• The Mandolin in Modern Music. Who Needs Rock?

    John Skehan
    Photo credit: Steve Levine

    Back in 1969, the mandolin seemed poised to become a sustaining part of rock 'n roll and popular music. Over the next three years, no lesser lights than the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Band, the Grateful Dead, and Rod Stewart would produce one or more songs that featured the instrument. Each of the albums went platinum. And Stewart's classic "Maggie May" simultaneously topped the pop charts in the U.S., U.K, Canada, and Australia.

    The instrument's future in popular music seemed bright. Until suddenly it wasn't.

    Over the ensuing seven decades, the mandolin has retained its beloved place in folk, country, and bluegrass, even classical, and occasionally in jazz. Generally, though, the instrument the Grateful Dead's Phil Lesh compared to "the ringing of a bell" has been absent from rock and pop, with bands like R.E.M, Wilco, the White Stripes, and others releasing a few one-off mandolin songs.

    To find out why, the Mandolin Cafe talked to successful and highly respected mandolin players from three very different schools of music: Ronnie McCoury, John Skehan, and Sierra Hull at the 2022 Old Settler's Music Festival.

    About the author: Steve Levine is a photojournalist and communication consultant based in Austin, Texas. Find his best words and pictures at linktr.ee/stlevine.

    Their collective response: So what? The mandolin is making some amazing music these days everywhere it's played. It always has – even if some people have heard it only on those rock songs.

    "When I was a young boy in the 80s, my buddies from Pennsylvania said, 'Oh, you play the mandolin? Oh, what like Led Zeppelin or Grateful Dead?'" McCoury said. "And I was like, 'Well, I don't know what you're talking about.'"

    Ronnie McCoury
    Photo credit: Steve Levine

    It wasn't long before he figured it out. "I was in love with David Grisman's music," he said. "So I discovered the guy playing the mandolin on the Grateful Dead stuff was David Grisman." As he grew older, he met John Paul Jones, the Zeppelin bass player, who performed the mandolin parts along with guitarist Jimmy Page in that 1970 album and on tour.

    Skehan was enthralled by Grisman as well. "Somewhere, somebody gave me a cassette tape of that first Grisman Quintet album," he said.

    "That just blew my mind as far as what you could do with the mandolin, the fact that Dawg had created this signature form of music all his own that was such a melting pot of other styles."

    His mandolin ear continued to grow.

    John Skehan
    Photo credit: Steve Levine

    "To me the big epiphany discovery was how much mandolin music there is out there without even getting into popular music," Skehan said. "It has such a wide ranging reach and influence on American music."

    McCoury recounts a story his dad, Blue Grass Boys alum Del McCoury tells. It credits a mandolin-heavy Bill Monroe song with inspiring the creators of rock.

    "There's a tune that Monroe sang called 'Rocky Road Blues,' it was like 1943 or 4, before Earl Scruggs came and bluegrass jelled," the younger McCoury said. "And it had this beat, and Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee [Lewis] and Elvis and all these guys were hearing this. And Carl Perkins said, 'All we were doing was putting rhythm and blues and bluegrass together.'"

    Chuck Berry, McCoury adds, "loved to listen to Bill Monroe" because his mandolin chop matched Berry's distinctive guitar sound.

    Fast-forward 70 years or so, and Hull finds the instrument still at home in any genre.

    Sierra Hull
    Photo credit: Steve Levine

    "It's such a diverse instrument," said Hull, whose multitudinous musical experiences belie her young age. "One of the things that I love about it is that it can find its way into whatever is missing in the context, whatever configuration or instrumentation."

    Skehan says he hears the influence of the mandolin in popular music that is definitely not bluegrass, particularly in the sounds of one of his favorite bands – the Grateful Dead.

    "There's that thing about the Grateful Dead that's not really country music, but it's not quite rock and roll and it has this free-wheeling jazz element counterpoint, everybody's improvising kind of thing to it," he said. "But that odd, odd tone, what Bill Monroe called the ancient tones, the modal quality and fiddle-tune music, it's so present in the Grateful Dead's songwriting and their approach, that out-of-left field thing."

    All three learned to play mandolin in the Monroe tradition, where it acts as a percussion instrument in bands that have no drums.

    Sierra Hull
    Photo credit: Steve Levine

    "I'd just as soon play rhythm all night than to play a lead, because it's just so fun when you groove and you get to be part of that pocket," said Hull, who – of course – earns rave reviews for her blistering solos. "At the same time, it's fun to kind of get removed from that context a little bit and then explore what else the instrument can do."

    After starting out "a proper bluegrass player," Skehan has been playing alongside a drummer for decades in the jamgrass group Railroad Earth.

    "I can function as the snare drum but in tandem with the snare drum, where the way I would voice chords in a lower register when doing a bluegrass chop is a way of kind of giving the snare drum pitch and relevance to the chord changes," he said. "But the snare drum is also giving my backbeat an extra pop and shot to it."

    "I kind of got into this thing of doing backwards rakes against chords, then with a little bit of delay, it's an arpeggiated piano chord or something," Skehan added. "To just hit a long chord and let it ring out in that raked arpeggiated way and then start to join the chop but be able to step away again became a thing I do."

    John Skehan
    Photo credit: Steve Levine

    All three have played mandolin with rock groups, and they love the sound it brings to those performances. "It will continue to pop up unexpectedly in some recordings," says McCoury.

