Interview: Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn (2014)

From Louis and Keely to John and Yoko to Derek and Susan, married couples have worked together to give us some of the most interesting and powerful music of the past century.

Enter Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, banjo innovators both, who wed in 2009 and are the proud parents of baby boy Juno, 10 months old.

Fleck, whose musical skills and restless nature have taken him deep into the jazz, classical and blues realms, started as an fiery, innovative player in the progressive bluegrass band New Grass Revival in the early ‘80s.

By the end of the decade, he and bassist Victor Wooten had kickstarted Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, and the banjo would never again be seen as something barefoot hillbilly boys plucked aimlessly on Appalachian front porches.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that! But Fleck, in the intervening years, has almost single-handedly charted spectacular new territories for the instrument.

Washburn was relatively new to the banjo when Fleck signed on to produce an album for her in 2005; she is a stunning vocalist and an ardent student of Chinese music and culture, all of which imbue her music with an otherworldly richness. She and Fleck subsequently recorded and toured, with Casey Dreissen and Ben Solee, as the Sparrow Quartet.

Both have played the Savannah Music Festival separately (in fact, the Sparrow Quartet stopped in once), but their March 30 lunchtime concert will mark the first time Mr. and Mrs. have done the Savannah deal as a twosome.

You’re parents now. How’s that working out?

AW: It’s amazing. We get to have a beautiful little creature that we get to take care of. It’s incredible.

BF: Abby is the Mother of the Year, as far as I can tell. And we’ve been taking him on the road, on these tours, and that’s quite a challenge. But he’s been great. And if we have an early show, he’ll watch the whole show and even take part in it.

The other night, Abby brought him out and she sang the encore holding him, and he pulled the cable out of the microphone and started sucking on it! The audience went wild.

Is this the first time you’ve toured together, as just the two of you?

BF: We’ve been working into it. At first I think we did a benefit for Abby’s grandma, at her church, and it went way better than we’d expected. We just threw a few things together and ended up being really happy with it. But we knew from then on that we would play as a duo, so it would pop up here and there. It’s been on our radar as something we wanted to do some day together. We’re now actually recording a record that’ll be out in the Fall.

AW: This is the first time we’ve taken it seriously … well, we’ve loved to play music together from the beginning, so that’s an obvious connection.

Abby, the last time we spoke, you were telling me that you’d picked up banjo a lot later, and that you were a little intimidated at first playing with the old master. Have you gotten over that— ‘oh, it’s just Bela’?

AW: On one level, it’s a part of our routine. But on another level, the things that come out of him musically night after night are always astonishing. That wouldn’t happen in any other situation, and I see it and I recognize it. And it’s always inspiring.

BF: I think that everybody has different things that they bring to it. I play with a lot of different musicians, and some of them have abilities that I don’t have. And when I play with them I have to deal with that kind of a thing.

For instance, if I go out and play with Chick Corea, as a duet, he’s got abilities that I don’t have. But we meet in the areas where we can meet. And he does his thing, and I do my thing, and we have a great time.

And I think it’s that way with Abby. She has abilities that I don’t have. Even playing abilities—I’ve never been much of a clawhammer player, and she can lay down a groove that I can do almost anything over. And also, her vocals are just so compelling. So I get to be part of music that reaches out to people, and connects with people in a whole different way than the instrumental music that I tend to get involved with. So for me, it’s just a wonderful experience. It’s not like we’re unequal—it’s more like we’re finding different ways to interface.

Does the other person’s creativity change you, depending on the person?

BF: Exactly. That’s the compelling thing for me about playing with a lot of people, because I get to be different. I’m not the same old me. When I play with Abby, I play different. And I play different with her than I play with, for instance, Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas. Or Tony Rice. There are elements to our duo that is traditional, our Abby and Bela duo, I get to play in a more traditional fashion than I do playing with Chick Corea, or the Flecktones and so forth.

But with Abby, it’s even a different subset because she has this old-time element. And also the beautiful aspects.

As an improvising artist, which is a big part of what I try to be, I’m improvising a lot with Abby but I’m responding every day to what it feels like will work well. But yeah, I definitely spark to whatever’s going on around me.

Abby, are you still bringing the Asian influences into your music?

AW: Yeah, in fact Bela and I decided to seek out a new traditional Chinese song, from southeast China, to try and go in a new direction with some of the Chinese repertoire. And it’s exciting; Bela can go anywhere, he can do anything. He’s a fearless explorer. Which is so exciting for me, because I’m game for the journey, but I might not even seek out certain directions that he sees.

BF: We were listening to a lot of difference Chinese stuff and I was like “Abby, we should do one of these even more obscure, totally Chinese things.” The two that we did with the Sparrow Quartet are almost like pop, not pop but like folk songs—they’re very, very well-known simple songs. And this shows her voice off in a completely different way that any of the Chinese-type stuff I’ve heard her sing before. I like that because it’s showing a new corner of what she’s able to do.

AW: Which is a big part of what Bela brings to me musically, new challenges, new ideas. Sometimes it’s scary and frustrating, and sometimes it’s pretty exhilarating. So I grow a lot when I play with Bela.

Tell me about the record you’re making.

BF: For one thing, the studio is in our basement. Wherever we put the mics, that’s the studio. So we have the luxury of going ahead and recording the stuff that we’ve been playing our duo that’s not already recorded. It turns out there was quite a bit there that we had been doing …

AW: Old murder ballads, old Carter Family songs and things like that.

