• Everything That Brought Me Here - Checking in with Greencards Founder Kym Warner

    Kym Warner

    It's been an unusual spring in central Texas. The bluebonnets came early and the clubs closed down. Mandolinist Kym Warner has had time to contemplate, in the literal and figurative senses of that phrase — meaning he's had the hours to fill and the opportunity to think.

    Between work with Robert Earl Keen's touring band and a full plate of local bluegrass pickup gigs, the Australian expatriate was looking at a packed calendar. Instead, he's hunkered down in Austin with his wife, Greencards co-founder Carol Young, and their dog, Bentley. As Warner noted in a recent Mandolin Cafe roundup of musicians sharing their pandemic experiences—he's kept busy by writing originals, arranging covers, sussing out gear and doing some remote recording.

    He's also been offering the occasional livestream, a digital riff on the instrumental Acoustic World Tour format he's been developing as an outlet for solo performance. On his own, jumping from a Collings mandolin (he favors A-styles, like fellow boundary breaker Tim O'Brien) to a Bowerman bouzouki to a Mya-Moe tenor ukulele, Warner will veer from Fleetwood Mac to The Carter Family, and from Iron Maiden to Dexy's Midnight Runners, with pause for something inspired by his secret hero, Argentine film composer Gustavo Santaolalla.

    Fed on bluegrass as a child, Warner never felt beholden to any single genre and his intrepid musicality, if it wasn't already evident in the eclectic roots mélange of the Greencards, was on full display with his 2015 solo debut Everything That Brought Me Here. Perhaps with all the time at home, a follow up is in the works.

    Warner met Keen, whose lyricism, wit and unerring sense of melody have made him a bright star in the Texas pantheon, pre-Greencards. Alongside bassist Young, Warner was touring with fellow Aussie country rocker Kasey Chambers, who was opening dates for the Houston songwriter. Warner joined the latter's band full time five years ago, following sessions with the likes of Danny Barnes, Sara Watkins and Peter Rowan on Keen's all-star bluegrass album, Happy Prisoner.

    On leaving Sydney, Warner and Young landed on American shores 20 years ago, forming The Greencards with English fiddler Eamon McLoughlin after convincing a local Irish pub owner they were already a well-established bluegrass band. Over a decade, beginning with 2003's Movin' On, The Greencards — inspired equally by Newgrass Revival and Merle Haggard — released six albums, becoming staples on the festival and listening room circuits.

    At age 10, Warner began classical violin lessons, but it didn't take long for his bluegrass loving father — who invited folks like Mark O'Connor, Vince Gill and Byron Berline to the house after gigs — to hip him to fiddle tunes. At 14, his attention turned to mandolin, where it's been ever since, even though he spent a stretch of his salad days on the six-string.

    With four consecutive youthful Australian National Bluegrass mandolin Championship titles under his belt, Warner has become an Americana wonder, pulling together a wide swath of sounds and styles. His playing is marked by a dry, spare, melodic approach that is never less than thoughtful and always engaging.

    Michael EckAbout the author: Roots scholar and multi-instrumentalist Michael Eck is a respected songwriter, nationally exhibited painter and award-winning cultural critic. A signature artist with Weber Mandolins, he plays with Lost Radio Rounders, Berkshire Ramblers, Good Things and Spancilhill.

    Kym Warner - Everything That Brought Me Here


    From Everything That Brought Me Here, the track "Waves Of Ilhabela."

    Let's jump in the wayback machine. When you were coming up, your father, Trev, was an important player in the Australian bluegrass scene, yes?

    Yeah, to be honest, he was a huge part of it. Before I was even born, he was one of the very first people to play bluegrass in Australia. He'd heard of these guys, The Hayes Brothers, from Melbourne, and they were the only others he knew of that played, so he would drive from Adelaide to Melbourne once a month or something to pick with them. For me, growing up as a kid, bluegrass was just always around. It was normal to me. We were surrounded by it. There would be lots of picking sessions. Our house was pretty much the epicenter of bluegrass in Adelaide, so it was cool.

    The Greencards were a little alien, in bluegrass terms, and not just because you were immigrants.

