Missy Raines talks Highlander, and shares new music video

Missy Raines & Allegheny – photo © Natia Cinco

With her new album, Highlander, acclaimed vocalist and bassist Missy Raines makes a concerted return to her bluegrass roots. An ode to her native West Virginia, it is, in her words, a homecoming of sorts, one which allows her to look back on from whence she came, while also setting a course towards the future.

Released on Compass Records, it features label head Alison Brown in the producer’s chair and her group Allegheny — Ellie Hakanson (fiddle, harmony ovals), Ben Barnett (guitar), Eli Gilbert (banjo), and Tristan Scroggins (mandolin, harmony vocals) as her back-up band. It also features a vast array of special guests, among them, country star and fellow West Virginian Kathy Mattea; fiddle virtuosos Michael Cleveland, Bronwyn Keith-Hynes, Darol Anger, and Shad Cobb; renowned bluegrass vocalists Danny Paisley, Dudley Connell, and Laurie Lewis; dobro wizard Rob Ickes; and, of course, Alison Brown herself on banjo. 

In peering into the past, Highlander recalls the choices and challenges Raines faced early on — that is, whether to remain in her native environs or seek her fortunes in Nashville, where obvious opportunities might await. She chose the latter and it quickly became obvious she’d made the correct decision. The honors came quickly — 14 International Bluegrass Music Association awards, including no less than ten awarded for Bass Player of the Year. In addition, her 2018 release, Royal Traveller, was also nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album in 2020.

Nevertheless, Highlander evokes the memories and imagery and influences of the place she left behind, and the traditional bluegrass sounds that started her on her fabled musical journey. It’s shared from a personal perspective, but the feelings and emotions also exist on a universal plain. It’s clear that this affection for bluegrass is imbued in her, and while she’s taken opportunities to explore her styles and sounds throughout a storied career, the imprint and influence of bluegrass remains as vivid and vital as ever.

Bluegrass Today recently had the opportunity to talk to Ms. Raines, who graciously shared her backstory, and reflected on the inspiration that started her toward success.

For starters – give us an idea of your initial influences and what compelled you to pursue this particular genre of Americana and bluegrass? 

My parents were listening to country and bluegrass music long before I was born. By the time I came along as the youngest of four kids, they were already attending day concerts in the mid-Atlantic region to see performers like Faron Young, Ray Price, The Country Gentlemen, The Osborne Brothers, and many others. When the multi-day bluegrass festival became a thing in 1965, my folks found the recreational activity that would become their passion, going to bluegrass festivals. 

Clearly then, their love of the music was passed to you early on.

I think because of these festivals and that early exposure to live music, the love of acoustic music was imprinted at a young age. The entire festival experience was incredibly magical for me. You could be just feet away from the stars on stage during their big set on a Saturday night, and then you’d have great musicians at your campsite later that night playing around a fire. It was the best.

I owe so much to Carlton Haney for the festivals that he produced during that time. He was a visionary. We went to every one we could attend. Camp Springs, Gettysburg, Berryville, and others. He had a varied roster of artists, always trying to include both traditional and progressive bands, and he would refer to them as “music for the long hairs and the short hairs.” He also made space for bands like The Buffalo Gals, an all-women progressive band from the Northeast, and African American blues guitarist Tom Winslow. He created events that presented many elements of bluegrass, and it shaped how I viewed the genre. 

You’ve won so many honors and awards — does that in itself set a high bar for you? Do you feel like you have to live up to certain expectations? 

I mean, yes, which is a lot of pressure, and so I try to keep it in perspective. First of all, the awards are not intended to be — and I don’t think of them — as being about the “best” at whatever. It’s more an acknowledgement and recognition of a perceived impact for the year. Like, is there a buzz about what you are doing, and has it been well-received in the last touring or recording year. I think that’s a much better measurement because all my friends who are nominated for these awards, and all the ones who should be nominated, are great, and many of them excel in unique ways, so to try to narrow down to the one “best” is just crazy. 

