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Published: 2001/05/21
by Robert Makin

Smokin’ Grass: There’s Something So Bob Dylan about a Mandolin

Dylan turns 60 May 24. Smokin’ Grass fans are gonna notice. The Burlington, Vermont-based new-grass band has covered two Dylan tunes in
as many albums: "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" on the
1998 self-released debut "Take Yer Pick" and "Mixed-Up Confusion" on the current
follow-up, "In the Barn," the first non-Phish-related recording at Trey
Anastasio’s Barn Studio in Vermont. Apparently the band’s original mandolinist Jason Koornick and his
replacement, Beau Stapleton, opted for the nods to Bob. But then there’s
bassist Michael Santosusso’s hysterical but poignant,
Dylanesque-by-way-of-Arlo Guthrie folk tale "Arizona" that contemplated the
legalization of medical marijuana well before the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent
deflating decision. "Arizona" is one of 10 simple but masterful tunes on "In
the Barn," which was recorded in just two weeks compared to the more
leisurely paced and, therefore, more experimental and eclectic "Take Yer
Pick." Gone are the global groove-grass of "Desert Square Dance," "Some Funky
Grass" and the cover of Duke Ellington’s "Caravan." In their place are
traditional-sounding, songwriter-oriented tunes like dobroist Adam Frehm’s
contemplative "Open Road" and Santosusso’s tongue-in-cheek "The Tow Truck
Song" alongside a cover of the old-time nugget "Cattle in the Cane" and Don
Reno’s new-grass classic "Country Boy Rock & Roll." Then there’s Frehm’s
achingly beautiful instrumental "California Waltz." But with the help of new drummer Eric D. Hammell, Smokin’ Grass still get
funky and jazzy on such tunes as the Allman Brothers-like "Big Question,"
guitarist and longtime Phish acquaintance Doug Perkins’ blazing "Mercury" and
"Syracuse Stop," a collaboration between Perkins and newest member,
18-year-old Patrick Ross, who won Vermont’s Old-Time Fiddle Championship at
the tender age of 14. Santosusso, Frehm and Perkins formed Smokin’ Grass in 1995 at the height
of Burlington’s hot bluegrass scene that included Phish bassist Mike Gordon,
mandolinist Jamie Mansfield of the Jazz Mandolin Project and his former
bandmate, banjoist Gordon Stone, who heads a jazz-grass trio of his own. The
Burlington bluegrass scene has quieted down since those artists went
national, but the national scene is peaking now with The String Cheese
Incident, Yonder Mountain String Band and Blueground Undergrass, while
veterans like Ralph Stanley and Peter Rowan are enjoying a resurgence
inspired by the old-time soundtrack of the Cohen Brothers’ movie Oh
Brother, Where Art Thou.’‘ Smokin’ Grass is glad that it’s been around long
enough not be considered a wagon band, and it’s glad to have made friends
with Yonder Mt. and Blueground jamming till 4 in the morning backstage at
the Old Settlers Bluegrass Festival in Austin, Texas, last month. I spoke with Frehm and Santosusso about the band’s solid past, happening
present and bright future, which includes the High Sierra Music Festival in
Quincy, Calif., in early July and Podunk Bluegrass Festival in East Hartford,
Conn. later that month. For more info, visit smokin-grass.com.
You must be pretty psyched that the bluegrass revival is peaking right now. There’s all this
resurgent interest and it’s not like you guys are bandwagoning because you’ve
been doing it since before the resurgence kicked in. Frehm: There’s no way to tell for sure if it’s peaking now. I’m hoping
it’s not peaking.
You know how you can tell it’s peaking? Because so many daily newspapers are
writing about it. That’s usually the beginning of the end of any trend. Frehm: We started back in ’95. At the time, all I knew about was us and
Leftover Salmon. It was before String Cheese got big. It was before Yonder
Mountain String Band. It was before a lot of the bands you’re hearing about
now. Unfortunately, we were not able to get out there and tour to take real advantage of how fresh we were. I hate to say that because there were a lot of
bands that came before us. You could credit the Newgrass Revival for doing a
lot of stuff with Bela (Fleck) and Sam Bush. There’s been all these other
bands like the Dead and Phish, a lot of bigger bands who have thrown
bluegrassy stuff into their repertoire. Widespread Panic. When we started, we
knew the guys in Leftover Salmon. They used to come to the Metronome in
Burlington. At the time, I considered us something different. We looked up to
them in a lot of ways and what they were doing, but we often knew that we had
our acoustic edge. We weren’t using amplifiers at the time. Our style was a
little more acoustic, yet we still incorporated drums and electric stuff. It
had that element.
