Monday, September 5, 2011

An Interview With Asheville, N.C.'s Red June

Red June is an acoustic trio from Asheville, North Carolina which includes Will Staughan on steel guitar, Natalya Weinstein on fiddle, and John Cloyd Miller on guitar. The band has been receiving an impressive, and well-deserved amount of acclaim lately for their mixture of bluegrass, country, roots, and rock sensibilities. As the group's excellent debut album, Remember Me Well, continues to circulate and increasingly generate more appreciation for the band, Red June are not a collective to sit still.

In addition to increasing their already solid regional following, Red June has also steadily been growing their fan base of national admirers. The members of Red June have individually played shows with the likes of James Taylor, Robert Earl Keen, Sam Bush, Joe Craven, Jim Lauderdale, Del McCoury, Alice Gerrard, Jim Shumate and B.B. King. The trio's members have also performed at a number of festivals across the country including RockyGrass, Grey Fox, Merlefest, Grand Targhee, MagnoliaFest and Shakori Hills.
For readers who seek well-crafted songwriting and impeccable musicianship, you just can't go wrong with the acoustic instrumentation and powerful harmonies of Red June's Remember Me Well. It's an exciting debut by a collective of outstanding performers.

I recently had the opportunity to interview all three members of Red June, in the hope of spreading the word of their work among newcomers, as well as to go behind the scenes for fans of the band.

Can you each talk about your own musical histories? 

John Cloyd Miller: I’m from Hickory, NC. My first instrument was drums, but later, guitar.  I picked up mandolin about 10 years ago. I played rock in high school bands, but later joined a bluegrass band, Lo-Fi Breakdown, when I lived in Utah after college. I played with them for about 7 years until it disbanded. My grandfather is a pioneering bluegrass fiddler that played with Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs. I was inspired to go in the bluegrass direction because of him. I also really love the Dead and other roots and rock bands in addition to bluegrass.  

Natalya Weinstein: I started playing Suzuki violin when I was 5 years old, but switched over to bluegrass, country, swing and old-time fiddle when I was in college. My family also played music; my grandfather was a Klezmer musician, my father played jazz piano and my mother played the violin so that definitely influenced my desire to play music. I was really inspired first by classical violinists like Itzak Perlman and Joshua Bell who were extremely expressive and creative, and later by master fiddlers such as John’s grandfather, Jim Shumate, as well as Arvil Freeman, an Asheville fiddler.

Will Straughan: I grew up in Chicago playing classical and jazz trumpet and piano. Then I picked up the guitar high school and started singing and writing. Guitar eventually led to mandolin and the steel guitar and a love for old blues, bluegrass, folk and Celtic music, and the powerful effect of that really stripped down, raw acoustic sound.

The songwriters and players I came to love – Norman Blake, Neil Young, Elizabeth Cotton, Bob Dylan, Doc Watson, Townes Van Zandt – could make such a big sound by themselves, but their material also translated well to being played in both acoustic and electric settings with full ensembles. When I hear that kind of stripped down music, it seems there is so much more going on sonically than just a guitar and a singer. So I think that influenced me in that I have to be able to pull a song off by myself, while at the same time I want the songs to lend themselves to being colored and enhanced by other musicians.

What were your experiences before Red June?

John: I played in a bluegrass band for many years that started in Salt Lake City, UT called Lo-Fi Breakdown. Before that I mostly rock climbed, snowboarded and hung out in the desert a lot.

Natalya: In college I played in a female honky tonk band called Girl Howdy, and when I first moved to Asheville in 2004 I joined another female group called Polecat Creek. I also played with Lo-Fi Breakdown for a couple of years when their fiddler moved back to Utah.

Will: I played in bands all throughout high school and college, and joined up with a roots rock band, the Emma Gibbs Band, when I graduated. We recorded three albums, and an EP, and toured for seven years before the band dissolved and I moved up to Asheville. I’ve been performing with other songwriters, teaching guitar, dobro and mandolin, and doing some non-profit work.

Did you know each other before Red June? How and when did the band form?

Red June: We all met around 2005 in Asheville, and jammed together at a picking party in fall of ’05.  We really clicked musically and ended up doing some shows together as The Will Band that fall. At that time we were all busy with other projects and so Red June didn’t officially form until the fall of 2008.

Can you each describe some of the band's history between the time you officially formed and when you began working on the debut?

Red June: We were a band for about a year before the album came out. We pretty much dove into the process of picking and refining material from day one. We had a list of songs to record and when we found out that we received an arts council grant that would fund a portion of it, that was the real kick in the pants to get moving on it.

How does living and being based out of Asheville, NC influence your work?

Red June: The music/arts scene in Asheville is incredibly vibrant and inspiring. We are surrounded by many talented musicians who are also good friends. There is competition but we try to support one another as well.

Can you discuss your writing process?

