Rowan Brothers Interview

While at Hickory Fest in Wellsboro, PA this past August, I had a chance to sit down with Chris & Lorin Rowan after their performance. They talked about their older brother Peter, their own careers and their connection with Sue Cunningham.

Tom Wickstrom (TW): I’m sitting here with the Rowan Brothers, Chris & Lorin. We’re going to have a little chat. First off, I wanted to ask you about growing up. How much older is Peter than the two of you?
Lorin Rowan (LR): Ten years for me. Chris is in the middle. I’m Lorin, the youngest.

TW: Did you all get along growing up?
LR: Yes. We were like a tribe, the brothers with the parents. Being the youngest, my older brothers were into music, so it was natural for me. I started off playing a tennis racquet, then a ukulele and then Chris showed me my first E chord.
Chris Rowan (CR): Peter showed me my first E chord. By having this almost 5 years age difference between Peter & me & another 5 years to Lorin, we kind of had our own generational age group. We find out with the relatives & friends of younger generations that as you get older, these different stages of different generations get closer together. When you get in your 40’s & 50’s, 5 years apart becomes much more current instead of he’s 20, he’s 15 & he’s 10. We got along as brothers, but kind of had our own individuality & there was always music in the house.

TW: So, your parents both played?
LR: They appreciated music. Mom could play the piano.
CR: She played “Moonlight Sonata”. She was really good in the first 50 seconds and then she would trail off. She also knew some of Cole Porter’s “Night & Day”. They loved music.
LR: Dad was a singer in glee clubs and he’d sing around the house. He’d look you in the eye and then would start singing “Camelot”. the whole show. There’s pictures of him in his twenties where he was in local theater. That generation had to deal with World War I & II as well as the Great Depression, so they toned down those bohemian inclinations for a more secure lifestyle. There’s a great picture of our dad in a play outside around a campfire, He’s dressed as a gypsy, which was reminiscent of when Peter dressed up in his Tex-Mex style. It was in our blood. We were the extra-versions of them. We blossomed totally from that side of the brain, the music side. None of us became businessmen.
CR: That’s for sure, I’ve learned to keep a checking account in order and that’s about it.
LR: We learned to make a business out of music as much as you’re supposed to. Music has been the inspiration for all of us and to this day we are all writing songs all of the time. Chris & I did a lot of duo stuff together and we also get with Pete on different occasions. We’re all lucky to be alive and healthy and still doing what we love to do. Getting together to play is really a treat.
CR: Peter is now 75 and I’ll be 70 in November and Lorin just turned 65. When we get together, we have great joy in reminiscing about our childhood & family & relatives. We enjoy our trips down memory lane.
LR: We have these records of our family memories that we talk about all the time when we get together. More than we play music. y the way, we’re working on a Christmas album with Peter too. In that time we’ll always go flashback on experiences growing up. It’s great because we know we were there. You know what I mean. The other people & the friendships you develop as you grow up. That thing you have with your family and because you all got along, helps us to relive those memories when we get together. We crack each other up. We laugh so hard at some of those things because there was some really crazy stuff that we did when we were young.
CR: You know, Pete competes sometimes pretty seriously & I get great enjoyment seeing him have a big belly laugh from some comment that I made.

TW: Do you both share the same spiritual outlook & experiences as Peter?
CR: Peter is a Buddhist type of guy. I’m more into a spirituality. I’ve had some experiences with the Medium world. I won’t go into a lot of detail, because most people might call me nutty. I’ve had some personal experiences that I hold dear to my life experience. I believe that there is a spirit world outside of this physical world.
LR: I love & I think Mother Nature is total God consciousness. Even right here. I think of right now being in the moment of now and that we are celebrating Sue. She was pure spirit with or without. Within you without you kind of thing. Living in the moment is the blessing.

TW: Do you guys get political and put that in your songwriting?
LR: Yes, we do. We could have done a song tonight that we did back in the 70’s called “All The Kings Men”, which I wrote around 1976. The Viet Nam war was ending & I felt moved to write something about it. All the Kings men they are falling, they are falling & it was just reflecting on what you were witnessing at the time. Recently we drove by somewhere and witnessed supporters of our current president. That was kind of weird.
CR: Dump the Trump. Hello.
LR: Yeah, Dump the Trump. We really don’t want to cross political lines though. We met a guy that was 92 years old on the same part of the cape that our family had a phouse through the years. He was a republican but not into politics. This was interesting. He said that he had been a very successful CEO for a company. He said: “I’m not into politics and I’m not into fighting about it”.
CR: He did say Trump was an embarrassment and that he didn’t like everything he said but he did like his fire & fury talk about North Korea and hoped they would back down. Then I read the next day in the newspaper that the North Koreans dismissed what Trump said. I’m into creating music from the heart.
LR: We are trying to bring joy and to heal. Let music be healing & sharing & laughter because there’s too much frigging hate.
CR: There’s enough hatred out there.
LR: I mean with all the stuff going on in the world that you read about, we are so lucky. The American Dream is hopefully available for anybody who wants to be here. You can also find a place like this festival to enjoy because we continue to work hard to be able to do it. That’s what I think is fabulous.

TW: The first time you recorded, David Grisman was your producer & Jerry Garcia played on it. Will you share that story?
LR: Yes, David Grisman produced our record & introduced us to Jerry. He said we should come out to the west coast. We were living on the east coast. It was either England or the west coast.
CR: I had gone over to England in March 1969 to try to get involved with the Beatles. Prior to that, David Grisman had been working with Peter in this group called Earth Opera, which was like a modern day opera of mostly Peter’s songs.
LR: Art songs
CR: They had great mandolin & guitar playing and were a great band.
LR: Have you listened to it?
TW: No, I have not.
LR: It’s interesting. It’s very different. Very artful songs.
CR: so, I went to England and I’m writing some songs that helped me confirm my belief that maybe I was a songwriter. I was beginning to think that because I loved listening to the Everly Brothers.
LR: He used to be a waitress before that (big laugh).
CR: That was in a past life (chuckle). Peter was bringing rock & roll records home like “Good Golly Miss Molly”, “Boney Maroney” & “Keep A Knocking'”. When I was about 8 or 9 I kind of wrote my first song called “Moovy Groovy”. Moovy all over the floor, Rocking around all over the town, Moovy Groovy once more tonight. I had fun & wow I can write my own songs. Anyways, I went to England and wrote a couple of songs and then I met up with David Grisman. He was living in the Boston area, kind of in the fading out period of working with Peter in Earth Opera. He was making a record & liked one of my songs. He recorded it and was really excited about it and this fiddle player on it named Richard Green. David asked us if Lorin & I played together. I said we played around the house and the next thing you know, David is making demo tapes of us and he’s also playing on some Grateful Dead albums. Because of David & Jerry’s bluegrass connections, Jerry tells Grisman to bring his recording company to northern California. We left in October 1970 and began our journey as a duo. Within 3 or 4 months, we were playing for David Geffen, who our manager was friends with. David Geffen, who managed Crosby, Stills & Nash had heard our demos & wanted to check us out. We went down & played in front of Geffen and he wanted to sign us to his new label Asylum. He also played a cassette of a new artist and asked us what we thought. It was Jackson Browne. Now, Clive Davis is in town in LA and he hears that Geffen’s onto something new. Next thing you know we are playing for Clive at the Beverly Hills Hotel and he offers twice as much money as what Geffen was offering. So here we are, 2 innocent singer songwriters having big dreams and that’s how our first record with Grisman on Columbia came about.
LR: We auditioned for Clive at the Beverly Hills Hotel. We naïve east coast boys coming out to California, but now we were in LA & Hollywood, which was different. We walked in the door and there was Georgie Jessel walking through the lobby and an actual bellboy like you see in the old movies. It was like a cartoon becoming real. We played in the Polo Lounge, It was just us with a piano & guitar. Acoustic just like we did today. After we had played for Clive & Geffen, our manager brought in Ahmet Ertigan from Atlantic Records. Here we are, 2 young kids performing for Ahmet & he asks when we were going into the studio. We went from a wing & a prayer to an all thumbs up. That’s how we got started in a nutshell.

TW: How did you meet Sue Cunningham and come together to play music?
LR: Peter invited me to come down and play at Magnolia Festival at Suwannee about 8 years ago and he invited Sue up on stage with us to sing & play fiddle. I was playing electric guitar with Peter and he had a little more of the Reggae groove going on at the time. So I actually met Sue on stage. Afterward, I told her that I was glad to meet her. We started talking & I shared with her what I was doing with my brother Chris and that we had just made a record. She told us about Hickory Fest. This was probably 8 years ago. I told her that we were going to be touring that summer and asked if there was a chance we could play on her festival. She said that she had to think about it. Over the next few days we became good friends and she told us she’d love to have us at the festival. So it became a part of our tour. We had Sue come up for a few songs to sing & play fiddle. Things went so well that it eventually progressed to talking about doing a project together.
CR: Sue’s business, outside of being an A+ violinist/fiddle player was that she worked for a company out of Jupiter (FL) that worked on turbo engines for rockets.
LR: She was a brilliant engineer.
CR: She had a business degree from MIT. Just a brilliant, loving, beautiful person but she also had many bluegrass experiences up here in Wellsboro. During the winter the season begins because it’s not sweltering hot at that time of year. We put some gigs together and came down and we all started playing together. The next thing you know, we started talking about making a CD together. We had so much fun that I asked Sue if she wanted to continue doing it and she said yes. So we started making plans to play throughout the years.
LR: The Rowan Cunningham Band made 2 records and played a lot of gigs. They were great. Too bad it got interrupted.
CR: Frank (Sue’s partner), the photographer would show up with pictures he had taken. We were touring on the “Now & Then” tour & Frank would show up with pictures. That’s how we got to know Frank. Then Lorin linked up with Peter, Sue & Frank at Mag Fest. Everything sort of just came together.
LR: We asked Frank if he would be interested in booking us and he said he’d give it a try. He became good at it. We got around and played throughout the southwest.

