Wednesday, March 5, 2014
Tony Trischka Shares His "Great Big World"
For over 45 years Tony Trischka has been one of the most influential and groundbreaking banjo artists influencing bluegrass and acoustic musicians everywhere. He is a legendary banjo innovator, composer, collaborator, and teacher. His new album, Great Big World, was recently released via the Rounder label.
Great Big World features Tony along with an incredible roster of guests: Andy Statman (mandolin), Mike Compton (mandolin), Michael Daves (guitar, vocals), ex-Crooked Still and solo vocalist and songwriter Aoife O'Donovan (vocals), Steve Martin (banjo), Punch Brothers' Noam Pikelny (banjo) and Chris "Critter" Elderidge (guitar, vocals), John Goodman (vocals), Ramblin' Jack Elliott (vocals), and Oteil Birbridge (bass), Maeve Gilchrist (harp, vocals) and Tristan Clarridge (cellist).
Anyone who has followed Tony's prolific career over the years will no doubt find a lot to love on Great Big World. I recently had the pleasure of asking Tony about the making of the album and how it all came together.
What led up to beginning work on the new material? Where was your starting point and how did it begin to take shape?
Tony Trischka: I’m always writing music, and had written several songs since my last album but I became more interested than I’d been in my previous work in writing lyrics. I started by recording six basic tracks over two consecutive days in Brooklyn, which felt like a really fast start. In the end,the whole process took over a year and a half to complete as I got more and more critical and developed more ideas.
Which songs came together first and how did those shape the development of the rest of the album?
Tony: In terms of the concept for this album, Rounder gave me carte blanche to do whatever I wanted. They did ask me to have at least two bluegrass songs in the mix, which for me was great, because I love bluegrass and it’s still at the heart of just about everything I do. One word: Earl Scruggs! The six songs I recorded in Brooklyn included the two bluegrass arrangements, ”Do Re Mi” (actually, a Woody Guthrie tune, which I chose because it was the 100th anniversary of his birth)and “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight”.
I finished the sessions off with some original tunes, which were in a more progressive vein (“Great Big World,” “Danny Thomas”). These didn’t really shape the development of the rest of the album though, because I already had other ideas mapped out in advance.
You have a number of guests on the album. Did you choose artists you wanted to work with and let them choose their contributions, or did you ask everybody to participate on specific tunes?
Tony: I chose artists I very much wanted to work with and chose them to play on specific tunes. For instance, I asked Andy Statman to play on a couple of progressive tunes, because he can take it all the way “out” in his own amazing style. I hadn’t recorded with him in many years, and it was great to reconnect with him.
I chose Mike Compton to play and sing on a couple of the bluegrass tunes because he’s deep in the Bill Monroe style of mandolin playing and has a seriously rootsy voice. He also can hang out beautifully in more progressive situations.
Can you briefly discuss your history/ friendship/ connections to some of your guests (such as Noam Pikelny, Michael Daves and Aofie O' Donovan)?
Tony: I’ve known Noam for a relatively long time, deeply admire his banjo playing and love hanging out with him. I first recorded with him on my Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular album and we toured together doing material from that album.
Michael Daves is one of the great, still somewhat under the radar singing and guitar playing talents. He’s got deep emotional heft and brings a passion to everything he does that fits in perfectly with my musical aesthetic. He can play inside or outside and is remarkably talented. I first met him maybe six or seven years ago backstage at a New York City bluegrass festival. I heard this remarkable voice coming from behind a curtain and discovered that it was Michael. Born in Atlanta, he was living in Brooklyn and I quickly recruited him for my band.
I first met Aoife while playing in a nine-piece bluegrass/jazz band called the Wayfaring Strangers. She’s fun and disarming and has a beautiful voice. Though she tends to express the gentler aesthetic, she can really belt it out when called upon to do so. She was the perfect choice for “Angelina Baker”.
How did the album begin taking shape?
Tony: The idea was to do whatever I wanted. No concept. Just do the tunes that I was excited about. This is how I did my first two or three albums for Rounder. They gave me complete artistic freedom. Thus, it is a very eclectic album, which is how my musical tastes run anyway. Though the first six tunes were recorded quickly, the rest took a lot more time, either tweaking what was already recorded, or waiting for the stars to align so I could get the people I wanted to record to be available to do so.
What kinds of musical barriers were you looking to challenge?
Tony: I wasn’t really looking to challenge any musical barriers though I think I ended up doing so. I wanted the arrangements of the tunes to flow organically from the tunes themselves.
I was able to explore some new genres for myself: “Ocracoke Lullabye” was aided immeasurably by the genius of Maeve Gilchrist (a ridiculously talented harpist and singer), and Tristan Clarridge (equally talented improvising cellist). I used to play pedal steel guitar but was never aware of Sacred Steel music at the time. I finally heard this tune on a Sacred Steel album that completely blew me away. I decided I wanted to take that feel and write a tune based on it. Thus, “Joy”.
