• State of Grace - Finding Your Place with Adam Tanner

    Adam Tanner - A State of Grace

    Feast Here Tonight is a two record compilation, issued by RCA Bluebird in 1975, of the pioneering 1930s duo recordings by Bill and Charlie Monroe. As a teenage Northern California bluegrass geek, Adam Tanner immersed himself in Feast and in Bill Monroe's early sound, chock full of long lines of tremolo, rhythmic stabs of melody and explorations of the chop, which, by 1945, would define the style.

    But it was a live Monroe take, recorded with Doc Watson on April 18, 1964, at Oberlin College, of an original called "Lonesome Moonlight Waltz," that would be a game changer for Tanner, who found, in its minor key groove, the European roots of the instrument — not the familiar Scots Irish fiddle tunes of the southern hills, but the ethereal, off-kilter keen of the Balkans and the trilling Italian origins of the mandolin.

    It's those elements that inform Tanner's new disc, A State of Grace, which also nods to influential works like the ethnic Americana of Andy Statman's Flatbush Waltz and the composed, fully-arranged grace of the undersung Norman Blake-led Original Underground Music from the Mysterious South.

    Tanner, who plays old time fiddle, guitar and mandolin, spent much of the early 90s grinding out loud, politically radical industrial rock with San Francisco's Grotus, before returning to his acoustic roots with a series of bands including Crooked Jades, Twilite Broadcasters and Hunger Mountain Boys.

    He's concentrating on composing and recording these days, the latter at a home studio in Weaverville, North Carolina. The contrapuntal Bach-like beauty of State of Grace, says the Suzuki-trained player, indicates a new direction rather than simply being another project. Tanner, 53, also teaches old time and bluegrass at the Swannanoa Gathering and East Tennessee State University, advocating, much like Statman, learning from the masters verbatim before stretching out on one's own.

    Michael EckAbout the author: Roots scholar and multi-instrumentalist Michael Eck is a respected songwriter; a nationally exhibited painter; and an award-winning cultural critic and freelance writer. He is also a member of Ramblin Jug Stompers, Lost Radio Rounders, Berkshire Ramblers and Good Things.


    From the recording A State of Grace, Adam's "Count Dracula’s Waltz."

    Grotus was quirky and cultish, but quite popular, with records on important labels. How did it happen?

    I played bluegrass in junior high school and got really into Bill Monroe. I slowed down the records, learned the kickoffs, the licks, the solos and all that kind of stuff. As the teenage years came in, I started playing more electric guitar, in rock bands here and there for quite a few years.

    Grotus came from wanting to do something different in the popular music field. Sampling was kind of new then, so a bass player buddy (John Carson) and I formed a band and bought a couple of samplers. We enlisted a singer (Lars Fox) with a real political aesthetic, and we just put together a band out of our imagination, literally, trying not to copy anything. It was right at the time that Nine Inch Nails was coming in, and we just happened to be doing it at the same time.

    Before Grotus, it was the Slimy River Bottom Boys — really?

    Yeah! The other kids thought we were from Mars, because this was Northern California, and a lot of them hadn't even seen a banjo before. We were just playing at recess time, and old folks homes and things like that. I was mainly playing guitar at that point, not mandolin, a classical guitar I borrowed from my mother. I would go over to my banjo-playing buddy Jim Barsochini's house — he had all the Bluegrass Unlimited magazines and was playing Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs and the like.

    I'm looking at those magazines, and thinking, everyone my age is into Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith, but Jim is into these old dudes. Something about it was mysterious and cool. It seemed eternal. I connected with it right away, that these guys has been playing a long time and were dedicated to what they were doing.

    Adam Tanner - A State of Grace

    A State of Grace - Track Listing

    • A State of Grace
    • Vienna 1939
    • The Sisters Burnette
    • Prehistoric
    • Black Cohosh
    • Count Dracula's Waltz
    • Aurelia
    • Trouble On The Mind

    Is there a connection, for you, between past and present, between electronic music and old time?

    Completely. The thing that draws them together is that they're pattern-based music. We were using loops and samples in Grotus, something that would repeat over and over and put you in a little bit of a trance, kind of sweep you away. There's a repetitive, trance-like quality to old-time music, too, though not so much in bluegrass. The fiddle tunes and the mood they sometimes create kind of carries you away in that same fashion.