TW: Are you still touring regularly?
LR: Not as much. We’re mostly out of the northern California area. We do get to Hawaii and we work on our own individual projects together. So, we keep going.
CR: As much as we can find a way to tour. Basically as a duo, our act is very accessible. We can make some money and people love hearing our songs & harmonies.
LR: We can do things on an acoustic level but today we played with the Big Sky guys. There’s another new connection we’ve made. They said they would love to be our backup band when we come down to Florida. So now because of this festival & Sue, as well as Frank & Peter, things keep evolving. Another blossom has started growing.
TW: This is my first time coming to Hickory Fest. When I discover a festival such as this, I also find that I’ve made a new family .
CR: It is personable here.
LR: We’ve met some great people here. It’s got the nicest vibe. Musicians and other people have been very friendly and we’ve enjoyed talking to everyone.
CR: Did you ever hear Sue play?
TW: No. I did just grab the CD she did with Verlon Thompson and I’ve been able to listen to her live concert CD that they have been playing between sets.
LR: You need to get the Rowan Cunningham Band’s “New Horizons” CD. That’s the latest one we did together. It was beautiful and it was the 3 of us. We split the lead vocal chores and there are beautiful 3-part harmonies.
CR: That was like the accumulation of almost 2 years of making time to go to Florida and for her to come out to the west coast.

TW: I don’t want to take up much more of your time but it’s time for the bombshell question.
CR: Uh oh. Bombshell:
TW: What has music taught you about yourselves?
LR: To be true to yourself and look in the mirror of your muse and know that you are really in control of what you are doing, if you want to be. Where it goes you never know but for sure follow your heart. If you’re going to fuck up, then that’s going to cost you. If you’re going to succeed, it’s going to be a good thing. You always try to stay on that. You’re never always perfect. I’m not perfect going this way or that. I know if I want to do music, I have to let it breathe & be a part of it. I never want to hinder that. I don’t ever want to lose touch, so I watch my P’s & Q’s. When I realize that I’m getting a little on the outside, I have to rein things in.
CR: Hmm. The bombshell. I feel fortunate that I’m going to be 70. Music was so much a part of my life outside of hearing my parents & their cocktail parties. I always had a radio next to my bed. I remember hearing “Love Me Tender” and they would play it 4 times an hour. Someone would call in & they would play it again. I loved the melody. Then I heard “Dreams” by the Everly Brothers and it was so beautiful. Then I heard the Diamonds. Those beautiful chords, keeping a life of being grateful for, being appreciative of melody and channeling one’s life experiences to express yourself through lyrics & melody. Stay humble & grateful.

TW: awesome. That’s a great answer. Is there anything else I didn’t cover or ask?
CR: I really feel the music keeps me moving forward & keeps me in touch in the moment. It’s a wonderful thing to share with people and there’s an interaction with the music and those performing it especially when it’s live. Performing live really keeps you on this high. After I play, I feel like I’ve done yoga or something. It’s very evolving & meditative.
CR: It’s an endorphin. Today we used a drummer that we had never paled with before & the tempo was right in the pocket.
TW: It was magical watching you practice with Megan McGarry in here earlier.
LR: Did you get any of that by any chance?
TW: Just some pictures of you practicing. Thanks for taking the time to chat.


Jon Stickley Trio’s Music Speaks Volumes Without Words

The Jon Stickley Trio is an instrumental band based out of Asheville, NC. Jon Stickley (guitar), Lyndsay Pruett (fiddle) & Patrick Armitage (percussion) create a unique sound that combines the feel & tempo of bluegrass while pulling in many other genres including gypsy, punk & classical. I had an opportunity to sit down with the band prior to their first ever Columbus performance at Woodlands Tavern.
Tom Wickstrom(TW): First things first, how did you guys come together as a band?
Lyndsay Pruett(LP): We met basically through the Asheville music scene while playing gigs together. Stickley & I met on a gig playing bluegrass and we were going to a lot of the same jams. Patrick & I met also at a gig right when we really needed a drummer and I told Stickley that we needed to get that guy. And he was like okay.
TW: You guys don’t use vocals at all. I know that a couple of you sing. I’ve heard you sing. How did you come to the decision to be just instrumental and not include vocals in your music?
Jon Stickley(JS): It was interesting. We used to sing some in the band. We started writing & composing original instrumental music and none off us really writes songs with words, so when it came time to do our debut album with producer Dave King, he kind of helped us figure out that the instrumental stuff was what gave us our personality. It was our biggest strength. We were worried that we needed to sing more but he told us: “Don’t worry about the singing. I’m in an all instrumental band &my life is going really well. You guys should consider one more instrumental album”. We did it and we were really happy with the way the album turned out. We did our first all instrumental festival set down at the Suwannee Springfest maybe 2 or 3 years ago. We thought it was the best set that we had ever played. It seemed natural & it highlighted all of our strengths. We didn’t have that weird moment where we opened up our ands that we have done
LP: It turns out that if you don’t sing at all, nobody asks you to sing.
JS: Nobody asks about us singing anymore.
LP: When we would sing 1 or 2 songs, then everybody would be like: “You need to sing more”.
TW: With your songwriting, do you write individually or together as a group?
JS: It’s the same process with me and Lyndsay. We usually come up with a simple demo for a song & present it to the group. We try to work it or flesh it out together. Usually it takes about 3 hours to take a simple demo & turn it into a fully formed song.
TW: Patrick, do you bring anything like a percussion piece to the table for the band to work with?
Patrick Armitage(PA): I wouldn’t bring something to the table and say “let’s write a song around this”. I’ve never been like that. I’ve always been supporting and by being involved in all the arrangements and the dynamics and the feel instead of the actual songwriting. Sometimes Jon will bring beats, either something he has come up with or that he’s heard me play at a sound check or something & he’ll write around that.
TW: I saw you perform this past May at the Moonshiner’s Ball in Kentucky. Chris Cornell had just passed away and you opened your set with a moving instrumental version of “Black Hole Sun”. Was that something that you came up with on the spot. Also, how do you choose a cover song or snippets of songs to include in your sets?
JS: We haven’t done a lot of that but that was a thing where Chris Cornell was an artist who had died, but he had a big influence on me. I’m a big fan of grunge & 90’s rock and stuff like that. That one resonated with me. There have been a lot of amazing artists that have passed on and we should be doing tributes for them as well. I’ve always loved “Black Hole Sun” and it just popped into my head that it would sound neat if we played that song. Yes, we throw in things. A lot of times, the riffs of other bands that we have played just happened spontaneously at our live shows. We’ve continued to include them as part of our live shows.
TW: I see you have been added to Strings & Sol. I will see you down there. How excited are you about going?
LP: Very
JS: We are extremely excited and also very, very honored to have been asked to go. Just to be included on such a high caliber lineup such as Strings & Sol is quite an honor.
TW: With everything going on in the world and politics etcetera, do you ever interject your thought or feeling into your songs? I know it has to be a little different because you don’t write words, but does that ever come into play in your songwriting?
JS: I did write a song after the Paris nightclub shooting. I kind of came up with a tune as a response because of what was in my head space at the time. It was on my mind. The shooting had a big effect on us because we’re in venues like that every night. It’s so horrible that it happened and we had been thinking about it a lot. Usually our music doesn’t get too political though.
PA: Politics really isn’t a muse.
JS: Politics doesn’t inspire us. There’s anger that I think we all feel right now & sometimes it probably comes out in our live performances. You channel your frustrations a little bit.
LP: With instrumental music you’re even more free to really express whatever you’re processing & thinking inside. Obviously we are all thinking about the world & what’s happening in it. Without having to make a precise statement about what is going on, it becomes more of an abstract thing in the way you are expressing yourself.
JS: More people can connect with it too. They can take their own experience, whatever they are going through & relate to just the emotion they’re feeling. They can make it their own.
PA: Politics certainly provides fodder for conversation in the band when we’re driving around. That’s pretty much where it stays.
TW: I know when I talk to a lot of musicians, politics is a fine line for a band because you typically have fans from both sides of the fence and they don’t want to alienate them. Some bands are obviously more political than others and I love the response I get when I ask that question. What has music taught each of you about yourself?
LP: Music has taught me how to feel. I mean really feel things. Sometimes it’s things that I don’t really want to feel. Music conjures up emotions in myself. It’s the opposite of how it usually is. Kind of receiving music or sort of like playing music. I don’t know if that answers your question, but it bubbles emotion to the surface for me when I’m playing. It kind of makes me deal with things sometimes.
PA: I would say for me that throughout the phases of making music and learning how to play music, it taught me that I have the capacity for self-discipline and the abilities to grow & to not doubt myself. I remember crossing this threshold with my playing. I thought that all the best drummers in the world were special & different and there was no way that I could do anything like that. It really taught me the self-confidence that I could do that. Internally it was like a growth mechanism that’s really powerful. But again, music to me is about support & supporting other people and my relationship to it. I really need other people to play music if I’m going to play or at least perform. It’s taught me a lot about my ability to be open, vulnerable & connect & have an intimacy inside of that space. That’s something I really appreciate it in that context and also the ability to just have an open heart, mind & soul for whatever needs to be said about my music from wherever that comes from and to just kind of be a vessel for that. Music is really a language. Sometimes music is just going to say what it wants to say& I just have to be a channel for that. I have to be kind of open.
LP: I really agree with that. I just have a distinct memory of realizing that a very young age. Feeling that conduit sense that this is me doing this for whoever it’s being put out for. When Patrick said vessel and I think that can be applied to other phases in life.
PA: That’s the more spiritual side of it if you want to look at it like that. Music Gods, I’m just here. Use me if I can stay open.
JS: It’s almost like you have to get yourself out of the way. Clear your head and actually do it very honestly. It’s like anything. Take swimming and you get a personal best, for example. As long as you keep working at it consciously, you’ll always be improving. Each time you take a new step, it boosts your confidence. All of a sudden you’re thinking wow, I just did something that I thought I could never do. Hard work does pay off.
TW: How’s the new CD doing?
JS: It’s been doing well and has been getting great reviews. It’s been on the charts for a while. We’re getting a lot of good feedback from people that we really respect.
TW: I understand that you & Andy Thorn (Leftover Salmon) grew up together. How did you guys meet?
JS: I met him around my freshman year in high school. We were on the lacrosse team together. We also took lessons from the same guitar teacher and hung out in the Durham (NC) area. Our guitar teacher actually put us together. He actually hooked up my brother with Andy and they played guitar & banjo together. They were getting ready to do their first open mic. They got me involved & that’s when I started learning mandolin. I had always played music and been in bands, but in learning the mandolin book of the David Grisman Quintet & listening to a couple of Sam Bush albums, I became completely hooked on bluegrass. I had never heard it and I didn’t like country.
TW: Thanks so much for your time.

