• Joe K. Walsh - Borderland Interview

    Joe K. Walsh - Borderland

    Portland, Maine — Joe K. Walsh has announced the release of his newest solo project entitled Borderland, a collection of bluegrass flavored original compositions featuring Joe's singing and mandolin/mandola playing.

    Always a favorite at the Mandolin Cafe, we caught up with Joe with a few questions about the new project and what he's up to musically now that the summer touring season has ended. As a bonus, he shared a marvelous track from the album featuring his mandola playing.

    The new album is an interesting twist: original compositions, traditional bluegrass influence, but mandola sprinkled throughout which adds a rich luster to the songs.

    Mandola! yeah, it's got a connection to a different end of the emotional spectrum that really works for some tunes.

    Cumberland Gap

    From Borderland, Joe's version of "Cumberland Gap."

    I've been making myself write for a while now, and it sure feels important. When I was playing with the Gibson Brothers, they always said something to the effect of "the only reason (they) were doing so well is that (they) have their own distinct repertoire and sound, largely from writing." That doesn't give their vocal blend or stage banter nearly enough credit, but I took that lesson to heart and made a commitment to writing and embracing my musical choices.

    I've always dug the challenge of trying to find something new to say with the familiar ingredients, and I really delight in melodies that use the same two or three chords and seven notes in ways that still manage to surprise and move. That's what I aspire to in my own writing and playing, usually. I wrote or co-wrote all but "Cumberland Gap" and "There But For Fortune." Two of the tracks, "Innisfree" and "The Stream" are poems I set to music, Yeats and Henry Timrod, respectively.

    I've been writing a bunch and just letting the melodies end up wherever they led, as opposed to writing for a specific project and with a specific sound in mind. Some of the pieces I've written in the last couple of years have made sense as repertoire for Mr Sun, while some felt like less of an obvious fit for that band, and over time I've ended up with a good bunch of tunes that didn't seem to fall underneath the Mr Sun umbrella. Mr Sun certainly owes a huge debt in part to the bluegrass sound, and takes a lot of inspiration from elements of the trad world, but it is also a band that's inclined towards making some choices that send the music off in other directions. I love that band, and that aspect of the band's personality. As it became clear that it was time to make another solo record, though, it struck me that I wanted to make something that complemented and contrasted with the Mr Sun sound, as opposed to arising from it.

    Mike Kemnitzer built a new Nugget A model for you awhile back. Is it on this recording or are we hearing the Gilchrist A model that served you so well for so long? And tell us about the mandola.

    It is the black Gilchrist on this record. The new Nugget arrived just after we'd wrapped up mastering. At this point I'm infatuated with the instrument but wanted to give it a while to break in before tracking with it. I did cut a couple of tracks with the Nugget later this winter on another record, and will have some time in the studio with it this fall for a friend's record. I'm excited to see what differences we might be able to hear.

    The mandola! Lawrence Smart made it, and I can't say enough good things about it. The mandolas he builds are as convincing an argument as I can think of for finding space and purpose for the mandola in the regular rotation, musically. I dig the idea of mandola playing: there are so fewer examples of mandola playing than mandolin playing, and so much less expectation of what it ought to sound like, that it forces you to have to try things out and come to your own conclusions of what's working and what's not.

    Will their be a tour with the musicians on the recording in support of the project?

    There are tours through much of the Fall, some of which will feature some of the players from the record, and some of which will feature other ringers from the pool of folks I get to play with. The timing of releasing a record that features Brittany just as she's joining the house band at A Prairie Home Companion makes it tough to get her on the road now, but I'll have both Courtney Hartman and Karl Doty on hand for a good bunch of the gigs, and Bruce Molsky will join for the Boston CD release at the end of November. Fiddler John Mailander, who many folks know from his work with Molly Tuttle and Tony Trischka, join me for all the dates this fall. Two of my favorite players from the Northeast, flatpicker Lincoln Meyers and bass player Steve Roy, will be joining for a lot of the dates, too, as will bass player Brittany Karlson.