John: I usually start with a melody and add the words later. Rarely do they come at the same time for me. Sometimes I’ll be in a mood to write a certain type or feel of song, but mostly I just let them come when they come. I often bounce ideas off of Will or Natalya and they do that with me as well. We are also just starting to delve into collaborative songwriting a bit (which I don’t have a lot of experience with) so that’s been fun to mess around with.

Will: When I'm listening to a song or having a conversation, I'm first and foremost tuned into the sound of the singer or speaker, to the extent that I often have to go back and listen to the actual words. To my ear, there's usually as much or more information in a person's delivery as in the specific words. So what inspires me and gives direction to my songs are both the feeling behind the melody and the melody or sound of a particular combination of words.

I'm not really a songwriter's songwriter, in that I don't really spend a lot of time “crafting” words. If the words feel overwrought or forced, I think they lose their music and I can't sing them. There has to be music in the words themselves, which is really what a lyric is I think. I'm more concerned with letting the honesty of the melody – the melody coming more from a divine, not of this world kind of place – speak for itself and then searching for the words that give the melody the definition of a human element.

When you set out to record, was there a song or songs that steered the album in a certain direction? Or was it was more of a loose process?

John: All of the songs for Remember Me Well we more or less ready to go, at least form-wise, when we walked into the studio. The whole thing was very organic in the sense that the album didn’t have a particular direction when it was conceived. We just wanted a present a group of songs that seemed to go well together, even as they were all really different. Certainly the songs themselves, I think, stand on their own merit, but we are all fans of albums as complete works rather than a collection of singles. 

What was your recording process for the album? 

Red June: Since we’d been playing together since 2005, we already had a number of songs that we were eager to record. There were definitely a few songs that were written specifically for Red June and the recording, and we chose a couple of covers, such as Neil Young's "Comes a Time", based on what we thought would supplement our originals.

A lot of the arrangements were definitely revised and refined, though. The album was recorded in March of 2010 at Chris Rosser’s Hollow Reed Arts Studio in Asheville and released in September of 2010. Having the album voted #1 regional release of 2010 by WNCW listeners was a real honor for us.

Who are each of your biggest influences?

Red June: Collectively in no particular order: Jim Shumate, Jerry Garcia, Gillian Welch, the Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe, David Grisman, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Doc Watson, Tom Waits, Roger Waters, Jason Carter, Bruce Molsky, Thom Yorke, Clarence Greene

I read on your website that you have performed and toured with some of the biggest names in bluegrass and roots music. Can you each describe a memorable live experience that still inspires you?

Will: When I was touring with the Emma Gibbs Band, we were performing on the main stage at MagFest in Live Oak, Florida, and Jim Lauderdale and I sang Gram Parson’s “Still Feelin’ Blue” together. It’s been an inspiration to see Jim continue to have so much well deserved success, and he’s always been generous with his insight into what it takes to be a full time musician.

Natalya:  For me, a real highlight was performing with Alice Gerrard, who along with Hazel Dickens was a pioneer for women in bluegrass. She is an amazing singer, songwriter and friend and I feel blessed to know her.

John: Performing with Alice was also a highlight for me, as well as getting to perform with my grandfather, Jim Shumate, on several occasions. This June he was inducted into the Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame and I was honored to be able to present him with the award. That was certainly a high point for me and I’m glad I’m able to carry our family’s musical torch.

I'm excited to finally see Red June in NYC. Can you describe your live show? What can new fans expect?

Red June: Our live show is very dynamic, and we touch on a wide variety of genres.  We all sing lead and harmony vocals, and we each write songs and instrumentals both separately and collaboratively. So we cover a number of genres under the Americana umbrella, including roots rock, bluegrass, old time, blues and folk.  

We recorded the basic tracks, including lead vocals and instrumental breaks, live on Remember Me Well because we wanted to be able to replicate that sound at our shows. Playing in a trio has given us the opportunity to utilize dynamics to create the full sound you might hear from a larger band.

Any talk of a new record/ new work yet?

Red June: We recently recorded a single that we’re going to release some time this fall as part of our Kickstarter fundraising campaign. As far as the next record, we just booked some studio dates in November and are planning on releasing it in the spring of 2012. We have most of the material written and ready to record.

What have you been listening to lately?

Red June: Lately we’ve been into the new Gillian Welch album, Neil Young, early Grateful Dead shows, Utah Phillips, lots of old-time music, and some recent releases by our friends The Honey Dewdrops, Dehlia Low, and the Steel Wheels.


  1. We just had Red June in Amherst, MA for a concert just before Irene came to town. It was a great gig and the South Amherst Congo church was a perfect place for the show. The crowd was excited to hear how their hometown girl Natalya had grown musically with a number of her past teachers in the house. It was a concert to remember with Red June and a few special guests rounding out the afternoon. These folks have a great sound. Make sure you catch them when they are in your neighborhood and get them to come play if you can. I haven't been this excited about a new group in quite a while.

  2. Attention couldn't come to a nicer group of folks. The fact that they make beautiful music is a bonus.