Billy Strings Shows A Maturity Beyond His Years

Billy Strings is a guitar player extraordinaire. Born William Apostol in Lansing Michigan, Billy was raised in Morehead Kentucky as a baby, but the family , moved to Ionia Michigan, where he did most of his growing up. While not quite 25 years old, Billy has shown a maturity in how he approaches his music and mesmerizes his audiences at each show.
I had a chance to sit down with Billy after a performance at the Blue Ox Festival in Eau Claire Wisconsin and ask a few questions.
TW: I am talking with Billy Strings, a phenomenal guitar player, who is staking his own claim in the bluegrass world and stretching out beyond those boundaries. Thanks for speaking with me Billy. What other instruments do you play other than guitar?
BS: I would say I’m mostly a guitar player. I can play mandolin and banjo, both bluegrass & claw hammer.
TW: How old were you when you started playing guitar?
BS: I was about 4 years old when I got my first real axe. My dad bought it for me at an antiques store. I started by learning fiddle songs. I’d play rhythm & my dad would play all the leads. I learned by playing rhythm on songs such as “Beaumont Rag” & “Salt Creek”.
TW: You play more than just Bluegrass songs and seem to have a pretty good background in all kinds of music. What were you listening to in your household when you were growing up?
BS: My parents are sort of old hippies, but they are also old bluegrass folks. I don’t think my parents were necessarily on the lot, but they listened to the Grateful Dead. But growing up it was Doc Watson. We listened to many Doc Watson records, but I also heard his music through my dad’s voice. I was hearing my dad singing Doc Watson’s music. That’s what I cut my teeth on really. Later on they showed me Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin & Black Sabbath all the way from King Crimson through to Yes. They also showed me Johnny Winter and many other types of great music.
TW: I was definitely digging the “Barracuda” tease.
BS: Yeah Buddy. Everything from Edgar Winter’s White Trash to Electric Ladyland and just good old music. My mom & dad had a very good record collection and I have gratefully adopted a good portion of it. That’s really cool. All the Beatles records and many others.
TW: I hear you have a new record coming out. When will be able to hear it?
BS: It will be coming out this fall. I don’t have an exact date yet.
TW: Anything special you want to share about it?
BS: I would say it’s a good snapshot of where I am now. My current band is playing on it, which I’m very excited about. Since I was living in Nashville, when I recorded the last EP, I just sort of threw together a band made up of great studio musicians in Nashville. That was easy to put together. This record has my boys, the ones I’ve been touring with making the record to see what we sound like in the studio & that’s what you’ll here. It’s all original music except for 1 fiddle tune. It’s a traditional tune. It’s a fiddle tune medley I recorded with Bryan Sutton. It’s just 2 guitars. That’s the only cover on the record. Otherwise they are all original tunes, which is exciting for me. We play a lot of bluegrass & old-timey tunes, so it’s good to get the new tunes out there. They are tunes that I have had in my head for the last couple of years & now they’re coming out.
TW: Do you do all the songwriting yourself or do you work with the other guys in the band?
BS: I mostly just write the songs & then try to figure out how to get the band to make what I’m hearing in my head happen.
TW: In your songwriting, do you come up with the lyrics or the music first?
BS: Most of the time for me it comes at the same time. Some times I write not thinking melodically, but not often. A lot of times if I’m writing lyrics, I’m already humming a tune in my head. I guess you could say I write the music first, but it’s also at the same time I’m writing the lyrics. A lot of times when I come up with a song, I come up with it right there. Every once in a while you get a “Dust In The Baggie” or “Turmoil In Tinfoil”. I wrote both those songs in about an hour. It didn’t feel like I wrote them. I just pulled them out of the air. They were already there. I just put the puzzle pieces together. I didn’t even have to write those songs. There are other days when I try to write songs and don’t get anywhere. I’m also pretty critical & sometimes embarrassed to show people my stuff. I’m trying to teach myself to just let it out. Who cares what people think? It’s art. It’s subjective. I could write one terrible song, buy it might resonate with 1 person. I’m not trying to write music that I think millions of people will like.
TW: With what’s going on in the world, do you think about writing a political song or make a statement with your music?
BS: There’s a song on the album that sort of comes off that way. It strikes a political nerve, but it’s actually a song about these kind of old blue hairs, that frown upon people in the heavy metal crowd in their mosh pits. There’s a wonderful interview with Marilyn Manson and he’s on this talk show and all these older people are grilling him about how they go to these heavy metal shows, how they are doing mosh pits & that people are going to get injured. There’s a trust there. Nobody pushes you into the mosh pit. That’s what they do at a heavy metal concert. Those kids are having fun. I think it’s a really special thing, so I wrote a song about it, but for some reason it comes across as political. Instead of thinking it’s about mosh pits, you might think I’m talking about our fuckin’ president.
TW: I find it’s a fine line also. Since your audience is made up of bluegrass & americana fans, you’re going to get both republicans & democrats at your shows.
BS: Well, I can’t see any reason to stand behind that guy, but at the same time I take people the way they treat me. If 100 people say the bird is blue, the bird is probably blue. Until that blue bird pecks at me a little, I’m not going to hold anything against it. I know there are people that have stories about how this guy is a jerk or this & that. Well, if that guy has never been a jerk to me, until that happens we’ll be cool , because I have no reason. As far as voting for the president, I think you just need to figure things out. I don’t hate you. You’re my brother & my sister. If only everyone could figure that out. It’s just cool to be here at all. We’re so lucky to be here.
TW: To me it’s music that fosters healing.
BS: It’s huge. Very important. We just lost a dear friend in the Greensky Bluegrass community in Jessica Lovey Snyder.
TW: I’m actually leaving the festival later tonight to drive back to Ohio for her memorial celebration.
BS: There has been an outpouring of love, love, love. It’s amazing and this community has been so great, so kind. Everyone takes care of each other. We’re so lucky to be a part of this wonderful community. I wish more people could kind of get on our level that way.
TW: She was a light that shined so brightly for everyone. Rachel Ciboro was another light from the Greensky scene that passed away at Delfest last year, also because of health reasons. They are both missed dearly.
BS: You know what’s kind of strange? That night we were playing somewhere in West Virginia at some tiny little bar out in the middle of nowhere. I was still drinking at the time. There weren’t many people there & we were getting drunk on stage. In walks these 2 guys. While we were playing, they kept looking at us with a numb look on their faces. After the show they walked up to us and said they had just left Delfest. They said they had been with Rachel that morning and after what happened to her, they took off & left the festival. They just happened to randomly walk into the bar we were playing in. They knew who we were, but had just stepped in for a drink & to blow off steam and there we were. It was really kind of strange.
TW: What has music taught you about yourself?
BS: Well, it’s the real deal. It’s everything. I think music has kept me out of a lot of trouble. Music has given me something to focus on & be in love with & to have as my own. It’s yours. The music is yours to have & to take with you. I grew up in Ionia Michigan. There was a lot of substance abuse. Not real early, but in my pre-teen years. I lived in a small town & everyone is bored. There is nothing to do for fun, so by the time they are in the 7th grade, they are taking oxycodone, meth, heroin & cocaine. They are having sex when they are 13 years old. It’s insane. I smoked a cigarette and pot for the 1st time when I was 8 years old. By the time I was 13, I was smoking weed every day. I look at a 13 year old kid now & I just want to cry because they’re so young. They should be playing with Yoyos, not smoking Marlboros. I grew up quick that way & I don’t regret a mile. I could have gone down a different path and I swear that bluegrass music specifically saved me. I used to play in a metal band. It was kind of a darker road or path. Even the subject matter of the songs was darker. I felt like there was a cloud hanging over my head. One day I stole my mom’s Chevelle. There was a tape hanging out of the cassette player & I wondered what my mom was listening to, so I pushed it in & it was the Stanley Brothers “Rank Stranger”. As it played, I started to slow down that old car & just sort of pulled over on the side of the road, I guess it had been a while since I had heard good bluegrass and it hit me hard. I got rid of my electric guitar & got myself an acoustic one. I realized that bluegrass was really where my heart was, so I went back to it. This time I wanted to learn how to pick leads. I went back to my dad & asked him to show me that “Salt Creek” or “Browns Ferry Blues” or whatever it was.
TW: Did your dad play music out or just at home?
BS: When he was younger, he used to gig. My dad used to play in rock & roll bands in bars & clubs. You could also find him in the campground picking his ass off all night. When I was growing up, my parents would take me to bluegrass festivals.They weren’t like the festivals today. these were ones that might have 200-500 campers & everyone was a picker. We hardly made it to the stage area to see the music. It was about the picking in the campground. When I moved up to Traverse City a couple of years ago. My friend Kelsey showed me the String Cheese Incident. I heard the flatpicking, but I also heard so much more. I gave Greensky Bluegrass another listen also & I heard something I hadn’t heard before. I started to understand it. Before, I was stuck in this traditional hole & pigeon-holed myself within that. All I had heard was Lester & Earl, Doc & Merle & Bill Monroe’s Band. So when I heard the Infamous Stringdusters, I was like Wow! This is cool & they’re young people. This is like modern & cool and it’s bluegrass instruments, but it’s music. It is boundary less. There are no walls here. It’s all fun & people of all ages can enjoy it. I love it. I feel lucky every day. I feel thankful that I have this gift & that I was born into a musical family. My parents taught me a lot about music. My dad would sit me down and say “Look kid. This is David Grisman. You need to know this guy”. They taught me about good music & I’m really grateful for that. I’m just trying to do a good job. Whenever I can, I call home & tell my dad that I just did this or played with David Grisman or that I just met Sam Bush. They are so proud.
TW: I saw you play with David Grisman at the Anastasia Festival in St. Augustine this past March. Any other collaborations planned?
BS: Not really. We’re working really hard on the current band. We will be doing a co-tour this fall with the Whiskey Shivers. It will be a rowdy good time.
TW: I don’t have anything else. Is there anything else you want to get out there?
BS: I love you
TW: Thanks (blushing) Duck Creek Log Jam 2017 0128 Billy Strings Band.jpg

