David Benedict could have chosen a variety of sites to host his ongoing video series featuring his music entitled "Mandolin Mondays." It's not like it's difficult to find a blogging host. His own web site has those capabilities. But January 4 of this year, post #1 appeared on the Mandolin Cafe with David playing a blazing version of "Huckleberry Hornpipe," and the hashtag #mandolinmondays.
"Wonder where this is going," I thought, and assumed it'd be over in a few weeks, then watched with amazement (and sometimes amusement) as months reeled by where every Monday David posted something new. From pop to Bach, fiddle tunes to Beatles, Dylan to Scott Joplin, and the mind boggling Pokemon Red and Blue cover that remains one of the most amusing pieces of music played on mandolin in recent memory.
"I spent way, way too much time on that," David told me in a phone conversation with an audible sigh, then quietly chuckled.
Already possessing an advanced sense of harmonic structure and arrangements that surprise and please you at the same time, there's a lot more to David's talents. I was familiar with a few cuts from previous recordings and was aware he was making waves as the new mandolinist in Missy Raines' The New Hip band, a cutting edge quartet that includes drums and finds them in a lot of different musical territories.
It became very clear that David Benedict is a mandolin star on the rise, and someone we should pay attention to. My only question now is, will he show up next Monday with a new video? I'm pretty sure he will and personally, can't wait to see what new music he has in store for our enjoyment. Well done, David. Well done.
Many Nashville based mandolin players came up through bluegrass bands. That wasn't your experience. Tell us about your musical path to being a mandolinist.
That's true. I definitely came to love bluegrass and the mandolin in general a lot later than some of the other young players out there today. When I was growing up, my dad intermittently played drums in a local jazz combo, but otherwise I was raised in a fairly non-musical home in upstate South Carolina. The first time I saw a mandolin I was 10 years old. There was a guitarist in the worship band at our church at that time who occasionally picked up the mandolin, and I just remember being intrigued by the uniqueness of the instrument. My parents inquired about lessons, but the guitarist recommended starting out with guitar. So over the next couple of years, I unsuccessfully tried my hand at the guitar and eventually lost interest.
Then one day when I was 13, my Dad surprised me by bringing home an A model Alvarez and book of beginner fiddle tunes. I began learning tunes like "Red Haired Boy" and "Blackberry Blossom," but with very few instructors nearby and no personal knowledge of or connections in the mandolin/bluegrass community, I had a little trouble getting started. So, I spent the next few years playing recreationally without much direction, until halfway through high school when I acquired the Flatiron mandolin I currently play. This instrument really pushed me over the edge. At that same time, there were a lot of other opportunities that helped me take music more seriously: I started playing with a Celtic folk band called Emerald Road, began some classical music lessons on the mandolin from a trained violinist, took some music theory classes at a local University, and worked an internship at my church where I learned a lot about composition and arrangement. To seal the deal, I attended the 2011 Mandolin Symposium where my eyes were opened to the world of possibilities that the mandolin offers. After that, I knew that my life would never be the same.
David with Emerald Road
David playing tenor banjo with the band Emerald Road, circa 2013.
We were surprised to learn you're just 23 but already have a college degree and have been out of school a few years and are teaching mandolin in addition to performing. Tell us about your educational background and major.
Towards the end of high school, I somehow got the crazy idea into my head that I wanted to study music with the mandolin at the college level. It was very difficult to find a music program that would accommodate, but before common sense got the better of me I found myself as a music major at Bryan College near Chattanooga, TN. Because of their small student body, Bryan was willing to work with me to create my own mandolin specific major. Basically, in addition to all of the traditional music classes (theory, music history, etc.), I also got to study mandolin with Matt Flinner. Since I took a number of dual enrollment classes in high school I was able finish college in two and a half years. So in December 2013, I graduated with a Bachelor's of Science degree in Mandolin Music Performance.
You credit Mike Marshall and Matt Flinner being influential in your music. What were the opportunities you had to study with them?
