Category Archives: Interview

Interview – Mipso

IMG_2919

Sometimes first impressions are meant to be thrown out the window. This is because, in fact, impressions aren’t formed in a vacuum. Rather, they are often influenced by external and internal factors–weather, mood, people around you, time of year, personal conflicts, perceived reality–the list is endless.

The first time I saw Mipso (then Mipso Trio) perform was at their sold-out show at Cat’s Cradle last year–a Carrboro music staple on the outskirts of the pristine campus of UNC-Chapel Hill where band members, Jacob Sharp, Wood Robinson, and Joseph Terrell studied. Life was good, they were making music together, and they had sold-out one of the area’s most recognized venues. To top it off, Mipso was being supported by some of the state’s best songwriters that night, openers Jim Avett and The Overmountain Men. What more could these young, talented men ask for?

Onstage they appeared starstruck and in awe that so many people came out to see them–as they were still in their infancy as a band–but they proved to have some veteran tendencies. Their harmonies were tight, crisp, and clear. They smiled out into the bright lights beaming back at them, and had a natural stage presence. When David Childers joined them on stage, they appeared humbled and honored. Whatever kinks were worked out on stage were hardly, if at all, noticeable to the audience, because of well, the audience. Here is where first impressions get influenced if we aren’t careful. Drunk college co-eds who would rather be seen and heard than to listen to well-crafted music were wall to wall that night. They were successful in putting a blemish on my first impression of Mipso. It was sort of that ‘guilt by association’ rule. If this audience was made up mainly by friends of the band, well how serious were they about making a mark on the North Carolina music scene and beyond? I left disappointed, but thankfully not completely despaired.

IMG_7055a

You see, occasionally I forget that there was a time when I was not a polite concert-goer–when I, too, was a drunk co-ed. So, with that in the forefront of my mind, I set out to form a new first impression of Mipso, one based on the important elements of a band–the music and the people. I caught up with Sharp, Robinson, and Terrell last month at Peasant’s Pub in Greenville, NC for a little chat about the past year, growing as a band, songwriting, recording their upcoming second LP, and surprisingly, the bluegrass movement in Japan.

As we nestled into our seats on the patio, I quickly learned that these young men possess a depth and maturity that is rarely found in recent college graduates. Sharp, on vocals and mandolin, picked up the instrument in the eighth grade off a bet with his Dad. “I picked it up and hit it with various things, but don’t think I really started playing it until I was sixteen or seventeen,” Sharp recalled. Robinson, on stand-up bass, has been playing music in some capacity since he was three or four years old. With a strong foundation in jazz theory, he picked up the electric bass in 8th grade and transitioned to the stand-up by the time he was mid-way through high school (June 22nd to be exact–he joked). Terrell, on guitar and vocals, learned to pick from his grandmother while in middle school, and started playing in bands and taking his craft seriously by age sixteen.

Collectively, they each bring a different type of songwriting prowess to the table. On their first full album, Long, Long Gone, Terrell was the primary songwriter, but the responsibility has shifted on their upcoming untitled album as Sharp and Robinson throw a few songs into the mix.

“I think [the melody and lyrics] inform each other. I don’t often have lyrics sitting around. Often times I have a lyrical idea with a melody. They tend to come together. Some songs come quickly and then I’ve got a notebook that’s got some stuff that’s half-finished and they will be half-finished for six months. It’s a labor of love that you always have to pay attention to because you never know which idea will fit,” shared Terrell.

If songwriting for Mipso were to be compared to the Deadliest Catch, Robinson would be the eager greenhorn of the band. He casually admitted, “I’m learning how to song write. Being involved with [Sharp and Terrell], who are very much more accomplished and better songwriters than I am, they have taught me that the role of the songwriter is to communicate an emotion that would make the listener think that [he/she] already thought of that, or think, ‘that’s me’. I’m learning that the purpose of the song is to communicate to the listener, not to express necessarily something that is intensely personal. You want another person to relate it it…A song that I am in the process of writing right now is a direct response to a song by Dawes called A Little Bit of Everything. It’s an incredible song, and it really had quite a profound effect on me. It’s been surfacing for a while now.”

Terrell added, “It’s funny, I’m not interested in strictly personal writing. I think of it more as a challenge to tell a cool story, and I like to do that. There’s a big difference between the way Jacob and I write. Jacob writes more personally, I think it’s fair to say. It’s cool to have that mixture and that variety. Wood is more of a mixture of the two.”

IMG_7080a

It is obvious that this next album will be more of a collaborative effort among the band. This approach not only challenges them personally, but also pushes them to learn how to work together to produce a sound that is ultimately unique–a sound that is Mipso.

“I think with collaborative writing, someone brings an idea and you flush it out together. Or sometimes Joe or myself will bring a finished song that doesn’t need too much beyond working out the parts. But we are still learning how to write together,” said Sharp.

Terrell added, “One thing we’ve learned is that the song that’s on the page–the lyrics and the music–is not the whole picture. What we do together is the biggest picture of what makes the song sound like a Mipso song–the harmony that Jake picks out and the baseline in particular, because Wood is not a bluegrass bassist. He really has a cool jazz background.”

While Mipso wouldn’t categorize themselves as a strictly bluegrass band, they certainly pull inspiration from the traditional genre, and do so with the utmost respect.

“So, bluegrass players are really good, like virtuosos. There is a distinct level of virtuosity in that genre of music that would not be fair to claim as our own,” pointed out Robinson.

“I think we are influenced and inspired by bluegrass. So I think we are bluegrassy in the same way we are folksy,” added Sharp.

When you sit down to listen to Mipso’s previous work, it is clear that their influences run the spectrum, from Paul Simon to Doc Watson. As they continue to define their own signature sound, much of that fine tuning has been taking place in the recording studio. On their upcoming album, they are working with producer Andrew Marlin at the Rubber Room Studio in Chapel Hill. Marlin, who is best known as half of folk-bluegrass duo Mandolin Orange, has signed on to guide the recording process. With Marlin behind the boards, Mipso has gained a mighty mentor who is proficient in all areas of production.

“Working with [Marlin] has been really enlightening,” said Sharp. “It’s almost like we have an apprenticeship, because he’s a great friend but also one of our favorite, most respected musicians, and really talented songwriter, and mandolin and guitar player. So everyday we went in and learned something new individually, but we also saw a different side or perspective in the recording and writing process.”

“It’s very cool to have an external source, to have a very deliberate and apparent hand in the process of writing these songs. We bring these songs with an idea of where we are going with them, and having another person outside of the band say, ‘Hey, this should be slowed down a bit. Maybe it could use a little snare in it.’ Is amazing how those little things can bring out the character of the song in such a beautiful way,” said Robinson.

Also joining the guys in the studio will be their fourth band member, fiddler and singer Libby Rodenbough. When Mipso first started two and a half years ago, they were known as Mipso Trio–catchy right? About a year ago, they decided to drop the ‘Trio’ which happened to fall in line with the addition of Libby. Libby had already contributed to all recordings, so it seemed like a logical move.

“We’ve always felt like she added a lot,” Terrell shared. “We formed the band when she was taking a year off school, and she actually collaborated remotely from Chicago on the six song EP that we put out. We wanted to shorten the [band] name anyway, and that coincided with Libby joining so it made a lot of sense. She’s still going to be in school next year, so she’s going to be playing with us, but there will be lots of shows where she won’t be playing with us. So, we are a three-piece with a close musical collaborator.”