    "It just takes the right producer that hears it in their head, and wants to produce it," he said. "I guess they don't find it being useful on every song, and me as a mandolin player, I do."

    Just a few weeks after this interview, McCoury found himself playing mandolin at Nashville's iconic Ryman Auditorium with an incredibly diverse group of performers, including Dead & Co's Bob Weir, guitarist extraordinaire Billy Strings, avant-garde bassist Les Claypool, and Marty Stuart.

    Just a few months earlier and less than a mile from the venerable Ryman, at the brand new Brooklyn Bowl Nashville, Hull took the stage with a very different kind of ensemble. That night was part of a 21-date tour with Cory Wong and the Wongnotes. How does a mandolin find a voice with a funk band that includes a six-piece horn section?

    Sierra Hull

    "In the right context with the right musicians playing, respectfully and kindly and dynamically, it can really be amazing in a lot of different musical situations," Hull answered.

    To translate those words into a musical experience, take a listen to "Over the Mountain" on Wong's recently released Power Station album. It opens with Hull playing a simple acoustic melody. She's quickly joined by Wong's guitar, and just as quickly the song transforms into a soaring tour de force with Hull and Wong trading solos over and around the funky, driving bass lines of Sonny T (who performed and recorded with Prince's band The New Power Generation in the 1990s).

    After discussing her tour with Wong during a backstage interview at Old Settler's, Hull paused and listened as the sounds of Peter Rowan and His Free Mexican Airforce filtered in from the stage.

    "The thing I'll say about the mandolin," she said with a smile, "it shines its brightest when you really can hear the instrument and the wood on a microphone."

    Skehan recalls hearing acoustic music being played on acoustic instruments at his first Winter Hawk or Grey Fox festival.

    "The Del McCoury Band stepped up to two microphones and made this incredible sound," he said, almost wistfully. "The mandolin is just cool. They are icons of cool because they wield such an unlikely instrument in such a powerful way."

    Drew Emmitt and Ronnie McCoury
    Photo credit: Steve Levine. Drew Emmitt with Ronnie McCoury

    Additional Information

    Photo credit: Steve Levine
    Comments 11 Comments
    1. Cheryl Watson's Avatar
      Cheryl Watson -
      I enjoyed this article and the surprise at the end with the photo of Sierra Hull and her Eltonesque and silver sparkle ear monitors
    1. Marcus CA's Avatar
      Marcus CA -
      Lots of interesting comments here from tremendous and insightful mando players! I think, though, that the first sentence is disproven by what immediately follows it.

      "Back in 1969, the mandolin seemed poised to become a sustaining part of rock 'n roll and popular music. Over the next three years, no lesser lights than the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Band, the Grateful Dead, and Rod Stewart would produce one or more songs that featured the instrument."

      They produced "one or more songs," but the mandolin was never part of the core sound of any of those bands or artists. It was simply an occasional addition that enriched a particular song or two of theirs. If you make a list of the top 20 songs of each of those five bands or artists, how many of those songs included a mandolin? I'd guess probably just 1-3.

      Sure, "Going to California" would be two-dimensional without JP Jones's mandolin line running through it, but I'm not expecting to find that there were alternate versions of "Stairway to Heaven" or "Black Dog" or ... on which he played mandolin, but the band decided to use the versions with simply guitar, bass, and drums instead.
    1. boatman's Avatar
      boatman -
      Surprised there’s no mention of Greensky Bluegrass in this article: the mandolin as “driven” by Paul Hoffman is doing yeoman work in creating a sound that’s quite “rock” like in its’ intensity
    1. A-board's Avatar
      A-board -
      I found an online concert video by Railroad Earth featuring a fabulous mandolin duet by John Skehan and the late (great) Andy Goessling playing the Cuban dance tune El Cumbanchero which eventually morphed into St Anne’s Reel. Wish I could have heard it live. I get chills just thinking about it.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Someone asked privately what kind of mandolin Drew Emmitt is playing here. I have no idea. Anyone know? I still had the original photo so grabbed a larger version of it .

      Attachment 201135
    1. Explorer's Avatar
      Explorer -
      Quote Originally Posted by Mandolin Cafe View Post
      Someone asked privately what kind of mandolin Drew Emmitt is playing here. I have no idea. Anyone know? I still had the original photo so grabbed a larger version of it . Attachment 201135
      I believe that is from Ron Oates of Rono Strings. Here's a page mentioning it. https://www.emando.com/players/Emmitt.htm

      And here's an image, with either that mando or its twin in the middle.

      Attachment 201152

    1. RustyMutt's Avatar
      RustyMutt -
      Great perspectives. Thanks for writing!
    1. stl.images's Avatar
      stl.images -
      Thanks for reading and thanks for everyone’s comments. I hope to be back on these pages soon.

      Steve Levine
      stlevine communications
    1. CHASAX's Avatar
      CHASAX -
      A decade is 10 years. The mandolin was not used by those bands "seven decades" ago. Please, I am getting old fast enough on my own.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Noting the anniversary of this feature.
    1. stl.images's Avatar
      stl.images -
      Quote Originally Posted by Mandolin Cafe View Post
      Noting the anniversary of this feature.
      Thanking you for noting!