You guys are huge out West and in New England. What is your following like in
the South, where bluegrass was born and how much do you think ‘In the Barn’ will
appeal to folks there and in the New York area, which has been a tough market
for you to crack? Santosusso: I don’t know how New York’s going to do, but the South is
just as good. We’ve been working really hard down below the Mason-Dixon line.
So far, those people who’ve gotten it are lovin’ it. New York is so big. It’s
like a big amoeba. I don’t know which way it’s going to go. We just keep
playing there for those people who are on our mailing list and come out to
see us. We hope that there’s more and more people when we go there. But the
South has been great. The response we’ve gotten down there has been really
good.
Do you prefer to record for your own label, S.G. Productions, or would you
like to hook up with a roots label, like Rounder or a Sugar Hill? Frehm: I would love to hook up with those guys. To be a Sugar Hill
recording artist or Rounder artist is a huge honor for any band at the level
we’re at. It could do a lot for us. I don’t know for sure. You hear a lot of
horror stories from bands about record labels but not those guys. Mostly you
hear horror stories about the bigger labels and guys who have signed a
recording contract and the label doesn’t push the album. They don’t sell
enough and they get dropped. I don’t know about this. It’s always been a big
question that’s kind of scary to think about, but I think a lot of times you
have to approach it that the record company is trying to make money. With the
smaller guys, like Rounder and Sugar Hill, I think it’s obvious that they
take a much more active role and have a bigger interest in their artists.
They really support their artists. I think that would help us out a lot.
Is there interest at all from a label along those lines or are you still
developing that? Santosusso: None of the big guys are knocking on our doors. A couple of
smaller record companies have approached us about doing a live recording. Frehm: At this point, we’re really not considering a major label picking
us up because we’re working with smaller distributors. It’s definitely a
tough nut to crack. We want to crack it because it will help us in a lot of
ways having a CD distributed nationally everywhere. That’s what we want. We’ve been working at this for six years now doing everything ourselves.
This is as grassroots as it gets. We’d like to start relinquishing control,
but it’s scary. You’re not sure how much they’re going to do for you. It’s a
step the band does need to take, but it would have to be a wise step, a good
decision.
Why no banjo? Santosusso: There are so many great banjo players out there, if we had a
banjo player, we wouldn’t get all these guys to sit in with us all the time.
We’ve had some great banjo players sit in with us over the years. Frehm: Tom Hanway (Big Apple Bluegrass) appeared on our first album. A
great banjo player named Billy Constable has played with us. He used to tour
with Hypnotic Clambake, a touring band out of Boston. He’s an amazing banjo
player who now tours with Larry Keel. They’re an incredible family band. His
wife, Jenny, plays bass. Billy’s playing the banjo. Larry’s a two-time
flat-picking guitar champion. And he’s a great singer-songwriter. They live
in Virginia. We play with Gordon Stone. He was more of a regular basis when
the band was in its initial days. At the conception of the band, he was
there. He and Jamie Masefield used to drop in unexpectedly and jam. Those
guys played a bunch with us on and off through the years. But those guys are
pretty busy now and so are we. We only play in Burlington about twice or
three times a year. One each semester for a big show and we do a couple of
summertime country shows. We’ve always had two instruments in the same sonic range: the dobro and
the guitar. If you throw another instrument in the exact same range, which
the banjo is, it gets a little cluttered. That’s why when a banjo player sits
in with us, it’s really refreshing and exciting for us because we haven’t
heard a banjo in a while. But if there was one in the band fulltime, it would
cause Doug and me to change the way we play a lot to accommodate the banjo, to
give the banjo space. So a lot of times, I’ll practically drop out when our
guitarist is going so, sonically, it’s much easier to hear what he’s doing.