BF: So that accounted for six or seven tunes. Once we got into old tunes of Abby’s that she’d never recorded that we had nice duet versions of. So hey, let’s put that on the table. So basically what we’re doing is recording a pile of stuff. We’ll probably record 16 or 17 songs, and then see what the record is. In there. And this week we’re going to complete three new tunes we’ve been working on. There’s an instrumental that we’ve written together, and a really cool song that Abby wrote.

Bela, is this like going back for you, to Newgrass Revival days, isn’t it? There’s a lot of Americana in this now. Is there an element of “I used to play this stuff a lot”?

BF: Yeah, it’s the stuff that made me want to play in the first place. And that I love, but I petered out of because I was so interested in moving forward I moved out of that world. Not because I didn’t love it, but just because there were new challenges. And so now, I’m coming back to it in a very earthy, natural way—playing with the two banjos.

We both love the banjo, and onstage we have seven banjos onstage that we switch around—baritone banjo, piccolo banjo, cello banjos—a lot of different tunes and a lot of different instruments that we grab and use in different combinations. So doing that, when we do a traditional song, it’s a different traditional song than you’ve heard before. There’s a lot of rippling going on

The nice thing for me is that, on top of that rippling I’m hearing some beautiful singing. And I don’t to hear that normally.

Abby can access a really old sound with her voice, and an old feeling. Ricky Skaggs calls it the Ancient Tones. And I’ve heard Abby get those sounds. And I love it when I hear it.

@2014 Connect Savannah

Art Garfunkel: The Voice (2014)

There are worse ways to spend Valentine’s Day than listening to the most romantic voice of its generation, live in a small room.

Art Garfunkel is in Savannah Feb. 14 and 15, for shows at Dollhouse Productions, which seats 300. From his classic work with Paul Simon in the 1960s, through a solo career that produced some of the most sublime pop music (“All I Know,” “I Only Have Eyes For You,” “Crying in My Sleep,” “What a Wonderful World”), Garfunkel has never stepped outside a tiny circle of excellence.

Simon and Garfunkel had just announced a reunion tour, in early 2010, when Garfunkel inexplicably lost his voice, a gossamer instrument that bonds to Simon’s tenor like morning dew to a robust flower.

The voice just laid down like a bridge over troubled water.

Things are much, much better now, as you’re about to read.

Garfunkel, 72, began our conversation by asking if I’d seen the Grammy Awards, which had aired the previous night (he has eight of them with Simon, and another for his 1998 album Songs From a Parent to a Child).

He was surprised, he said, that the show was so entertaining (although he bailed shortly before it ended), and had high praise for Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.

And then we got started …


At the Grammys in 1975, John Lennon, Paul Simon and Andy Williams were bantering at the podium. Then you came out and had a really funny deadpan exchange with Simon. I never forgot it. Was it scripted?

Art Garfunkel: No. The nature of the friendship with Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel is jokes, jokes, jokes. Always the inside poke in the ribs, that’s all we ever say. Our knives are sharp when it comes to looking for the inside joke in a flash. So it comes out as if we practiced, but the mind works very fast, when Paul Simon is around, to find the inside, hip joke.

That comes from knowing each other so well?

AG: Yeah, we went to junior high school together. We were always laughing. We’re Lenny Bruce fans. We love Mike Nichols. We love Mel Brooks. These three funny people, but mostly Lenny Bruce, had tuned us. When we first met our manager, Mort Lewis, he had Lenny Bruce’s album signed “From Lenny to Mort.” And that impressed us a lot. So there’s the overlap.

I have to ask you, my friend, how’s the voice?

AG: It’s good. I’m happening again. It’s a thrill to have it back. It’s taken, what, 3 ½ years? The voice is happening.

What happened, exactly?

I did a show in Nicaragua, and I remember they were burning leaves in back of the outdoor show that I was doing. And it was a funny kind of a smell. I came home in late January of 2010. I went to the Palm Restaurant, where they have great lobsters. I was with my son. I gagged on one of the strands of this giant lobster, and it was a near-panic situation. I had to kick up the lobster.

From that point on, after that night, I was experiencing a tightness of the vocal cords and my voice started getting husky. I saw the doctors, and they said “Something in the fine symmetry of your two vocal cords has gone crude.” That’s the closest I can get to an explanation. The truth is, it’s a mystery to me what happened.

The doctor said nothing except scratch your head, and that’ll be $1,200, please.

The body is a mystery. To grope and figure out things about the mystery seems to be, from a doctor’s point of view, hooking up expensive machines, taking pictures, and charging the patient a bloody fortune. That’s what doctors have meant to me.

But you did think at one point it might be gone?

AG: I did think at one point that it might be gone, yeah. I definitely did think it might not happen again. You can’t count on God’s work. Our body and how it works, you can’t count on anything. And I was really having vocal trouble—my speaking was husky. I gave it months of resting and then began to sing, and it wasn’t coming back very easily. I went through a lot of things.

I sing in a way that has to do with fine-ness. If it gets crude, then I’m not Artie Garfunkel any more. Oddly enough, I could sing in the high range. I had my upper notes, which is my stock-in-trade. I could sing in the bass, which I hardly ever use. But the whole midsection, which requires finesse, there’s where you need fine-ness. That was blunted and crude, and there was the heartbreak of it all.