Having Oteil Burbidge playing bass on the track certainly helped with the deep groove. And having my son get right in there wit him on drums, was even more joyful.
Could you talk about your pieces with Ramblin' Jack Elliott and John Goodman?
Tony: As I’d been getting more into lyric writing lately, I decided that Wild Bill Hickok didn’t have enough songs written about him, so I went through a ton of drafts to get the tune where I wanted it. It is basically a ballad, very wordy. Jack Elliott said it was the hardest tune he ever had to sing. I had to artificially add a couple of beats in the verses to allow the singers space to breathe. Breathing is important when it comes to singing. Jack has been a hero of mine since my early teen years, so it was a complete honor to have him on the album.
I met John Goodman while doing a run of the musical The Robber Bridegroom, back in the 70s. We’d see each here and there over the years. While researching Wild Bill, I found this help wanted poster (for a western marshall), and thought that it would be great to put into the tune. John has such an amazing voice and delivery; I thought he’d be the perfect person to do it.
What did you want to explore further than before?
Tony: I didn’t have any preconceived notions in that regard. I just wanted to make the best album I could and in the process was able to explore a number of genres I hadn’t dipped into previously: lullabye (“Ocracoke Lullabye”), Sacred Steel (“Joy”), western (“Wild Bill”).
Can you describe your songwriting process, both lyrically and musically for the new album?
Tony: I wrote all the lyrics on the album except for “Do Re Mi” (Woody Guthrie) and “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight” (Johnny Bond). This is probably the most exciting aspect of the CD for me. Here and there, in past recordings, I might write one tune with lyrics. Here I wrote a bunch. Having written eight million banjo tunes (give or take), it felt much more three dimensional to come up with lyrics.
Most of the time, the music came first (“Joy,” “Lost,” “Ocracoke,” “Purple Trees of Colorado”). “Say Goodbye” and “Wild Bill Hickok” were pretty much a lyrics first deal. I’ve written a lot of banjo instruction books (none of which will ever be a pick for Oprah’s book club), and I used to write poetry in my teen years, so all these years later it’s a thrill to put lyrics to music and have wonderful singers like Jack Elliott, Michael Daves, Maeve Gilchrist, Abigail Washburn, and Mike Compton singing them.
Overall, how collaborative is the songwriting and recording process?
Tony: It is definitely a collaborative process. I’ll come up with the tune, and some of the arrangement, but considering the wonderful musicality of the musicians I choose, I’d be an idiot not to be open to their advice. Everyone on the “Wild Bill” session added ideas that improved the arrangement. Todd Phillips was particularly helpful in this regard. Michael Daves came up with the line that took us into the jamming section of “The Danny Thomas” and so on.
How does working with these artists influence/ inspire you?
Tony: It is hugely inspiring to play with these folks. The groove that Oteil and my son Sean laid down on “Joy” was transcendent. I was close to screaming while recording. Andy Statman is a complete genius and wholly original and puts out so much energy, you can’t help but get carried along for the amazing ride.
Michael and Critter’s (Chris Eldridge’s) vocal trio on “Say Goodbye” is inspiring after the fact. I didn’t have anything but the melody for the chorus on that one, and they came up with the succulent harmonies. And that’s just barely the tip of the creative and inspirational iceberg that informed the sessions via the participating musicians.
Can you share some of what were you listening to that inspired you throughout the writing and recording processes?
Tony: If I’m not playing, I’m always listening to music and my listening tastes have always been very eclectic. So while I don’t remember listening to anything in particular that inspired the recording process, it would be safe to say that the variety in my music is informed by my listening.
Many may see you as someone to look to when learning/ developing banjo-playing, but I am curious if you could share some of the players and albums that inspired you to learn and then develop further?
Tony: Earl Scruggs (Foggy Mountain Banjo, Foggy Mountain Jamboree), Don Reno (Reno and Smiley, 12 Instrumentals), Sonny Osborne (Osborne Brothers, Up This Hill and Down), Allen Shelton (Jim and Jesse, Bluegrass Special), Bill Keith (all recordings with Bill Monroe, 1963), Bill Monroe (Bluegrass Instrumentals, High Lonesome Sound).
As a new volume in your discography, now that the new album is finished, how would you say it connects to and/ or distinguishes itself most from your previous work?
Tony: It connects all the way back to my first two albums (Bluegrass Light, 1973, Heartlands, 1974) in that Rounder Records gave me absolute artistic freedom to go in any direction I wanted. An ultimate luxury). Of course, I think it’s more refined, as I have honed my aesthetic over all these years (over 40 years with Rounder) so it is an evolution of all of my albums.
What have you been listening to lately?
Tony: A lot of Pete Seeger (since his passing) and Woody Guthrie. Also, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Weather Report, Neil Young, and Bill Monroe, among a lot of other things too.
What is next for you? Any plans to make it out to Portland?
Tony: I’m definitely touring for the album and I hope to make it out to the Northwest. It is one of my favorite parts of the country.