He lays low a lot of times when I’m playing. We’d have to do that a lot for a
banjo player, not only for solos but for fills in- between verses. We have a lot more freedom and more challenges this way. We added a fiddle last year and went from a five-piece to a six-piece.
The fiddle is not in the same sonic range. It’s much higher. Still Doug and I
have had to play less so we have more space. Santosusso: Plus at this point, we have six great players playing in this
band. That’s already a large number. There’s only six bunks on our bus. Frehm: If you listen to a lot of bluegrass recordings, the better bands
are not cluttered up. The sound isn’t everybody going at once. For a lot of
jam bands, that works. You can focus in on anything at any given time for
more electric bands, but for bluegrass, you have to learn to stay out of
people’s way. There’s a lot of unspoken etiquette that you learn at the
festivals when you’re jamming in a circle. We try to bring that into our band
as far as the space.
What you do stylistically pretty much is summed up in the opening track of
‘In the Barn’: Don Reno’s ‘Country Boy Rock ‘n’ Roll.’ The purist would say,
‘Well, it’s not bluegrass because it’s got drums,’ but the rock fan would
say, ‘Boy, that’s bluegrass.’ Comment on how you can please and turn off both
camps. Santosusso: That’s always been one of the great things about being in
this band. Every night, we look out into the audience, there’s people of
every age range. I think we have a really wide demographic. That’s one of the
biggest appeals about us. There’s a little something for everybody. If you
watch one person all night, you’ll see the songs that make them run to the
merchandise table and buy a CD. You’ll see the song where they decide to get
another beer. But we put that track on first because, like you said, it kind of sums up
what we’re all about in a way. We did that on our first album too. We just
kind of stuck to the basics (with Opus #1). The traditional bluegrass people,
the people that are really serious about any one particular narrow form of
music are always slightly snobbish about their art form in the way that
classical people are purists about their music. There’s people like that for
blues and jazz and bluegrass and for everything. As long as their minds are
closed like that, they’ll never like us. They only listen to (Bill) Monroe
and Ralph Stanley. They would never listen to Newgrass Revival or Nickle
Creek. Frehm: Snobs might say we’re not bluegrass because they have drums. But
those people are fewer and far between. The times are changing, they’re
evolving.
You have somebody like Peter Rowan, who was in Old and In the Way with Jerry
Garcia and in Bill Monroe’s band. Traditionalists would give him a hard time
and now he’s the heir apparent of bluegrass. Santosusso: He’s a very unique individual. Frehm: That guy has more control over his vocal chords than anybody I’ve
heard.

Santosusso: You’ve got to respect his musicianship and his vocal chords. There’s no denying that. Frehm: In this past year, we’ve started really melding in some world-type grooves. We’re throwing in new grooves. It’s so much fun to do that with bluegrass. It’s really exciting. It’s amazing how the instrumentation lends itself in different ways, like jazz does, to just about every genre. Frehm: If you throw an accordion in with bluegrass, it sounds great. Comment on how ‘In the Barn’ is more traditional-sounding and songwriter-oriented compared to the experimental global grooves of ‘Take Yer Pick’? Frehm: The experimental thing with the first record was that we recorded it in Woodstock, N.Y., at Applehead (Recording). That’s a cool little studio. You walk in there, they’ve got big gongs hanging on the wall. When we walked in, Ray Spiegel, the tabla player who plays on our album, was in there cutting tracks. He was finishing up this project, and we got to listen to some of his tracks and find out who he was. When we heard his stuff, we were fully blown away. So things like that were happening. We ran into John Sebastian, and he sat in and played. That was totally magical. Things were happening. It was our first studio experience. The magic with this project was that Doug ran into Trey. It was real last-minute. We weren’t going to be going into a studio looking at all those gongs hanging on the wall. It was going to be experimenting, getting way open. We knew from the very beginning that it was going to be more focused. We’d play the songs, take a few takes of each, play more live. We knew it was going to be more a snapshot, but it was still a great project. You mentioned before that you don’t like to clutter the sound. One of the solutions to that would be dual leads, which you do with ‘Big Question,’ which sounds like the Allman Brothers when it gets electric there for a bit. How much do you do that live? Santosusso: We do more of that live. Live is a lot freer. There’s sections of songs that are totally improvised. You get all of the guys trading back and forth, playing on top of each other, taking more