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Beyond Bluegrass Mandolin by John McGann

10 Questions for Jody Stecher

By Mandolin Cafe
August 26, 2010 - 6:30 am

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Jody Stecher. Photo credit: David Licht. Jody Stecher. Photo credit: David Licht.

Jody Stecher has had a quiet but constant presence in a wide variety of musical fields since his first appearance in the folk and bluegrass worlds in the early 1960s.

In 2010 he adds his masterful mandolin playing and vocal work to The Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band's new recording, Legacy, set to be available in the U.S. on September 7 (September 13 in Europe), and a remarkable recording it is.

Jody's critically acclaimed vocal and instrumental work on mandolin, fiddle, guitar, banjo should be enough for a single musical resume, but his more complete background takes him as far as extensive studies and performances in Indian classical music. His vocal work on solo recordings and with wife and musical partner Kate Brislin are classics that have influenced musicians all over the world and have been recognized beyond the folk and bluegrass community including two Grammy Awards nominations.

In short, his music has been important enough to so many great musicians that many more of us have likely been influenced by his work and simply weren't aware. Music legends David Bromberg, Hot Rize, David Grisman, Jerry Garcia, The Seldom Scene are among just a few that cite his recordings as influencing their music.

Visiting with Jody, it doesn't take long to pick up on his passion for the subject of music. We're pleased to hear first-hand about his ventures into the mandolin and this latest bluegrass project in an extended interview we think you'll enjoy as much as we did putting it together.

Listen while you read

The Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band's Family Demon from their new recording, Legacy.

Jody Stecher

Legacy, Jody Stecher's latest project as mandolin player in the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band. Click to enlarge. Legacy, Jody Stecher's latest project as mandolin player in the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band. Click to enlarge.

Mandolin Cafe: The tracks on Legacy have a real timeless quality, particularly tunes like Father, Mother and Jailer Jailer, and we really love hearing the great old classic Let Me Walk Lord. Was the material for this recording pre-selected by Peter or did certain pieces come at the suggestion the band's members? And can you tell us how the material developed during rehearsals?

Jody Stecher: Some song choices were based on audience interest. Requests for a recording of Night Prayer have been steady and strong so that one was on the A list right away. The final selections were made by producer Alison Brown with the blessings of Peter and the band. We had too much material worked up, so certain songs (like the hypnotic anthem Going Back To Tamalpais) were postponed for a future project. A wide net was cast in making the final choices. The goal was a harmonious whole which would include songs that appealed to younger listeners, to bluegrass traditionalists, to vocal harmony lovers, to instrumentalists, and so on. The process that led to that involved all the band members but Peter's choices naturally had more weight as he is the composer of most of the songs on Legacy. Many folks may not realize how prolific Peter Rowan is as a composer. He has notebooks full of songs. Good ones! I'm not sure what the other band members suggested but I suggested Catfish Blues and lobbied heavily for Across The Rolling Hills. I'm glad that one was included. Garry West at Compass compared the experience of hearing a rough mix of this song's coda to "petting a serpent." It's a wild thing all right.

We all contributed to the arrangements and each of us had suggestions for instruments other than our own. Peter suggested the mandolin cross-picking on Night Prayer. Keith composed one of the bass lines on Don't Ask Me Why that led to the line that Paul eventually played. One thing led to another.

So Good and God's Own Child were brand new and were still taking shape in the studio on the day we recorded them. Others we had been singing since day one which was some 3 years ago but when we got to recording them, Alison saw the potential in making small changes. Jailor Jailor is a case in point. We brought that one in as a typical major key and relatively light weight bluegrass song in B or B flat. Alison suggested we move it towards a more minor feel, alter the timing, and lower the pitch just a bit to A and we ended up with this King Kong monster of a song. Peter opted for chords that were neither major nor minor and Keith and I mixed some C natural notes in with our C sharps.

Some of the arrangements developed over time as we'd get used to them and learned to live in them on stage. Played 'em in and sang 'em in. For instance the guitar-mandolin coordination on Let Me Walk may owe its success to our having performed the song so many times. The mandolin at the start of Father, Mother was a spontaneous response to Peter's guitar. Fortunately it got recorded. The first time I heard a mix (a month after the session) I just wept, it was so beautiful. I had forgotten that we had done that. Just a lucky moment. Other songs we rehearsed at Paul's house on some cold days with a nice wood fire to warm us. We recorded our rehearsals, and certain spontaneous things we did jumped out during playback as elements worth keeping. For instance the mandolin "hook" that starts and ends Don't Ask Me Why. One of the many things I love about this band is the use of instrumental themes that are not the sung melody. It's an aspect of popular music from all over the world that has been underused in the bluegrass field. When it happens it just jumps out at you. Think of Jimmy Martin's Ocean of Diamonds or Hold What You Got. It's long been part of Peter's music (think of the opening bars of Land Of The Navajo, Panama Red, or Midnight Moonlight). When I joined the band I just started composing hooks and themes. It was a natural response to Peter's new songs.

Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band

The Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band. L-R: Keith Little, Jody Stecher, Peter Rowan, Paul Knight.

Mandolin Cafe: You would have been about 19 years old when Peter Rowan joined Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys. Did you ever have the opportunity to see that version of the band live or to be influenced by their recordings?