Hartfordfest Quite The Boogie

The secret is out! Everyone is learning that the John Hartford Memorial Festival(JHMF) is the most laid back festival in the Midwest. Held for its 7th year at the Bill Monroe Memorial Bluegrass Park & Campground, JHMF has established itself as a premire destination for bluegrass, americana & related musical styles. The entire lineup was stellar from top to bottom. This would be the 4th time in the last 5 years that I would covering the festival and it was nice to see how much the festival has grown over the last few years. There are 3 stages:Hartford (main) Stage, Hippy Hill Stage & Boogie Stage and they all stayed busy throughout the weekend. There is a curfew for amplified music at JHMF, but that’s when everyone heads back to the camp sites for late night picking until dawn.
I arrived on Wednesday and I was able to set up camp right behind the Hartford Stage. Although Thursday is actually the official start to the festival, there was music on the Hartford Stage on Wednesday night and many others besides myself showed up early to grab the best campsites and enjoy the music. Flatland Harmony Experiment kicked things off with their twist on bluegrass infused music. Avocado Chic, a band made up of rotating group of regional musicians with no permanant members fired up the crowd with their unrehearsed & energetic set of tunes. Growler, based out of Chicago, followed & delivered a foot stomping set of their own. The Tillers out of Cincinnati then closed out the night and had the audience moving & grooving up until curfew. What a great earlybird night of music.
Thursday started off with the official Opening Ceremonies and was followed by Betse & Clarke With The Aching Hearts delivering an All-Hartford set. Since I was camped right behind the main stage, I focused most of my attentions there due to the stacked lineup of artists performing there. Up next was Farmer & Anderson. Consisting of folk singer Chicago Farmer & Backyard Tire Fire’s Edward David Anderson, this unique pairing created one of the many surprise highlights of the festival. The Dead Winter Carpenters & Old Salt Union then offered lively sets f their songs. The Lil Smokies from Missoula Montana are quickly becoming a favorite of mine and I thoroughly enjoyed it when they covered Supertramp’s “Goodbye Stranger” and Elton John’s “Rocket Man”. The Larry Keel Experience followed with a great set of tunes interpreted in a way that only Larry can do. Larry is one of the best flat picking guitarists and since he started using pedals a few years ago, his sound has elevated to another even a higher level. Closing out the evening was the Rumpke Mountain Boys. Based out of Cincinnati, Rumpke has been a strong supporter of the festival since the beginning and it was fitting for them to headline the first night with their “Trashgrass” style of music. They never create a setlist in advance and offered a very Hartford heavy set that took the crowd on a musical journey. Everyone was exhausted (in a good way) by sets end and happily headed back to the campsites for the late night picking.
On Friday I was feeling a little lazy as I headed to Hartford Stage for the opening set of Colin O’Brien & Travis Burch. Colin has performed multiple times at JHMF with his interpretive performance as John Hartford. The addition of Travis added a new dimension to the songs as they performed an All-Hartford set to start the day. Once again the Hartford stage held most of my attention but I did make it over to he Boogie Stage for Chicago’s Miles Over Mountains and to the Hippy Hill Stage for repeat performances by the Dead Winter Carpenters & Old Salt Union. I experienced 4 bands that I had never seen before:The Last Revel, Joseph Huber, Molly Tuttle & Jesse McReynolds. They all offered inspiring performances that made me wanting more. Bawn In The Mash took everyone down a musical road of many diverging styles with lots of twists & turns. Pert Near Sandstone out of Minneapolis was also a musical highlight for me. It had been a few years since I had seen them and it was nice to be reminded about how much good they were& to watch them perform. The Steep Canyon Rangers were the last band of the evening and delivered a high energy set of bluegrass music enhanced with a spectacular light show that fired up the crowd into a frenzy for 90 minutes. As much energy as the band presented, fiddler Nicky Sanders bounced around covered every part of the stage like a madman on speed. I thought he would run out of steam before the end of the set, but he never did. Everyone else was worn out from the frenzied performance & once again headed back for more picking.
When I awoke on Saturday morning, I thought to myself about how great the festival had been. I felt like I already had a weekend’s worth of great music, but Saturday seemed like a bonus day. Off The Wagon kicked off the Hartford Stage by performing John Hartford’s “Gumtree Canoe” in its entirety. This was an awesome way to set the stage for a great day of music on that stage. The Wooks from Lexington, Ky proved their bluegrass skills on stage including a kick ass version of Peter Rowan’s “Midnight Moonlight”. Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon brought a few of his friends on stage for a rousing set of americana music and Michael Cleveland delivered a set of music that highlighted his fiddle playing skills and showed why he is a 10 time IBMA Fiddler Of The Year. I did sneak over to Hippy Hill Stage to see another few songs by Pert Near Sandstone and returned later to catch some of New Old Cavalry’s only set of the festival. The rest of the evening was spent at the main stage. Both the Traveling McCourys and the Jeff Austin Band delivered great high energy sets separately before combining forces to present the Grateful Ball, a bluegrass musical journey of the music of the Grateful Dead. Lastly, the JHMF All Star Band closed the festival out in the proper way. Although there was more picking going on late, I headed back to camp.
Once again JHMF proved that it is one of the best musical festivals in the country. The laid back atmospere fostered a sense of community that I felt like I was among family. I was exhausted from all the great music I had experienced all weekend but in a good way. I’m already planning on returning next year.