Sharp added, “Libby has taught us a lot about how we can benefit from having a fourth piece. As we grew more comfortable in playing with her and also recognizing it was a consistent thing, it was fun to start writing for a fourth piece, but it’s nice to know that we can still be a pretty tight three-piece.”

IMG_8249_Mipso-cropa

So what can fans expect from their upcoming second LP, slated to be released in late October/early November? Based on the album’s first single, Carolina Calling, themes of state pride and family roots rise to the surface. However, the band shared that thematically the album will expand from the epicenter that is the only home they’ve ever known–North Carolina.

“I started thinking about graduating in November [’12]. I’m used to this place–North Carolina and Chapel Hill–but it would be cool to capture what this place is to me and all of us at this moment in time. I took the project on of writing the song that I felt was the senior spring song. It’s Chapel Hill-centric, but also about North Carolina. There’s something special about being in North Carolina that you don’t get in other places. That’s the idea I had [for the song],” explained Terrell.

In terms of the feel of the entire album, they believe that it will have an elevated sound–even more ‘Mipso’ than before.

“I think we’ve grown into our shoes a little more since the first album. I think it’s easier than on the first album for people to say, ‘Oh that’s kind of a bluegrass song.’ Now they sound more like Mipso songs,” Terrell proudly stated.

Sharp added, “It’s better blended.”

“You can see very direct themes in the last album–home, leaving home, coming back home, loves and lost loves, and certain other things–but it is kind of cool to be pushing our comfort zone for thematic writing [on our new album],” added Robinson.

While quality songwriting and recording are necessities for any band to be successful, so too is becoming integrated into a local music scene. Luckily, the North Carolina music scene is welcoming, even as it busts at the seams with talent. While Mipso carves away a place in the music scene, the band also pulls inspiration from those who have paved the way.

“It’s so important to be a part of a music scene, and North Carolina music scene is awesome. Two of my favorite bands are Chatham County Line and Mandolin Orange. They are awesome and right around the corner from us,” said Terrell.

Sharp chimed in, “Also, Andrew [Marlin] embodies the Carrboro music scene and is definitely at the top of it. He’s just always out playing. Whenever he’s not on tour, he’s anywhere where there’s music–always has his guitar and jamming with someone in a variety of styles, and he can play for like five hours straight if he wants. He’s never happier than when he’s performing. If it’s like one person in a bar or a packed Cat’s Cradle, he doesn’t care. That’s his craft and where he finds his joy. So that for me–it’s not just about practicing in a room or playing a big show–it’s about playing all of the time.”

In addition to their local music scene, Mipso is making a concerted effort to establish roots first throughout North Carolina, and then beyond. Since graduation in May, the band has been able to look forward with a new sense of direction and intent.

“For us it’s exciting because this whole year will be very focused and intentional. It was always something we just did on Fridays and Saturdays. It’s cool that it feels much more embodied and fully a part of our lives,” explained Terrell.

“As far as getting further afloat from North Carolina, it’s really a big goal of ours to first be really rooted here, to cover the state pretty thoroughly, because we keep learning about all of these cool communities. So, it’s fun for us to explore. Lots of them are places we’ve been as kids or something but never knew there’s this great music scene. That’s really exciting for us, and it also makes more sense to move out in smaller circles and just keep widening the radius,” added Sharp.

Robinson rounded it off, “It’s really cool to ground yourself as a North Carolina band by making sure that everyone in North Carolina–well not everyone–hopefully has a chance to hear you. We are really proud to be from this state, so we might as well make other people proud, too.”

Establishing their musical roots in North Carolina means playing local venues–anywhere from general stores to house show living rooms.

IMG_2916a

On the subject of house shows, which seem to be a very popular option among smaller indie acts, Sharp explained the appeal, “We’re seeing a much wider variety of venues and shows now, and it’s fun because you learn how with each one you have to tackle it a bit differently. House shows are especially cool because you’re taking this place and changing the space that it’s creating. It’s especially cool to watch people see how their living room turns into a venue. It’s a different type of community that comes to a house concert.”

Terrell added, “You’re pretty much guaranteed to talk to people a little bit more personally, play a little bit more intimately. Might happen at other shows too, but at a house show it’s kind of like what you expect, which is pretty sweet.”

Mipso plays a Charlotte house show, sponsored by Common Chord Concerts, this Friday (7/12), and has plans to continue touring throughout North Carolina, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Connecticut. When I asked them if they had plans to tour out West, I was quite surprised by their response.

“Well we’ve got an idea about going East,” said Terrell with a laugh. I was perplexed. Out East?

“We are going to Japan and China in August. We are doing fourteen days in Japan. Last Summer I was in Japan. I wrote my honor’s thesis on the geography of music and it was about how bluegrass spread into Japan, specifically. So, I spent all Summer in Japan doing research, and just really listening to people who have for a long time been listening, and just gathered their world histories,” explained Sharp. “I was there for eight weeks and played a couple of concerts. More importantly I was seeing concerts and many festivals so we have strong ties to this small community of bluegrass musicians and bands who have an incredibly rich tradition of playing since WWII. So, we kind of just plugged into that network. We are playing the Takarazuka Bluegrass Festival. It is in its forty-third year. It’s a four-day festival, with about one hundred people. It looks like we will be playing five concerts outside of that, four of which are paired with Japanese bands.”

Mipso certainly has an exciting tail-end of the year ahead, including an overseas tour and putting the finishing touches on their second LP. Despite their steady growth as a band, Sharp, Robinson, and Terrell know that they still have mountains to climb, and they are very comfortable with that. Mipso doesn’t seem to carry the sense of urgency that would be expected from a group of recent graduates. They all possess a realistic level of patience that seems to be lacking in our world of instant gratification–which in itself is quite gratifying. As they move forward together, they pay special attention to the lessons put forth by their mentors, including one of North Carolina’s favorites, David Holt.

As the interview came to a close, Terrell shared a bit of the wisdom that has been imparted on him by Holt. “The other night I thought a little bit about this, but hearing it from [David] meant a lot. He said, ‘You guys have some really cool songs. I want to hear about why you wrote them–what the story is about.’ It reinforced to me that people want to hear the songs, but they also want to get to know you on stage, and the space between the songs is really important, too.”

That evening those at Peasant’s Pub were treated to an excellent two-set show. They were engaging and filled space between the songs with witty banter that held the audience’s attention. This time around I was able to appreciate Mipso’s set from a better vantage point. On stage, their awestruck quality was replaced by an ease, as they appeared much more comfortable and at home in their songs. The songwriting had matured, which was evident in the new songs they played. They even threw in a crowd-pleasing cover of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean, which showed not only their sense of humor, but also their ability to cross genres and make a throwback song their own.

I was pleased to leave that evening with a new, shiny and fair impression of the band and their music. Mipso is moving in the right direction, at a smart and steady pace that exudes a quiet confidence. Armed with patience, talent, and big dreams, these young men will continue to gain fans as they travel the globe and share their songs and stories.