Jody Stecher: I didn't hear the recordings till many years later. I was more influenced by Monroe's earlier recordings at that time. But I saw that band many times with some variation in the lineup and I was of course affected and influenced each time I heard Monroe play live. As for Peter's music influencing mine, that happened later. Peter had a strong but limited role in that band. It seemed to me that he had to restrain himself to be a Bluegrass Boy. I think he did this willingly. You know, he was learning the ropes. On the job training. But still he was full of his own volcanic musical energy. You could feel it bubbling. After several years in that band it's easy to see why he'd break away and spread his wings. But now he's taken all that Monrovian advice and experience and used it to ground and inform the kind of bluegrass that PRBB is making.

One influence he's had on me is in changing meters mid-phrase during instrumental solos or in backup to singing. I'd been doing a similar thing for years but Peter has his own special version of this. At first I would find myself doing new rhythmic phrasing in my solos and not know where I got the ideas. Then I heard the playback of a recording of a show we did and there was Peter telegraphing these ideas in his rhythm guitar playing a few minutes before they came out of my mandolin.

Another influence is as a song maker. He's shown again and again how to craft new songs that are an extension of old tradition. Also, I've taken inspiration from his process. In the beginning of making a song he has no filter, critic or judge. He just lets it all come through even if some parts seem to make little apparent sense. But later he chips away the dross and the gemstone remains. The gem would have been discarded along with the dirt had the first impulse been discarded as rubble babble. Now there's a good title for a mandolin tune: Rubble Babble Breakdown. I believe I wrote that number!

Sometimes in my own writing or arranging I'll let something remain whose meaning is not clear if it sings well. Hanging with Peter has reinforced that. Sometimes we do one of Peter's songs called Skyscraper. It starts: "Skyscraper, Skyscraper, there's a hole in your sky." What does that mean? No one knows. The phrase presented itself long ago in the Alaska wilderness. But a writer and a listener will know if a song is true even it can't be said what it means in any other words but the song lyric itself.

Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band - Catfish Blues

The Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band with Avram Siegel on banjo subbing for Keith Little performing Catfish Blues at Dead on the Creek 2010 Festival.

Mandolin Cafe: This is a bluegrass recording but we're hearing a fair amount of early country blues and pre-bluegrass influence that suits your background and musical interests. But those are our words. How would you describe this project to someone that had not yet heard it?

Jody Stecher: Good repertoire. The songs are about family and relationships, parents and children, about love familial, romantic, love conjugal and comical, and love divine and universal. This CD ought to answer the complaints that bluegrass songs rarely touch on subjects relevant to life in the 21st century. The recording presents a band with a unique sound and a unified aesthetic. The playing and singing is decidedly personal. The vocal blend is superb and the harmonies are sometimes surprising. Only a band of individuals well-steeped in classic bluegrass could have made this recording, but this is new music. That's what the original bluegrass music was. It was a root steeped music for and by young people or older people with young flexible minds. This is a recording of a bluegrass band playing a version of bluegrass music that reflects the original influences that made bluegrass bluegrass. Country blues and real rural country music were a stronger presence in early bluegrass bands than they have typically been in last few decades. But I'll tell you, I just got back from a week teaching and playing at RockyGrass and I met and picked for hours with some very skilled young bluegrass musicians whose ears are wide open to the past, future, and sideways, so I think the future of bluegrass is brighter than it was a decade ago. On stage with the band I looked out at the audience and was so happy to see so many rapt young faces in the front row, and that it seemed they really responded to our music.

Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band

The Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band at a concert for the Redwood Bluegrass Associates, December 5, 2009, Palo Alto, California. Photo credit: Peter Thompson.

Mandolin Cafe: We're interesting in the ancient sounding instrumental Lord Hamilton's Yearling and venture it might be a traditional tune and/or one you introduced to the group. What is the source of that piece?

Jody Stecher: I wrote it and brought it to the band. That's the simple answer. The full answer is more interesting. How much time do you have? OK, I'll tell you the whole story. Last year the band played a gig with Tony Rice in Lexington, Kentucky, and afterward Peter, Keith and I spent the night at the Bourbon County home of an old buddy of Peter's named Arthur Hancock. Arthur is a bluegrass musician and a songwriter but is probably best known for raising outstanding thoroughbred race horses. At least one has won the Kentucky Derby. Next day Arthur took us to an auction of thoroughbred yearlings. A yearling is just about full size but may not yet have been saddled or bridled and has a puppy's personality in a huge powerful body.

I was seated at the auction and these young horses are going for some very high prices, depending on their prospects and genealogy. There was an old-time auctioneer who was so classic and perfect I called Kate on my cell phone just so she could hear his fabulous music. The guys working the floor are skilled at detecting subtle gestures intended as a bid. I was sitting on my hands and didn't dare even scratch my nose. Well, this one yearling goes for five figures and they bring the paperwork to Peter... who turns pale. Then the whole place erupts in laughter, everyone working the auction, the auctioneer, the grooms, the guys working the aisles, probably the horse is laughing too. Especially the other breeders, the folks from other stables, they're laughing the hardest. They had set this scam up in advance as payback for having been taken in by Peter and Arthur six months earlier. Peter, whose middle name is Hamilton, had been been visiting Arthur who decided to pass off Peter as a Scottish nobleman named Lord Hamilton who owned a big castle on an island and whose hobby was buying expensive race horses. Visits to stables ensued. Conversation and possibly libation followed. Eventually they found out they had been "had" by Arthur and a songwriter from Massachusetts. To me the best part of the story is that they considered this joke on them to be a fine thing, something to be admired. And the artfulness of their harmless "revenge" is a credit to their sensibilities. So I named the tune to commemorate this event.