I'm incredibly grateful to have had so much input and guidance from Mike Marshall and Matt Flinner along the way! I first met Mike back in 2011 when I went to the Mandolin Symposium, and slowly got to know him better over the next few years. I became a regular at the Swannanoa Gathering Mando Week and took some classes from Mike that eventually led me to sign up for his Artistworks School. But I really got to know him in 2013 and 2014 when I had the privilege of attending the Acoustic Music Seminar (AMS) at the Savannah Music Festival. For those who aren't familiar with the program, the AMS is a week-long intensive workshop that selects 16 young acoustic musicians to study and perform with Mike Marshall, Julian Lage, and a host of other amazing artists that come through Savannah to perform in the festival. The program was an earth shattering experience for me. Getting firsthand coaching from Mike Marshall all day everyday for a whole week is pretty unparalleled. He's been incredibly kind to me over the years, and I'm so thankful for the time I've been able to spend with him.
Into The True Country
And I could say nothing less of Matt Flinner! Getting to study with Matt at school was one of the best things that has ever happened to me. He has enriched my experience of the mandolin in so many ways. Matt was my gateway into the bluegrass and old-time traditions, and has given me a deep love for fiddle tunes. Towards the end of my time at school, he agreed to produce my first record, Into the True Country. I was so thankful to have him on the project. Matt was so helpful at every stage of the process: beforehand he gave me creative guidance with my compositions and arrangements, during the session he helped diffuse that sometimes tense and intimidating environment of the studio to help us all get the best takes, and afterwards he made sure that we got the best mixes and masters for the project. Even after the album came out, Matt was kind enough to play a handful of CD release duo shows with me. I truly can't imagine what my life would look like without his support and influence. Even now since I moved to Nashville, Matt has continued to be a huge source of encouragement and support for me, and, he helped me get connected with Missy Raines who I perform with now.
You've been a part of Missy Raines & The New Hip Band for some time now. How did that gig come about and what kind of challenges did you face being in a group performing music that might be a little outside what you were normally playing?
I've been so grateful to be a member of Missy Raines & The New Hip for the past year now. The band has been in a transition stage for a little while, but things are really gearing up for us this year. I honestly couldn't have asked for a better crew of people to work with — Missy is not only an amazing bassist, she's one of the most sincere and generous persons I've ever met.
Back before joining The New Hip, I had only met Missy once or twice in passing. I just happened to hear that she was holding mandolin auditions about the time when their previous mandolinist was stepping down. I had heard the band before and thought that it might be a gig that would fit me well, so I went and tried out. Matt Flinner used to play with The New Hip back when the band was just getting off the ground, and he was kind enough to put in a good word for me. The audition went well and afterwards I slowly started to become a more permanent fixture in the band. And the rest is history.
There are definitely some unique and enjoyable challenges to playing with The New Hip. One in particular has been trying to find an appropriate accompaniment style that compliments the instrumentation of the ensemble. I find myself chopping less and less to stay out of the way of the drums, and using a more sustained rhythmic approach to playing back up — especially when our guitarist is playing lead and I have to fill a more harmonic role. Another challenge has been learning how to construct and play long form solos. Several of Missy's tunes have extended improvised sections where I have the sometimes scary responsibility of playing for as long I as I choose (much like standard jazz performance practice). This has been a big stretch for me, predominantly coming from a background of perpetual eighth notes in 32 bar fiddle tune forms where you have about 30 seconds or less to try and throw in all of your hot licks. I'm still figuring it out, but it's already helped me to think more constructively about trying to incorporate a story arc into my improvisation.
The band's adventuresome music seems to suit your free-spirited approach to the mandolin.
That's so great to hear! I love how there's a lot of space and freedom to stretch out and try new things. Missy's music is such a unique amalgamation of so many styles that I like. So in some strange way, it's both comfortable and challenging at the same time.
There's a terrific composition of yours entitled "Rendezvous" the band plays. How much other composing are you doing and might we be seeing a new recording from you in the future?
It's been so fun playing "Rendezvous" with The New Hip. The band really brought a new life to that tune.