Leave a comment

Filed under Interview, Live Shows

Interview – The Black Lillies

TheBlackLillies-RunawayFreewayBlues-

As I stood behind the Americana Stage at MerleFest and waited for the members of The Black Lillies to congregate for the interview, I observed their post-set routine—careful casing of beloved instruments, quick visits with old friends, and sincere entertaining of questions, adorations and photographs with fans. Somewhere in between they caught their breath and took a moment to appreciate what had just transpired.  They had just finished their first ever set at MerleFest as a band, and by the looks of the captivated and quite discerning audience they were very well received.

The band’s 8-song set, powered mainly by songs from their recently released third studio album, Runaway Freeway Blues, showcased beautiful, strong vocals and the sweetest of harmonies backed by tight instrumentation and vivid storytelling.  This was the band’s first of four scheduled performances at MerleFest, and the buzz had already started to spread across the festival grounds.  They were that band at this year’s MerleFest.

Cruz Contreras

Cruz Contreras

While The Black Lillies can easily be described as an Americana band, their collective sound certainly defies music genre boundaries, pulling inspiration from rock, blues, jazz, bluegrass, and country.  Led by front-man and gifted songwriter Cruz Contreras (vocals, guitar, piano, mandolin), the band includes siren songstress Trisha Gene Brady (vocals, percussion, guitar, mandolin), beard-laden, laid back rocker Tom Pryor (pedal steel, electric guitar, background vocals), friendly funnyman Robert Richards (bass), and quiet charmer Jamie Cook (drums).

For close to two decades, Knoxville, Tennessee has been the musical epicenter for Contreras and crew.  Prior to forming The Black Lillies, each member put in time in other bands like the everybodyfields, Robinella and the CCstringband, Whiskey Scars, Natti Love Joys, and The Naughty Knots.  Over the years, they began to run in the same musical circles, forging friendships through their music, which eventually led them to a crossroads in 2009.

The Black Lillies  photo by Jordan Hamby

The Black Lillies photo by Jordan Hamby

Contreras–who slides in as the band’s spokesperson with a downhome ease–shares a bit about the band’s humble beginnings.  “The first Black Lillies record came out in 2009, so our first CD release show was the official first Black Lillies show.  There was about a year or so evolution.  You know, finding the right players and the music.  The line up here, I think we’ve been together I feel like going on 4 years.”

While they started as friends, the past 4 years have made them a family.  There is a love that is obvious–a mutual respect for each other, born from paid dues and hard work on and off of the road.  Being a family has helped them manage and appreciate being thrown into the spotlight over the past year.

“I think you have to be crazy to get accustomed to that life.  So we must be, because we are definitely accustomed to it.  And on the forefront of it being out there, and people noticing, and us getting press, we know about it but it’s hard to really know about it, because we are on the road.  And it’s like, ‘Oh that’s happening, but what does that mean?’  I know it’s good, but I don’t really know what it means because we are out here and we have to work every night,” shares Brady.

Contreras and Brady

Contreras and Brady

Contreras adds, “We’ve got our hand it in.  It’s a little difficult to see the big picture, because you are just surviving day-to-day, traveling.  We travel in a van, which is like a lot of tedious work.  But every now and then you get to step back and you hopefully believe that it’s progressing.”

For The Black Lillies, 2012 was a breakthrough year spent almost entirely on the road—unloading the van, playing their hearts out, loading the van, sleeping, driving, and doing it all over in a different city the following night.  During the quiet moments along long stretches of highway, Contreras found time to perfect songs that had been conceived over the past three years—songs that told the stories of travelers, warriors, lovers, explorers, dreamers, and everything in between.  The result is Runaway Freeway Blues, the band’s most refined album to date.

“It’s more of a studio recording.  I think it’s our best recording quality.  It’s definitely an evolution,” says Contreras.

“I think there’s a lot more separation.  I don’t want to say it’s more produced or anything, but I’ve had a lot of people comment on the separation of the vocals.  They seem to be more in focus than the past records,” adds Richards.

Pryor

Pryor

“Yeah, the early records were live—everybody in a room—so there’s so much bleed in the mics.  You get this really live, energetic feeling, but it’s really difficult to mix.  This time we had control, and we got the best tones on the drums because we were able to manipulate those.  You know, that’s a technical thing,” Contreras explains.

With the evolution of a band often comes critique, in particular from fans who were there from the start–the self-proclaimed true fans.  As bands, like The Black Lillies, find themselves in the middle of a buzz storm and headlining bigger venues, they can also experience a backlash from fans who may feel as if the band has sold out.  Fortunately, The Black Lillies have yet to come up against any backlash, and maintain a positive attitude about their evolution.

“I think every band deserves that right to evolve, every person does.  It’s a natural thing—it’s maturity.  Maybe sometimes it’s different, and that doesn’t please everybody,” says Contreras.

In fact, negative criticism from their fans has been very rare.  The band’s manager, Chyna Brackeen, who has been with the band from the start, gives her take on it, “I’d say most of the fans are really excited by the new record because it is more like what they see on stage.  It’s not that it’s so much more produced.  It was done differently–it was recorded differently than the other two–but it has just a lot more depth to it, more instrumentation.  It really focuses on highlighting each of the instrumental parts as much as possible—the way that they do in a live performance.”

Contreras and Brady

Contreras and Brady

While the recording quality on Runaway Freeway Blues has improved, so too has the songwriting, especially on songs like Goodbye Charlie.  Contreras certainly pulls from his own experiences, but also possesses a gift that allows him to transform the stories of others into song.  He is an observer—a listener.

“Well it’s just listening to stories.  It’s like when you get a concept for a song sometimes I’ve felt like you need to go study, or do your homework, or be studious about it – you don’t.  Once you even have the notion of, ‘Oh I should write a song about it,’ you know enough.  [In terms of Goodbye Charlie], that’s someone in my life who told me a bunch of stories over time and you put them together and, you know, it’s there,” explains Contreras.

The stories woven into the fabric of the songs have dimension and texture, and it is in The Black Lillies’ live performances that they fully come to life.

“We’re a live band, and it changes every night,” says Pryor.  “So, what you are hearing from three records is somewhat of a representation, but what we do live is usually wildly different from what you hear on the record.”

Pryor, Brady, Contreras, and touring member Matt Menefee

Pryor, Brady, Contreras, and touring member Matt Menefee

Pryor speaks the truth.  Having listened to their albums before experiencing a live performance, I can admit that I wasn’t completely sold–until I saw them on stage.  The band interaction, the joy, the harmonies, the honesty, the energy, the momentum, the sound—collectively these things inspired me to invest in them, their music, and their message.  The fact that they are all fun-loving, good people, who care about making great music and value their fans and community, well that’s all just icing on the cake.

After winning over droves of music lovers at MerleFest–including myself–The Black Lillies got right back to doing what they do best–touring.  There’s no rest for these weary musicians.  Currently, The Black Lillies have shows booked through September at festivals, clubs, cafes, and theaters across the US.  Do yourself a favor and get out to see them live.  They are moving forward–wide open throttle and no looking back–so be prepared to jump on the Black Lillies bandwagon before it leaves you in the dust.

A special thank you to Chyna Brackeen and The Black Lillies for taking time out of their schedules for this interview.  It was certainly my pleasure to meet you all.  Safe travels!