So much for the title. The composing of the tune has its own story.

I wrote the tune about 10 years ago at a Canadian bluegrass camp where I was teaching mandolin. The electric power had gone out and except for the stars it was pitch black. I was sitting outside my cabin staring up at a gorgeous starry midnight sky with my mandolin in my hands. I had been teaching my class about how Bill Monroe described an aspect of his style as "cutting corners." That's where he'd play arpeggios with several plectrum strokes per note in the same spots where his fiddlers would play a new note with each bow stroke. I was trying to make a point that this musical technique could be applied to a variety of melody types. So I came up with something on the "Celtic" side, it could be a reel or Monroe "number." By the time I was done I was imagining the tune being played by the popular pop-folk band Altan, from Donegal. I kept and played the tune for years and never had a good title for it until I attended the yearling auction in Kentucky. I had brought the tune to the band and everyone liked it but it still had no name. It had some rhythms that suggested a horse happily running and I thought "well, there's a good reel from North Carolina called Lady Hamilton. Suppose I call my tune Lord Hamilton." I think it was Peter who suggested Lord Hamilton's Yearling and I decided that was an even better title.

Tim O'Brien did a great job sitting in on fiddle on the recording. After the session he sent me an email message which might shed some light on some of the musical aspects of the tune:

"That Lord Hamilton's Yearling. Very Monroe-like. I like how the third part plays A7 against D in the second half of the C part. I played a bunch of mando on a CD for Scottish piper Fred Morrison, and it was cool how the pipe licks played on mando sounded like Bill, like that thing where you play eight notes over two pitches and it switches to the second pitch after the first eighth note. You do it all over this tune."

Jody Stecher

Jody Stecher at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley, California, January, 2009. Jody's notes: the mandola is something I won on an eBay auction. It was made in Vietnam and is quite big. It has a scale length of 18.5 inches so I can't use standard mandola strings, I have to go a bit lighter. It's gaudy as all get-out but has a beautiful tone and is louder than most mandolas.

Mandolin Cafe: Tell us about your Stan Miller (Bellingham, Washington) A model mandolin with F holes. This has been your main mandolin for some time now, and it either has the world's smallest pickguard or has had some kind of repair on the treble side near the end of the fretboard.

Jody Stecher: I bought the mandolin new in 1984 from Stan and loved it from day one. It's a little more liquid sounding than most carved top mandos and I can get it to sound almost like a fiddle at times. It's got a great chop and an unusual sweetness to it as well. Most microphones love it. When I got off stage at Rocky Grass last week I was approached by a member of Patty Loveless' band who were scheduled to play next. He said it was the best sounding tear-drop F-hole mandolin he'd ever heard and that it came over the sound system so well. I've gotten many such comments over the years but I'll never get bored with them nor with this mandolin. It's a special instrument.

It's been re-fretted several times. It was made with a flat fingerboard but the neck and board were just a bit small for my hand so I had Paul Hostetter alter it with a bit of radius and that gives me more room. I have a few other mandolins with flat boards which I play with no problem. I try to get many sounds from a mandolin and one way to do that is to pick nearer or further from the bridge according to what timbre I want at a certain moment. After many years of hard playing I had worn away first the finish and then a good deal of the wood of the top in two places: directly below the strings between the bridge and fingerboard, and near the end of the fretboard on the treble side, as you say. I had to do something or I'd dig through to China and have some unwanted holes in the mandolin top. Paul was able to fill in the wood and replicate the finish below the strings and that area is now covered with thin clear plastic. The part near the neck was deeply gouged and Paul filled that in with a piece of salvaged pickguard from a broken antique lauto (a large double strung Greek instrument).

Return - Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin, from 2010. Click to purchase. Return - Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin, from 2010. Click to purchase.

Mandolin Cafe: Return, your newest project with Kate Brislin has been out just a few months and includes some marvelous vocal work and a couple of really nice sets of mandolin instrumentals. Ten years between recording projects sounds like a story.

Jody Stecher: When the world of recording went digital I pretty much lost interest. All the joy had gone out of the recording process. Analog recording on wide tape at 30 ips, a great sounding console and pre-amp, and an engineer who is a wizard with a razor blade for editing tape, that was the world of recording as I knew it. Early digital sounded edgy and harsh and engineers got headaches from it. I've done my share of recording production and got good enough at it to win some Indy awards and to have twice been a Grammy finalist. I loved the whole process and used to think nothing of putting in 14 straight hours in the studio, but now 5 hours would go by and I'd be wrung out and so was the engineer. I didn't enjoy listening to CDs at home either. I preferred my LPs and even home made cassettes.

Meanwhile Kate had wearied of "the road." She really likes it at home. So we first cut back our touring by ceasing to solicit gigs. We'd only do shows where the presenter contacted us and really wanted us. Then we quit touring entirely and Kate got happier and happier.

Since performance venues are the main place where CDs are sold and I didn't want to be in the studio and Kate didn't want to tour, the idea of a new CD had little appeal and little hope for success.

