Posts Tagged ‘Stuart Duncan’

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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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Cousin Curly in the Temple of Twang

12 April 2011

Before I get all distracted, let me show you this edition’s video, which comes from my travels to Nashville last spring…

From a certain point of view, the Ryman Auditorium could be seen as a microcosm of Nashville. Like the Music City as a whole, the Ryman is a really nice place that seems to hide its deep connection to bluegrass. While the back of the building is lined with display cases, you have to go to the third floor to find any significant bluegrass-related material. In some respects this isn’t a surprise, in that the Ryman hosts all manner of performances today, from Aretha Franklin to ZZ Top. But while I’m sure that ticket sales for bluegrass acts aren’t keeping the auditorium’s pews polished to a fare thee well, I reckon that the streams of pilgrims who are paying close to twenty bucks for the backstage tour are primarily drawn by the venue’s storied past. No doubt many grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry, which called the Ryman home for several decades. If I’m correct about all that, it would follow that a good number of these are folks interested in an era when bluegrass was an integral part of the operation. So what gives?

But as I say, I found Nashville puzzling in the same way. A quick rundown of musicians based in Nashville reads like a directory of present-day bluegrass:

Alison Brown, Roland White, Bryan Sutton, Jerry Douglas, Jim Buchanan, Josh Williams, Valerie Smith, The Steeldrivers, Ron Block, Blake Williams,  Ricky Skaggs, Mark Schatz, Jerry Salley, Keith Tew, Gail Davies, The Infamous String Dusters, Melonie Canon, Casey Driessen, Sam Bush, Gillian Welch,  Daily & Vincent, John Weisberger, Dierks Bentley, Kathy Chiavola, Mike Bub, Larry Sparks, Tim Carter, Paul Brewster, Ronnie Reno, Tim O’Brien, Billy & Terry Smith, Fred Carpenter, Doug Dillard,  Tim May, Wayne Southards, Brad Davis, Barry & Holly Tashian, David Crow, Kevin Williamson, John Cowan, Mike Compton, Tim Hensley, Larry Cordle, Marty Raybon, Sharon Cort, Keith Sewell, The Chigger Hill Boys, Stuart Duncan, David Talbot, Ed Dye, The Grascals, Pat Enright, Scott Vestal, Donna Ulisse, The Farewell Drifters, Marty Stuart, Rickie Simpkins, Pat Flynn, Kim Fox, Pam Gadd, J.T. Gray, Tom T. Hall, Aubrey Haynie, Casey Henry, Tom Saffell, Randy Howard, Jim Hurst, Rob Ickes, Eddie Stubbs, Vic Jordan, Cody Kilby, Randy Kohrs, Alison Krauss, Jim Lauderdale, David Grier, Keith Little, Ned Luberecki, Del McCoury, James & Angela McKinney, Larry McNeely, Luke McNight, Ken Mellons, Patty Mitchell, Alan O’Bryant, Bobby Osborne, Heartstrings, The Overall Brothers, Continental Divide, David Peterson, Missy Raines, Lee & Elaine Roy, Carl Jackson, Darrell Scott, Jimmy Campbell, Ronnie McCoury, Larry Perkins, Larry Stephenson, Jim Van Cleve, Terry Eldridge, Andrea Zonn.

Whew. That’s just a start; I’ll bet there are literally hundreds more worth noting.  Even so, the music itself doesn’t even register as background noise. During my visit, I would regularly spin the radio dial from one end to the other. I never heard so much as a note that sounded like bluegrass. I know there is a vibrant house party scene in the Nashville bluegrass community, but that doesn’t explain why bluegrass isn’t a more visible— or, more the point, audible— part of the landscape.

But don’t get me wrong: I really like Nashville. As long as the Cumberland River behaves itself, it’s an elegant metropolis that also manages to be comfortable and friendly. Can’t wait for my next visit, by which time I hope I will have been granted the secret password and welcomed into Nashville’s occult (in every sense of the word) bluegrass scene.

Yer Pal— Curly

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