By Mandolin Cafe
June 18, 2013 - 7:30 am
Never pass up a chance to see Adam Steffey in person, on stage, or to share a few moments chatting with him if the opportunity ever presents itself. For here, dear reader, is a bluegrass mandolin legend in his prime. Snap a photo, get an autograph. Lucky enough to have taken a Skype lesson from him? I hope so.
If you're a musician, being in the presence of this man is truly uplifting. To say he's as curious and crazy about his music and mandolins as anyone can imagine is really an understatement. More than 20 years after his creation of one of the recognizable and iconic bluegrass mandolin breaks ever recorded on Alison Krauss' Every Time You Say Goodbye, he's still searching for new sounds, new music and new musicians with which to express himself.
When we heard he was recording a project combining his mandolin with a wide variety of the best old-time musicians we knew listeners were in for a rare treat. We wanted to know more about what was behind the project and had a blast preparing this interview. And the music? Well, the results speak for themselves as you're about to find out.
— Scott Tichenor
Listen to Raleigh and Spencer from the recording New Primitive.
Mandolin Cafe: Hard driving bluegrass mandolin, old-time fiddle and frailing banjo... what a great combination! Why aren't more musicians performing or recording in this configuration?
Adam Steffey: I don't know! It never occurred to me until I met my wife Tina. The first time she and I played together was on a Clay Jones album in Tim Austin's Doobie Shea studio. She was tracking some clawhammer banjo on the project and I was playing mandolin. I loved her playing and it was at that point that we got to know each other and started dating. Of course now we're married with twin sons! On my last solo album One More For the Road she played a couple of tracks on there and I thought, I want to do more of that sound!
Mandolin Cafe: You expressed a bit of apprehension about the release of this project. What's behind that?
Adam Steffey: Well, it's not exactly keeping me up at night but it was sort of scary because I know a lot of hard core bluegrassers will say "that ain't really bluegrass!" But at the same time the old-time people are probably going to say "that ain't old-time!" For old-time it's probably too progressive and for bluegrass it's probably too old-time, but in the end it turned out to be exactly the album I wanted to make, and exactly what I was hearing!
What I wanted to create for this album was exactly what we got. I didn't want it to be just all banjo. I wanted to do some tracks with just mandolin and guitar. I wanted band material, I wanted just Tina and myself. With One More For The Road I put something on there for all of the bluegrass folks. There were instrumentals, vocals, real traditional sounding cuts. This isn't that album. I also wanted a couple of vocal tunes but I didn't want to be the singer.
Mandolin Cafe: Why not?
Adam Steffey: I hate to hear myself sing! I do it a lot on band albums. For a bluegrass guy playing mandolin you're supposed to sing tenor, but I'm not that guy! So I wanted to get someone like fiddler Eddie Bond to come in to do vocals. He's the real deal. The only thing he's ever done is old-time. To have him sing real authentic mountain vocal style and play old-time fiddle that has that raw edgy thing going for it, that's exactly what I wanted.
With me singing there's only so much that can happen. I'm very limited. I learned a lot from Alison Krauss about selecting songs when I was in her band. Part of her success I think is her ability to find songs that really suit her. I remember her saying early on — I started playing with her when she was probably 17 — "I love the songs about cabins and the rural life but I can't sing those and be believable because I never lived on a farm or experienced that life." So I thought about that and it makes a lot of sense. It would be hard for someone like me with my voice to sing "ooh, baby, come here and let me touch you for awhile," (laughs). I scare small children with my voice! If there's something to sing about that's plague related, natural disasters, then that suits my voice! Murder ballads! There's my role as a singer.
With this album I wanted to take a completely different direction. I didn't want it to be predictable. I wanted people to be surprised, but pleasantly surprised. It's not like I'm making some techno-Euro-punk record. I love the feel of some of David Grisman's Tone Poems albums and Home Is Where The Heart Is where he did duets with Doc Watson, stuff like that. So some of the duets on this recording, that's as much as I enjoy anything. I'd just as soon be jamming and playing in a situation with two or three people where you get a real sense of what's going on with the other players or singers. I love being able to do something like go to Galax Old Fiddler's Convention and sit down with an Eddie Bond. With Tina, just playing these old tunes around the house and learning these new melodies and new angles and those experiences are part of what made me want to do this record.
Mandolin Cafe: Who is handling the business end of the recording?
Adam Steffey: There's a brand new branch of the Mountain Home folks, the label that produces The Boxcars, and it's called Organic. This will be their first release. They were waiting for the right recording and when I went in and spoke with them (Mountain Home) about the direction I wanted to take they thought this project would be the perfect selection to launch this label. Of course they're going to do other projects but they wanted something a little more regional and Appalachian. I'm anxious to see what happens with them, too, as much as the album. I can only hope the album is well received and gets some radio play and such. A lot of people that have followed me for a lot of years, I think they're going to understand and appreciate the recording. I also hope it brings bluegrass and old-time musicians and fans together and that each side takes a more active look into the similarities in the music. It's not that I'm trying to be the great equalizer or anything but I would hope it would open up ears to all of the different acoustic music.
