Posts Tagged ‘John McGann’

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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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Sierra Hull: Just Feeling It

24 May 2012

We recently got to sit down with mandolinist and songwriter Sierra Hull. In this second installment of our conversation, Hull talks about her relationship with music and a fundamental issue: how much should you think about what you’re playing? Here’s what she told us:

Hull draws an insightful analogy between learning music and language acquisition. As we noted in a previous post, Hull went from novice to playing on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in a matter of a few years. No question, she’s a natural. Hull picked up music the same way that most of us learn to speak. In this regard, I think she’s part of a lucky cohort who are touched in a special way. This intuitive relationship to music eludes a lot of people— including a fair number of professional musicians.

Of course, if you get formal training in music, to some extent, you learn not to approach music intuitively. The very act of reading music requires a certain degree of analysis. Not surprisingly, many formally trained musicians pick up traditional musical forms as a means of developing a more direct connection with the essence of music. A musician like Hull, on the other hand, learned mandolin without the encumbrance of notation or even a fixed curriculum.

A potential down side to this approach is that it might make it harder for her to grasp some of the more arcane musical principles, such as tricks for spicing up a melody or adding color to harmonies. Hull’s already lengthy performance record rebuts such concerns. For example, the video clip above includes excerpts of the new instrumental “Bombshell.” You only have to listen to a few notes of that tune for any notions that Hull has been confined to a homespun and simple musical approach to melt away.

“Bombshell” is from “Daybreak,” Hull’s recent album. On the studio version of this composition, she is accompanied by fiddler extraordinaire Stuart Duncan. Duncan is another supremely sophisticated musician who does not read music— and another player whose natural gifts launched him very early onto a storied career path.

The Berklee Connection

Despite their obvious gifts and demonstrated abilities, one drawback peculiar to many “naturals” who forgo organized music education is that they get caught up in the tautology of not knowing what they don’t know, and thus they worry that they missed out on some secret afforded only to those who get formal training. Perhaps it was such a nagging sense of mystery that propelled Hull to enroll in Berklee College of Music in Boston a couple of years ago, even though she already had an album and numerous tours to her credit at that point. It’s poignant to hear her recall memories of wandering around Berklee, worried that people wouldn’t realize how lost she was. It was left to John McGann, the great teacher who taught Hull while she was in Boston and who died this spring, to make her see that much of what she was studying were concepts that, in her own intuitive way, she had already assimilated.

Berklee seems to have been a good fit for Hull. It let her try out different styles of music and gain confidence without warping her natural gifts. This is a hallmark of the college’s mission. Carl Beatty, Berklee’s Chief of Staff, once remarked that, because so many students come to their programs already some distance down an artistic path, the College takes pains to practice its own version of the Hippocratic oath: “Do no harm.” It seems clear that McGann and his colleagues did no harm to Hull’s burgeoning talent. On the contrary, her evolving musical identity stands as another testament of both the College’s nurturing philosophy and McGann’s rich legacy.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Adding a Dash of Granny’s Hot Sauce

24 April 2012

So I was ambling down a hallway at this year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival when I heard a joyful noise— not yer typical round robin jam session, but an ensemble playing as one unit. I followed my ears, and this is what I found:

Meet Granny’s Hot Sauce, a group that recently sprouted at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. GHS is further proof, if any is needed, of the continued vibrancy of both Boston’s music scene and Berklee’s American Roots Music Program. Granny’s Hot Sauce is—

  • George Clements: Guitar and Vocals
  • Lydia Luce: Fiddle and Vocals
  • Taylor Hales: Banjo
  • Louis Fram: Bass
  • Dan Bui: Mandolin

The composition featured in the video has many of the features of an old fiddle tune: the open intervals, the “crooked” rhythm— even the rustic title. As it happens, “Brush Hogger” wasn’t penned by that most prolific of songwriting teams, Mr. Anonymous and Ms. Traditional. The tune was in fact written by the band’s banjo player, Taylor Hales. It doesn’t require much imagination to picture a hallway at, say, the 2032 Joe Val Bluegrass Festival where we’ll stumble upon another band of bright young musicians playing that popular standard, “Brush Hogger.” How cool would that be?

The McGann Legacy

American roots music and the contemporary string community lost a major figure with the recent passing of John McGann. McGann was an integral part of Boston’s bluegrass and Celtic music scenes for decades. He was also a professor at the Berklee College of Music. Several members of Granny’s Hot Sauce studied with McGann, and their recollections offer a compelling testament to his wit, charm and knowledge. “All I can say is… John was was an exceptional man, musician, and teacher,” says bassist Louis Fram. “As a professor, he had the ability get on your level, and make you feel as though he believed in you.” Eulogizing McGann on the Mandolin Café website, Mandolinist Dan Bui notes how his teacher’s appreciation of music encompassed not just traditional forms, but everything from Cannonball Adderley to Anton Webern. Bui then provides this eloquent summary:

But more than anything John was an absolutely beautiful and caring human being, a teacher in every sense of the word. He always had a smile on his face, would stop and talk to you if he saw you on the street, and was always quick with a joke. I know I’m not the only student who realizes that the void left by John’s passing at Berklee can never be filled.

Goodbye John. We’ll miss you.

No doubt Bui is right: McGann’s passing has left a void. And yet surely his spirit and legacy live on whenever Granny’s Hot Sauce plays a tune.

Yer Pal— Curly

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