chances. In the studio, you come up with the arrangement, and that’s it. In the studio, we didn’t really try to capture the live jamming. I really think you need an audience for that. Frehm: I think being able to do that in the studio without the audience is really hard to do but something to work toward. The studio is always a higher-intensity situation where you’re worried about the clock ticking. You have to not worry about that and feel that it’s timeless. Hopefully someday we’ll have a studio situation like that. The only way to do that is to have your own, like Trey’s Barn. Frehm: I’m starting to think about that for our next project after a live CD we’re going to put together. What inspired ‘California Waltz’ and ‘Open Road’? Frehm: The waltz was inspired by sitting on the bus, strumming the guitar through Death Valley while looking out the window. I was not really thinking about anything but enjoying where I was. The melody reflects that. It’s so simple. Maybe that’s what’s strong about it. We recorded it three times. The take on the album is the first take. We hadn’t even practiced it really. I showed it to the band and went over it the night before we played it. The first take has an almost tentative feel to it but open, like laying down in the morning listening to music without music on your mind. Then when we did take two and three, we started playing the um-cha-cha of a waltz. When we went back and listened to it, I originally thought take three sounded the most professional and tight. That was my vote, but Pete Carini, who was the engineer, and some of the guys disagreed. They wanted take one because of how open and free it felt to them. After listening to it a few more times, I agreed with them. With ‘Open Road,’ I was sitting in my garden, where I like to sit in my yard strumming my guitar. You play the guitar a lot. Frehm: It’s easier to write a song with lyrics on guitar. And I played guitar 10 years before I played dobro. Part of that song was traveling but just as much, it was feeling like you’re coming to the close of a chapter in your life and you’re trying hard to pinpoint where the new one is, but you have a feeling that things are changing in a bigger way, questioning relationships with friends. It seems mostly about traveling because that’s what the chorus is about, but it’s the feeling of changes coming on. So the ‘Open Road’ is really the open road of life rather than the highway. Frehm: Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about. It’s really cool that you say that actually (laughs). My parents heard it just the other day for the first time. It was pretty cool listening to it with them. We spent the night there and then drove up to Oneonta to open for moe., and they drove in the car and listened to it again. It felt nice that they loved my song. My dad kept saying to me, ‘I think that’s going to be a hit,’ which was kind of weird to hear him say. Dylan is obviously a huge influence on you and lends himself well to bluegrass instrumentation. You cover two of his tunes in two albums and also did ‘Man of Constant Sorrow,’ which is on his first album and yours. Santosusso: I don’t know where the Dylan influence comes from. Everybody’s influenced by him in one way or another. He’s probably the most covered songwriter. That would be my bet. He’s written so many great songs and there’s so many that you can interpret in so many ways. I didn’t know ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ was on his first album. I got that from a tape of the Sleepy Hollow Hog Stompers, which was a bluegrass group Jerry Garcia was in. They probably only had fix or six gigs. He went through a few different bands and they had a few different names before forming the jug band that eventually turned into The Warlocks, which turned in the Grateful Dead. That was around 1962. That was the year Dylan’s first album came out so it’s a similar wavelength. Garcia was like an encyclopedia of folk music. He had so much of it lodged away. Santosusso: He was the best banjo picker in the Bay Area back then. Two Dylan tunes in two albums, that doesn’t go unnoticed. Santosusso: I haven’t really developed an answer for that question (laughs). On ‘Take Yer Pick’ when we did ‘It Takes a Lot To Laugh, It Takes a Train To Cry?,’ that was Jason Koornick’s inspiration. He was our mandolin player at the time. He brought that song to the band and had me sing it. For this record, ‘Mixed-Up Confusion’ was a song that our current mandolin player, Beau Stapleton, brought to the band. And he sings it on the album. It’s funny that it happens to be the mandolin players who are the ones into Dylan songs. Smokin’ Grass takes the spotlight that is shared in most bluegrass bands by taking turns pickin’ and shares it even more greatly by dividing up the songwriting duties fairly equally, then showcasing the other players on those songs. For instance, California Waltz’ obviously was written with Patrick’s fiddle in mind. Comment on how things are fairly equitable and how that affects the