Sadly, I haven't been composing much as of late. Most of my creative energy I've been putting towards my Mandolin Monday arrangements. I plan to continue with the weekly videos for the remainder of the year and then hopefully take some time off to start writing for another album. If it pans out, I'd like to stretch myself to try something a little different than either Into the True Country or Each by Side. Since moving to Nashville, I've had to become a lot more confident in my singing ability, and I'd really like this new project to feature a few vocal tunes. Also, playing with The New Hip has helped open my eyes to the unique possibilities inherent to the nontraditional ensemble, and I hope to use this new album as an opportunity to incorporate some different instrumentation. I'm afraid I don't have any specifics at the moment.
In the meantime, I've been working with Missy on a new record for The New Hip. We've only just begun, but I'm really excited about the tracks we've recorded so far. I think this album will be another step further in establishing the distinct sound of the band. There's no projected release date yet, but keep an eye out for it as 2017 rolls around.
From David's recording Into The True Country, his original composition "Naptime."
Could someone interested in studying with you do so via Skype or in person in Nashville?
Certainly! I've been teaching for around 5 years now. I occasionally teach at Carter Vintage Guitars and a couple of other music studios here in Nashville, but the majority of my lessons are via Skype. I ended up taking a number of Skype lessons in high school and college and found it to be an amazing medium for learning, especially for people who live in places with a disparity of experienced instructors. Now from an instructor's perspective, it's been a great privilege to get to work with and see progress in students from all over the world right from my office.
I've really enjoyed teaching so far — often times I feel like I learn just as much as my students do during our lessons and beforehand while I'm preparing. I think deep down we're all just trying to get better, no matter what stage of journey we're at. It's a very personal thing, and I consider it a huge honor that people trust me for help and guidance along the way.
The Escape - David Benedict and Michael Moore
You pull incredible tone out of your Flatiron F mandolin. What year is it and what kind of setup do you use?
I honestly don't know too much about my Flatiron. It's a Flatiron Festival with a Nashville Gibson Master Model stamp inside. I'm told this one was built around 2000. I bought it on consignment from a guy in North Carolina who posted it on the Cafe's Classifieds. Since it came into my possession it has matured significantly, and in recent years I've had some work done on it to help improve the tone and playability: e.g. James Tailpiece, Cumberland Bridge, and custom nut upgrades, and this past year I had the original flat fretboard radiused.
For the past couple of years, I've been playing on D'Addario EXP74s with a BlueChip TAD 50 pick. I try to keep my action at a medium low level. Often when playing with Missy, I'll just stand in front of a standard Shure SM57 microphone. I don't have a pickup installed at the moment, but I've got an old Audio-Technica Pro 35x clip on mic that I'll attach to my arm rest for big outside events. Paid 80 bucks for it and I like it a lot better than the DPA's I've tried.
David Benedict and Michael Moore - Each By Side
There's a delightful performance of you and the very talented Sterling Abernathy on a TedX Talks in Greenville from 2014. How did that appearance come about?
Growing up in South Carolina, I got to know a music curator who booked for a couple of local coffee shop venues. He just happened to be a member of the board for the new annual TedX Greenville event, and he nominated me to perform for the 2014 conference. I think the rest of the board was intrigued by my college degree with the mandolin so they selected me to perform. This happened shortly after I moved to Nashville and right before I started playing more seriously with Michael Moore, so I had my Nashville friend and fellow AMS alum Sterling Abernathy join me. Sterling is a phenomenal mandolin player, but he was kind enough to defer to guitar for the show (and he did an amazing job!). It was an honor to be a part of the event, and I'm very thankful for the experience.
David Benedict and Sterling Abernathy at TEDxGreenville 2014
Your Mandolin Mondays series has been incredibly popular and enjoyable for a lot of people. Did you have any idea what kind of response you'd receive?
The amazing response I've received from Mandolin Mondays has been a big surprise for me. I just started these videos as a personal challenge to push myself to be creative and to be more active in the online mandolin community. I love a wide variety of musical styles and I wanted an outlet to be able to explore both the familiar and unfamiliar styles on the mandolin and share my findings with others. The response on the Cafe has been so humbling. I'm incredibly thankful for the interest people have shown, and it's been such a pleasure to hear from those who have contacted me for the notation of the video arrangements. You guys have helped set the bar high for me in the upcoming weeks, and I hope not to disappoint.