But then the world began to change and so did we. Digital sound dramatically improved. The tools to make one's own CD without going through a record company became more accessible. And we had continued to make music at home and to play the occasional local gig as well. One day Kate said to me that we had so many good songs that we had not recorded and that we should really record them while we still have our voices. You know when you age sometimes the voice is not as reliable as it had once been but so far we've been OK. So that's how we got back into the studio and I'm so glad we did because positive response to Return has been overwhelming. It's been a great experience doing it all ourselves and starting up our website. We've got most of our recordings available there, recordings spanning 4 decades.

Each song and tune on Return has a story and personal associations so for us the repertoire is more than "material." The traditional songs and tunes and the three songs by known writers (Hazel Dickens, Utah Phillips and Lal Waterson) each recalls for us the person from whom we first heard it and the circumstances when we first heard and then learned it. And after learning and living with (and living in) the songs, we refashioned parts of them and made our own settings and arrangements so we've put ourselves into the way we sing and play them.

I learned The Rainy Day from playing it a bunch of times with Melvin Wine, a fine old-time fiddler from Central West Virginia. He had a huge repertoire and he described this one as being "Arsh" (Irish). I think he was right. He'd ask me to play mandolin along with his fiddle so I guess he liked how I played. I'd watch his bowing and listen hard and try to get some of the same feel. But you can't always replicate bowing with a plectrum so over time The Rainy Day became a mandolin tune for me. When I play this tune I remember Melvin sitting on this crazy bouncy contraption he had—he was well over 80 at the time—which was part pogo stick and part bicycle seat and part fence post. He'd sit on the seat which was attached to a pole which may have had a rubber tip, I'm a bit fuzzy on this point as it was over 20 years ago, and he'd gather a crowd around him and be facing one side of the circle of which he was the center. Suddenly, mid-tune he'd flip around and he'd be facing some other folks who had just been seeing his back moments before.

Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning makes me think of Mississippi Fred McDowell even though our version is closer to how Blind Willie Johnson did it than Fred's way, which tended to be slower. That's because I play it with a slide (on guitar, not mandolin) and I first learned to play that way (using a socket wrench) during a week with Fred in 1965. I walked in the room where he was playing and he looked up and said "Where's your gi-tar, man?" I told him where and he said "well go get it." I spent the next week playing along with Fred with me tuned standard and using fingertips while Fred used a bottle neck while tuned to an open chord. He called his tunings Vestapol and Spanish after the 19th century popular solo guitar pieces Sebastapol and Spanish Fandango. So every time I play Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning there's a bit of me that's still 19 years old and hanging on to the side of a human freight train that was named Fred McDowell.

Old Calloused Hands has special significance because Hazel Dickens asked us to learn it and sing it on the mall at the Capitol on July 4th weekend of 1995 at an event that honored her and presented many of her songs sung by a number of bands and singers. We've changed how we do it since then especially when we found out Hazel had written it about her own sister. And so it goes. I wrote a bit about each one in the liner notes.

Perfect Strangers

Perfect Strangers. L-R: Jody Stecher, Chris Brashear, Peter McLaughlin, Forrest Rose, Bob Black. Photo credit: Betsy Krause, taken March 18, 2005 in Tucson, Arizona. Jody's notes: Forrest Rose passed away the day after this photo was taken after a gig near Phoenix, Arizona. I wrote a song about it: Five Rode Up To Phoenix.

Five rode up to Phoenix
Five rode up to play
Five rode up to Phoenix
But four rode down next day

That's the chorus. I intend to record the complete tune on a project of all-original material in the near future.

Mandolin Cafe: You speak passionately about composition. Tell us about that process and how you approach a new piece of music.

Jody Stecher: Some start with a germ of an idea and expand from there. An idea will seem to come out of nowhere. At first I may not even be sure of the meter. It's sort of a charged blob. I'll just work it several ways and see what it wants to do. Other composition or arrangement ideas come while walking. Something about being in motion seems to inspire the composition process. This happens mentally. I hear the music in my imagination. Then there are tunes and songs I have literally dreamed whole. I'll know the key and if it's a song I'll have the words too. I'll wake up and go get my mandolin and run through it in the hopes of not losing it and usually that works.

It seems that most of my compositions, maybe all, are responses to some stimulus. Some of what I consider my most successful tunes were composed with utilitarian purposes but then turn out to have musical merit. Lord Hamilton's Yearling was written to illustrate a point for a mandolin class. Kenny In Kansas City was written back when I was playing mandolin in Perfect Strangers. I was brainstorming with our fiddler Chris Brashear about what repertoire might go on our second album. Rebel Records had released our first CD and we wanted to follow up so we were drawing up repertoire lists and emailing them back and forth. One title that kept cropping up was Kenny In Kansas City. I asked Chris what that was and he said it was a tune he had composed in B flat that represented a musical meeting of Claude Williams and Kenny Baker. It sounded promising and the next time Chris presented a list he had Kenny in Kansas City on it again but this time in E flat. When pressed about the key change it turned out that Chris hadn't actually written the tune yet. Right away, boom, I composed Kenny in Kansas City. I was sitting at my computer having just gotten the email confession that the tune didn't yet exist. Something in my mind clicked and went "oh yes it does, and it's in B flat." I had my mandolin just a few feet away and the entire 4 part tune just emerged whole. The only part I needed to spend a lot of time on was deciding on the chord inversions, the voicing for the chords. Other tunes take literally years to get done.