Blue Ox Growing Into One Babe Of A Music Festival

The Blue Ox Music Festival 2017 will be in Eau Claire, Wisconsin from June 8-10. Pert Near Sandstone, a bluegrass band based out of Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota has hosted, performed & have been involved from the beginning. Started in 2015, this will be the 3rd year for the festival which has quickly become a destination for Bluegrass, Americana & acoustic inspired music in the upper Midwest. This years lineup is stellar from top to bottom featuring such diverse acts as the Punch Brothers, Greensky Bluegrass, Railroad Earth, Sam Bush, Son Volt & Fruition. Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, Dead Horses & Dead Man Winter are among the regional bands showcasing their talents as well.
I had the opportunity to speak with Nate Sipe, mandolin & fiddle player for Pert Near Sandstone recently about the band and the Blue Ox Music Festival. Below is what we discussed.
Tom Wickstrom: Thank you for meeting me today. 1st off, let’s talk about the Blue Ox Music Festival. How did it get started?
Nate Sipe: We were on tour in Colorado with the Travelling McCourys. Jim Bischel, Who runs Country Jam USA in Wisconsin , happened to be visiting his son Mark, who was living in Colorado at the time. They just happened to come to our show. Mark was trying to show his dad what the Bluegrass/Americana/younger acoustic scenes were all about, because that’s what Mark’s enthusiasm was focused. Jim was blown away by the scene and the experience and he started wondering if this scene & enthusiasm existed in the Minnesota/Wisconsin area. Since Jim had been producing Country Jam USA for 30 years and it was kind of a family business, he began thinking there might be a way to add & include this music. Since we were on that show in Colorado and based out of Minnesota, Jim asked us if we wanted to get involved & we jumped at the idea. Initially the thought was that it would just be an added stage to the Country Jam lineup, but the idea blossomed into creating a separate festival to showcase Bluegrass, Americana & acoustic styles of music. Because of our many years of touring around the country and our many connections to bands within our scene, it grew into a bigger concept than a side stage addition. That’s how Blue Ox came about. This will be our 3rd year and it keeps getting better. It’s been a complete success.
TW: How does Pert Near Sandstone get involved with the festival?
NS: We say that we are curating the festival. That means we are completely involved with selecting all the bands, producing the various stages & scheduling, as well as working closely with the Country Jam folks to make sure everything is working from both the audience’s & performers perspectives. We make sure hospitality is working and that everyone is happy so they keep coming back year after year. We also have a family camping & picking areas to appeal to all kinds of music fans. There will also be late night picking jams that have yet to be announced.
TW: Do you try to include local artists on the Blue Ox Lineup?
NS: We do have a side stage that showcases mostly local and regional acts. Since we are based out of Minnesota, many of the bands that we have befriended  over the years will be performing. We like to present local favorites to perform, because you may not get an opportunity to see them elsewhere in the country. The Wisconsin/Minnesota music scene is very do it yourself. We are all supportive of each other and have worked diligently to lay rooys & create that has been supportive of each other. It’s a fun community to be a part & to see it grow & evolve.
TW: Is there any new music coming up for Pert Near Sandstone?
NS: We just recorded a cover of an old Sam Cooke tune we’re going to be releasing as a single. It’s mostly to help promote Blue Ox and we’re always working on new music. We hope to get back in the studio in the fall and hopefully have new music come out in Spring 2018. We will probably record again in the home studio of Ryan Young (Trampled By Turtles). He’s a great friend and one of my favorite persons to make music with.
TW: Any other projects you’re currently working on?
NS: A couple of us play locally in a band called the Fiddle Heirs. It includes myself, Ryan Young and a rotating cast of local musicians. We get together and do a handful of shows once in a while. I think we are sitting on an album’s worth of music, so hopefully we can get that record out soon. We may get a chance to jam together at Blue Ox  also.
TW: I see you will be at the John Hartford Memorial Festival the week prior to Blue Ox. Is this your 1st time there?
NS: No. This will be our 2nd appearance. We had the pleasure of playing there 2 years ago. This festival has a special meaning to all of us because of what John Hartford meant to us and the music we’ve learned to love. There’s a special vibe there and there’s also plenty of late night picking for us. We were also amazed at the amount of golf carts there.
TW: Thank you for your time today. I’ll see you at Blue Ox.
Blue Ox Music Festival is from June 8-10, 2017. Pert Near Sandstone is hosting & will perform 2 nights. For more information, go to

Elephant Revival Tramples Columbus Audience

Elephant Revival(ER) played a sold out show on April 13, 2017 at Woodlands Tavern in Columbus, Ohio. Supported by opening act, The Dead Horses, they presented a 90 minutes plus set that showcased their instrumental skills & lush harmonies. I arrived early and was able to catch their sound check. I was scheduled to interview Daniel Rodriguez, guitarist & vocalist for ER. While waiting, I spied Bonnie Paine grabbing a chair & her cello & heading out back to practice. I enjoyed listening for about a half hour until Daniel became available. We then headed for the bus for the interview(see below).

The show was magical. Dead Horses opened. Based out of Wisconsin, Dead Horse got the evening started right away with their folk styled sound that was a perfect lead in for Elephant Revival. Their set drew the audience in from the beginning and never let up. There were 2 new songs in their set, “Flight Patterns Weather” & “Snowman” and I got to hear one of my favorites “Grace Of A Woman”. They did a 90 minutes set and a 2 song encore. After they left the stage, the crowd kept chanting for one more song. After a few minutes, Elephant Revival obliged and came back out to perform “Good Graces” acoustically in front of the stage. Dead Horses joined in on all the encore fun as well. What a great night of music.


Tom Wickstrom: I’m interviewing Daniel Rodrigues from Elephant Revival. How did the band name come about?

Daniel Rodriguez: The name came from Dan Rose, who plays bass and sometimes mandolin in the band. He was in Chicago & busking outside the elephant cage at the Lincoln Park Zoo. There were 3 elephants in the cage that had been there fr about 15 years. The Salt Lake City Zoo called them and asked if they had an elephant to spare because they didn’t have one. The Lincoln Park Zoo said sure and shipped the elephant to Salt Lake City. While taking the elephant to Salt Lake City, the elephant died presumably due to the separation from the other elephants. Within a few weeks, the other elephants died also. Big elephants typically survive in the wild but the only world they knew was inside the cage and the bond the elephants had with each other and the separation tore them apart. The name came from that experience & story. Before the band we all knew each other but were living in different parts of the country. It was about getting us all together. Kind of a sad story in a way.

TW: You’ve had the same lineup for the last 3 or 4 years with the exception of Darren Garvey. How long has Darren been with you?

DR: Almost exactly 1 year. His first show was Red Rocks last year.

TW: As far as songwriting goes, do you write together or separate?

DR: We mostly write separately. We’ll each bring different things to the band. If a song need to be arranged differently for the bands sake, that input can come from anyone. There have been a few pieces we’ve written together and there’s been a lot of co-writes where 2 or 3 band members will work on a piece.

TW: Do you ever get political in your songwriting?

DR: I definitely have songs I’ve written that get sort of political or opinionated. We don’t try to get too political on the microphone but sometimes have political undertones in a song. Because it could easily divide your audience and our whole objective is to bring everyone together and have an experience. Sometimes people get a little too left-brained when you get political.

TW: I caught your performance in March at the Anastasia Festival & saw the special bond you have with Fruition. They jammed with ER and visa versa. How did you guys meet?

DR: We shared a booking agent with the Shook Twins, who we had been friends with for a decade or so. When we would have a gig in Portland, we would stay with the Shook Twins. They were friends with Fruition. One night after a show in Portland, we went back to their house at 3am. They invites Fruition & Brad Parsons over. They came over, played music and we jammed together. From the moment we heard their harmonies and the drinking of PBR’s, we’ve been friends ever since.

TW: Any other bands you share a musical bond with?

DR: Obviously the Shook Twins. The Deer out of Austin Texas, Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon & Heywood Banks also come to the top of my head.

TW: You’ve played a lot of places. Have you been out of the country yet?

DR: Yes, we’ve toured Ireland, Scotland, England & Wales and we’re about to go to Czechoslovakia.

TW: What are your favorite places to play?

DR: Playing Scotland & Ireland was special. The shows were packed and the integrity of the listener was awesome. It was pin drop silence during the songs, but as soon as the song was over, the applause was uproarious & ecstatic. The shows over there were phenomenal. We’d love to do Australia sometime also. As far as a specific venue, Red Rocks is one we look forward to every year. Nothing tops the experience of playing Red Rocks.

TW: Do you have any new music coming out?

DR: We have tons of new songs we’re excited about.  I wish we could do a 30 song album. There’s so much stuff that we can’t wait to share.

TW: Have you road tested any of the new songs?

DR: We have been trying them out. We rehearse some of them at sound check. We’ll probably play some tonight. Tonight feels like a night where we’ll try a lot of new stuff.

TW: Tell me about the bus fire last year.

DR: We had flown into Nashville, got on the bus and grove all night to Hickory, NC where we were playing. About 8:30am Dan Rose woke up & smelled smoke and then Bonnie woke & started yelling smoke, which woke me up. I opened my eyes and the blankets at the foot of the bed were raging on fire. I had been sleeping in the fetal position so luckily I didn’t get burned. We all quickly got off the bus in only our underwear. Our bus driver went back in and tried to put it out but couldn’t. We watched smoke pouring out of the bus. The fire department came & Fox News was also there. Everything was a complete loss including a lot of unique musical instruments we had collected over the years. Even though we lost everything, you realize you don’t really need anything to be happy. It was like starting from scratch. Sort of liberating in a way.

TW: What has music taught you about yourself?

DR: It’s taught me a lot about space, vulnerability, courage & really just how to listen. Choosing how to speak or not to speak. Sometimes silence in certain moments is more powerful than trying to express something. Yeah, music has taught me a lot.

TW: Is there anything you want to say or tell your fans?

