Posts Tagged ‘Chris Thile’

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Sierra Hull: Some Finer Points

27 July 2012

Yer Second Cousin Curly is based in that seat of bluegrass scholarship, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Tonight, in the town across the river, the multitalented singer, songwriter and mandolinist Sierra Hull will be kicking off the inaugural Boston Summer Arts Weekend with a free concert in the heart of the city. In honor of her visit, here’s a final installment of our interview with her, which includes some fiery picking from this winter’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival:

The comparisons Hull makes about various players’ techniques (including her own) might be too arcane for those who don’t play the mandolin, but to those of us enslaved to the eight-stringed midget, her observations are manna from heaven. The issue of whether or not to plant your pinky when you’re picking may not seem like a big deal, but it’s a subject of endless debate among mando players, and Hull’s down-the-middle approach is interesting in this regard.

Another insight Hull shares is the fact that she doesn’t use the classic closed chord pattern that Bill Monroe used as the foundation for his sound, favoring more open chords or simply using partial chords. At the outset of the video, you can see Hull tearing into Monroe’s “Old Dangerfield” on the octave mandolin. As that clip illustrates, Hull can more than hold her own on traditional bluegrass numbers, but her choice of chords gives her take on these tunes a distinctive flavor.

A native Tennessean through and through, we can’t exactly claim Hull as a hometown hero, but Boston was a home away from home while she recently studied at Berklee College of Music. Hull’s phenomenal technique and impeccable tone were already firmly in place before she came to Beantown. More than anything, studying with the late, great John McGann and others at Berklee seems to have given Hull the validation she needed to keep on doing what she’s doing.

The video clip also features some of Hull’s original instrumentals. She has penned some contemporary fiddle tunes that haven’t gotten half the attention they deserve. I hope that, as she keeps doing what she’s doing, Hull keeps doing plenty of those numbers.

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— Tip of the hat to Paul Villanova for his outstanding editing on the whole Sierra Hull series.

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Grey Fox 2012: Change in the Wind

21 July 2012

Bluegrass Festivals can get stuck in ruts, trotting out the same handful of acts each year. I’m here in Oak Hill, New York to report that the 2012 edition of the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival is not just another retread. The winds of change are blowing through the meadows here. To get a better sense of what I’m talking about, check out this brief video postcard:

There’s plenty more to say, but a hot jam is brewing at our campsite, so I’d better run. As I mention in the video, we’ve shot a lot of footage here— particularly some of those Young Turks that are in the ascendancy here. Check back over the coming months as we share these treats and more with you.

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— Big thanks to my great media team at Grey Fox: Lauren Scully and Geoff Poister.

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Sierra Hull: From Prodigy to Pro

2 May 2012

We got a chance to sit down with Sierra Hull at this year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival. Hull has been performing in public for a little over a decade. Almost from the start, she shared the stage with the stars of bluegrass, young and old. Stepping into the spotlight so early doesn’t seem to have loosened Hull’s attachment to her rural Southern roots. As we can see in this video portrait, even as she leaves her “child prodigy” identity behind, Hull remains very much a product of the small town in Tennessee where she first picked up the mandolin:

What struck me as I spoke with Hull was how timeless her background was. She may be part of the millennial demographic, but the childhood she describes— attending small churches, learning to play an instrument by ear—  differs very little from the one in which bluegrass pioneers like Ralph Stanley grew up decades before her. In an era where great pickers can come from Brooklyn, Switzerland and Japan, it’s worth remembering that the “true vine” of  the Cumberlands, the Bluegrass and the Smokies still produces a lot of natural talent.

Hull began playing mandolin when she was eight. She was fortunate to live near Carl Berggren, a fine mandolinist who has played with established bluegrass figures like Larry Sparks. (For proof that Berggren is no slouch, check out this video of him playing “Roanoke” with Hull, and while you’re at it, check out this clip of teacher and student horsing around on a Django Reinhardt swing tune.) Berggren gave Hull lessons, and she proved to be a very apt pupil. Within a couple of years, she was performing at bluegrass shows, and by the time she was eleven, she was sharing the stage at the Grand Ole Opry with one of her idols, Alison Krauss (check out this video of that encounter).

It’s not hard to map Hull’s biography through her music. There are the traditional bluegrass tunes of her childhood that still season her set lists, the echo of Krauss in her songwriting and vocals, and the jazz and swing influences from her recent studies at Berklee College of Music that can be heard in her sophisticated solos. In forthcoming profiles, we’ll dig deeper into both Hull’s approach to music and her exceptional technique, so don’t wander too far off.

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— Thanks to Paul Villanova for the fine video editing on this series.

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Thile & Daves Bring It All Back Home

30 May 2011

Once upon a time, yer Cousin Curly set out to make a website that would be the Playboy Magazine of Bluegrass— you read it for the pictures.* On more than one occasion, however, I have lost sight of this goal and waxed on too fulsomely, creating something closer to The Times Bluegrass Supplement or The New York Review of Bluegrass.

Enough!

In an effort to wean myself of my prolixity, I hereby offer a veritable torrent of clips from a recent show at Boston’s Brighton Music Hall by Chris Thile and Michael Daves. For starters, we’re gonna jump right into the deep end with the longest video of the bunch. Stay with this fine medley of fiddle tune requests, though, and you’ll get a good feel for the show:

As noted in a previous post, it’s touching to hear a couple of virtuoso performers at the peak of their powers going back to the well of traditional material. The fiddle tunes liberally scattered through the duo’s two sets underscore the back-to-basics concept. The vocal tunes were also largely drawn from the bedrock of the bluegrass canon:

There were classic breakdowns and reels—

But there were also gorgeous slower tunes like Frank Rodgers’ “Ookpik Waltz”

The tune is sometimes called “Utpick Waltz.” While the spelling varies, everybody seems to agree that the title refers to an arctic owl.

Okay, before you drift off into some snowy dream, check out this take on “Loneliness & Desperation:”

That song was written by Michael Garris but I believe it’s most closely associated with Del McCoury, who recorded it in the 1980’s. Thile & Daves’ version does justice to Daves’ stated aim of using bluegrass to explore “basic, raw stuff.” This is also one of the strongest tracks on the duo’s fine new album, Sleep With One Eye Open.

In crafting the second fiddle tune medley based on audience requests, Thile & Daves decided to play with fire. They started with “Arkansas Traveler” in A, switched to Frank Wakefield’s “New Camp Town Races” in B flat and then finished up with Herschel Sizemore’s “Rebecca” in B. Don’t try this at home…

Very nice indeed, but as Thile put it himself, he failed to “stick the landing” into B on “Rebecca.” Undaunted, the duo attempted the transition one more time…

Nuff said!

Yer pal— Curly

*  Not to be confused with The Sporting News, which you read for the pitchers.

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