You’ve played with a number of different bands, so how is it different to be at the helm — or solo — and taking on all the responsibility for the music as opposed to being one of the contributors? 

I do have the final say about the music since my name heads it up, but with this band, Allegheny, it’s a very collaborative setting, and I encourage that fully. That collaboration band-vibe is what I have always wanted. This album, Highlander, is a combination of ideas and inspiration from the entire band. Musically, the greatest challenge for me is knowing what it is I want to say, and learning to choose — or hopefully write — the best songs that reflect that. And, then, to create a safe space within the band that allows for and nurtures collaboration to make it the best it can be. 

That seems like it can be a real challenge. Plus, your responsibilities go far beyond simply playing the right parts.

It’s always challenging when you feel like you are responsible for making good decisions, especially when you feel like you can’t afford to make wrong ones. The biggest difference I see day to day is how my time is spent, especially when we are on the road, but really just my time overall. Beyond the music end of it, there are so many details to the road, managing for either the tour we are on, or the one we will be on next month. I don’t always have the time to do the things I used to do for my own self-care. So it’s a struggle finding a balance.

When I was working for folks like Claire Lynch, my job was bass player, and I could plan my day on the road around working out, sleeping, finding good coffee. But that is more challenging now that ultimately I have so many plates spinning at any given time. I have told Claire that I used to wonder what all she could possibly be doing that kept her up late or got her up early on the road because I didn’t have a clue what it took to run a band! We have laughed about that. But I do have a bit of a clue, now. (ha ha)

What was the plan and the thinking that went into the making of this particular album? Did you do anything different? What was the idea going forward? 

The short answers are: 1) I wanted to represent this incredible band on record, and 2) I wanted to make an album that was undeniably bluegrass, and 3) that paid tribute to the music that influenced me so much from those early bluegrass days. Another element that makes this album unique for me is that all of my other albums have always been without any confinement around what material was eligible. I would record a jazz tune next to fiddle tune or something more traditional next to a new grass sound. The “thread” that connected songs on an album might be the subject matter of the lyric, but the style of the music might differ greatly. I enjoyed the freedom that comes with that. On Highlander, I wanted a very connected sound from song to song, without being boring, and I think we did that. 

Would you mind sharing the backstory of how you came to this point, what made you decide to take the direction you took?

By 2016 or so, I found myself kind of band-less for a bit. I knew that the band I had started nearly eight years before, The New Hip, was something I was ready to put “on the shelf” for a while. I was touring with a quartet version, and had even started the early process of what was to be my next album, but the band dissolved as we started to record. Pretty much due to necessity, I was touring as a trio only, with a rotating cast of great players, just to cut costs while I could find the path to what I wanted to do next. 

By 2017 I started the making of my last album, Royal Traveller, but to be honest, even though Alison Brown and I were putting together songs for this album, I didn’t have a plan for how to tour it. I knew I wanted the songs to reflect what I had been through — the ups and downs of the business and some personal losses —  and I didn’t much worry about how I would reproduce the songs on the road. I landed with a great trio — including Ben Garnett and George Jackson — and we toured heavily with the release of that record, and it ended up getting a lot of attention. But by 2019, knowing that I wanted to tour with a full-on bluegrass band, and I wanted my next album to feature that band, I just didn’t know then who would end up being in the band. I had hoped it would be Ben Garnett, and I had hoped it would be Tristan Scroggins, and I didn’t know that Ellie Hakanson might be willing and available. I didn’t even know Eli Gilbert at that time. I started to put the wheels in motion to graduate from a trio to a quintet back then. 

Royal Traveller was nominated for a Grammy in 2020, and I had some nice tours booked for a quartet for 2020 with the plan being eventually to add banjo. And then of course March of 2020 happened and everything stopped. But eventually, through the pandemic, I was able to put together a band and get to the other side, but ultimately it wasn’t quite there yet. I knew we needed to record an album, but we needed time and gigs to build our repertoire. When Ellie and Eli came on board with Ben and Tristan, I knew we had the right combination. It was magical, even then in the earliest of days. So the making of Highlander was our next goal. 