I kept singing, and singing in unison to my iPad. I would sing to Chet Baker and JJ Cale. And I was starting to get there. My unison to these great masters was starting to happen. I would sing to my old albums, in my iPod. I would sing to the Everlys—first Don, the lower voice, and then dear Phil, that great angel in the sky now. And I could get it. I sounded dead-nuts on. And that was promising.

When I took to the stage … first I booked an empty house, so I could have microphone, reverb, speakers and projection, which is the real show business experience … I was quivery. And it wasn’t happening. I kept doing it, and a couple of years went by. I finally started singing to small houses. My wife is a Buddhist; I would sing to her Buddhist meetings, and it was all about facing your obstacle. And I was living example of “Man Meets His Obstacle.” You do your best.

I ended up thinking “You’ve gotta get onstage and act as if you’re ready, even though you’re not ready.” The adrenaline and the fear of doing a show, even when you’re not ready, and throwing yourself into it, helps you get ready.

I’ve never gotten over stage fright. I do a lot of theater, and play a little music, but never got over it. I look at someone like yourself and you look so friggin’ confident up there!

It’s acting. What you just said really touches me. Now you’re my pal. Now you get it, you understand. It’s very unnatural, and very exposed, to say to a house full of people “Hush up and watch what I can do.” It’s all so presumptuous! It’s what fancy people do! It’s not my nature. It’s a pretense to say “I am going to take care of your reality for the next 60 minutes.” And I was back to that early stage of presumption and fear. At my advanced age! My knees were knocking. I was 15 years old again, just a year and a half ago. But you do it anyway. And only with the repetition of dozens of doing that do you settle back into the groove.

I hear you signed a book deal?

AG: They don’t want me to talk about it. I’ve been writing for 30 years. I write these bits. I don’t know how to describe them, they’re one-page, half-page reflections. They’re memoirs of my life, my career, of my wife, my children, family, show business, Paul Simon, my history. I’m entranced by the living experience, if you must know, Bill. And so I write as a philosophically questioning guy. I’ve been doing it for about 30 years, to myself, for myself, thinking well, I like what I’m doing; I think I have my own voice. I don’t know if it translates. I would sometimes read it to people, and some of them work, some of them don’t. I finally got the courage to shop them around with a literary agent. And he came back with great responses: “You are a writer.”

So I’m in the editing phase. But if you must know, the thrill of shaping up this show that I’m bringing to Savannah has completely captured me. I love what’s going on. A new three-part concert has emerged in front of my eyes. And I’m into it.

Do tell.

AG: I read some of these things we’ve been talking about. And I reflect on the song I’m about to sing. And I weave in and out of things I wrote and this now-returned voice. I go back and forth and I go through my repertoire while I show them my prose-poem bits. It has an identity of its own. I don’t know anybody who does this, but it works. I’ll come onstage and I’ll go “Somewhere around the middle of the ’60s, I took a room at the Hampshire House. I remember the carpet, cherry vermillion. The balcony looked up the axis of Central Park, dead center. Twenty-fifth floor. I was new to fame, and to room service.”

I have just one guitar player, Bill. That’s my show. It is what I call severe less-is-more. I’m trying to make every little thing be a big thing. And grow from there. At the end, I’ll do a question-and-answer and finally, finally open up as a guy with a lot of love and a lot of experience, and a lot of accessibility. Ask me what you want to know, folks!

Why do you say finally, after all these years?

AG: Because I’ve been behind Paul Simon all through that famous Simon & Garfunkel career. And during my own solo 20 years I had my four-piece band. I only slowly began to be a talker. That’s why. I don’t know if they know how proud I am of my body of work.

OK, you brought it up, so I have to ask. You were about to tour with Paul when the voice troubles began. Are the two of you thinking about doing it again?

AG: Who knows? If the voice is working again. We’re a hot duo! The world loves us, I love us, so it begs the question why wouldn’t we do it again when the voice is back. But you gotta ask him. It takes two to make a tour.

When you get to this age, are all the old animosities gone?

AG: Animosities, Bill? Something you know?

There’s been hot and cold running water over the years.

AG: We’re different personalities. You see Paul Simon, you see Artie Garfunkel, you see two different kind of guys. My job is to keep the class of Simon & Garfunkel. I don’t want to knock us off the pedestal and bring in the earthiness of two different personalities. We mesh pretty well. I don’t think our story is animosity, I think it’s harmony. Being two different people, we managed an alchemy of fusion in a pretty exciting way, right from childhood on. I think that’s our story.


@2014 Connect Savannah

A day at the beach with Miley Cyrus

@2009 Connect Savannah

Left: Culprit Mark Owen McLeod, apprehended days after your reporter (right) was booted from the set. No resemblance whatsoever.

I applied to work as an extra on The Last Song, was accepted, and for 10 hours I did everything asked of me as the Disney cameras followed Miley Cyrus up and down Tybee Beach.

Then, without explanation, I was forcibly removed from the set, publicly embarrassed and threatened.

Hooray for Hollywood!

I still don’t know how it happened.

Extras are essentially human furniture. As the actors speak their lines, and do whatever the script requires them to do, we’re in the background, walking and chatting and behaving like regular people would behave.

Except that we have to do it again and again and again, proceeding from Point A to Point B, as the actors (and the backgrounds) are photographed from every imaginable angle.

I’m an old pro, having worked as an extra on Doc Hollywood, G.I. Jane and the eminently forgettable TV drama Miracle Child.