DR: Just that we’re in it for the long haul. We can’t stop doing this. We have tons of music we’re excited to share with everyone.

Here’s the link to all the pictures I posted from the show on Facebook:

Posted by Tom Wickstrom on Saturday, April 15, 2017



Jim Lauderdale Interview 03-25-2017

Jim Lauderdale is a Renaissance Man when it comes to music & songwriting. He is a multi-Grammy award winner spanning many genres of music. I had the opportunity to sit down with him at this year’s Suwannee Spring Reunion at the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park for an interview.
Tom Wickstrom: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me today. I’ve seen you perform many times, both solo and with a band. I was really mesmerized by your performance with Verlon Thompson in the Music Hall at last Fall’s Roots Revival here at Suwannee. I love the humor. Is that something you come up with off the cuff?
Jim Lauderdale: Yes, on the spot. Verlon & I pass each other in Nashville. I don’t get to see him that much. This is one of the great opportunities to see Verlon and I love his set. He’s such an incredible guy that it’s easy to play off him & work with him. He’s really something.
TW: It just amazes me how well you guys seem to get along out there. Have you ever thought about doing a tour with him?
JL: I’d love to. Do me a favor and put out those feelers for us. That would be great.
TW: What’s your songwriting process and how does it differ when you’re working with someone like Robert Hunter?
JL: When I write with Robert Hunter, I either give him a melody and he gives me lyrics either in person or I email it to him and he sends me lyrics and I put a melody to them. For some reason we just click and work really fast together. Sometimes, if I’m in his presence I’ll come up with a melody as we’re talking, I’ll record it and send it to him and he’ll be in the other room working on it. I’ll work on another melody and he’ll come back in another 30-40 minutes and hand me another completed lyric. I’ll have another melody to go and he’ll take it back to his room. We made a few albums like that and I really love writing with him. It’s beyond words how great he is. When I write alone, I will get a song idea or melody and put it down on my phone or another recording device and later go back and listen to that melody. Sometimes I’ll have a title or one line or something but a lot of times I don’t even have a concept of what the song is about. It’s just a melody and then it all comes together later. Through trial and error I can find out what it’s not. I know it’s not about this or that, but it would be good about this so something will come out. A lot of times my writing is out of necessity. If I’ve booked studio time and I have musicians there, but a lot of times I have nothing at all. Maybe some kind of melody or a little bit. Maybe 1 idea if I’m lucky sometimes and then different things during lunch break or when the musicians are out of the room will come out or I’ll dig through old ideas I’ve laid down and I’ll think of something. Sometimes I’m a little more prepared but a lot of times it just happens while I’m there. It’s a lot of pressure that way. It’s enjoyable and fun once it finally comes through but before the song is finished lyrically and I just have the melody. It’s kind of an agonizing process for me, but then it comes together. I really have a lot of doubt until it’s done. Then it’s good.
TW: I have 2 of your CD’s with Robert Hunter. I enjoyed hearing you sing”Alligator Alley” earlier today. I also love “Wait Til Spring”, your CD with Donna The Buffalo. How did you guys come together?
JL: This place here was very important for us. I had met them on the road when I was on tour with Lucinda Williams. We were at the Newport Folk Festival and they had played earlier and I just saw this bunch of folks hanging around. I knew nothing about them but we immediately clicked. I really enjoyed hanging out, something was there and then I think it was at Merlefest that they put us together for a song. Then here, they asked me to get up and do some jamming with them, so we did a few things. Then I started coming up with these melodies for them. We’d play these melodies and I wouldn’t really even have the lyrics but they’d know the structure of the song. I’d just kind of make up things and some of those things stuck/worked and some didn’t. It kind of helped me with the process of writing things and eventually we had enough for an album of things I had written. We did some of the recording up there in Ithaca NY and then a lot of it down in Nashville when they came through. I’d really love to do another album with them. It’s way overdue. It’s been 10+ years I believe.
TW: Do you ever get political?
JL: You know it’s such a fine line. Many performers don’t say anything. It’s a strange position to be in because like all of us, you might have a relative or a close friend with an opposite view politically. At the end of the day, even though you might get put off with each other to some extent or think how can they think that way and they’re thinking the same thing of you. At the end of the day you know it’s not going to tear you apart from one another. I see so much anger sometimes when people express something very innocent or simple or basic and there is some big attack on them. I’m really concerned and saddened by the way things are going right now. I think it’s really important time for us all to educate ourselves as much as possible from all the different sides. From finding facts through certain channels, observing what other people’s take on things are. There’s such a wedge that’s been coming on for a long time. There’s such a divide when you do talk. It’s really hard sometimes to know what or I think we all assume someone thinks like we do. We’re having a casual conversation and it turns out not to be. It’s kind of funny really. We’ve got to get to a place where we are more tolerant and work together. I think the 2 parties and I think it’s been this way for a long time has made it into this constant battle or war. We’re living in the same country and we’ve got to find a way to work together. These aren’t casual times. There are real serious, I really believe that we have to environmentally get it together. It’s dangerous. This is really serious for the generations to come and our generation. The folks that are living now. It’s unprecedented the illnesses that are out there because of toxins, chemicals & poisons. I’ve always felt very strongly since I was a kid about the environment. I think that no matter what party you want to be in, I think people really have to accept the fact that we’ve scientifically proven this stuff. I think we need to spend as much or more money on research and science as well as things like infrastructure, helping create jobs for people and things like that. Let’s put it this way to make a long story interminable from your question. I think there are so many positive necessary important urgent things that we need to do as a country and a world. We’ve got to stop the bickering and get it together. Work together. We really do.
Well, thanks a lot. I guess we don’t have time to talk about music anymore now that i’ve gotten on my soapbox.
TW: You’ve done bluegrass albums/folk albums/country albums. Is there a style that you haven’t but would like to try?
JL: I haven’t done much Celtic type stuff. A few things here and there. I wrote an A Cappella song with Robert Hunter for this acoustic record of our collaborations. A little acoustic thing that was that kind of feel. A Celtic kind of ballad. As far as something brand new, I haven’t done any kind of jazz album, I’ve done jazzy type songs but not a whole album’s worth. I’d like to do that.
TW: I saw the Music City Roots show on PBS where you went to Ireland and can see why you have some interest in Celtic music.
JL: Yes. That’s where my family, a lot of my bloodline is Scotch/Irish.
TW: Is there anyone you haven’t worked with that you’d like to?
JL: This is the funniest thing. Every time someone asks me that question, I kind of go blank and then later it comes to me. For some reason my mind clicks off. Yes. There are people I want to work with.
TW: New music coming up?
JL: I have a record coming out the end of June that I did in England a few years ago with the band of Nick Lowe, a great British rock & roll guy. It’s been done but I keep doing other records and waiting for that stuff to all fall in place. It’s out in Europe right now. It’s called “London Southern”. I did find some lost tapes that one of my bluegrass heroes, Roland White & I had recorded in 1979. It would have been my first record but I couldn’t get a record deal for it and then we couldn’t find the recordings. He found the recordings a few months ago, so i’ll put that out. I’m slowly been working on new stuff too.
TW: You stay very busy.
JL: My passion is to make records and sometimes it doesn’t make sense to make records or as many as I do but that’s what I like. Even though sometimes I don’t like it. It’s a terrible process but  it’s my job kind of in a way.
TW: Final question. What has music taught you about yourself?
JL: That is too personal! This interview is over! (joking) What has music taught me about myself? It runs the whole gamut of emotions that kind of mentally challenges me. It goes from feelings or a feel or a kind of a zone that transcends a lot of things or it can be a craftsmanship thing. A lot of different things go into doing and creating music that sometimes is a magical kind of things and sometimes it’s disappointing. It’s that yin & yang of a lot of different stuff. also, listening to music and just enjoying it kind of helps so many things. It’s life for me. It’s just a whole different language, kind of this encompassing thing that you expose yourself to that you can really get carried away with and lost and then found in hearing music. It’s what it brings out of you. When you listen to music it touches a lot of different feelings, thoughts & things. When you create music, it’s this great kind of drink or food or high I’ll get by hearing something I love to hear. It has this affect on you physically, mentally & spiritually. We all have to have it. It’s like water.
TW: Thank you very much for your time.
JL: You’re welcome. That will be $374.I accept all major cards and cash. (Joking. I think)
Jim Lauderdale with Donna The Buffalo Suwannee Fall Roots Revival 2016