3 Comments

Filed under Festivals, Interview, Live Shows

Interview – Bob Crawford of The Avett Brothers

IMG_1443

Just in time for the 55th Annual Grammy Awards, I caught up with Bob Crawford, bassist for The Avett Brothers, to talk about their new album “The Carpenter”, their first Grammy nomination, songwriting, and learning to play the fiddle, among other things:

EOAF: Congratulations on the success of “The Carpenter”.  How would you describe the album?

Crawford: Mature, thoughtful, intentional, poignant, pensive.  I think it’s heavy, and I think that’s where…I’ve had friends that I have had since I was 19, I’m 40 now.  I’ve had them say “I don’t know about this one.  It’s not your best.”  I think maybe we lose some people as we go, but maybe we gain people in some ways.  Maybe people come and go.  It’s not 2007 anymore, and it’s not 2005.  It’s a different time for us and I think you are being honest about where you are in life and that being reflected in your art and what you do and the way you do it.  It’s definitely going to change.

EOAF: How do you feel about how songs from “The Carpenter” have translated live?

Crawford: Oh they are great!  I think they have really translated.  You know what they have done?  Some of them,  like “A Father’s First Spring” and “February 7”, some of these song help us slow down on stage and try to meditate on being intense and calm at the same time.  It’s been a lot of fun.  It’s really fun to translate something like that live.  We’ve had slow songs in the past–God knows we have tons of them.  There’s a controlled, an intentional controlled aspect that comes musically, like a hang-there-in-space-and-time and have that patience.  I’ve always thought Neil Young did that so well with songs like “Harvest Moon”–how he could have a very intense mid-tempo.  That’s tricky for a musician.  It’s very hard.  The inclination is to play faster, because your heart is beating faster because you are on a stage and there are people.

EOAF: Is there any song from The Carpenter that you really love to play live?

Crawford: “Live and Die” is getting really comfortable.  It’s starting to feel like an old trusty.  We are getting better, with the last two albums, at holding songs back before the release.  We were never good at that before.  We’ve gotten better at that.  When you record the song, but you don’t really know them, you know your part and you know the section that you did a million times, but you don’t know it like when you are on stage and let it fall out of you.  When you record the record, there’s about a year before you really start playing the songs intently and constantly, and then they take on a life of their own.  So, they are coming.  Some of them are still in the coming phase, but some of them have been very surprising to play, like “Life” has been fun to play and “Paul Newman [vs. the Demons]” has been fun to play.  That can be really fun to play.

EOAF: You played “Life” for the first time live at The Christmas Jam in Asheville.  That was exciting to see you guys added last minute to the line-up.  How was that experience for you?

Crawford: It was fun!  Scott [Avett] and I used to live in Asheville, and I remember a time when the Christmas Jam came around.  For a couple of years we were asked to participate, but we do our New Year’s show in Asheville.  So it was finally good that this year we could be a part of it. It was really great, because we hadn’t played together in about a month and a half.  I mean we had practiced, but we hadn’t done a show.  It was fun because I was actually really nervous, but we did great.  I was like, “This is great I am nervous!  This is awesome.”

EOAF: That is a great feeling, and it was also a very different crowd.  The majority of the people there were sort of that jam-band crowd.

Crawford: Yeah!  It was nice to get that support.  I could also tell from the stage that [the audience was] really there to see String Cheese [Incident].  That made if fun.  It was nice to be in a room that we’ve sold out, and played two nights there before, and for it to be a new room—for the lighting to be different and for there to be no backdrop behind us.

EOAF: “The Carpenter” was nominated for the Best Americana Album award for this year’s Grammy’s.  Congratulations!  Where were you when you found out? 

Crawford: Thank you so much.  I was at home in bed.  I started getting texts saying “Congratulations” and this and that.

EOAF: How does the Grammy nomination play into your or The Avett Brothers’ definition of success?

Crawford: I think it’s always nice to be patted on the back, or nice to have someone tell you good job.  Let’s face it.  It’s great to get a compliment.  I mean, it’s always nice, but I don’t think it’s why we do it, and it’s not even necessary for us to continue doing it—to get those kind of accolades.  We’re going to keep doing what we do probably until it doesn’t seem useful anymore, until there’s no need to write songs, until we feel like we’ve plateaued, or we feel like we have nothing to say, or until people stop coming to see us live.  But I think the first thing, besides a tragedy, that would hasten us not doing it would be if we had nothing to say.  We always told ourselves earlier that we would stop doing it if it seemed like we plateaued—if it seemed like it wasn’t going anywhere any longer, you know.  I don’t know that we are there yet.  I think we hope to do it forever. Maybe there are years to take off, or we can take a break, but I hope it can still exist in the same light.

EOAF: It is great that you guys have been getting recognized more for what you are doing.  In that notoriety you have been asked to play with some pretty big names over the past two years—Bob Dylan, you’ve played for Tom T. Hall, and you did the Crossroads sessions with Randy Travis.  Is there anything from those specific experiences that really stands out to you? 

Crawford: Well they are all really touching and exciting.  Obviously the Bob Dylan thing is surreal.  It’s even surreal now because it doesn’t even feel like it really happened.  You know? It’s one of those things.  “Did that really happen?”  It was really exciting to work with Randy Travis.  He was great, I mean really awesome.  He was great to be around and a really nice guy.  I think we really blended well together.  I think it’s a nice match and definitely a connection there.  They are all really great, but we have to keep in mind that to share the stage with somebody or to collaborate isn’t the main thing.  To be able to do these things is great, and we should be thankful for them, enjoy them and savor the moment, but it’s not the main thing.  Take it as it comes, but we have that thing that we do and that needs to come first and foremost.

EOAF: Did you grown up in NJ?

Crawford: I did, I grew up in South Jersey.

EOAF: So is it safe to assume that you didn’t grow up listening to people like Doc Watson and Tom T. Hall?

Crawford: Yes, I started listening to Doc Watson in 1992.  A friend of mine drove me down to MerelFest.  Actually, the first time I saw Doc was at the Cowtown Bluegrass Festival with that same friend who told me about MerleFest.  Then I saw Doc I saw at The Bottom Line in New York City before I moved down here.  I remember the first time I saw him my friend was like, “That’s a legend.  You got to see a legend”.  I didn’t even know who he was at the time.  I was fortunate enough to see him many, many times after that.  We opened up for him one time and of course we played MerleFest all those years, and the last time I saw him was when we played the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco.  He was out there and he was playing with David Holt, and we watched him from the side of the stage.  I’ll never forget it.  It was a very sad day when he passed–very, very sad day.

EOAF: You have recently added the mandolin and fiddle to your contributions to the band.  How did that come about?

It came about because Scott and Seth [Avett] are very open to and very supportive of things that I try to do.  The fiddle has been the most recent, and I seem to be getting some traction with it.  Beginning to play something at the age of 40, you know, I wish I’d been playing all of these instruments when I was 15 or 16 years old, but that wasn’t the case.  But the fiddle has been a real mental savior the past couple of years for me, and I feel myself growing in it in a lot of ways.  Scott and I–before my daughter got sick–we started playing old-time music like Tommy Jarrell and Skillet Lickers, Charlie Poole, and Uncle Dave Macon–just old-time music and we would just kind of go do our thing.  Doc Watson when he was very young with Clarence Ashley, that’s a really good album if people can find that—really, really good.  Doc was very, very young.  It’s awesome.  Anyway, we’d just be backstage and play these old-time tunes and try to learn them.  They were just claw hammer banjo and fiddle tunes.  It just kind of grew out of that.  We still do it.  When my daughter got sick, he’d come visit me at the hospital, and we would play.  It’s kind of our thing.  Hopefully someday…well maybe even not…maybe it doesn’t have to be something that we do for people.  Maybe it’s actually something that we can do for us, but it’s been a lot of fun.