You tackle a few difficult subjects on the album, including the opioid crisis. What made you decide to weigh in on that? How have you been personally affected, and what inspired you to speak out? 

I am a proud West Virginia mountaineer, and still have family who live in the same area where I grew up, so this is a situation close to my heart. I think it would be hard to find someone who hasn’t been affected by the crisis, because everyone knows someone who’s been impacted by it. West Virginia, which has the nation’s highest overdose death rate, was completely targeted by the pharmaceutical industry — a web of doctors, pharmacists, and drug companies, in order to sell prescription drugs as a means to make a few people very wealthy. Just one example — drug distribution companies were delivering millions of opioid pills a year to just two pharmacies, all in a town of fewer than 3,000 people, in one of the poorest counties in America, and nobody batted an eye. 

So how did Kathy Mattea happen to come on board? 

We wanted to ask Kathy to sing on this for several reasons. The first reason being that she is a fellow West Virginian, and I’m a big fan. When I learned that she has been personally affected by this crisis within her family, and has actively spoken out about these issues for years, I knew we were meant to have her. She really liked the song and was genuinely happy to be part of the project. 

The third single from your new project Highlander is a song called Fast Moving Train that features the members of Allegheny. It sounds like it could have come from Jimmie Rogers catalog, but I see that it was written by Shad Cobb. Can you tell us how you came across the song and why you decided to include it on this project? 

Shad and I played in a band together called Helen Highwater Stringband along with David Grier and Mike Compton. That band started around 2015 — maybe 2014? — and we played for a couple of years. We did several songs that Shad wrote in that band, and one of them was Fast Moving Train. I loved the song, and I knew no one was really doing it, so I asked Shad if he minded that we cover it, and he said yes. I think it’s hard to find a good train song because there are already a lot of good train songs! But this one is a good train song! 

Bluegrass has obviously become very popular — and a populist form of music. Why do you think that is? What so think are the reasons behind that? 

Well, I think the biggest reason behind bluegrass becoming more popular is that we are getting better at sending the message that bluegrass is for everyone. The more inclusive the world sees us, the more the world will want to check it out, and we all know that once you hear it, you’re gonna like it! I also think that we experienced many events since the inception of bluegrass that’s helped propel its trajectory. Everything from Flatt & Scruggs on the Grand Ole Opry, to the Folk Boom of the ’60s, to the movie Bonnie and Clyde, to Alison Krauss, and definitely Oh Brother Where Art Thou.

And of course, many younger artists are contributing to that trajectory…

There is no question that artists like Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle are bringing bluegrass to the masses in a way that we’ve never experienced before. I feel like it’s a circular thing in a way… they are cutting a wide swath through which we can all walk, and that path was definitely started long before us. 

Anything you’d like to add or let our readers know? 

We are touring Highlander right now throughout the year, and playing all over the country and Canada. You can go to our web site to find all the dates. We will be at Durango Bluegrass Meltdown, MerleFest, Blue Highway Fest, and Grey Fox to name a few festivals. 

And you have a new video!

We have this really fun video we made together of Fast Moving Train, directed by Eli Gilbert and Tristan Scroggins. We did it in one evening in Big Stone Gap, Virginia at a local park and in a hotel room with a green screen before playing at Blue Highway Fest.

Highlander from Missy Raines & Allegheny is available now through popular download and streaming services online, and to radio programmers through AirPlay Direct.

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About the Author

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman has been a writer and reviewer for the better part of the past 20 years. He writes for the following publications — No Depression, Goldmine, Country Standard TIme, Paste, Relix, Lincoln Center Spotlight, Fader, and Glide. A lifelong music obsessive and avid collector, he firmly believes that music provides the soundtrack for our lives and his reverence for the artists, performers and creative mind that go into creating their craft spurs his inspiration and motivation for every word hie writes.