Verlon Thompson Interview

Verlon Thompson is a singer songwriter originally from Oklahoma. He was the sidekick & long time writing partner of Guy Clark, another great songwriter. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Verlon at the Suwannee Spring Reunion on March 24, 2017 at the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, FL.
Tom Wickstrom: The first time I saw you perform was with Jim Lauderdale in the Music Hall at the Fall Roots Revival here last year. The both of you play off each other really well. How long have you and Jim been playing like that?
Verlon Thompson: We started doing it here at the Suwannee Spring Reunion maybe 10 or 15 years ago. They just happened to pair us together. It was supposed to be a song writing workshop and Jim’s got that crazy wacky sense of humor and at the time I didn’t know him that well. I was so gullible that I believed what he was saying and next thing you know it turned into this funny guy/straight guy routine and we just kind of let it happen.Several years ago we got into this thing like we were fighting. It was totally made up on the spot, but we played it so well people really thought we were fighting.We made up this story about how Jim & I were going to do a reality show.Jim would get all the music gigs and I would stay home and do the laundry. It would be mostly about me since Jim would be gone playing music. The story got bigger and bigger and turned into this thing. Last year we created an apology as part of the story. People keep coming back expecting another episode in the saga.
TW: Your last CD was “Amplified”. What new music projects do you have coming up?
VT: Most of what I know I learned from Guy Clark. He never really planned a record, he just waited till he felt like he had a group of songs that represented a piece of his life’s work that he wanted to preserve and that’s kind of like what I’ve been doing. I’m about ready I think. I’ve got a group of songs I’ve been going over and whittling it down to an album’s worth of songs.
TW: Did you play any new songs today?
VT: The last song of my set about my travels with Guy Clark was a new one. Another one is about Sue Cunningham after she passed. A lot of it is stuff that sprouted and grew right here in the Amphitheater. Songs. People. Friendships. It’s crazy how much this festival has impacted my life.
TW: I didn’t know Sue Cunningham, but met Frank (Sue’s partner) last Fall here and wanted to ask you about Hickory Fest and Sue Cunningham and that special relationship you had.
VT: I actually wrote that song about Sue with Frank. The day of her memorial service we went back to the house. There we were sitting without her. Of all things, we decided to write a song right there on the spot. It’s called “I Love You More Than Anything”. It’s sort of a spiritual kind of out of body experience we were writing at because we were both in the middle of, (pause) I mean we had just come from her memorial service and we were sitting in her kitchen where her and Frank lived. She’s not there and its just Frank & I and we both had this urge, this need to write a song for Sue. It felt like we were visited there by Sue. Again it was another one of those friendships developed here. Sue would get up and play fiddle with me. I met Frank before I had met Sue, so he brought Sue into my life really.
TW: Has your songwriting process changed over time?
VT: I think I’ve sort of made a full circle. I started writing song when I was really young. I was a kid. I wrote a lot of songs about what was going on around me. That’s all I know. Some of those songs were pretty good when I was like 18 or 19. They started taking on a real weight. In my late 20’s I moved to Nashville and got a job as a staff songwriter for Loretta Lynn’s company. At that point it became a job and I had to write and create songs for people who were on the radio and I did that for over 15 years. I realized one day when I woke up that I didn’t want to go to the office anymore. What was I doing with an office? Secondly, why did I dread music? It’s my life blood. Something was not right there. I took a hard look at things and decided I wasn’t going to do that staff writing thing anymore. I gave up my position and started traveling more & doing my own shows. I realized that none of the songs I was creating wasn’t from my heart, but from my mind/my head/my brain. I made a definitive switch in directions and made up my mind to write songs that were written for a reason and for whatever reason it is, it has to be something to move me enough to write about it.
TW: Ever get political in songs?
VT: Not much. I’ve got 1 old song of mine that is not as much political. It’s called “The People Of The Earth” and it’s basically saying: “Listen. We are the people of the earth. We’ve got to live on this ball together” and I go into a little bit of…There’s a couple of lines about people living in countries where they’re looking down the barrel of a gun and that kind of stuff. I try not to get real political because it doesn’t help anything.
TW: Your career has come full circle. Now you’re the front man. How does that feel like? I’m really enjoying it.
VT: Well, I’m enjoying it too. When I was travelling with Guy Clark, I would still do shows on my own, but not near as many because Guy travelled so much. I’d travel with him for 2 months, then I’d do a couple of shows somewhere then I’d get back with Guy again for 2 or 3 months. I would never gain any momentum. i always did it. I loved doing it. When Guy passed, what else was I going to do? I was playing as much as I could and hoping the phone would still ring. Would people always think of me as Guy’s sideman, but luckily it’s snowballed and I’m really thankful for the way it’s working out.
TW: On the “Works” CD, I loved “The Ballad Of String Bean”, “Joe Walkers Mare” & “El Toro”, but I came across “Big Bad John”. Every other song on the CD has a songwriting credit to you except that one. What is the connection or story to that song?
VT: It was just one of those things that happened. I was playing in Baton Rouge one night and that afternoon in my hotel and turned on the TV and they were pulling those miners out of that hole in Chile where they pulled one guy out after the other. I just sat there watching that and that song “Big Bad John” popped into my head. I think I was actually tuning up my guitar and I just started playing it. That version, the talking version because the original was more of a novelty production. It was almost like a cartoon, but I always thought the lyrics were so great. The guy grabs an oak tree and lets out a groan. He’s the only one left down there alone. It’s just a great story. That night when I left the hotel and went to the gig. Everyone else had been watching it all day long. I said: “Here’s a tune for all the guys they’ve been pulling out of the hole all day” and I played that version of that song. Guy & I were both playing that night. He always let me do a few songs in the middle of his set. I did that song and Guy said: “God, I always thought that song was hokey but man that is a well written song”. I said yeah man nd I was working on the “Works” CD and decided to put it on there. It’s different.
TW: “The Guitar” gives me chills every time I hear it. What’s the story behind it?
VT: The story I tell on stage a lot is about the guitar itself that I play. Guy was in his workshop building a guitar and I was down there talking about this particular guitar that I was trying to find. It was a model, a Bourgeois Country Boy. At the time they were somewhat hard to find. I was complaining about how I couldn’t find one and Guy just looks up from his work bench and goes: “I think I have one under my bed”. Sure enough he had this Bourgeois Guitar that the distributor had given him in hopes to get Guy to endorse those guitars. Turns out the neck was too skinny for him, so he brought it home and shoved it under his bed. It had been laying there for 4 or 5 years. I told Guy it was exactly what I want. Guy said: “Just take it. I want you to have it”. I said: I’ll take it. It’ll always be in my custody but it will always be your guitar”. That’s the story I use to intro the song.
The story about the song is interesting because we wrote that when Guy & I were teaching at Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch in Ohio. We wrote it in a class with 9 other guys. We walked in that day and Guy said: “I ain’t no teacher. You want to write a song? Let’s write a song”. There were 11 of us and someone looked around the room and said it should obviously be about a guitar because we all had a guitar on our laps. By the end of the day, we had that song. Guy & I both thought that since it’s part of the class. After we left we didn’t think about it. It was an okay song. We stuck it in a drawer and about 2 years later I got a call from 1 of the students who asked if we had music to that song. He couldn’t remember how it went. I said: “I don’t know. Just make up your own music”. But it got me thinking about it so I reached into the drawer and pulled out the lyric. I laid it down on the table and just started playing those chords. I started speaking the words just like I do it now and when I finished, I had chills. It was better than I had thought. I called Guy up and told him I wanted to come over and play this song. He had forgotten about the song as well. I sat down and played the chords and spoke the words and Guy went: “Man, I’m putting that on my new record”. In 2 days we went in and recorded it for his record. If that student hadn’t called me back and reminded me, it would still be in that drawer.

TW: Final question. What has music taught you about yourself?                                   VT: (Long Pause) Well, I guess maybe I would say that music has taught me or shown me that I have a power. Sort of a mystical or magical power that I don’t know how I got it and I don’t know exactly what it is but I know that I have it. Every time I go up there and play and people respond the way they do. I’ve seen live changed. I’ve seen tears cried. I’ve seen people brought back together. These songs have done so many things that I don’t think I could do if I was just Verlon Thompson with no guitar & no songs. It’s revealed an inner power that I don’t think I would have stumbled upon without it. The only time I haven’t played music is when I spent 4 years in the Marine Corps. They keep you pretty busy. I took my guitar all over the world wherever they would send me. I was playing but I wasn’t playing that much. Those were some of the emptiest years of my life as far as just my heart and soul. I felt like I was just going through the motions and it wasn’t necessarily the marine corps military life either. It was because I knew there was something inside me I was supposed to be pulling out and working with and I wasn’t doing it. The first thing I did when I got out, when I got discharged, I went straight to Denver Colorado and started playing in every honky-tonk ski town. I put together a band and made a record. That’s how it all started and I’ve never liked back. I’ve just never really had a plan, but I had complete faith that if I go out and play music, it will take care of itself and it has. I have never had a long range plan or knew what the next step is. I just go play and follow where it leads.
TW: Thank you very much for your time.