On June 19, I was one of 200 people “attending” the (fictitious) Tybee Island Seafood Festival. Miley was there, and we watched her — in character as plucky teen Ronnie Miller — stroll up and down the pier, and the beach, a hundred times. Each time, we did our extra thing and tried to pretend there wasn’t a camera.

There were children with their parents, a lot of teen-age girls, some older couples and a few stray adults (I was among the latter). I met a lot of wonderful people, including Tybee residents John and Gail Pomeroy, and their friends Chris and Melissa Freeman. They’d signed up, too, curious about the experience, and we wound up on the sand together, walking back and forth along the outer perimeter of the “carnival” set.

We’d started at 2 p.m., and the afternoon went well, although at one point I nearly passed out from the heat and spent about 20 minutes in a paramedics’ truck, being re-hydrated.

Kevin, the Last Song medic, was a great guy, and he made sure I was treated well. He delivered me to the paramedics, and when I got the all-clear, he walked me back onto the set.

In fact, everyone on the crew looked out for the extras, all day long. Bottled water was plentiful. They couldn’t have been nicer.

The trouble started many hours later, about 10:30. I’d been called to the end of the Tybee pier, and with another extra – a very funny guy I’d just met named David — I walked back and forth in front of the camera as Miley and her co-star Carly Chaikin acted out a nighttime scene, sitting on the pier with their backs to the neon carnival rides that spun in the distance.

Yes, kids, I stood about four feet away from her. I heard her dialogue so often I could almost repeat it, line for line.

We had done this about 12 times, and as the camera was being re-positioned for a different angle, a man I’d never seen walked up to me and got right in my face. He said “Sir, may I ask why you’re out here?” I told him I was an extra, and had been told to stick around for another shot.

He said “I am Miley’s security, and I have been told you made an untoward remark about her earlier today.”

“What?” I said incredulously.

“Someone — I won’t say who — brought it to my attention that you made a remark today. I’ve been looking for you.”

I wracked my brain. The most “untoward” thing I might have said was a quiet admission to my friends that I’d never seen Hannah Montana and never heard the girl sing.

I have no grudge against Miley Cyrus. She seemed nice enough. And, except for the brief episode with the heat – nobody’s fault but my own — I’d been having a pretty great day.

The man took down my name, address, phone number and date of birth, then disappeared into the darkness down the pier. Dave came over and asked me what had happened. “I truly don’t know,” I replied, because I really didn’t. I told him the story.

A misunderstanding, of course. I calmed down and prepared to go back to work.

About 10 minutes later the “security” guy was back, accompanied by two uniformed Tybee police officers. “Sir, these officers are going to escort you off the set,” was all he said. It was clear I had no say in the matter.

He still wouldn’t tell me what I had supposedly done. He pushed me along, his arm around my waist. I was led, one officer on each side, through the throngs of extras – many of whom I’d become friendly with during the long day. There were John and Gail, and Chris and Melissa. Mylon Gladden, a soldier I’d walked and talked with, along with chatty 8-year-old Tyra Watts from Charleston, who was there with her mother, Patty. In fact, Tyra, Mylon and I had been together for a big chunk of the afternoon – a little “extra family” on the beach.

They stared; I shrugged. It was massively embarrassing.

I was delivered to “Home Base,” where the film company trucks and trailers were located. A burly fellow said “Is this the guy?,” meaning me, and proceeded to tell me I was being evicted from the premises, and I had better get going. He was going to put me on an outgoing charter bus for Wilmington Island, where we’d all met up and where my car was parked.

I had to retrieve a bag of clothes from the extras’ holding area, and he walked me over there, sticking unnervingly close. Trying again to find a sympathetic ear, I asked, “Do you have any idea what all of this is about?”

His response: “How hammered are you?”

How hammered are you? Well, I’d recently had a nice chicken-and-rice dinner, with ice water, with my fellow extras, provided by the film company. Before that, I’d been in the sun all day, doing my best for Miley Cyrus.

How hammered was I?

I was led to a waiting bus, packed with young children and their mothers, and he left me with this:

“If you make a commotion on the bus, you will be arrested.”

“If you attempt to get off the bus, you will be arrested.”

“If you attempt to return to the set, you will be arrested.”

He watched me board the bus.

Now, I had quietly confessed to several of my fellow extras that I was a writer and was planning to journal my experience working as an extra.

I had a tiny camera in my pocket, and had photographed the empty carnival set. Lots of the extras carried cameras and did the same thing – during set-ups, never while we were working. I also recorded brief comments from my new friends on a little digital recorder I carried.

Don’t take Miley’s picture, we’d all been told before the festivities had begun. That would have been a cardinal sin, and I fully understood why. I wouldn’t have pulled out my camera within a mile of the girl. Like everybody else, I was respectful, and I knew I was only there to work. Which is what I did.

So why the criminal treatment?

The nearest I can figure is that somebody on the set overheard me when I told Dave I had decided to write a story, which set off an alarm somewhere. Why not just ask me? Instead, I got “untoward” and “hammered.”

But nothing in the forms I’d signed asked about my profession, or said “anyone who happens to be a writer cannot work as an extra.”

I heard later that Tybee police had been called to take at least three other people off the set that night.

Was this an over-reaction by security people stretched to the limit by “protecting” a massively famous teenage star? Was I getting a rare look at the dark side of Disney?