    In Grotus, we played with sequencers a lot, so our time, our meter, was pretty much driven by that. That was like years of playing with a metronome every night. My timing, once I got back to acoustic music, was excellent. My internal metronome was primed from playing with the sequencers for so long. The groove of old-time music — getting into a pocket with fiddle, banjo, bass and guitar — is the same pocket that you can get into playing electronic music. It's all dance music, so there was a lot of crossover for me. It's just different on the aesthetic points.

    "Lonesome Moonlight Waltz?"

    I was listening to as much bluegrass mandolin as I could, but I was just obsessed with Monroe. I went to a record store in Santa Cruz and found this LP of Doc Watson and Monroe playing together at the Ash Grove and other venues (now available as Off the Record, Vol. 2 from Smithsonian Folkways).

    That was where I found "Lonesome Moonlight Waltz." Something happened when I heard that. I just connected with it in a way that was really, really different than any other country music I had ever heard, because it isn't country music in any sort of normal, predictable way. It doesn't have those kinds of changes. It doesn't have the feel of country music to me at all, and Monroe's using the mandolin in sort of that European thing where it's tremolo all the way through. It's in a minor key. Something about the mood of it, I just thought, is part of a continuum of evocative old music that comes from everywhere, from every culture.

    When I first heard the David Grisman Quintet, and they were doing gypsy stuff, I was like, hey, that's related to "Lonesome Moonlight Waltz." And then, Andy Statman. I heard his music and I thought, well, this guy must have heard that tune, too. Norman Blake, and what he was doing with mandolins — I could hear "Lonesome Moonlight Waltz" in some of his stuff. I felt that this was, perhaps, a sub-genre of traditional music that had yet to be defined.

    It seems that at ETSU, at least on the old-time side, you are taking a sort of Mike Seeger approach to lessons and band coaching.

    I'm glad you mentioned Seeger, because of all the people in old-time music — as far as how to approach learning and playing it — I feel like what he did is exactly what I do. It goes back to: why is this so good? You have to start with trying to figure out what makes it tick, what makes it work. Then, your filter and your experience will come through.

    When I listen to fiddle tunes, I'm listening to more than just the melody. I listen to how it's being executed. I'm trying to figure out the fingers being used for the chords. I'm trying to figure out what the bowing pattern might be. I'm trying to figure out why a certain passage of the tune has a very peculiar feel that I can't seem to get. I have to listen to that over and over again until I can capture and internalize that rhythm.


    Adam with the Mossy Bluegrass Band at a recent ETSU performance playing the Jim and Jesse instrumental "Fireball."

    As a multi-instrumentalist, you've written about how to translate bowing to picking...

    Again, it goes back to Monroe. His left-hand position is just like a fiddle player, and his use of the third finger and pinky is just like a fiddle player. A lot of modern players sort of approach the mandolin like a guitar, but Monroe was definitely trying to play fiddle on there.

    And it wasn't just bluegrass fiddle. He was trying to play old-time fiddle on the mandolin. There are a lot of examples when he's taking a break and there's a sort of shuffle or syncopation going with his right hand. Monroe has this reputation for holding his pick tight and making abrasive sounds on the mandolin, but if you closely listen to live recordings of him at workshops and things like that, you can tell he's holding that pick really loose so his hand could move like someone's bow hand.

    Because of how he's holding the pick, he can get the same kind of syncopations that a fiddler can get. "Soldier's Joy?" Man, that's just old-time fiddling, exactly. There's no mandolin in there to me. "Fire on the Mountain," same thing. There's certain pieces he plays where it's like, wow, he's left the mandolin behind. He's playing the fiddle, basically.

    Do you have any advice, from your book, The Shuffle of the Pick, for somebody trying to adapt that feel?
    The Shuffle of the Pick
    You want to break things down in rhythmic phrases. A lot of mandolin players get so obsessed with melody that they don't really think about rhythmic punctuation. But the synchronization of your left and right hand is paramount. If you a break fiddle tune down into complete sentences, from just little phrases, you're thinking about more information than just the melody. You're thinking about the lilt.

    Every tune has its own heartbeat. And some tunes are so complex that each phrase has its own pulse to it. It's just about trying to take in more information when you're learning, rather than just saying, okay, I've got the melody.