    We just didn't want to sound like anyone else, and I guess, being Australian, we weren't really going to sound like anyone else anyway. For one thing, we plugged our instruments in virtually from the get-go, and didn't play into microphones. That was good for us. I don't like to stand still when I play. I just have to move with the music. We felt like that was an important aspect — visually, as well as sonically. We were also writing our own songs right from the first record. So it was a combination of things, mainly just wanting to be an original, unique sounding band and seeing what we could come up with. It was great. It was really exciting.

    The Greencards
    L-R: Carl Miner, Kym Warner and Carol Young of the Greencards.

    Are The Greencards a thing of the past?

    I will never say never, but I would say yes.

    The Greencards - Sweetheart of the Sun
    Sweetheart of the Sun, nominated for a GRAMMY: Best Folk Album in 2014.

    What do you love about working with Robert Earl Keen?

    His songs are just as good as it gets. I really stand by Robert's songs. It's amazing, I've never played better material on any of the other gigs I've done. They're just so consistently good and he changes his set list from night to night because he has so many good ones. I get to play a lot of stuff. I play mandolin, bouzouki and mandola; sometimes a little bit of acoustic rhythm guitar. And I've been playing mandocaster the last couple of years, too, covering a lot of the electric guitar parts.

    Your Circle Strings four-string electric mandolin, then, has become an important part of your sound?

    I love the sound of electric guitar playing so much, but, being so grounded in fifths tuning, it never really made sense to me. I did play electric for a number of years back home, but I never got that good at it. My mandocaster's an octave down, so it sits in the electric guitar spectrum much, much better than a standard mandolin. So, now, I've got my knowledge of the mandolin happening, but I'm able to express all of the electric guitar nuances that I've had inside of me for all these years, bending strings and stuff like that. I had to put together an electric rig and get that all dialed in and everything. It's fantastic. Sometimes, I just can't imagine doing anything else! In my mind I'm playing electric guitar, really, and that's what I want it to sound like. I'm not in any way trying to get it to sound like a mandolin, that's not the purpose.

    What makes Kym Warner's approach to mandolin different?

    I like to play with space, and this, too, comes from my love of electric guitar players like David Gilmour, Jimmy Page and Lindsey Buckingham. They all have that space. I treat the instrument more like a vocal element. I play vocal phrases as opposed to just mandolin licks. I see mandolin as a really sensual instrument, and I like a soft touch. I like letting notes hang on when they can —listening to other instruments and getting away from it just being a mandolin. What would a singer do? I try and emulate that, and I don't always do just choppy stuff in the back. I like to play open chords at times and little sparse things. So, I by no means see myself as a traditional mandolinist. And I'm so grateful for a gig like Robert's where I can just use my imagination


    From the album Everything That Brought Me Here, the track "After The Victory."

    Buckingham's influence is evident in your playing.

    Lindsey Buckingham has a huge effect on me every time I hear him. He's an incredible artist, and one of my favorite musicians in any genre. He has an amazing groove and pulls such gorgeous tones. His layering of guitar parts is paralleled only by Jimmy Page, in my opinion. And he's still got the fire in his belly. Carol and I saw him in Austin about 18 months ago and he certainly was not phoning it in. He played and sang as good as I've ever heard him, as if he was a 21-year-old touring his first album — A great inspiration and a lesson-filled evening for me.

    Kym Warner

    Do you look to other mandolinists for ideas?

    I basically stopped listening to mandolin players, for the reason that I just didn't want to sound like anybody else. I've always been better at making things up on the instrument than learning someone else's thing.

    How does your right hand help you get to that vocal place?

    I might try to play a note by sliding into it, hammering on and holding it, as opposed to the more traditional approach of playing vibrato or tremolo. I would try and get the attack on the string, letting the note sustain that way, as opposed to sustaining it by constantly trilling with the pick. I think playing light helps me do that, as opposed to hitting things too hard. As soon as I start playing too hard everything goes out the window. I've got a pretty good sense from my head to my hand to let these things happen. The soft touch is the secret to that.

    "Big Scary Monster," from a recent Facebook Live performance.

    In a recent livestream, you were pretty fearless.

    Thank you. That's the best compliment you could give me, and possibly to my detriment at times. Certain artists might work on a piece of music for six months or a year before they showcase it live. I've never been like that. I'm not going to die wondering; I will try things. I think it's a great way to improve yourself. I find it really, really boring when people play it safe. I'd rather see someone just going for it and trying things and falling flat on their face. Jerry Douglas once said that he'd made a career out of getting himself out of holes, and I thought, 'Yeah man, that's really profound.' You've got to figure out how to get yourself out of trouble when you're playing music. It's the only way to know the instrument better, to know music better.

