Tony Trischka – Hill Country

Tony Trischka - Hill CountryRounder Records subtitles banjo man Tony Trischka’s newly-reissued 1985 album Hill Country as The Tony Trischka Bluegrass Album.

That reference doesn’t seem especially startling to modern eyes, following Tony’s success in 2007 with his Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular project, but when Hill Country was initially released on LP in ’85, it smacked of heresy.

Tony explains why…

“After spending ten years putting out primarily progressive, left of center albums for Rounder, I decided I wanted to do a project that reflected my deep love for traditional bluegrass. I contacted the label and they were all for it.

My goal was to compose all of the music, in various categories……..blues tune, Scruggs/Keith tuner tune, gospel song, Stanleyesque tune, etc. I succeeded in doing that, and added in a traditional fiddle tune, to have a duet.”

In the mid-1980s, the sort of experimental string music we hear regularly now was far more controversial, and for many bluegrass purists the mere notion of one of “those pickers” crossing over to the traditional realm was beyond the pale. Artists like David Grisman, whose own variant on traditional string music was emerging at the time, had gone the opposite way – working initially in bluegrass and moving into what would soon be labeled as Dawg Music after doing his time as a grasser.

Trischka had not only started and stayed in the progressive camp until this time, but his music was more challenging harmonically to the ears of bluegrass fans of that day.

To further break the mold, Tony selected a different set of musicians for these sessions. Up to this point, he had primarily recorded with fellow string music progressives from the northeastern US like Russ Barenberg, Andy Statman, John Miller, Matt Glazer and Evan Stover.

“The majority of the tunes for Hill Country were recorded with the Nashville A team….Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Tony Rice, Bela Fleck, Mark O’Connor, with Mark Hembree (Monroe’s bassist around that time) and Sonny Osborne twinning with me on a tune we co-wrote. Two other sessions featured the Johnson Mountain Boys and Del McCoury.

During the mixing process I became ever more aware of how amazing Tony Rice’s back up can be. His leads are stellar, but if you ever have the luxury of soloing his back up in a studio, and just isolate his back up, you’ll fall over. It’s mind boggling.

I remember Mark O’Connor overdubbing his solo on the album 6 or 7 times. Each pass was mind boggling. He would dismiss each one and say, ‘Aww, I can do better than that,’ and do a take that would somehow surpass the previous one.”

At the time, Tony had been an endorser of Stelling banjos – a fitting modern banjo design for a rules-breaking picker. For Hill Country, though, Trischka reached back in time for one of the vaunted pre war Gibson banjos.

“I used my pre-war flathead PB-3 from 1932 for all the tunes. I’d recently acquired it from Sonny Osborne, who had told me at a gig that a professional carpenter needs the best tools he can get. Same with a professional banjoist. So he called me one day and said he had come across the PB 3 and thought I should have it. I cadged together the money and I just the love the tone of the thing on this album.”

All but one tune, a banjo/fiddle duet on Mississippi Sawyer, were written by Tony – one, Sunny Days, co-written with Sonny Osborne.

“It’s harder to name tunes than to write them, so as I was driving into Nashville on my way to the first session and saw the Cross Eyed Cricket camp ground and passed by Crossville, there were two titles right there.

Bela did a beautiful job of producing and ended up doing a lot of the actual hands-on engineering himself. He also contributed a very cool solo on Sunny Days.

For the CD reissue, we added one bonus track (Buffalo Creek) which was recorded for a Rebel Records AcuTab project that Tim Stafford had produced. I really liked the way it turned out and was hoping to put it on this reissue. Rebel was kind enough to give the go ahead, so it appears as the last track.”

The CD also has extensive new liner notes from Tom Adams, which includes this final observation…

Hill Country gives us a glimpse of the past. What we see and hear from our vantage point in the present is mysteriously comfortable. Twenty-some odd years ago, Tony Trischka was pointing the way before anyone else even knew they wanted to head in that direction. This is music that influenced a new generation of musicians to re-think and re-draw the boundaries of roots-based music. Roots that run deep. And ‘grass that keeps growing.”

I could not find any audio samples online, but they should appear soon on the Rounder site or in iTunes.

This is a terrific album of original banjo music, and a must have for all of Tony’s newer fans.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.