Interview: J.P. Biondo of Cabinet

I had the opportunity to talk to J.P. Biondo (mandolin, guitar & vocals) for Cabinet at the Anastasia Music Festival 2017.
Tom Wickstrom: How did you come up with the Cabinet name?
J.P Biondo: There is a story to that. That’s all I can tell you. It’s a mystery.
TW: Your last CD was Celebration. Is there new music coming up?
JP: Yes. We’ve been in the studio for the last 6 months working on a new album that will be out later this year. It won’t be anything new that our fans haven’t heard before but it will be songs we haven’t recorded in the studio yet. It should be 11 or 12 tracks.
TW: I read that you & Mickey Coviello (guitar) do most of the songwriting. Is that correct?
JP: Actually, most of the songwriting is done by me & my cousin Patrick.
TW: How has your songwriting changed over the years?
JP: It’s funny. Its always different. Some musicians have a certain set way of doing it. Sometimes words will inspire me and I’ll write down a bunch of lyrics and sometimes I’ll be sitting in my living room with my guitar & something perks my ear up. I’ll go that direction and I’ll write all the music first. Sometimes they both happen at the same time. Those are the magic ones where you’re done in 10 minutes. Those don’t happen very often. It’s nice when they do though.
TW: I’ve primarily seen you play mandolin but I noticed you have a guitar on stage also. Do you play any other instruments?
JP: Yes but not a whole lot beyond the mandolin & guitar. I’m trying to play more guitar with the band because that’s how I mostly write unless it’s an instrumental.
TW: You told me you & Pappy Biondo (banjo) are “super cousins”. Did you grow up together”?
JP: I’ve known Mickey for a lot longer. We grew up in the same town & played on the same little league team together.
TW: I’m from a family of 4 boys. Growing up we didn’t always get along but if anyone picked on one of our brothers we were always there to protect each other. How has your relationship with Pappy been over the years?
JP: I have 3 sisters so I was the only boy in my family and Pappy had 7 other siblings with all sisters except for an older brother. Pappy was like a brother to me and his older brother picked on the both of us when we were younger. When the families would get together, Pappy & I would always hang out. We got along well together and got in trouble together also. Once we started playing music, all bets were off the table. We knew then what we needed to be doing all the time.
TW: What has music taught you about yourself?
JP: It taught me it was okay to be myself. Growing up as a young kid you’re always mindful of certain things. What’s going to make you cool or impress the other kids. Playing music was great. It was just a platform to really put it all out there. It feels good to do that. You can write a really emotional song and put it out. Some times you’re afraid to play it. Sometimes I’m afraid to show those songs to the band because it is very real inner stuff. Once you get it out there though, it feels great. So music has definitely taught me that. It’s healthy to do that. I’m sure it’s taught me much more, but we’ll go with that.
TW: We have a different type of Cabinet in Washington. Would you be willing to step in & replace what’s currently there & use music to heal everyone?
JP: It’s funny. We would be liars if we said we haven’t been thinking about that and other stuff. We definitely have never been a super political type of band. We’re generally a good timey family friendly type of band but now with what’s going on, it’s kind of hard to turn a blind eye to it. I have some thoughts on what I’d like to do personally but it won’t involve anything I wrote. Maybe a little statement type of deal. It’s such a delicate thing being political because I know Cabinet has a lot of fans that probably support Donald Trump and we don’t want to turn those fans off with a political view. People have different ideas about this and that. Yes, I think he’s crazy and terrible but some people think he’s got our best interests in mind. I love it that some of those people think that. It’s a weird place to be in.
TW: You covered Elvis Costello’s “Watching The Detectives” yesterday. How do you decide which cover songs to include in your sets?
JP: We all have input and bring different influences into the band. Pappy brings most of the bluegrass covers. Todd Kopec (fiddle) brought “Watching The Detectives” to us as well as many other covers. There’s really no rhyme or reason on how we come up with them.
TW: Thank you very much for your time.

This interview was conducted at the Anastasia Music Festival. Below are links to all 3 days which does include pictures of Cabinet.

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Anastasia Music Festival Well Worth The Trip

The 1st annual Anastasia Music Festival took place in St. Augustine, FL on March 16-18, 2017.  Located at the Anastasia Amphitheater adjacent to Anastasia State Park, the festival offered easy access and free parking for those attending. Although there was no on-site camping, some was available at the state park as well as hotels & other options in the area. I consider this the first festival of the year and was so excited to travel from Ohio to enjoy the magic of bluegrass & more in Florida. It’s too bad there wasn’t more attendance because the lineup was stellar from top to bottom. Those attending were treated to a weekend of live experiences one after the other. Nothing beats the felling when the bands and the fans are drawn together to form a unique bond. There were 3 stages set up-Main Amphitheater Stage, Front Porch Stage & Acoustic Stage.
I arrived early Thursday morning which gave me time to drive around & scope out the state park, beach & festival grounds prior to gates opening. No acts were scheduled for the main stage but there was still plenty of great music still happening on the other 2 stages. Grits & Soul started things off a 4pm. Currently based out of Lexington Kentucky, Grits & Soul consists of Anna Kline (guitar, vocals) & John Looney (guitar, mandolin & vocals). Their opening set immediately set the tone for how the rest of the weekend would flow with their blend of americana, roots & southern soul. The Honeycutters out of Asheville NC also provided an energetic set. Asheville was well represented at Anastasia with Jon Stickley Trio, Taylor Martin & others. Broomestix, an 10 piece band out of the Nashville area sounded like no other band there that weekend. Their blend R&B,/Soul/Funk/Jazz/Pop was unique and vocalist Madi Patin took me back in time to another era. There were multiple horns & Evan McCoury (Ronnie McCoury’s son) kicked in a few good licks on electric guitar as well. Other highlights included Applebutter Express, Nikki Talley & Taylor Martin with the Honeycutters as his backup band. Fruition closed out the evening on the Front Porch Stage. Although I have seen them multiple times, it never ceases to amaze me what they bring to a live performance time & time again. There was a 10:30pm curfew for music, so afterward many people including performers headed to Hopzinger’s for the after party. I hadn’t set up camp yet so I headed back to prepare for a cold night (35 degrees).
Although the night had gotten cold, it started warming up quickly in the morning and you could tell it was going to be an awesome day for music. It also meant that there would be music on the main stage in addition to the other 2 stages from the day before. The Honeycutters set the tone of how the day would go with their opening set. Following them on the main stage was a non-stop musical ecstasy as The Broomestix, Fruition, Cabinet, David Grisman’s Bluegrass Experience, Elephant Revival & the Del McCoury Band electrified the crowd with the energy they were shedding on stage. Main Stage highlights for me were Fruition covering “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” & Elephant Revival sitting in with Fruition & visa versa during Elephant Revival’s set. Also, Cabinet treated the crowd to covers of Elvis Costello’s “Watching The Detectives” & Paul Simon’s “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes”. What can I say about David Grisman? He’s a bluegrass innovator and was joined by Billy Strings on guitar and David’s son, Samson was on bass. Watching the blend of old & new together gives one the feeling that this music will always be there. The Del McCoury Band closed down the Main Stage with as always a great set of bluegrass music. Del’s voice is still strong and he’s backed by the best in the business including sons Ronnie & Robbie. Robbie’s son Evan also sat in on acoustic guitar. The other 2 stages also provided great sets of music throughout the day. Favorites were Dustbowl Revival, Traveling McCoury’s, Nikki Talley again & the Jon Stickley Trio. The Jon Stickley Trio has quickly become one of my favorites. The blend of Jon Stickley (guitar), Lyndsay Pruett (violin) & Patrick Armitage (drums) create a unique fusion of instruments that takes the listener on a magical journey without vocals. The Traveling McCoury’s are another band that takes their musical prowess and infuses into many songs ala bluegrass style that keeps you dancing on your feet. Friday was amazing!
Saturday turned out beautiful weather wise & it was finally warm enough for just shorts & a t-shirt. I headed directly to the Main Stage to catch Joe Pug. Just him & a guitar, Joe Pug delivered a low key set of darker edged songs accompanied by the stories that that gave birth to them. Sierra Hull on mandolin was accompanied by Ethan Jodziewicz on upright bass also laid out a mellow set with a much more soothing tone. After Sierra Hull, the main stage multiplied the energy level times 10 as the Jeff Austin Band, Fruition & The Del McCoury Band all delivered solid sets of musical energy. Then it was time for Sam Bush. Sam Bush is one of my all time favorites & one of the main reasons for making the trip. Sam loves to play & jam & always raises the energy to another level. Most of the crowd were grooving & singing along to his entire set. The final main stage act was the Grateful Ball. Consisting of The Traveling McCourys & the Jeff Austin Band, they presented a set of Grateful Dead music in a style of their own. The other stages also kept things going with the Dustbowl Revival, Jon Stickley Trio & Cabinet performing awesome sets as well. In tribute to Chuck Berry, Jay Cobb Anderson joined Cabinet for a great version of “Maybelline”. Also Taylor Martin delivered another great set of music backed by the Honeycutters as well as being joined by members of the Jon Stickley Trio. Once the music ended, we headed back to the adjacent campground in the hope that we had enticed some of the musicians to join us for a late night jam. We were rewarded when Taylor Martin, Lyndsay Pruett, Steve Pruett, Robb Parks & others found their way to the campsite. We got about 2 good hours of musical enjoyment until the park ranger shut us down.
Anastasia Festival was a great time & I loved my first visit to St. Augustine. A few more in attendance would have been nice but those there had a great time and the music was stellar. Hopefully they can build on what they created and  do it again. of the Jon Stickley Trio. Once the music ended, we headed back to the adjacent campground in the hope that we had enticed some of the musicians to join us for a late night jam. We were rewarded when Taylor Martin, Lyndsay Pruett, Steve Pruett, Robb Parks & others found their way to the campsite. We got about 2 good hours of musical enjoyment until the park ranger shut us down.
Anastasia Festival was a great time & I loved my first visit to St. Augustine. A few more in attendance would have been nice but those there had a great time and the music was stellar. Hopefully they can build on what they created and do it again.

Below are links to all 3 days of pictures:

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3