Was the “hammered” guy a local security cop with a swelled head, doing a Barney Fife?

I don’t think it matters. The movie got made, and I got the bum’s rush.

But will I end up in the finished film? That’s the question.

Later that year …

My nominee for Savannah’s Man of the Year has to be Mark Owen McLeod.

The 53-year-old native of Appling, Ga., was arrested in June and charged with stalking Miley Cyrus while she was on Tybee Island, filming The Last Song.

Tybee police said McLeod was hanging around the fringes of the set, “making inappropriate comments” to young girls gathered there. According to an official report, he told officers he was on the beach “to be with Miley” – he’d proposed to her, and she’d accepted, sending him secret messages through her Hannah Montana TV show – and he tried to head-butt one of them as they tried to remove him (in handcuffs) from the beach.

McLeod was arrested again in August, and his case was adjudicated in October … but we’ll get to that in a minute.

His first arrest was on Monday, June 22. This was after the Disney gang had been hearing about a creepy guy, saying creepy things, on the periphery for a couple of days.

Turn back your calendars. Because Cyrus was only 16, the Last Song company was not permitted to work on weekends. That means the cameras had last been running, the fans gathering, on Friday, June 19.

The day I was there.


I remember the word “untoward,” but it may have been “inappropriate,” the very word used by police to describe the comments made by the mysterious and soon-to-be-in custody Mark Owen McLeod.

I wrote about this wacky adventure, in these very pages, shortly after it happened. Now, with hindsight I’ve used a bit of Sherlock Holmes-ian deduction to explain what I didn’t know at the time.

Mark Owen McLeod had most likely been reported the day I was there, but nobody knew exactly what he looked like.

So I figure Miley’s security chief was nervous, and looking out for any potential threat to his golden girl.

Why me? Well, I was within breathing room of her at the time I was “fingered.” I guess I looked suspicious.

After my story was published in Connect, and the subsequent news about McLeod was broadcast, I thought perhaps I’d get a polite “sorry about that” from Disney, or a couple of free movie tickets. Something.

To date, I’ve yet to hear from anyone.

As for McLeod, he accepted a deal on Oct. 30, after pleading guilty to misdemeanors of obstruction of a police officer and disorderly conduct. A third charge of attempted stalking, also a misdemeanor, was dropped after a grand jury refused to indict him. A State Court judge sentenced him to two years’ probation, and he was ordered to undergo a mental health evaluation.

McLeod was also legally banished from Chatham County.

Me, I’m still here. Waiting for my apology.

And yes, I got my story.



Interview: Sharon Jones (2011)

The first show to sell out at the 2011 Savannah Music Festival was the March 24 performance by the R&B powerhouse Sharon Jones & the Dap–Kings. Which just goes to show you, some things never go out of style.

Inspired by the classic soul and funk recordings of the 1960s and early ‘70s, the eight–member band plays it sharp and tight, with thick grooves, chunky electric guitar and a punctuating horn section that’s got a ferocious bite.

Jones is a seriously soulful vocalist with tremendous emotional range. Born in Augusta (that’s James Brown’s hometown, y’all), she was 3 when he mother moved the family to New York. But Jones (“I am a Southerner,” she says proudly) spent almost all of her childhood summers in Georgia. Not long ago, she moved her mother into a house in South Carolina, just across the Savannah River from Augusta.

It wasn’t an easy road. Although Jones has been singing since she can remember, success eluded her until the late 1990s. In New York she drove a Wells Fargo armored car, and for many years was a prison guard at C–74, the adolescent offenders’ block at Rikers Island penitentiary.

Through her years as a part–time studio backup vocalist, she made the acquaintance of Gabriel Roth & Neal Sugarman, founders of the Brooklyn–based indie label Daptone Records.

The studio house band became the Dap–Kings. All of the Jones/Dap–Kings albums – from Dap Dippin’ in 2001 to the recent I Learned the Hard Way – have been recorded in the old–school fashion on analog (not digital) studio equipment, utilizing vintage instruments and amplifiers.

Don’t call it “retro,” however, unless you’re ready for a good dressing–down from Sharon.

This is music you grew up singing all your life. Does it bother you when people refer to it as “retro”?

Sharon Jones: I tell people, there ain’t nothing retro about me. To me, retro is some young person out here trying to imitate and sound like some soul singer. I ain’t no young child trying to sound like somebody way back when! If you admire my singing because it reminds you of James Brown, Otis Redding, Ike and Tina Turner or something like that, then yes, ain’t nothing wrong with me reminding you. But I ain’t trying to sound like nobody. I’m Sharon Jones, and I’m 55 years old. And what’s retro about a 55 year–old?

Now, if I was 23 …

That’s why you don’t see us up for no Grammys or awards. They need to have an award for soul music. And they also need to have an award for independent labels, or some category. They can make something up.

Sharon Jones & the Dap–Kings are not getting recognized. They say “Soul music is from the ‘60s, and it’s gone. Those people died out, so there is no more soul music.” And then I read where one guy said “Soul music is people singing about struggling.” That’s bullcrap! That’s craziness.

It took a few years for you to become successful. How frustrated were you over those years?

