like presidential candidates do. After all, those candidates certainly have plenty of media coaching, don’t they? Well, they should, anyway.

I thought it was an intriguing idea. I actually decided to do a little research, which unfortunately required me to actually watch one of the recent candidates’ debates, thus forcing me to miss what I considered more worthwhile television at the time: Bewitched reruns, and the Albania-Mongolia table tennis quarter final.

It turned out to be a revelation to me: I had mistakenly thought all this time that all that was required to sound like a professional politician of any kind was to say the word “frankly” a lot. There turns out to be much more to it. You need to be able to make sweeping generalizations, combined with very vague promises, all while staying “on message” and repeating your sound byte-friendly theme as often as possible. Questions should be seen merely as a vehicle for you to spout your prepared material. Frankly, there’s an art to it.

Here then is how a bluegrass artist might answer interview questions in the manner of a candidate for president:

Interviewer: Thanks for being here, and congratulations on the success of your latest album Grass for Thought.

You: Thank you, Bill (the interviewer’s name is actually Henry). It’s something I’ve worked for all my life, since I started from humble beginnings in a small seven-room home on the outskirts of what we used to call “Indianapolis.” My father believed in the principles of hard work and doing what you can for yourself. He used to tell me, “Son, lots of people can sing Sunny Side of the Mountain and lots of people can play a G-run, but not everyone can do it with heart. If you work hard, you can, and in this great country, you can succeed, and someday you too can release a record that sells 2500 units and gets played on Spotify.” Bill, I never forgot that lesson, and he was right. He passed away two years ago, and . . . (pause here to simulate being choked up) . . . never got to see Grass for Thought come to fruition, but I believe he was smiling down on me when those first Spotify royalties came in.

Interviewer: Grass for Thought is now two years old. Do you have plans to record something new?

You: I have plans to record the album that America is waiting for, the album that America deserves. As I’ve traveled this great country, I’ve listened to what people have told me, and I’m ready to be their leader and make their record. You see, it’s not my album, it’s theirs. I’m not a career bluegrass musician who has lived off the milk and honey of the festival circuit. I’ve lived this music. I understand it. I’ve been to little cabin homes on the hill, like the one owned by Frank and Lois Gentry of Greenup, Kentucky, or Walter and Betty Franklin of Washington Court House, Ohio. Maybe that one was more of a ranch-style house, but you get the idea. I’ve sat with these people over coffee, and they tell me over and over that bluegrass music is broken, and that I’m the man to fix it. “Bring back the heart,” they tell me, and that’s just what I intend to do.

Interviewer: What about song selection for this project?

You: Jim, I’m glad you asked about that, but let me back up for a minute. When we decided to make this album for bluegrass fans, we wanted to go beyond mere songs. We’re putting down real music that means something. It’s a message, it matters, and it’s real. That’s what bringing back the heart is all about. We also decided that unlike the career musicians, we were going to stay on budget. The people I’ve talked to all across this great land are sick and tired of their $15 going to pay off bloated $30,000 recording budgets. We’re going to make something that’s not just a good record, but by trimming the waste and fat from our recording process, we’re going to do it without saddling bluegrass fans with our debt for generations to come. We may even earn royalties on it someday.

Interviewer: How do you plan to trim your recording budget?

You: That’s a great question, Bill, and one that deserves a real answer, unlike the kind you’ve heard from some of my opponents, quite frankly. We’re looking into this and studying every aspect of it. I’ve appointed a nine-member commission to do just that, a commission made up of men and women who are just as concerned about this as I am. But you can be assured that I will not rest until we’ve made the kind of recording that the American bluegrass fan deserves, one that doesn’t break the backs of the bluegrass CD-buyer.

Interviewer: You’ve recently had a personnel change. Your banjo player has left. Was that over a disagreement between you, as some in the press have reported?

You: Well that’s what I’d expect from the press (pause for laughter). No, James Kildare and I are nothing but the best of friends. I’m grateful for his years of honorable and dedicated service, and frankly I’m grateful for his outstanding rendition of Ground Speed. He has decided to spend more time with his family, and I can’t think of any worthier cause, other than staying with my band. If he hadn’t had prior commitments, he might have been here with me today, standing with me, to express his support for me and the cause of bringing back the heart!

Interviewer: I think he’s already playing with another band, isn’t he?

You: Thank you Scott, no further questions.