chemistry between you. Santosusso: We have a lot of strong players in the band. Everyone’s got great things to say musically. We try to arrange things so that everyone in the band will have some point to express themselves. Frehm: We like to give everybody a chance. That’s very much a bluegrass thing to kill time while someone’s tuning up one of their instruments. Santosusso: It’s also a bluegrass thing to feature all of the players during a show. We try to keep things democratic. We try not to have someone sing two songs in a row. Frehm: The way we get along comes more from just who we are as people than the way we break up a setlist. I’m sure it does help because we’re not up there fighting for solos. The barn that is pictured on the disc is not Trey’s Barn Studio. Tell me about both barns. Frehm: No one’s asked us that yet. Most people just take a quick glance and think that’s Trey’s barn. We would never take a picture of his barn and put it out there. We didn’t know where we were going until the day we went to record. That morning, we got the directions. I can understand how they would need their privacy. Mike, Doug and I met in this coffeehouse downtown to discuss ideas on the title of the album and photos. We had taken a resident photographer on the road with the band, and he had taken a lot of pictures of shows and stuff. He’s a good friend of ours, Paul Jerrard. It just so happens that when we go down to this coffeehouse, we bumped into each other. We told him that the title we were playing around with was ‘In the Barn.’ He told us how he had just taken pictures of an historic Monitor barn in Richmond, Vt., 20 miles south of Burlington. His pictures showed the barn had a lot of character. The roof had started falling apart so the people of the community had gotten together to preserve it. Right there in the coffeehouse, we committed to his pictures of the barn. So he went back and shot the workman who were working on the barn. We’re proud of that. That’s why we wrote paragraph about it on the CD to help explain the situation. We felt it was important enough to do something about that. Trey’s barn is beautiful. They took that barn from somewhere in New Hampshire, took it apart and moved it to the spot in Vermont. The barn is just gorgeous. It has these high ceilings. There’s no isolation booth. It’s just one big open room. That’s how they recorded ‘Farmhouse.’ Our guitar player, Doug, and Trey ran into each other one morning having breakfast. Trey had not yet thought about the possibility of turning the studio to other bands to work in. He did it as a favor to us. He was extremely generous. He knows Doug. They go way back. Doug played in various bands with Mike Gordon, Jon Fishman, Gordon Stone. Trey was excited about the idea. Now other bands are using it. To what extent is there a fraternity between Gordon Stone, Jazz Mandolin Project and Smokin’ Grass? Santosusso: That’s a sad subject. We’ve been on the road a lot. A few years ago, there was more of a bluegrass camaraderie. That’s not the case anymore. A lot of bands have broken up. Frehm: But there’s still some community. There’s a bluegrass jam the first of every month at a synagogue. There’s more of a bluegrass community in Burlington then there is, say, in New York City, but it’s not as good as it used to be. It’s more about the jam band scene, especially people moving to Burlington in the hopes of playing Nectar’s, where Phish got it’s big break. But Nectar’s is a place for locals. But Phish, those guys try to stay in touch with the local scene between touring. I see them sit in with bands, supporting other projects, helping guys out the way they helped us out. It’s harder for them to stay in touch with the scene. Are you also close with Blueground Undergrass and Yonder Mountain String Band? Frehm: Totally. When we played the Rockygrass Festival in Colorado, we stayed at the house of the bass player in Yonder Mountain. Their sound guy is our Web host. It’s pretty close circles. We’re running into each other more and more. We were at the Old Settler’s Festival in Austin, Texas, one of the best up-and- coming newgrass festivals. Last year, they had Tony Rice with Peter Rowan. They had workshops with Bela Fleck and Victor Wooten. This year, we ran into Yonder Mountain and were up all night picking with them, Jim Lauderdale and the Rev. Jeff Mosier from Blueground Undergrass. It was amazing. Those are the things that inspire me to keep doing this. It’s such a privilege to run into these people and make friends while traveling, opening horizons through music. What artists do you think inspired the recent resurgence in bluegrass the most before the film ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’ and how much do you think the film has made an impact compared to those artists? Frehm: Wow, that’s a tough one. First, I must admit, I still have not made the time to go see the movie though I definitely want to soon. I know it has made a huge impact on its viewers, but I’m not sure in what way yet. You know the man who sang