EOAF: The cool thing about when you get in the spotlight on stage, is that everyone just goes crazy.  I think it stems from the fact that the spotlight is always on Scott and Seth so much, but the fact is that you are the third brother.  When you sing your songs or do your upright bass spin [the crowd goes wild].  By the way how many revolutions can you get on that thing when you spin it around?

Crawford: (Laughs) Well like I always say, any monkey can spin a bass, and someday I am going to teach one to do it just to prove my point.  But I love this job I have and the guys I travel with and play with. I’ve been blessed in so many ways, and I am so thankful for that.  I just want to enjoy my remaining years, as many as they may be, just playing music and loving music and learning songs.  I have just been fortunate with life.

EOAFr: Have you done any songwriting recently for yourself or your side projects?

Crawford: Not since my daughter got sick.  David Childers and I did another Overmountain Man record, which will be out January 22 (“The Next Best Thing”, Ramseur Records).  It was recorded before Hallie (Crawford’s daughter) got sick, and I’ve got several songs that are on that [album].  The fiddle was kind of that thing that I did when things got out of the critical phase and I had time to tinker, you know like 45 minutes a day, or a half hour a day in the hospital.  I just kind of tinkered on the fiddle and tried to get to know that more.  I feel myself closer to writing now.  I write down little things here and there.  I think at some point, there was a time after Hallie got sick, I thought, “I’m living it, I don’t have to write about it,” you know?  Life is so intense I don’t have too much time for that.  I think the big thing that we’ve been though–my family and people who have been through far different and far worse things—in some ways sometimes I think there are far worse things that you can go through as horrible as what we have gone through.  You kind of get the feeling, and not in a bad way, that no one can really understand what you are going through or what you feel, like your friends and family members.  You kind of just feel like, man, you kind of feel frustrated and angry.  You don’t want anyone to go through what you are going through.  You certainly wouldn’t even want your worst enemy to go through what you are going through, so you feel like no one really understands what you are going through.  The idea of writing about it—if someone can’t truly understand or empathize, for good reason–what would be the point?  Other than journaling, which I have done intentionally, how would it come out and what would you say?  I think it’s just a matter of getting my head to the right place to write about it.  I think I am going to write at some point, I just don’t know what or when.

EOAF: In terms of your daughter, the entire Avett Nation community has been hopefully uplifting for you and your family.  Since then—and probably before then–a lot of the fans have gotten together around Avett Brother shows, and organized community events or fundraisers.  How does that make you feel, and what part do you think you guys play in that?

Crawford: I don’t know what part we play in it.  We do what we can, and we do as much as we can.  I know we all have charities that we support and try to do all we can for.  I am really glad people do it.  Any kind of service, I’m glad people do it.  I’d like to dedicate my life more to service.  Any time you can serve someone else, it’s probably the greatest thing you can do as a human being.  When I think about God and practicing your faith, I think that service to others is probably number one to what we can all do as human beings.  I don’t think I’ve served anyone as well as I think that my wife and I and our family has been served during our time.  We’ve been served amazingly by so many, so many friends and family members, and of course the Avett family and the Avett community has served us as well. I think that is something that I always keep my mind present to—ways to serve.  I just think service is one of the most important things that we can all be doing.  Look at the world and the country and people’s attitudes, people being divided along political lines—I think if people just focused on serving each other and serving someone other than themselves, a lot of these compromises we need would be evident.

EOAF: You guys used to play at Peasants here in Greenville, right?

Crawford: Yes, we did.

EOAF: Did you know they are reopening?

Crawford: No, but I am glad to hear that.

EOAF: There is a push to get music back in Eastern NC, so if you all are ever back in this neck of the woods, even if any of your side projects want to come through here, I know the town would be very happy to have you. 

Crawford: Thank you!

EOAF: By all accounts you were pretty instrumental in pushing the [Avetts] out of their comfort zones and having them go on tour in the beginning.  There are obviously tons of young singer/songwriters and bands in the Eastern NC area trying to make it, for example, Nick and The Babes is just one of them.  What would be your advice to a young band or singer/songwriter out of this area who really wants to get noticed?

You mentioned Nick.  He and I are friends and have worked together a little bit.  I definitely think that people should take notice to them.  I think that the advice is to get out of the area.  Spend as much time as possible on the road and just travel around and around and around and around and just try to share what you do with the country.  There really is no easy way.  I can only say this because this is what we did, and this is what works for us.  There are probably other ways to do it but I don’t know those ways.  I haven’t experienced that.  I know there is a ton of talent out there, and I wish this was a time in my life when I could go out and see more of it.  I know there are a lot of really great musicians and there is plenty to be taking notice of.   I hope they will have the presence of mind to reach outside of their comfort zone and listen to some other music.

The original interview appeared in Mixer Magazine.  I would like to thank Bob Crawford for his time. To learn more about The Avett Brothers and their music, please visit www.theavettbrothers.com.

Leave a comment

Filed under Interview, Music

Interview: Rebekah Todd

A girl and her guitar

Thus far, the height of my musical “career” was winning first place at my elementary school talent show for singing I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.  I was five.  I was a complete ham, and wanted to be a star.  My older brother told me the only reason I won was because I was cute–fair enough.  Fast-forward almost 30 years, and I’ve realized that my feverish desire for stardom is much better served in the confines of my car and home, rather than on the main stage.  Instead, the main stage should be reserved for those people who possess that innate gift of musical creativity and mastery that inspires and makes us feel alive.  It was a pleasant surprise when I recently stumbled upon one of those people right here in eastern NC.

I was introduced to Rebekah Todd when she opened up for Paleface at The Tipsy Teapot in Greenville, NC a few months ago–a lone young lady on stage with just her acoustic Alvarez guitar and a mic.  She did a quick mic check, and politely introduced herself to the audience.  I watched and waited, thinking how brave she was to get up there and sing by herself.  I was envious and impressed before even hearing her voice.  And then she sang.  A boisterous yet angelic, soulful, bluesy voice filled the room, and I was floored.  Who had been hiding this homegrown gem, and why hadn’t I heard of her before?  She quickly captivated the crowd with original songs like  Jordan, Citizen, Gallows, Little by Little, and Walked Right Through Me.  That evening, as her powerful voice echoed off of Tipsy’s glossy, cherry red walls,  I was happy to tag along on her musical journey.

A few weeks after the show I sat down with Todd to talk about her music and big plans for the future.

Todd grew up in the small town of Benson, NC and was surrounded by music as early as she could remember.  At eight years old, she started formal piano lessons, but soon figured out that the structure of reading music didn’t quite fit her style of learning.