I've sometimes composed tunes for my private students as a spur or encouragement. Sometimes a student doesn't realize how much progress they've made and I have a higher opinion of their skills than they do. I'll gather the student's strong points as a player and will compose a melody best brought out by techniques the student has mastered. These tend to be intricate sounding show pieces that really shore up a student's confidence. Sometimes I've liked the results so much that a tune I've made for a banjo student (for instance) gets converted to a mandolin version and one for fiddle and guitar too. Other tunes I've made for the purpose of repairing a technical deficit a student may have. Existing tunes may rely heavily on a particular technique and the student feels unequal to the task so I'll make up something that is musically engaging that uses mostly techniques the student has mastered but just has just enough of the new technique to not be intimidating.

I've also made two tunes out of emotionally charged melodic fragments that came from the students themselves. A few years ago within a few months of each other one student had just lost a brother and another had just learned that day that a close friend had been killed in a motorcycle accident. Each came to their lesson but neither was in a state to learn something new so I asked them to express their feelings on their instruments with no thought of being musically correct. Extraordinary melody came out of that. I wove together the strands in a coherent way and added parts of my own and created something that would be playable by anyone, not just the grieving sister or friend. I've been playing and listening to traditional Scottish music for a long time now and the Scots have a venerable tradition of composing laments for the dead and I was struck by how these spontaneous laments closely resembled these old compositions.

Mandolin Cafe: Would we be correct assuming you have a fairly large body of music you've composed that has yet to be heard? Any long-term plans to document that?

Stay Awhile - Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin, from 1995. Click to purchase. Stay Awhile - Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin, from 1995. Click to purchase.

Jody Stecher: Well, I have several dozen songs and tunes that are polished and ready to go. More than enough for a CD of original music. I'm planning to record these within the year. At least I hope so.

I've had good response to my original songs and tunes, especially from other players. That may not bode well for sales but it sure makes me feel good. Some of my originals made their debut appearance at the Mandolin Symposium in Santa Cruz this past June and I no sooner got off stage when I was approached by students requesting transcriptions. That was a pleasant surprise. The best part was that not everyone wanted the same tune. I guess my most well known song is Seventeen Cents. I used to do it with Perfect Strangers in a Buck Owens style. The Infamous String Dusters recorded it recently with guest vocals by Dierks Bentley and the Lynn Morris Band recorded it 10 years ago. Of course the version I like best is the one I did with Kate in 1995 on the CD Stay Awhile, but I do enjoy seeing how it's made of flexible musical parts that won't shatter when bent.

Mandolin Cafe: We see your name at instrument camps teaching various acoustic music styles. What kind of skills would you be looking to present to your students?

The New York City Ramblers

The New York Ramblers, 1965. L-R: Jody Stecher, Sandy Rothman, David Grisman, Fred Weisz, Winnie Winston. Jody's notes: normally we had Gene Lowinger playing fiddle but he was with Bill Monroe at this time. Sandy was in the band for this occasion, a set at the very first bluegrass festival. It was put on my Carlton Haney in September, 1965 at Cantrell's Horse Farm near Fincastle and Roanoke Virginia. Photo credit: Ron Petronko.

Jody Stecher: Ideally I'd like to be able to help them find their way to whatever it is that will make them more complete musicians. And I like to teach practical things. I used to stress musicality but as I get older I've come to think that it's a bit cruel (though not intentionally) to ask a student to play expressively before that student has acquired the *means* to be expressive, before they have sufficient technique and experience. I do stress musical things as well. Timing, clarity of phrasing, tone, on giving one's playing a vocal quality at times, and also I stress learning good versions of the old tunes, rather than the latest watered-down pale shadow-of-its former self version. But mostly I'll give the student practical ways of achieving these things. There are still novice musicians of the old school who need only to be exposed to good playing and they are off and running and they go and work it out for themselves. But these folk are rarely music campers. They are at home busy working it out for themselves. So if I find that type, that's great, but I try to meet the students where they are, and take them as they are.

Last week after a week teaching at Rocky Grass Academy I was playing on stage in an impromptu band consisting of Peter and me, Wyatt Rice and the Traveling McCourys, all of whom had been teaching that week. On one of the uptempo songs Ronnie McCoury and I took a double mandolin break in harmony. We started with steady down-up picking in rapid 4s with single tones in harmony, then moved to each playing harmonized double stops and then ended up arpeggiating everything in a staggered off-beat rhythm, still in harmony. I won't say we pulled it off perfectly but it had verve and it would be hard to say who responded to whom. As we backed off the mic Ronnie said to me, "you can't teach THAT," and we both laughed.

And he was right: some things can be taught in a class and others have to be learned by doing them, learned through experience and by spending time in the company of excellent musicians, so I've tried to improve the clarity of my communication of what *can* be taught in a class. I focus on getting the hands to work well and to work together, on developing listening skills, and so on. What I teach and even how I teach depends to some extent on who the students are. I always come prepared with a plan but am also prepared to change the plan once I meet with the students. It's hard to teach a group because each individual has different musical assets and deficits. So what I've come up with in recent years is to teach technique by means of repertoire which is different from teaching repertoire by means of technique.

Depending on circumstances I may be able to expose them to some ideas and sounds and ways of music making and to repertoire they may not have heard. And on the mandolin I've come up with some ways of fingering and some right hand movements that maybe no one else does, things that bring out the beauty in old-time melody and in new music as well.