Sharon Jones: When they wouldn’t accept me at this label or that, I just kept myself busy. Never stopped singing, whether it was with the church choir, or doing studio work, stuff like that. And that’s how I got with the Dap–Kings — my ex was working with these guys, and they were putting these records together, trying to sound like they were made back in the ‘60s. I was “Say what? Get out of here!” They were these young white boys adding some Afro–beat stuff, and every time I heard it I thought that’s cool, you know, the Daktari beat.

They wanted three background girl singers. I was like “Why use three? I can do all three parts.” And I went in and did it, and it was right down my alley. And nobody looked at me and said “You are too old,” or “You don’t have what we’re looking for.” They were grateful.

They said “Say something to this music!” and I made something up, and that’s what it’s all about. That’s soul music. You hear good music, you hear a groove and you sing soul.

If it was retro, these guys would get some young singers in and try to teach them how to sing these songs to sound soulful. The Dap–Kings write the music and lyrics — give me the music, the lyrics, and I sing it the way I think it should sound to this music.

Is it gratifying to find your music accepted and loved all over the world?

Sharon Jones: Yes, especially in Australia, and in a lot of European places, where you know there’s not that soul music over there whatsoever. I get that a lot. And I love the reaction.

I think that’s why I like to react with the audience. The new artists go out and they have all these 50,000 lights and smoke, and dirty dancers running across the stage half–naked … me, the less stuff you have running across the stage, the less lights and smoke, the people get to see …  They get to feel it, you know? Keeping it that old–school way.

I like to show them how to do the Boogaloo, the Funky Chicken, you know?

I know those dances run out, but what else can I do? That’s my show, that’s what I do.

Can you see this growing and growing?

Sharon Jones: That’s what I want. It’s a record label, we’re musicians. It’s like Berry Gordy from Motown, and the head of Stax, and whoever was in charge of Atlantic, all these labels … we started this label, this is our job, this is our life. And in years to come, when I decide to stop singing, I want to be able to go out and produce, and find some young soul singers. Continue to keep the soul music alive — not just stop, and then everybody starts doing pop, and rap, and all this other. Just try to keep it where it is, and find talent to come to your label.

You other labels, y’all keep doing what you’re doing, ain’t nobody stopping you. Nobody’s saying what y’all are doing is wrong; ain’t nobody trying to stop y’all. Make your millions and go on and do what you been doing.

But we just want to do the same thing. I think we can make millions too.

With me, I don’t know if I’ll be able to see millions, but I just got this house for my moms and family, and I’d like to get ME a home. I want to get a personal life right now.


@2011 Connect Savannah

Interview: Ben Bridwell of Band of Horses (2011)

A self–deprecating sense of humor is just one of the refreshing things about Band of Horses founder and frontman Ben Bridwell, who brings his group to the Johnny Mercer Theatre this week for a Savannah Music Festival show.

There’s also this: He writes catchy, memorable songs that still manage to evoke deep–dream vistas, color misty inner monologues and make you think;

His music is “retro” with any sense of obvious rehash, and “contemporary” without sounding like it’s trying too damn hard to impress anyone;

He’s a self–taught musician (guitar, pedal steel, mandolin and anything else that might be laying around) and a self–made business success (he started a record label in Seattle in 1997, and it’s still going today);

He’s addicted to UGA football.

Band of Horses, which began about seven years ago following the breakup of Cassandra’s Wierd (for which Bridwell played drums), released two acclaimed albums (Everything All the Time and Cease to Exist) through Seattle’s legendary Sub Pop label.

So Bridwell and company were already indie darlings when Infinite Arms appeared in 2010 as a split–label deal with Sony and Bridwell’s homegrown Brown Records (with an assist from Fat Possum). In no time, it entered the Billboard chart at No. 7 and was nominated for a Grammy.

The group’s music is an energized blend of rootsy Americana, 1960s harmonies and lush soundscapes drenched in reverb, with fairly straightforward pop or rock ‘n’ roll arrangements hitting your nerve center when you least expect it.

A native of  Irmo, S.C., Bridwell was kicking a soccer ball around with his 3–year–old daughter when he called, from the back yard of his recently–purchased home in Mt. Pleasant, just outside of Charleston.

He was in particularly fine spirits.

I read a short interview with you in – and I’m not making this up – Time Out Abu Dhabi, where you were complaining about how your “whiny girl voice” makes you cringe. I know you came relatively late to music, but do you still have insecurities about what you do?

Ben Bridwell: Yeah, I do. It hits you at the weirdest times. Sometimes it’s nothing but absolute joy and pleasure, and other times it’s still quite a pleasure but yeah, it can be a little bit unnerving that it’s your stupid head singing stuff. For the most part, I’m a lot more comfortable with it now than, say, a couple of years ago when I was just getting started.

You were bartending in Seattle, and you just “started” playing drums. Was music always sort of bubbling up inside you, or did you just one day say “I’m gonna try this”?

Ben Bridwell: I didn’t really think of it like that. I’d never even considered myself qualified to play drums or anything. I was releasing records on my little label, and I felt more in my comfort zone in that kind of position. But then, once I did start playing in a band, and playing the worst drums imaginable – the drums themselves were fine, it was the operator that was the problem – then I got used to touring around the country, and the kind of camaraderie and inspiration that comes from that kind of scenario. And I just didn’t want to give it up once that band broke up.

And coming from a family where music was so important, since I was born, that’s all I really lived and breathed. So it’s really the only thing I was qualified to do besides flip eggs or pour beer. I decided to just work really hard at trying to make songs.

What was in your parents’ record collection? What moved you?