“I play by ear 100%, so I don’t read music unless you have a sheet with chords.  If it’s the notes on the staff I can’t do it at all.  When I was eight, I figured that out.  I remember my teacher was teaching me the Titanic theme song.  I was reading it on the paper and I got a note wrong, so I stopped looking at the paper and listened and figured it out.  She yelled at me and told me I had to read the paper, and she was really mean so I dropped it and never went back,” she recalled.

Soon thereafter, Todd’s father suggested she learn how to play the guitar.  She fondly remembered those early memories of her dad and his love for music.

“[My dad] was classic rock all the way.  It’s pretty cool because it really influenced me.  I am happy that I know all of these artists now because I meet people my age who say, ‘Who are the Beatles, or who is Bob Dylan?’.  He was musical and played guitar and he was the one who taught me.  He bought me this crappy Washburn guitar that was black, and when I was eight I thought it was awesome,”  she said with a chuckle.

Rebekah Todd @ Tipsy Teapot

She continued to laugh as she told me that the first song he taught her to play on the guitar was Wild Thing.  Todd and her father continued to play together at home until she started playing in different high school bands with her friends.  Over the years of playing with her dad and others, Todd pulled inspiration from a wide range of musical genres, which has shaped the music she writes and performs today.

“I went through the classic rock phase, and then I really got into people who had a soulful voice, like Lauryn Hill, who is one of my favorites.  I literally wore her CD out [The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill].  Now I am into the more bluesy sound with singers like Susan Tedeschi and the Derek Trucks Band.  I really admire artists like that,” said Todd.

Though she can cover songs ranging from Led Zeppelin to Katy Perry, Todd’s bread and butter is in songwriting.  To date she has recorded about 16 original songs, but admits that there are many more waiting the wings that need to evolve a bit before she will bring them into the studio.

“Sometimes I will be sitting and playing and [a song] will come then, and other times I will get a tune in my head and I will literally pull my cell phone out, hit video, hold it out, and sing into the video.  I used to carry around a tape recorder before cell phones.  I think that started because when I was really young my parents bought me a karaoke machine that I could put a tape in and record my singing and listen to it.  It’s funny how the steps that your parents take totally mold what you become,” Todd shared.

Songwriting for Todd is a very natural, organic, and “in-the-moment” process.  Her songs are passionate and moving because they are honest.  Like most artists, Todd finds inspiration in her life experiences and channels those emotions into her songs as well as her art.

Rebekah Todd

“One time I played with this band called Cool Hand Luke out of Tennessee and Mark came up to me and said, ‘I really like your music because you are honest with what you are going through and what you are feeling’.  Ever since he said that I took it and tried to apply it to everything I was doing.  I’ve come to find that people can relate to your stuff if you are brutally honest with your feelings because then they can say, ‘Oh yeah I feel the same way’.  With my situation now, with having a loss in the family, everyone can relate.  Sometimes it’s hard because you really have to go into your emotions and that can be painful.  It’s the same with art.  You pull it out and you put it on a canvas or put it into a song and hope that people can relate to it,” she revealed.

Having just graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from East Carolina University, Todd is ready to hit the road and share her music with the world.  She’s completely devoted to throwing herself into writing and touring as much as she can, while maintaining a realistic outlook.  She knows that with a hopeful heart must also come a level head, and she’s willing to put in the time and work to pursue her dream.

“It’s tough as an acoustic girl to say, ‘I promise that I can bring it’.  It’s something you have to slowly prove and know the right people.  I am working on it.  It’s a weird road.  A lot of people say I should think about getting a band.  That could be cool, but I just don’t feel right with it right now.  I feel like I want to prove to myself that I can do it without the band.  I just graduated and I have all of the time in the world,” she said with a hopeful grin.

So far she’s got a great start with several club shows and festivals booked across the state, and hopes to add a small northeast tour towards the end of August.  In between shows Todd will continue to write songs and dabble in her second love, painting.  Though Todd admits to being very comfortable in the “opener” slot, I suspect she’s  going to be pushed out of her comfort zone fairly soon.  She wont be able to hide in the shadows of bigger acts for too long.  The main stage awaits her.

To learn more about Rebekah Todd’s music and upcoming shows, please visit her website.

Leave a comment

Filed under Interview, Music

Interview: Nick Bailey of Nick and the Babes

Nick and Graham Bailey

Songwriter Nick Bailey isn’t just writing music for TV shows; he’s writing his life’s soundtrack.  From guitar teacher to banker, singer to guitarist, and songwriter to DJ, Bailey is proof that when music is your passion, it will sneak into every facet of your life — yes, even banking.

A native of eastern NC, Bailey started playing music at the age of 13 years after receiving his first guitar for Christmas.

“I got a guitar and [my twin brother] Graham got a drum set.  He wanted a guitar but I said, ‘No you can’t get a guitar if I am getting a guitar’.  Back then I wanted to start a band because I was really into (shamefully) Guns N’ Roses.  When that song You Could be Mine came out I saw the video and watched the bass player, because I thought he was playing a guitar.  I thought, ‘Man that guy is so cool.  I want to learn how to play the guitar’.  That was really what made me want to pick up a guitar, which is just funny to me now,” he recalled.

After a year of music lessons, Bailey and his brother formed a 90’s cover band with their childhood friend Rob Wank.  Soon after, the twin brothers found themselves playing their first gig at the tender age of 14 years at a bar in the historic waterfront town of New Bern, NC.  Little did the brothers know that many years later they would reunite with Wank under the new band name Nick and the Babes (NATB).

“It’s kind of funny that we’ve come full circle.  [Rob] and I both played in a bunch of other bands.  We’ve known each other since high school.  We know each other very well, so it’s cool to have him back.  He is very versatile, and basically my wing man in the group,” Bailey said of his bandmate, who now plays keys, banjo, and mandolin while adding harmonies for NATB.

Though Bailey’s journey as a musician started that fateful Christmas, he never had goals to study music formally.  After only a year of instruction, he stepped away from lessons and began experimenting on his own.

“As far as the composing goes, that was just something that I had to just kind of plunder through.  I wasn’t a music major at [East Carolina University] or anything.  I stayed away from that.  I am not one of those guys who sits there with a classical guitar and reads music.  I felt like if I went to school for music I may end up hating it.  I didn’t want to have music homework.  I’d rather learn about the theory on my own and discover it through learning songs.  So I just learned it by doing it,” he said.

Thankfully, his self-taught approach has worked.  After two years of persistent emails and calls to a top TV music composer, Bailey was signed on to compose music for TLC’s show Nineteen Kids and Counting.  Soon thereafter he was hired to work on various TV series like Crime 360, Pit Bulls and Parolees, and Last American Cowboy.  To date he has written music for nearly 50 different episodes, and was just singed on for another season of Nineteen Kids and Counting.

Over the past few years Bailey has become accustomed to the process of TV music composition.  Typically, he is given an idea or direction from which to work.  Sometime he gets to view the scene for which he is writing, other times he does not.  Regardless of the amount or type of direction, Bailey’s job is to complete the scene with music–a process that can be both exhilarating and daunting at the same time.

“I was doing a scene for Animal Planet and they sent me this video clip from a helicopter viewing over this mountain.  They said, ‘Write something epic and grand for this scene’.  I thought that was pretty cool and I was inspired [by the video].  Sometimes they will say, ‘We need you to watch this movie and listen to the score and write something similar’.  They give me good direction as far as what to write.  I am familiar with a lot of different music, which does help me out with the TV music writing.  People tell me what they want and I can create that,” he shared.