Mandolin Cafe: You've witnessed a lot of changes in the music business in your career. What's your take on today's technology and how it has changed how traditional music is recorded and disseminated?

Our Town - Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin, from 1993. Click to purchase. Our Town - Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin, from 1993. Click to purchase.

Jody Stecher: Years ago I had a talk with (songwriter, fiddler, guitarist) Mark Simos about how recording technology has affected music making. His idea was that at each stage of the history of recorded sound the characteristic sounds the playback of wire recorders, cylinder players, flat discs, 78s, 45s, LPs, magnetic tape, and digital formats were reproduced by musicians who had listened. So for instance, when digital recording and playback came in Mark had noted that all the musicians he knew were playing more cleanly and precisely. He hypothesized a group of musicians somewhere in the world gathered around a Victrola and hearing the flat compressed sound of an early disc and thinking how grand it sounded and from then on all of them would unconsciously suppress their own dynamic range to match the sounds coming out of the horn. He then told me a story he was writing about a man who was building a mechanical contraption that would perfectly replicate the human voice. He labors day and night and he believes he has created a perfect match. But he has failed to notice that over the months and years his own voice has become increasingly metallic and harsh. At the point of 100% correspondence between man and machine the machine exults, "At last, I have succeeded in transforming this human to the perfect replica of my own sonic image." I stayed up most of that night and composed Henry And The True Machine which tells that very story to the tune of an Acadian waltz. Kate and I recorded it in 1993 on our third CD Our Town.

As for recording techniques, I think the sound of new recordings tend to be as good as the ears of the engineer. I don't know that there is any difference between recording trad music or other kinds. I was just listening the other day to some old mono Ella Fitzgerald records and marveling at the sound quality, and especially the bass fiddle. One take, few mics on the band probably, but just perfect. So I guess you need good equipment and an engineer who knows how to use it and a producer who knows how the music is supposed to sound. It seems the same today. One difference though is how the music is processed after it has been recorded. Digital technology allows for editing possibilities that would have been difficult in the past. But still it comes down to the vision and knowledge of the producer and engineer.

Within traditional music including or maybe *especially* within the regions that nurtured varieties of traditional music such as Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, or certain pockets of Appalachia the personal recording device has become part of the process of learning music. First it was reel to reel machines whose very presence created a special occasion. Then cassettes held sway and music could be recorded with little commotion. Now it's teensy digital audio recorders and of course teensy video recorders too. Everyone in these places understands the value of interaction and friendship with older musicians but mechanical (now digital) playback is now part of the transmission.

Then there's the resource of the internet. So much music is available and it grows daily. In order to benefit from these resources of course one has to actually listen to what's there and not too many seem inclined to do so. Not as many as I'd expect. People will say they are too busy practicing to listen. And I'm thinking that musicianship is 90% listening. Well, now I'm sounding like an old grump so I'll desist from hammering any harder.

Additional information:
Purchase Legacy: From amazon.com
Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band
Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin web site
Purchase Jody Stecher & Kate Brislin music: From their web site
Stan Miller Mandolins

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Reader Comments

coletrickle
August 26, 2010 08:39 AM
Hands down one of my favorite musicians, and one of the most important American musicians in the last 50 years. Thanks for doing this interview. Jody does not get the attention he deserves (aside from the folks on this site). "Return" is an outstanding album and I highly recommend to anyone who enjoys traditional music and beautiful vocal harmonies.
evanreilly
August 26, 2010 08:54 AM
Jody:
I remember you from the old CCNY days and have a very fond memory of taking my first mandolin lessons from you.
I know that you are probably the most eclectic musician on the scene, incorporating Indian influences along with old-time and bluegrass in your playing.
After the Yankee boys won the contests at Union Grove, what have some of your most memorable musical moments been?
And what do you feel is your most expressive & satisfying musical production/recording?
AlanN
August 26, 2010 09:18 AM
Jody,

I have a cassette tape of you at a mando workshop from several years ago, in a line on stage with Tony Williamson, Sam Bush, a young Chris Thile, Mike Compton, Tim O'Brien, Jimmy Gaudreau, Emory Lester. When it comes to you, you sing and play a blues (In B). Very soulful, you probably got the biggest hand. Jimmy followed you and someone shouted out Memphis. Jimmy says 'After Jody just played that terrific blues in B? No way.' You surely have the respect and admiration of fellow musicians, across the board.

And for the question: what kind of pick do you use? :-)
Scott Tichenor
August 26, 2010 09:20 AM
As part of the interview, Compass Records granted me a full advance copy of the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band's new CD entitled Legacy. I'd go beyond saying it's a very remarkable project in that I think it's also an *important* recording people need to hear. Few bluegrass bands on the planet have this kind of experience and direct contact with Monroe and early bluegrass and country styles, and it shows. Real privilege to get to do this interview and to be one of the first to hear the full project. Jody was a delight to work with and his enthusiasm for the music is unmistakable.

Hmmm, appears some of you are confusing a real interview that has already been published with a call for questions for an interview.
Al Bergstein
August 26, 2010 09:31 AM
Superb interview with one of the finest singer/songwriters and just plain people, I've had the pleasure to meet, down at the Mandolin Symposium. Thanks for putting the spotlight on someone who deserves a great deal more recognition for his songs and playing.
catmandu2
August 26, 2010 12:25 PM
Just wanted to say thanks Jody! Your earlier albums with Kate inspired me to play some of those banjo tunes and styles. My wife and I enjoy singing those songs together.