Ben Bridwell: They grew up in Atlanta, so there was a lot of soul stuff. There was a lot of Rolling Stones for one – not so much the Beatles – but a lot of Rolling Stones, and the people that influenced the Rolling Stones. A lot of Otis Redding, James Brown, Motown stuff, all the Atlantic stuff. And a lot of Southern rock, Allman Brothers.

Then they got into some Luther Vandross and some Peabo Bryson, some of the more like modern, ‘80s R&B. So a nice spectrum of sounds, I think.

Interesting. If you say “Otis Redding to Luther Vandross to Band of Horses,” I’m not going to make the leap. There’s a great pop sensibility to your music, and the harmonies at times remind me of the Byrds and bands like that.

Ben Bridwell: Right, and a lot of Neil Young and CSNY stuff. I guess I get a lot of the sense of harmony from listening to a lot of those records.

I’ve always referred to our tag of music as “Mirage Rock,” not garage rock. Where it’s like, from a distance it sounds really good, but when you get really close to it you can tell that there’s nothing really there of substance.

Aren’t you selling yourself short there?

Ben Bridwell: That’s my funny little thing that I thought of one day: ‘I’m going to create a whole new genre of music called Mirage Rock.” I don’t know, man, I do whatever kind of is in the moment for me in a song, and hope that it’s the right approach to it.

Sometimes I’m probably way off, but other times I think it works out quite well. And it’s a new adventure every song. I don’t really know where it comes from, but I just know I have some core sense of what I want to do with it, usually.

It must be pretty great to realize that there are thousands of good bands out there who haven’t reached this level of success. Is there a “pinching myself” element sometimes?

Ben Bridwell: Dude, all the time! When I go to do a lot of writing things, I have to step away from the house – especially with babies everywhere, screaming all the time – and I go to like beach houses, or cabins. And that’s where I’m like “I must have the best job in the world.” If you can call it a job. I go on site to a beach house, and go into seclusion for a week, and scream my balls off and go crazy.

Not to mention, after a lot of different lineup changes I finally have this great family that’s in the band now. So even in those annoying moments of traveling and all the headache that goes with everything but the show, I’m surrounded by really great people. So it lessens the sting of any of the bad stuff.

I always feel like it could all come crashing down tomorrow, and I’ll be back to flipping eggs or something. It’s not lost on me how lucky we are.

At the same time, I don’t want to pander so hard to the people that are fans of the band that I’m not stretching myself artistically. I guess that’s a pretty cliche answer, but it’s true.

Going back to the beach house concept, you locked yourself away to write the songs for Infinite Arms. Tell me why you do that.

Ben Bridwell: I need to be able to whine out loud, really, that’s what it is. I need to be able to sing and not feel like someone can hear me. ‘Cause if I feel like someone can hear me, I’ll immediately – maybe even subconsciously – get self–conscious and pull back a bit.

Maybe that’s going back to the “not feeling that comfortable” thing, but I don’t want somebody to hear me doing that. I don’t want to hear somebody else moving around, because I’ll get scared off. I just try to isolate myself as far away from people as possibly, so I can really squeeze out whatever emotion I’m trying to put into the singing.

I’m just trying to stretch myself, and sometimes that means being loud as hell. I’ll sing like crap if I feel like someone can hear me.

For you personally: Live shows, or studio work? What would you rather be doing all the time?

Ben Bridwell: Man, it’s tough. That one goes back and forth. Sometimes I’m incredibly comfortable onstage, and the performance is so exhilarating that it can’t be matched by anything in the studio.

But more often times than not, I’m more on edge onstage than I would be in the studio environment, where it’s all just creation and pushing yourself to different limits. That maybe in a live performance you don’t get the chance to do, because you can fall on your face in front of the adoring public, or you’re just nervous.

So I think I more prefer the studio environment, at least today. But if you ask me after a show or something that was really good, I’d say there was no better feeling in the world than that.

So I can’t really give a clear answer on that. They’re both terrible and awesome.

I saw the YouTube video of you onstage with Pearl Jam, singing the Temple of the Dog song “Hunger Strike.” I thought, that’s got to feel pretty good for a guy who was still hustling around Seattle when Pearl Jam was on top of the world. That’s kind of a full circle, isn’t it?

Ben Bridwell: Holy cow, yeah. And just remembering when I heard that song for the first time – I was actually a major MTV Johnny, so when I first saw that video and fell in love with that song … it’s kind of mind–blowing to think I was probably 12 or 13 or something.

So it was definitely full–circle in so many ways. But also, completely terrifying. If you see the video, you can tell I don’t even know where to put my hands, I’m trying to hide my smile, I’m trying not to bust out in tears. It was just a fucking mental Vietnam, man. I was having a tough day.

I thought it looked great!

Ben Bridwell: I don’t mean to sell it short, because it went awesome. It was one of those memories that I’ll take with me to my death. It just had me so in a ball of nerves that I can’t believe I actually didn’t, like, pass out on the stage.

I understand you’re quite the Georgia Bulldogs fan …

Ben Bridwell:  I can live and die by some of the games, especially football. I shouldn’t get so wrapped up in it. And fortunately, we’ve been kind of bad the past couple years, so I’ve lessened my depressions when we lose a game.

I love it so much, man. And it’s funny, a lot of people in this music game aren’t that into sports. But I wait for football season impatiently every year.