Bailey draws his inspiration from a very eclectic background of musical influences, including funk, Motown, grunge, folk, jazz, indie rock, and more.  This aids him when he sits down to write a TV score, but can make the process difficult when sitting down to write songs for NATB.

“To me it is easier [to write for TV] than sitting down and trying to create an identity for yourself.  That is what you are essentially doing when you sit down to write.  You are creating a brand and an identity that people can latch onto or relate to, like a certain sound.  Sometimes I struggle with that.  I like so many different bands, so finding that perfect mix of everything is sometimes a struggle,” admits Bailey.

Rob, Nick, and Dail

These days when he is not up against a TV deadline, teaching guitar lessons, DJing, or working at the bank, Bailey sits down with his Martin acoustic guitar to write new material for NATB.  While the band’s sound continues to evolve, Bailey often describes it as ‘Americana’, which encompasses a number of different genres.

“I am trying to get [our music] to sound like NATB as opposed to sounding like another band.  A band like The Avett Brothers did something amazing because there really aren’t other bands out there that sound like them.  You can’t call them bluegrass, or indie rock, or folk because they really aren’t those things.  When I go to write, I try to write in a certain vein and not steer away from that.  I am not going to write anything that sounds like Metallica, but it is fun to try to mix everything that I like,” Bailey said.

Just as the music of NATB has evolved, so too has membership since the band’s 2007 inception.  Currently NATB is made up of Nick on guitar and vocals, Graham on drums and vocals, Dail Reed on bass, and Wank on keys/banjo/mandolin and vocals.

Though their touring schedule was sporadic this past year–all band members have other full-time jobs–show attendance was great and reviews positive.  They shared the stage with the talents of Jason Isbell from the Drive-by Truckers and Jim Avett, and developed relationships with a number of creative NC musicians.  One particular musician is Bob Crawford, bassist for The Avett Brothers.  It was through Crawford that the band was asked to perform Christmas Time is Here on Crawford’s My Favorite Gifts Christmas Album this past year.

“Initially the Christmas album was supposed to come out last Christmas and we were just going to be session musicians with Samantha Crain.  Thankfully it didn’t come out last year because then Bob approached me and said that he’d like to produce a track for NATB for the album.  I said, ‘Absolutely’.  We went to the studio where The Avett Brothers [recorded some of their music].  To be in the same studio where all of that happened was really cool for us,” recalled Bailey.

My Favorite Gifts Christmas album showcased the music of many popular and up and coming musicians, including The Avett Brothers, Paleface, Jim Avett, David Mayfield, Jessica Lea Mayfield, The Wood Brothers, The David Wax Museum, Overmountain Men, and Mark Crozer.  The album was produced by Crawford and Dolph Ramseur (Ramseur Records) with the intent of sharing unique holiday music in the name of charity.  All profits from the album will be donated to The Vickie Honeycutt Foundation, which benefits teachers with cancer.  This very important detail appealed to Bailey’s philanthropic side.

“[Crawford] told me profits were going to a charity for teachers with cancer.  My mom is a teacher, and there has been cancer in my family.  I have lost several family members to cancer.  To be involved in something that would benefit something so personal made it even better.  That was definitely a major motivator for us to do it right.  Being part of the bigger cause was definitely a cool thing for us,” Baily added with a smile.

Bailey also has high hopes that the Christmas album will expose NATB to a wider audience.  He is eager and excited to get the band back on the road touring and into the studio to record a full-length EP of new material this year.  In the meantime, Bailey continues to pursue his passion of music with an easy attitude and steady patience.  Experience has taught him that works.  I am sincerely looking forward to the catching the next episode of Nick and the Babes.

Nick and the Babes @ The Tipsy Teapot

Many thanks to Nick Bailey for taking the time to do this interview.  To learn more about his TV work, visit his IMDb page.  To learn more about Nick and the Babes, visit their website:  http://www.nickandthebabes.com/.

Leave a comment

Filed under Interview, Music

December Music Mindblower – Finding Local Music

Technology is quite mind-blowing, isn’t it?  We live in a day and age when online music sources like Spotify or Pandora can recommend new music to you based on your preferences.  While I often marvel at the sophistication of these programs,  I also try to remember the magic that occurs when a friend or stranger recommends new music, rather than a computer.

As my musical tastes evolve, so do the avenues through which I find new music.  In eastern NC, you would be hard pressed to find big name acts playing in your area so you have to dig a little deeper and do a little more investigating to find talented musicians in the region and even across the state.  Since moving to NC, I have learned to rely on the magazine Our State and the spin-off TV program on UNC-TV to aid me on my quest of musical discovery.   Where better to learn about local music than from the people who are hitting the dirt roads, sidewalks, and jam sessions in all corners of the state?  Each month I await the arrival of Our State in my mailbox, eager to learn not only about the music of NC but also about all of the citizens who make this state a wonderful place in which to live.

While I can’t wait to receive my January issue, I am especially excited to see the next Our State program on UNC-TV next month.  On January 5th, 2012 (8pm) Our State UNC-TV will present a segment on the music and everyday life of Jim Avett.  Avett, who is often mentioned in reference to his sons Scott and Seth (The Avett Brothers), deserves attention and accolades all his own.  Whether perched on the front porch swing with his wife Susie or atop bales of hay in their old barn, Avett talks candidly with Our State about the blessings of raising their family on a working farm, the importance of staying grounded in faith, and the joy of being surrounded by great traditional music everyday.

Please check your local listings and tune in on January 5th at 8pm.

For those of you not in NC, go out and find resources like Our State or your local PBS station so you too can stay current on the people and events that make your state great!

Leave a comment

Filed under Interview, Music

My Favorite Gifts – Christmas Album

I often measure music by its ability to transport me to another place, whether it be traveling back through my memories or somewhere I’ve never been.  By this measure, among others, the music on My Favorite Gifts – Christmas Album is some of the best I’ve heard in a long while.

Upon first listen I was transported from neighborhood streets once alive with song and spirit to the lonely muddy banks of the Mississippi, from an upbeat Mexican celebration to the birthplace of Jesus, and from a smokey Irish pub in New York City to the bedroom of a little boy too eager to sleep on Christmas Eve.  Lyrically, each song touches on different elements of the season, including introspective reflection on the past, jovial celebration of holiday traditions, hopefulness, goodwill to man, the blessings of Jesus Christ, and even the role of organized religion in the commercialization of Christmas.

Released last month, My Favorite Gifts brings together the musical talents and creativity of Overmountain Men, The Avett Brothers, The David Wax Museum, Jim Avett, siblings David and Jessica Lea Mayfield, Paleface, Nick and the Babes, Mark Crozer, and The Wood Brothers.  This compilation leaves behind the overdone holiday standards and treats our ears to unique interpretations of those not-so-well-known songs, in addition to a few original pieces.

The idea for this album was born from a conversation between Bob Crawford (The Avett Brothers) and Dolph Ramseur (Ramseur Records) on December 26, 2009.  Crawford, who shared his thoughts via email, recalled the conversation.