    The other thing is thinking about playing chords rather than playing melodies, because that's what old-time fiddlers do. Bluegrass fiddlers to a good extent, and Cajun fiddlers, too, get a core position going.

    Then it's taking your pick and carving out little sub-rhythms while your left hand is playing a G chord. How many sub-rhythms can you pull out of just that one chord position with your right hand? That would be a good exercise.

    You love Monroe's tremolo...

    There's a dynamic within each little phrase of tremolo. It's not a constant sound. It usually starts quiet and slow and gets louder and gets faster. To me, that's the secret to good tremolo. Each little unit has rests. That's important. There is phrasing in there. Monroe was really great at that. It sounds continuous, but when you listen closely, it's phrased out pretty nice. It kind of plays tricks on you, because it sounds unbroken on casual listening. It doesn't sound like you're hearing any pauses, but there's very clever, subtle phrasing going on.

    The idea is not to approach tremolo like it's a machine gun, like you're just railing out a bunch of notes that are the same length and the same volume. You have to get away from that.

    Another part of the dynamic is to plan it out. It's kind of hard to improvise using tremolo in that machine gun way. If I'm working on breaks for a band situation, I'm usually playing a good bit of it at home before I get up on stage and do it. I'll just mess around with the melody, but I always practice how to get in and out of tremolo. I almost never improvise that.

    As a teacher, what's your best technique tip?

    The most valuable thing I've learned recently is that volume is overrated — the idea of being loud, having a loud instrument, being a loud player. If you're playing with people and constantly having to push to play loud — it doesn't matter what instrument — you'll never meet your potential. You won't. You can't. You don't have time to think about other things when you're in battle. And that's what a lot of music can be in acoustic settings. If you're really serious about your music, just don't play with people who don't listen. I think if more people were aware of this, music would improve in every way, even on a casual level.


    L-R: John Carson, Lars Fox, Adam Tanner, Bruce Boyd.

    Grotus, an experimental, politically charged rock band from San Francisco, active from 1989 to 1996. Their unique sound incorporated industrial rock, sampled ethnic instruments, two drummers, two bassists, and angry but humorous lyrics. Their shows included large projected videos sequenced with the songs, and could almost qualify as performance art, with the singer channeling any number of hideous figures involved in the subjects of the songs. Many of the songs dealt with anger at environmental collapse, but from a cartoonish angle. Source: Wikipedia



    On State of Grace, Tanner plays a number of early Gibsons, all strung with D'Addario strings, including a 1915 A1, a 1928 H4 mandola, a 1921 K1 mandocello and his mainstay, a trusty 1928 F4, which has been tweaked with Alessi tuners; a new, scooped fingerboard; and replacement tailpiece, making it, as he says, "a vintage instrument dealer's worst nightmare." Tanner also plays a 2010 Gail Hester F5, of which he hails, "It's got the Loar thing going on, man."

    "For loud gigs," Tanner uses a Shure SM57, "for more intimate gigs," a Shure SM81.

    Tanner notes that on the new album, fellow eight-stringer Lee Bidgood plays the only known snakehead Gibson mandola — a donation to ETSU, which, following a Dave Harvey set up, "has incredible depth and rings like crazy."

    Additional Information

    Comments 8 Comments
    1. David Lewis's Avatar
      David Lewis -
      Another terrific interview. I have 'The Shuffle of the Pick' which I've been working through. It's an excellent collection. I'll check out State of Grace

      Also the notion of 'loud' is, I agree, overrated. In going for 'loud', we often forget 'good'...
    1. William Smith's Avatar
      William Smith -
      The only snake head mandola has one of my original 20's tailpiece assemblies on it! I sent to David for something else-so that's Kool!
    1. mrmando's Avatar
      mrmando -
      Completely skips over Adam's Seattle period ...
    1. Andy Hatfield's Avatar
      Andy Hatfield -
      This is one of the most gorgeous pieces of music I've ever heard. Wow!
    1. Skip Kelley's Avatar
      Skip Kelley -
      That is one cool waltz!
    1. luthier88's Avatar
      luthier88 -
      Quote Originally Posted by mrmando View Post
      Completely skips over Adam's Seattle period ...
      perhaps that is what Adam wants...
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Noting the anniversary of this feature published this date 2018.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Noting the anniversary of this feature interview.