all of George Clooney’s parts is Dan Tyminski, who plays regularly with Alison Krauss and Union Station, and is originally from southern Vermont. He’s got a beautiful voice. He sings most of those really sweet harmonies with Alison on all of her albums. Anyhow, I think there is no one artist who is the most responsible for what you call the recent resurgence of bluegrass music. You have to look further back than just the past 10 years. You could give much of the credit to the father of bluegrass music, Bill Monroe, who has touched and influenced just about everyone in the ‘bluegrass world’ in one way or another through his music and vision. Then there’s Peter Rowan, who played and sang in Monroe’s band when he was young. They even wrote music together. There’s no doubt that Rowan took this inspiration to the band Old And in The Way, which also featured David Grisman, Vassar Clements, Jerry Garcia and John Kahn. But all these guys were deeply into bluegrass even before that band. For example, Jerry Garcia was considered the best banjo player in the Bay area before the Grateful Dead ever began. I think it’s interesting how Old and in the Way, though it lasted just a few months, is responsible for the biggest-selling bluegrass album of all time. So their influence has been, still is, and will continue to be, enormous. Those priceless recordings of their shows have probably inspired all of the following generations of bluegrass-influenced — or ‘newgrass’ — artists. Some obvious examples would be the Dead, the Newgrass Revival with Sam Bush and Bela Fleck, Ricky Scaggs, The Seldom Scene, David Grisman’s and Vassar Clements’ various projects, Tim O Brien, Leftover Salmon, Smokin’ Grass, String Cheese … the list goes on and on and on. But you’ve really got to look further back, at many of the other pioneers, such as Ralph Stanley, who also sings on the soundtrack of ‘Oh Brother.’ His voice really captures that ‘high lonesome sound’, and I think it’s great that he’s finally getting noticed by so many more people. He deserves it because he’s been so busy as a professional touring musician for such a long time. Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys have got a strong work ethic and sense of responsibility to their fans. I think they’re still playing over 100 shows a year. When most people would have retired by his age, he keeps on performing and giving back to the world. Perhaps it takes a major motion picture with famous movie stars to get someone like Dr. Ralph Stanley into mainstream conversation and playing on more people’s stereos. And Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and Josh Graves were also huge pioneers of this music. There are so many more artists that should be mentioned and given credit for the inspiration that has gotten us to where we are today. I’m no authority on the history of bluegrass music, but most of us are familiar with the more modern breed of super-pickers. These are the musicians who mastered the older, standard techniques and styles and then went on to experiment and develop a new level of instrumental expertise. They had all the earlier works to copy and work from, and they all have taken their instruments to new heights beyond the stratosphere. These people injected a jazzier spirit of improvisation into the music. To name just a few of them: Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas, Mark O’Connor, Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Stuart Duncan, David Greir, Brian Sutton, and Chris Thile. There are just so many great artists in bluegrass, newgrass, bluegrass fusion, country rock, new country, rockin’ bluegrass, slamgrass, psychograss or whatever you may call it. And there are even more musicians all over the world who are connected to it, in a more removed sense, through playing the blues. After all, the blues is an essential ingredient in bluegrass. One thing is for sure, bluegrass music was born in the Appalachian Mountains by Bill Monroe, and through its evolution, so many Americans have grown to love and be proud of this beautiful music, along with our apple pie. One thing I really love about bluegrass music is the songs that have sad lyrics with fast, happy music. There’s something comforting to me in this. I think I can simultaneously relate to a sad story and then release my sad feelings instantly through the positive energy in the music. That might sound weird, but it’s kinda hard to explain. You just have to experience it for yourself to know. These days, so much music is made electronically, without the need of actually learning how play an instrument that I, personally, am finding bluegrass more and more appealing. ### Bob Makin has been covering the jam band scene since 1988 and has been a fan of bluegrass music since 1975 when he stumbled upon the Red Clay Ramblers in his father’s massive record collection. Jam bands and bluegrass acts can send him information at makinclan@aol.com and material to P.O. Box 6600, Bridgewater, NJ 08807.

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