“I knew at some point we (The Avett Brothers) would be asked to be involved in a Christmas album.  I wanted us to do it ourselves and with our friends first.  Dolph immediately said that it needed to be a project for charity.  At the time, our good friend and Avett tour manager Dane Honeycutt’s mother Vickie was fighting breast cancer.  Sadly, a few months later Vickie passed away and we knew then that we were going to direct the charity towards some cancer fighting organization,” he wrote.

Musicians quickly signed on to the charitable project.  Crawford and Ramseur, who produced the album together, encouraged artists to choose songs that were special and intimate to them.  This approach fostered the creation of a purely eclectic and original collection of Christmas music.

When I first listened to the album in its entirety I was immediately taken by how different the songs were stylistically.  Instantly, I could hear the care that was taken to choose songs that expressed each artist’s or group’s feelings about Christmas.  I wondered how the artists came to choose or write their songs.  To my delight and appreciation, most of the contributing musicians shared thoughts about the creative process with me via email.

David Childers on his song Rambling Door to Door:   “The subject of Rambling Door To Door is the group of boys I used to get together with on Christmas Eve to go caroling.  We were not the most well behaved, but we all loved it.  The character singing in the song is looking back almost 50 years to his youth.  He sees what was then, and he sees what is now.  The now is not as nice a place, but he can still sing to himself if no one else wants it.  There’s a joy in singing, but even more so in singing those songs that are of a short season or time.”

David Mayfield on On Christmas Eve: “It was a real treat and an honor being invited to be a part of My Favorite Gifts.  I’ve always wanted to do something for the holidays, but was sure I couldn’t do a standard any better than Bing [Crosby], so I was floored when Bob Crawford suggested John Hartford’s On Christmas Eve.  I’ve always loved that song and never would have thought of recording it.”

David Wax on La Rama: “The David Wax Museum delves into American and Mexican folk traditions.  We thought it would be a great addition to the Christmas record to take an unknown Christmas song from Mexico and arrange a bi-lingual version of it.  There’s a centuries-old custom of musicians carrying a Christmas branch (“La Rama”) between houses and playing this particular song in exchange for food and tips.”

Nick Bailey on Christmas Time is Here“Bob approached me and said he would like to produce a track for Nick and the Babes on the album.  The arrangement of the song is actually for a bunch of little kids singing.  It’s really high-pitched, so we had to do a different arrangement, but I still wanted it to sound like the song and be recognizable.  I picked the song because it has always been one of my favorites.  It is more of a sad and lonely, reflective song.  I think that when people get older, Christmas takes on a different meaning.  Sometimes it becomes more reflective…thinking less about presents and more about family.”

Jim Avett on writing The Brightest Star:  “I wrote The Brightest Star because I thought everybody else was going to write an original!  I had not preconceived anything…it just sort of came out.  I have a lot of gospel in my background so naturally the song reflects my feelings that all gospel, including Christmas carols, should be theologically correct, which I think this one is.”

Paleface on Fairytale of New York “Bob Crawford called me when we were recording our album One Big Party and asked if I wanted to be a part of a Christmas compilation that he was putting together.  I said of course and in my mind flashed on the Pogues song, Fairytale of New York.  It’s always been one of the best and most under-appreciated Christmas songs I’ve ever heard.  He asked me to think about what song I might want to do and we hung up.  When we spoke for the second time about what song I remember [Crawford] saying, ‘Dolph and I thought it would be great if you did Fairytale,’ without me having mentioned it to him yet so that was all I needed.  We had Stuart from Bombadil join us and had a fun afternoon recording it.  I remember saying that everybody should just relax and have fun cause ‘this song is so good its hard to mess up’.”

Mark Crozer on writing Next Christmas“The song itself has quite a long history.  I came up with the melody for it when I was briefly living in New York just after Christmas 2008. Then it sat around for a year before I was sitting down one day thinking I’d really like to write a Christmas song.  It’s been a crazy fantasy since I was a kid to have a festive hit in the charts that gets brought out year after year and becomes part of the Christmas tradition.  In the UK, where I’m originally from, the Christmas single is quite a big dealSo, as I was sitting there I suddenly remembered the tune I’d written a year earlier and the words just came out in one go the way they do on occasion.  I wanted to write something that reflected the hope for better times ahead that I think everyone feels at this time of yearIt is a very hopeful song, but laced with a little of the irony that we Brits love so much.”

Crawford on I Thank God and more:  “Seth [Avett] heard it from a Sam Cooke recording. We had already kicked around the idea of other, more traditional songs.  I Thank God is very unique while maintaining one of the key themes of the Christmas season which is thankfulness for the blessings of God.  I am also honored to work with the Overmountain Men.  David Childers is one of the greatest song writers of our time. I think he and Jim Avett could write an album of Christmas songs that would redefine the genre.”

The creative process of writing or adapting, and recording holiday favorites for My Favorite Gifts was augmented by the fact that the album would contribute to a cause much larger than those involved.  Many of the artists tied to this project were close friends to Vickie Honeycutt and remain close to her family.  So it seemed only fitting when Crawford and Ramseur decided that all album profits would be donated directly to the Vickie Honeycutt Foundation.

The Vickie Honeycutt Foundation, which was formed shortly after her passing, honors “a woman who served as a beacon of compassion for so many.”  Honeycutt, a graduate of UNC-Greensboro, taught at Mt. Pleasant High School in her native Cabarrus County for 32 years, and was known for her caring nature and dedication to help others succeed.  According to the website, the foundation’s goal is to provide assistance to “teachers and educators battling cancer so that their sole focus can be on recovery.”  With charity at the forefront, several artists openly expressed what it meant to work on such a special project.

Mo, drummer for Paleface, responded, “It’s pretty awesome to get to be on the same album with so many greats, and it’s a true honor to get to celebrate with them the memory and life of a dear friend’s mom who was so sweet and caring to all.”

Suz Slezak of The David Wax Museum echoed Mo’s sentiments.

“It’s always special to have the opportunity to support causes we care about with our music. We were also touched to be included in such a stellar line-up of bands, many of whom we listen to on a regular basis,” she wrote.

Mark Crozer, who is likely a new name for fans of this grouping of artists, was also very moved by the direction and purpose of the album.

“When I learned that it was to be a charity album for such a good cause  I was even keener to be involved.  Teaching has been in my family for generations and I have dabbled myself.  I’ve also lost friends and family to cancer so I wanted to do something to help raise funds for projects that support people living with cancer.  I think the Vickie S. Honeycutt Foundation is a truly wonderful organization, and I’m so thrilled to be part of this project.  It’s also a thrill for me to be in such distinguished company as The Avett Brothers, Jessica Lea Mayfield, The Wood Brothers and David [Childers] of course.  It’s a great album and pretty diverse which makes it even more interesting,” Crozer wrote.

As a “lifelong friend” of Vickie’s, Jim Avett was “honored to be a part of anything to do with her and her family” as well as “to be included in a compilation CD with such talented creative people.”

Collectively, My Favorite Gifts is a wonderful work of art that will please the senses, revive the true spirit of Christmas, and benefit those in need well into the future.  It is a Christmas album with far more substance than Santa, making it easy to enjoy all year-long.  It is a must-have so please visit your local record store or amazon.com/iTunes to purchase My Favorite Gifts for yourself and your loved ones.

Leave a comment

Filed under Interview, Music, Review