BTW, being raised on rock and jazz in Detroit, I wasn't exposed to the Carter Family until late in life, but it was through your music that turned me onto it, and frankly, got me into old-time music in general.
sgarrity
August 26, 2010 09:12 PM
Jody is an amazing mandolin player. He plays with such power and authority. He makes that Miller sound great but he can make any mando sound that way. I got to study with him at the Symposium this year and it was very memorable. I've been looking forward to this cd for a while!!!
grassrootphilosopher
August 27, 2010 03:47 AM
This is a very moving and personal interview. It shows the way that musicians reach out for other people. I admire the width of music that Jody Stecher is able to play. The youtube clip is blues to the core, while the clip from the new CD shows beautiful bluegrass. It is wonderful to receive a much musical and personal input in just this short an interview.

I wish I could go to Didmarton (UK) in about a week. The Didmarton bluegrass festival has the PRBB as headliner.

@ Scott: The questions by Evan and Alan show that there is quite some demand for a follow up interview. I can only support that view.
GRW3
August 27, 2010 08:35 AM
I think these two series "10 Quesions for..." and "The ... Interview" will become the standard reference for mandolin players wanting to understand the instrument and the players. I don't know if this was Scott's plan but it is the result.
Jody Stecher
August 27, 2010 12:50 PM
Thanks everyone for the kind words. It touches me to the heart. I'm leaving for a UK tour with PRBB tomorrow (saturday 28th) and expect to have irregular internet access so there may be a lag between questions and my responses. I'm new to this site so I don't know the ropes at all. I will try to answer one by one but if that doesn't work I'll do it in clumps.
Jody Stecher
August 27, 2010 12:51 PM
OK this is a test reply to see where it goes. Real answer to follow.
Jody Stecher
August 27, 2010 12:58 PM
After the Yankee boys won the contests at Union Grove, what have some of your most memorable musical moments been?

1. After a sarod lesson with ZM Dagar he told some fellow students that I played in tune.

2. There are moments on stage when there is no gap between musician and audience. I forget there are microphones or a stage. All the musicians are attuned to each other and the band and audience attuned to each other and all are attuned to the space (both the venue and the musical space) and everything is effortless. It's certainly memorable when this happens.

And what do you feel is your most expressive & satisfying musical production/recording?

"RETURN" the new one with Kate.
Jody Stecher
August 27, 2010 01:10 PM
I use a variety of picks so I'll be prepared for different sonic situations. It depends on the mic and if I'm on stage or in the studio. In the studio I tend to go lighter, though still pretty heavy. For recording I use whatever makes the least noise on impact. I don't use real pointy picks though a rounded point is ok. Paul Hostetter has made me some great picks from new and old celluloid. One looks like a blue ceramic coffee pot. His wife Robin dubbed another "designer bacon" (the striped pattern suggests that), another looks like a fossilized butterfly. Tortoise shell is illegal so I don't use 19th century tortoise shell re-cycled from antique hairbrushes by a retired English policeman or others from an empty shell found on a beach in Ecuador by the uncle of a Tennessee banjo player and fashioned into picks by an Albino Indian.
AlanN
August 27, 2010 01:28 PM
Fantastic, thanks!
phandolin
August 29, 2010 12:46 PM
I just wanted to second the comment that Legacy is a *must hear* CD. Our band played at Beavergrass in Corvallis last weekend and picked up a copy. It is a beautiful, beautiful album. The band also put on a great show that night. Thank you for your words of wisdom and inspiration Jody, keep up the great work!
Albee Tellone
August 30, 2010 09:09 PM
What a great response to good questions. I was curious about the caption under the photo of the Perfect Strangers that stated how the bassist, Forrest Rose, had died the next night after a gig. I did some surfing and was touched by the story of his interesting short life. I had never heard of him or that band until today. Was that the end of their existence ? I checked their website and it looks like it hasn't been updated since 2005.

Wishing Jody a successful run with Lord Hamilton !
BradKlein
August 31, 2010 04:07 AM
Quote from Jody Stecher: And what do you feel is your most expressive & satisfying musical production/recording?

"RETURN" the new one with Kate. End Quote

I notice that Return is available via emusic, a nice option for those who get their tunes there.
Jody Stecher
September 01, 2010 12:09 AM
Perfect Strangers continued on for a few years with various temporary gig-by-gig bass players including Marshall Wilborn, Laurie Lewis, Mike Bub, and Paul Knight. Eventually Paul became a permanent member and we played a few more years. Then Chris, our fiddler, got a high paying job playing and singing harmony with Kevin Costner, then our booking agent retired, then there were some family things that needed attention amongst the members and Perfect Strangers moved to the back burner. From there it fell behind the stove and I believe it's there yet.


Quote from Albee Tellone: What a great response to good questions. I was curious about the caption under the photo of the Perfect Strangers that stated how the bassist, Forrest Rose, had died the next night after a gig. I did some surfing and was touched by the story of his interesting short life. I had never heard of him or that band until today. Was that the end of their existence ? I checked their website and it looks like it hasn't been updated since 2005.