    Chicken? Egg? Acoustic World Tour... The solo album?

    That's a good question. I guess the record first, because I really needed to see if I could put together some pieces and make it work — different instruments, different styles, getting it all to happen. I recorded it all myself, just at home, then sent files around to other people. With the joys of modern technology, it worked out well. The biggest push and influence on the album was the music of Gustavo Santaolalla. I wrote something called "El Palomar" in honor of Gustavo and Argentina. Once I'd written that piece that was it, the chicken and the egg. I started playing that tune and people liked it, and I thought, 'okay, I need to write another 10 or 12 of those.'

    A Luthier's Lament

    What do you get from the different mandolin family instruments?

    Well, you instantly get more sustain, particularly with the mandola. It may not be as versatile in a full band situation because the range starts getting into where the guitars are, but those instruments resonate beautifully. The Collings MT2 mandola I have, it's like playing a piano. It's nice to back yourself singing on a mandola, actually. It just has a bit more depth to it. And it slows you down a little, I don't feel like I want to play as fast on it. I want to play long sustaining things, and it's a good instrument to write on. Obviously it's darker because it's lower, so minor key stuff on the mandola is haunting. My Jayson Bowerman bouzouki is tuned in the Greek style with the lower pairs as octaves. It gives it that droning, 12-string type feel. That's another way of staying in touch with the guitar, or else I'd be absolutely lost, because, other than rhythm, I haven't played guitar for 15 years. The bouzouki fits great in the ensemble; it really covers where an acoustic guitar could be. Cross picking on a bouzouki really jumps out in a band, too. It gives a little bit of that '60s Byrds sound I like, that Tom Petty chiming.

    Kym Warner's Collings MT2V

    You've been playing Collings instruments for over 12 years, including your mainstay MT2V and the blonde MTV.

    I sat down with Bill Collings one day, and he asked, 'What do you want out of a mandolin?' I said, I like to play light, so it's got to have some volume, but that's not the most important thing. I want it to be nice and warm and I want some sustain, but I don't want it to be as dark as my original Gilchrist, which is a really dry Aussie-style bluegrass mandolin. The thing I love about Collings mandolins is the beautiful bell-like quality. The top end of Collings A models have this sparkle. They cut through, but they're not harsh at all. They're really even. I like an Engelmann top because it brings out a little bit more warmth than red spruce, so Bill made me this one, the dark sunburst MT2V, and he really put a lot of work into it. I've played it for a long time. It's just perfect. It has everything I want. It sounds like a $20,000 mandolin, not a $5000 mandolin. He absolutely nailed it. Maybe more important than anything else is that they're about the best people I've ever met in my life. I've known them for such a long time and they're all really good friends. They look after me like I don't deserve. It's just an amazing, amazing company. I miss Bill. He was a great guy, but they're continuing his legacy beautifully.


    In addition to Kym's choice of instruments outlined at the beginning of the interview he favors BlueChip CT55 and TAD40 picks, DR Dragon Skin 11-40 mandolin strings, G7 capos and the Schertler DYN-M pickup.

    Additional Information

    Kym Warner

    Kym Warner with Sam Bush
    Kym with Sam Bush
    Kym's first mandolin made by Bryan DeGruchy, South Australia 1983, signed by Tim O'Brien
    Comments 7 Comments
    1. darylcrisp's Avatar
      darylcrisp -
      enjoyed this immensely. was fortunate to see the Greencards years ago before I had started learning mandolin. That was the first time I took notice of a mandolin.

      I have also been a huge fan of Lindsay Buckinghams music for decades, and I can see that style coming thru in Kims playing.

      wonderful interview
    1. Todd Bowman's Avatar
      Todd Bowman -
      Great read! Always love finding someone new to follow! Thuroughly enjoy Everything that brought me here! Very eclectic!!
    1. Alfons's Avatar
      Alfons -
      Nice article! Interesting reading, nice photos, and the musical inclusions are great as well.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Observing the one-year anniversary of this feature interview.
    1. atbuckner21's Avatar
      atbuckner21 -
      LOVE THIS ARTICLE. Kym is absolutely the man!
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Noting the anniversary of this feature interview.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Noting the anniversary of this feature interview.