One thing you find out is that the old-time crowd is just as hard core about what they're doing as the bluegrass crowd. It's amazing how much they (old-time) know. A lot of them really keep up with bluegrass and I wish more bluegrass folks kept up with old-time. As you know, there are so many great tunes that can transfer over so well to both. So, I hope this record gets more people interested in digging around into the music that's out there. I'm just starting to scratch the surface and feel like an absolute novice. What I put on the record those are probably standard tunes to the old-time crowd but it's so new and fresh to me its got me fired up!
Mandolin Cafe: A few years ago there was a marvelous project you played on entitled Close Kin: A Reunion of Bluegrass and Old-Time. Did that project spur this recording a bit?
Adam Steffey: The way Close Kin got going as I understand it, is that there is a guy named Karl Cooler and he commissioned Johnny Williams to produce it. They approached me at IBMA the weekend Durang's Hornpipe won Instrumental Recording of the Year (2010) off of the album One More For The Road. They said "we're thinking of doing a record with old-time and bluegrass." So that all came together and they may have had that idea prior to approaching me but I already had this project in my mind because of Tina's clawhammer banjo playing on Durang's Hornpipe. That and the other cuts she appeared on for that recording.
I actually got that version of Durang's Hornpipe off an Adam Hurt album. He's a killer clawhammer banjo player Tina turned me onto so I started getting all his stuff off iTunes and I'd see him at various conventions and festivals. That's where I got that version from so when we cut it I knew I wanted clawhammer banjo on it because that's the way I had heard it. It would have worked with a Scruggs style banjo but I wanted it to have that feel. So as soon as we cut that I thought if there was ever a way to do an album of that kind of material with an old-time kind of vibe I was going to jump at the chance. Close Kin is more a bluegrass meets old-time because there are numbers where Scruggs and clawhammer banjo are on the same cut and they may have a bluegrass and old-time fiddle on the same cut. With this recording I wanted the mandolin to be the only connection to bluegrass because so many of the old-time jams and albums, there are some that have mandolin, but very few actually feature the mandolin. Mandolin is mostly a rhythm instrument vs. single string leads in most old-time recordings I've heard. I wanted to inject the bluegrass mandolin experience directly into old-time.
Mandolin Cafe: What mandolin did you use on the recording?
Adam Steffey: The Northfield Big Mon model is my main ax these days. I used that on almost all of the cuts except for a couple of guitar and mandolin duets where I used a Northfield F-5S with an Engelmann top I thought was a little sweeter. I could have used the Big Mon on the whole thing and on the new Boxcars album that just came out that's all I use. The range of the Big Mon, it seems like it cuts it with the banjo. I know how I can attack it and I know it's going to stay in tune and intonate properly. It's the best bluegrass mandolin I've ever owned and just really works in a bluegrass band situation.
My Henderson A model is the loudest mandolin I own. It has more "umph" and that Hutto/Gilchrist kind of mid-range low thing that really seems to bite but for me gets lost in that frequency range when you have a banjo, a fiddle and all that stuff going on. The Big Mon, I can only describe it as having the Loarish thing. It's not brittle like some mandolins that have all that high end. My next MAS is I've told Adrian Bagale at Northfield Instruments I want to have a wide neck Big Mon, like a 1 3/16". I really love my Collings MT2 with a honey amber finish and it has a wide neck that is just perfect. I told him if I could get that neck on a Big Mon F-5 that would be my baby!
It's a good thing I'm married with a wife and kids because if I was a single guy I'd be trading and swapping mandolins like mad! I'd have more than you could count. I've got it bad!
Mandolin Cafe: What else is on your schedule besides The Boxcars, appearing on various recordings as a guest artist and full-time dad?
Adam Steffey: Sierra Hull and I have been visiting about doing a few more duet shows here and there and we're going to try to make that happen. I'll keep you posted on that.
Mandolin Cafe: Please do! And congratulations on a truly wonderful recording.
L-R: Northfield F5-S and Northfield Big Mon models.
Builder's comment: It has been a great privilege working with Adam. He has now recorded several albums and sessions with our mandolins and in his latest two, The Boxcars "It's Just a Road" and his new solo album "New Primitive" he's chosen two different Northfield F models that each offer a distinct voice.
Northfield NF-F5M 'Big Mon'-style Master Model:
Slightly Larger F body size (wider and deeper)
Premium Adirondack Red Spruce Top
Premium Quatersawn Red Maple back, sides and neck
French Polished Spirit Varnish Finish
Engraved Bill James Tailpiece
Ebony Fingerboard and bridge
Standard Size F body size
Engelmann Spruce top
Sugar Maple back, sides and neck
Nitro-cellulose Lacquer finish
Striped ebony fingerboard and bridge
— Adrian Bagale
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