    Good things keep coming from you via Peghead Nation. Any hints on new material you'll be presenting in the future?

    In the last few months, and some of the coming months, I've been focusing on modern classics of the mandolin world, including many of the tunes I cut my teeth on, and some newer ones that are heavily inspiring and interesting.

    I recently taught John Reischman's ubiquitous "Salt Spring," Sam Bush's epic arrangement of "Brilliancy," and David Grisman's "Dawg's Waltz," and tossed in Chris Thile's solo mandolin piece "Jessamyn's Reel."

    Coming down the line we'll have a pair of fun tunes in A from the pens of Matt Flinner and Mike Marshall, "Black's Fork" and "Scotch & Swing," respectively. I've also got a couple of lessons coming up teaching two other friendly, fun modern fiddle tunes, Grisman's classic twin tune "Telluride" and Scott Nygaard's slippery tune "Where to Now."

    The Stream is Flowing from the West

    Joe K. Walsh and Grant Gordy perform from Borderland, "The Stream is Flowing from the West," in the Peghead Nation Studios. Note from Joe: "The song on this video is a poem I set to music, not just a song I wrote. Credit is Timrod/Walsh, Henry Timrod being the poet from the civil war Dylan might have drawn inspiration from.


    You're still teaching and holding down other responsibilities at Berklee College of Music on a part-time basis. What's new at the school you could catch us up on?

    There's a potent creative scene going on, with some great players making some great new music and finding their own unique, exciting voices on the mandolin. In particular Jake Howard (and his various collaborations, including a duet with Carolyn Kendrick and his acoustic trio Wrong is Right) is a great creative young player to keep an eye on, if you're not already. Ethan Setiawan is writing and playing some amazing stuff, and is gearing up to make a record that I think will be great, and will make that case for the mandolin in some musical settings it's not often heard in.

    The Musicians

    • Courtney Hartman on guitar and vocals
    • Brittany Haas on fiddle
    • Karl Doty on bass
    • Gabe Hirshfeld on banjo on tracks #2 & #3
    • Bruce Molsky on harmony vocals, fiddle ("Pogo Big" and "Pine Tree Waltz"), guitar (on "Innisfree" and the "Bee-loud Glade"), and banjo on the last track. Bruce was also the producer.


    • Red Skies
    • Never More Will Roam
    • Cumberland Gap
    • Pine Tree Waltz
    • The Berry's Walk Out
    • Innisfree
    • The Bee-Loud Glade
    • There But For Fortune
    • Pogo Big
    • The Stream
    • Closer

    Additional Information

    Comments 8 Comments
    1. lukmanohnz's Avatar
      lukmanohnz -
      Great interview of a great player! I just received my copy of Joe's new CD in the mail yesterday and have listened all the way through and am on my second pass now. It's a gorgeous recording, a great follow-up to Sweet Loam. If you liked that album you will like this one too! Every single tune is a winner.
    1. lenf12's Avatar
      lenf12 -
      I downloaded the new CD from the band camp website after listening to the Peghead Nation "The Stream Flows West" duet that Joe and Grant play. I loved the sound of this mandola and guitar duet so much I had to try learning it. Joe's vocals are so incredibly soulful...Great album!!!

      Len B.
      Clearwater, FL
    1. Gan Ainm's Avatar
      Gan Ainm -
      Just saw Joe and wonderful band in Charlotteesville Va. Wonderfully musical and virtuosic show. Joe uses the mando, mandola and OM in many different ways and his band is a match. Great songwriting. Reminds me of the quality and vibe of recent Sierra Hull show. Don't miss.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Noting the anniversary of this interview from this date 2016.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Noting today's anniversary of this feature interview.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Noting today's anniversary of this feature interview.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Nothing the anniversary of this feature interview.
    1. DavidA39's Avatar
      DavidA39 -
      Joe is one of my favorite Mandolin Players. His technique is so good he never sounds rushed no matter what tempo he’s playing. After listening to every player I can, he’s the one I think, that’s what I want to sound like.