Connecting Dots: From Tony Trischka to Bill Monroe21 May 2011
Perhaps it comes as no surprise to hear this from a guy who claims to be yer second cousin, but bluegrass musicians do all seem to be related— if not genetically then at least professionally. The line-ups in string bands can start to seem like an endless game of connect-the-dots. Am I losing you? All right, as an example, let’s take the fine group that recently performed with banjo ace Tony Trischka…
The fiddler is Tashina Clarridge, a well-known fiddling contest champion from the West Coast. Tashina is the sister of Tristan Clarridge, cellist for Crooked Still, the band that has been the subject of an ongoing series of profiles on this site. Indeed, I’ve got to finish up these Crooked Still pieces so that I can start sharing another series of profiles I’ve got “in the can,” these with the Vermont-based group Hot Mustard. And what do you suppose Hot Mustard is doing these days? Why, they’re opening shows for…Tony Trischka & Territory!
Which brings us back around to the line-up in the clip above. The fellow who is belting out the vocals is Michael Daves, a musician based in Brooklyn who just released an album with mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile. The record is called Sleep With One Eye Open and it features a bunch of traditional bluegrass numbers. Here’s a taste of the Thile/Daves collaboration:
In most bluegrass circles, releasing an album with standards like “20/20 Vision” wouldn’t cause much of a stir, but these ain’t yer garden-variety pickers. In recent years, Thile has explored the no-mans-land between traditional music, contemporary pop and classical composition, and Daves— who plays everything from funk to swing— has cited jazz master Yusef Lateef as a major influence. If you root around online a bit, you can find a nice clip of Daves playing Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology.” It is neither particularly high nor lonesome.
Despite these musical wanderings, both Thile and Daves grew up steeped in bluegrass, and it’s heartwarming to see them taking a moment in the prime of their careers to return to those roots. Daves clearly has a sophisticated musical palette at his disposal, but this southern-bred musician seems to appreciate the corrosive tang of bluegrass. In interviews, he has been known to draw connections between Bill Monroe and, uh, Iggy Pop (talk about connecting dots!). When he uses the verb “destroy” to describe a performance, he means it in a good way. This outlook makes Daves an excellent foil for Thile, his gritty delivery providing ballast for Thile’s boundless musical invention.
The Thile/Daves partnership goes back several years. Indeed, you can hear them harmonizing on a 2007 release by— wait for it— Tony Trischka. Yep, on Trischka’s Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular, Thile and Daves contribute the vocals for “Run Mountain,” the second tune in the video above. By the way, the fiddle player on the recorded version of “Run Mountain” is Brittany Haas, who currently plays with— you guessed it— Crooked Still.
[We now pause in our delightful connect-the-dots exercise to pose the question, “Hey, isn’t that a phone that Tony Trischka is using as a slide?” We’ll get to that in a minute, but first let’s address an even more pressing query: “Curly, why does the camerawork in your video suck so very badly?” Well, two reasons, actually. First, I’m hurrying to get this post up because Trischka, Thile and Daves are crisscrossing the Northeast at this very moment and I thought some of you might like to catch their acts. This means that I’m sharing video that had to be rushed out of kitchen with scarcely any seasoning. Second, when I was shooting this footage, there was a guy sitting next to me making peerless observations like, “The banjo player is obviously the most mature player in the band.” Oh yes, listen closely to my recording and you’ll hear that and much more from the Sage of Row G. Now, I challenge any of you to keep your framing steady while you’re trying to hurl your shoe at the head of your neighbor. As for the previous question, yes, I do believe Trischka was using the Banjo Slide app on his iPhone. We now rejoin our connect-the-dots game…]
Daves certainly has his own sound, but there’s no doubt that the bluegrass pioneers Charlie and Bill Monroe have heavily influenced both his guitar technique and singing. This musical kinship has apparently caught the attention of folks in Hollywood, where the actor Peter Sarsgaard is pushing to star in a biopic about Bill Monroe. According to Trischka, Daves is slated to provide Monroe’s vocals for the movie, which will have to be rushed to completion if it is to capitalize on Monroe’s centennial next September. The script is by Callie Khouri, who showed that she knew a thing or two about the byways of American culture in her screenplay for Thelma and Louise. It is no coincidence at all that Khouri is married to T Bone Burnett, the famed record producer, who naturally is supposed to supervise the music for the project. Burnett is connected to everybody in bluegrass, if only because he produced the bestselling bluegrass soundtrack to the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? thereby launching a resurgence of interest in bluegrass in particular and American roots music in general. Sadly, I can’t neatly wrap up this bagatelle by reporting that Trischka was part of the pantheon of bluegrass greats who played on O Brother. He has definitely gotten around, but he’s not the bluegrass equivalent of Zelig.
[Parting question: What on earth do the lyrics to “Run Mountain” mean? I, for one, am stumped. Anyone? Anyone?]
Yer Pal— Curly
P.S.— In addition to the Hot Mustard profiles, I’ll have more to offer from Trischka in the not-too-distant future. This five-string superhero plays a key role in a major new documentary about the banjo that is to be released in the fall. Stay tuned for more on this project…