Do you ever have to miss an important game because of your job?

Ben Bridwell: Every game, I swear to God. Any time something important is going on, Band of Horses is getting in the way of my football habit – and I’m a little bit fed up with it, actually!

Sometimes the game will end right before we’re supposed to go onstage. Sometimes I’m sitting there holding the stage time because we’re in overtime or something. And we end up losing.

And you can’t drag your sad ass on the stage and ruin the show! But it definitely crosses my mind.

@2011 Connect Savannah

Interview: Seth Avett (2011)

For Seth Avett, this past February 13 was the high–water mark in a year filled with them. “We got a chance to talk over song parts with sort of ‘the one’ in the realm of Americana songwriting,” Avett enthuses. “There’s none higher.”

The occasion was the 2011 Grammy Awards telecast, and “the one” was none other than Bob Dylan. Avett, his brother Scott and the other members of the Avett Brothers’ band backed the Bard on a raucous version of “Maggie’s Farm,” joined by the indie group Mumford and Sons.

“It was, obviously and predictably, a dream come true,” says Avett. “It happened very quickly. We did two rehearsals – we did the song maybe 15 or 20 times before we did it onstage.”

The young musicians didn’t know what to expect. “Everybody that works for him will preface your meeting with him with ‘When Bob gets here, he may want to want to do the song in a different key,’” the 30-year-old Avett recalls. “They say ‘He may want to do it in a different tempo. He might want to do it slower or faster, or he might want to do a different song. And if he does, just roll with it.’

“But he seemed to be pretty intent on doing the song we planned on, and real focused, and really invested in the song and wanting to make it great. He was real personable to us, and after the song on the actual awards ceremony, he turned around to me and Scott and was like ‘That was great!’ It was a hell of a moment.”

The Avett Brothers are currently the darlings of the indie Americana world. Brothers Scott and Seth are not only exemplary songwriters, each has a distinctive, plaintive voice that brings to mind Levon Helm and Richard Manuel, respectively, from The Band’s glory days. They make every lyric sound hard–won and real.

When they sing harmony, however, that’s when the goosebumps start.

“When we sing together, there’s something about being kin, about being siblings, it does some of the work for you,” Avett says. “The personality of the voices, the character of the voices is there without ever having to worry about it. As long as you can sing with your natural voice, and try to get rid of any kind of pretense of what a singer sounds like, that’s gonna happen.

“I believe that is the goal for any singer. Like, as soon as the singer starts trying to sound like a singer, it’s horrendous. And we all know some very popular singers that are very in love with their own voices, and come across a little bit saccharine for that reason.” Avett also fesses up to having a soft spot for early Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers recordings.

Born and raised in Concord, N.C., the brothers were onstage early, in high energy rock ‘n’ roll bands. Inspired by their heroes Jerry Cantrell and Layne Stanley of Alice in Chains, they realized their capacity for close harmony.

The emotional texture of acoustic music was a late discovery.

“Some of that was just a basic surrendering to what felt natural. Where it got cranking, inspiration–wise, was when I was about 14 and I got to go, through mutual friends, and meet Doc Watson. And go to his house and hang out a little bit. He’s a king in the world of American roots music.

“So I starting to listen to a lot of roots music, and going into blues – Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Willie McTell, plus Woody Guthrie, Jimmie Rodgers, all these guys … Scott and I both. We both started becoming open to that.”

On a basic level, he says, “it just felt natural. And there’s only so long that you can deny what you are sort of meant to be doing.”

Avett calls what the band does now “a mixture of a lot of things that we love. There is a rock element, and there will always be a rock element. We’re not gonna be just a little folk duo. We like doing that, and then we also like getting loud, getting heavy, whatever.

“But we had to admit to ourselves that we liked the simplification, instrument–wise and personality–wise. We liked breaking it down to just me and him, we just had to count on each other. And the music just got very simple and uncluttered. And that was a natural fit.”

The Avett Brothers band includes the siblings’ longtime compadre, bassist Bob Crawford, and cellist Joe Kwon.

They’re well into the recording of their second album with producer Rick Rubin, the follow–up to 2009’s major–label debut I And Love and You.

Released on Rubin’s label American Recordings, a Sony subsidiary, the album got glowing – even reverent – reviews. It reached No. 16 on the Billboard chart.

Success, Avett says, hasn’t changed them – what it’s done is necessitated a logistical shift. There are more people around now, helping get music heard, helping to get the band from one place to another, helping to arrange things like the Grammy telecast with Dylan.

The only thing Avett regrets is that the brothers now have less interaction with their fans. That’s generally one of the first casualties of a successful flush.

But never suggest that Scott and Seth have become mere pawns in a music–business corporate game.

“We incorporated right at the beginning, so we got our minds set in the business side of things early on,” Avett explains. “Which was a very healthy step for us.

“See, our father ran a welding crew for 35 years, and he owned his own business. So we grew up watching the blue–collar work ethic, and the blue–collar understanding of a small business. Doing the payroll, doing things legitimate–wise.

“We had seen a quality example of that, so it just made sense to us to run our band and our travels like a construction company. That’s how we patterned our business for the first seven years.

“So when we signed a major label deal, it wasn’t at all like the fairy tale: ‘Please sign us, make us famous’ or whatever. It was ‘we’ve got our company, and we’re doing something good. We feel like y’all are doing something good. Can we make it work together?’”

@2011 Connect Savannah