Wishing Jody a successful run with Lord Hamilton ! End Quote
Jody Stecher
September 01, 2010 12:20 AM
Quote from BradKlein: I notice that Return is available via emusic, a nice option for those who get their tunes there. End Quote

a "nicer" option is from our website jodyandkate.com (links provided on the interview page). Downloads are convenient but it's just not the same sounds. For those who want just the mandolin tunes (the two medleys) then the various download sites might be a good option but again it's not really the same thing as the full sonic range that the CD offers.
JudgeSturdy
October 06, 2010 03:18 PM
I'm enjoying the new albums, but have a question. Do you no longer perform on the fiddle?

Jim
Jody Stecher
October 09, 2010 09:30 PM
Quote from JudgeSturdy: I'm enjoying the new albums, but have a question. Do you no longer perform on the fiddle?

Jim End Quote

I've been playing less fiddle in the last decade for sure. I did teach fiddle at Rocky Grass Academy this past summer. I love fiddle music but find that fiddling is hard on my body. When I really get going I tend to kinda "scrunch up" my body and get all compressed. That doesn't happen with mandolin, guitar or banjo. In my music with Kate we dropped the fiddle about 15 years ago as we found most of our songs went better with me on some other instrument. In Perfect Strangers we went out on the road at first with 2 fiddles so I could twin it up with Chris Brashear but we had so few pieces that used it that we dropped it. In Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band both (banjoist) Keith Little and I are fiddle players but we've got our hands full with just one instrument each. But I do play fiddle for enjoyment and for the enjoyment of others. A few weeks ago the band was out in Paris Kentucky visiting friends and our host had an old fiddle retrieved from an uncle's attic. Peter Rowan is just unbeatable for accompanying fiddle tunes on guitar and I fiddled the old tunes for hours on end without getting too bunched up. Mostly I favor mandolin though because I feel more confident and have more control with a plectrum than I have with a bow. thanks for asking.
coletrickle
October 09, 2010 09:47 PM
Jody, thank you so much for your music. I've always credited David Grisman with turning me onto "acoustic" music and the mandolin when I was in college (eight years ago)...and I've also credited his label for turning me onto your music through the "Going Up On the Mountain Album". But, I always credit you with turning me onto old time music. It has been a backwards progression, from Dawg to bluegrass to old time...and your music has been a big catalyst for this. I'd like to ask you about finding a vocal niche in so many styles. From backing Peter Rowan on his latest album, to blending perfectly with Kate, to your amazing work on "Oh the Wind and Rain." I'm curious how you approach songs vocally. If you're singing an old ballad, do you approach it differently than you would on a more bluegrass oriented tune? Do you shape the music around your voice or do you shape your voice around the spirit and "historical nature" of the song?
fatt-dad
October 09, 2010 10:06 PM
Jody, Great show at the folk festival tonight!

f-d
Richmond, Virginia
MandoNicity
October 09, 2010 10:54 PM
Jody thank you for the wonderful stories and taking the time to tell us. I must confess that I'm not well up on your mandolin work, but rather your fiddle work. You first came to my attention in the early 70's when you were playing with Bromberg, if memory serves me well, it was you and Kenny Kosek doing twin fiddle work with Andy Statman on mandolin. Fantastic band!!! Can you tell us a little bit about your experience with this band? Many thanks for all your musical efforts.

JR
Jody Stecher
October 26, 2010 09:09 PM
Quote from coletrickle:

.. I'd like to ask you about finding a vocal niche in so many styles. From backing Peter Rowan on his latest album, to blending perfectly with Kate, to your amazing work on "Oh the Wind and Rain." I'm curious how you approach songs vocally. If you're singing an old ballad, do you approach it differently than you would on a more bluegrass oriented tune? Do you shape the music around your voice or do you shape your voice around the spirit and "historical nature" of the song? End Quote

Well I think I could demonstrate the answer better than I could write about it. I'll give it a go though. I guess the answer is "all of the above" or "it depends". If I'm singing a ballad there are no other singers or instrumentalist to contend with so the song comes first. So I don't the shape the music around my voice. Ballad singing is solo music. But I have selected the song. I've picked one that I know I can sing. So in that sense I've "edited". In a bluegrass context if I'm singing harmony I have to do it in a way that goes with the other singer(s). If I sing lead I do phrase according to my sensibilities. I guess the best answer is "it's all a matter of balance". Well this all sounds pretty vapid but it's the best I can do this evening! Thanks for asking.
Jody Stecher
October 26, 2010 09:17 PM
To the best of my recollection I never played twin fiddles with Kenny in any context and I only played fiddle with Dave Bromberg as a fiddler sitting in. maybe there were a few times when Jay Unger was fiddling in David's band and maybe once with Brantley Kearns as the official band member. Anyway I was never a member of Dave's band so I have no experiences to recount. We played a lot of music together in the 1960s both on stage and off. Mostly two guitars. We were learning from each other. There was a lot of humor in the music we played and a lot of mutual respect. We were in our late teens you understand.

Quote from MandoNicity: Jody thank you for the wonderful stories and taking the time to tell us. I must confess that I'm not well up on your mandolin work, but rather your fiddle work. You first came to my attention in the early 70's when you were playing with Bromberg, if memory serves me well, it was you and Kenny Kosek doing twin fiddle work with Andy Statman on mandolin. Fantastic band!!! Can you tell us a little bit about your experience with this band? Many thanks for all your musical efforts.

JR End Quote
MandoNicity
October 26, 2010 09:26 PM
Thanks for taking the time to answer. I'm sure my addled brain has jumbled things up. It was after all more then a few years ago. ;)

JR
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