Last week the students in my Writing Close to the Earth online class read George Orwell's classic essay, "Politics and the English Language." In it ... Read More
Ron Block has toured for over 20 years with Alison Krauss and Union Station, played on a gazillion records (including a few of his own), and backed George Clooney on the silver screen. He’s an award-winning consummate artist who loves music and the people making it, and we finally caught up with him long enough to ask about his very first instrumental bluegrass album, Hogan’s House of Music.
What was your vision for this album?
Well, the two main records that fueled this record were Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Banjo and Jimmy Martin’s Big and Country Instrumentals. Those were two records I listened to as a teen, and even now I still pull out Foggy Mountain Banjo and try to play just like Earl Scruggs. So there’s that foundation of tradition to what I do: the traditional bluegrass banjo, which is in the Scruggs/Jimmy Martin line. I’m rooted in that. Those are the two main records that I tried to emulate, in some ways, then I hopped it up a little bit with more bluesy-type stuff.
It’s funny how you mention going back to your roots in solid bluegrass – and yet you give sly little nods all through the record to these different genres, which seems to be the point of the record title.
Well, I listen to a lot of different music, and that’s going to pop out. The original bluegrass founders weren’t traditional. When bluegrass first started, and Bill Monroe hired Earl Scruggs to play in that 1946 band with Lester Flatt, they weren’t traditional. They took old-time country, blues, fiddle tunes, and gospel of the day, swing music on the radio, and they began to re-form these elements. They were radical innovators.
It’s important to remember, though, that they had a rootedness in the music they grew up hearing; their roots were deep in the old folk and country music. They had that, but on top of it were these new sounds they were creating. Throughout the last 60-70 years, every great bluegrass band has brought their own sound into it, their own influences. That’s the spirit of the music: taking tradition and then making it your own.
Like Chesterton said, “The essence of every picture is the frame.” It’s the limitation, the “rootedness,” that gives bluegrass its identity. I wanted this record to feel rooted, but still sound new.
As excellent as this record is, it feels less like an album and more like a bunch of friends in a jam session–although it’s a group of friends with enough Grammys between them to pave my yard. What’s that like, collaborating with so many high-profile musicians?
Well, you know, a lot of them are friends, people I’ve played with for years. I like doing that because it feels so comfortable. It can be like a jam session, and then you’re playing like yourself. That’s why I’ve got Dan [Tyminski], Barry [Bales], Jerry [Douglas]—all the guys from Union Station—and Alison Krauss, and then Adam Steffey, Sierra Hull, Clay Hess, Stuart Duncan, Sam Bush, Jeff Taylor. I’ve known them all for years except Tim Crouch and Lynn Williams, in fact.
So to go into the studio with these high-level players, it’s just like “these are my people,” which is just how I wanted it to feel, like a bunch of friends just came in and played some music.
It’s funny, I always picture Alison as the angelic voice of AKUS, and yet here she’s shouldering a fiddle and keeping pace with Stuart Duncan. How different is it to work with her in that capacity, with her playing on your record?
Oh, she’s great to work with. She twinned Stuart on several songs. In the studio as a player, she listens, she takes direction. When we’re in the studio with AKUS she’s more directive, although she lets us as a band sort of have our way with the tune, and then tweaks.
But now you’re in the captain’s chair and she’s holding a paddle…
Yeah, and she did a great job. I always loved “Sawin’ on the Strings” on A Hundred Miles or More. She and Stuart played twin fiddles. I wanted to replicate it here.
That reminds me—on any given track you might see “featuring so and so,” but you still hear dynamite performances by several different people. How do you decide who the “feature” is in a star-studded cast like that?
I wanted a few of the tunes to emphasize who was on there. I made sure I had “featuring Stuart Duncan and Alison Krauss” on one, and on “Seneca Square Dance,” it said “featuring Sierra Hull.” I still play banjo solos on there, but she’s a large part of the tune, and I wanted to emphasize that—where it was centered. “Gentle Annie” says “featuring Tim Crouch” because those strings really make it beautiful.
It’s like that Jimmy Martin record. It’s not just the banjo—everything plays. You’ve got mandolin, guitar, fiddle—everything solos, everything rides, everything takes breaks. I wanted this record to feature everybody.
You use that framework to honor each of the players in turn.
I grew up listening to all the instruments. I wanted to play fiddle, too, but my dad said, “You’ll have to take classical lessons,” so I opted out of that. I messed around with dobro, was a closet mandolin player, and played acoustic guitar and banjo. So I love all the instruments and vocals, accompanying them all. So to honor each instrument is a no-brainer, right? All you have to do is love it. I love the fiddle, so I hear Stuart or Alison play and say, “Man, that’s killer!'” and put the same “that’s killer!” energy behind the fiddle.
And your energy comes from, “Wow, what a great player we get to accompany here.”
I’ll be honest, I’m a sucker for your slower pieces. Like “Calico,” which exudes this sort of wistful longing; it stands in such contrast to everything around it. How do you personally approach writing something that communicates such emotion without the benefit of lyrics?
One of the main things I started with was the time signature–3/4 or 6/8–which lends itself to that feel, and then it’s like Chesterton says, you define the limits of a thing, and then begin to find out what’s inside. With that fence around it, I was able to just start playing within those boundaries, which were so different from the rules of the rest of the record.
And it was a beautiful departure.
Yeah, we recorded that tune in the last session with Sierra Hull, Mark Fain, and Dan Tyminski—we added fiddle later. Back to the question, though—You start by delineating, by asking “what is this thing?” which may mean you just go exploring first, and you come back with a bit of melody and think, “Well, that’s in 6/8 time,” and then commit to hiking that trail. It’s just like when you write a vocal tune—you’re chasing something. You follow it down one road, double back and try another path, and eventually wind your way to the destination.
How much of the writing was affected by this great cloud of musicians around you? Was it more or less complete by the time you went into the studio, or did you have input from each of them – not just in terms of support, but also in guiding the tunes?
Some of the tunes I wrote with the players in mind. “Mollie Catherine Carter” was written for Stuart to play. “’65 Mustang Blues” was written with Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas in mind. And in the studio I’m always listening to what other people are saying. For instance, when we recorded “Brushy Fork of John’s Creek,” I ended up cutting half of the mando solo and half of the guitar solo and putting them together as a split solo because it was just too long.
So I had the charts when I went in, and the arrangements and the melodies and the chords, but then when we got in there I’d realize, “Oh, that needs to change” and mark stuff out. “Calico” was one where I had the chord structure for the mandolin part in the bridge, but I didn’t really have a melody. Sierra came up with that kind of rolling, almost classical line.
Everyone contributed. When you pick bluegrass players like that, you just say, “Here’s the melody. Here’s the chord structure. Now let’s play.” That’s the whole reason for bringing them in, to let them add their own flavor to the mix.
Right. Why would you micromanage and have them all sound like you?
There are producers who direct more closely, and they do it to good effect, but this is a different kind of record. I wanted this to feel less prescribed and more like people getting together and having a great time.
Mission accomplished. Now anyone who knows about your years at Hogan’s House of Music in Torrance is aware of the broad “genre diet” that shapes your music. What about your colleagues? Do they all have such broad influences?
Most of the bluegrassers I play with listen to many different kinds of music. In the beginning with Union Station, the reason we loved each other’s playing was in having a common foundational core. I grew up loving Flatt & Scruggs, and J. D. Crowe and the New South, and Ralph Stanley, and Larry Sparks. Well, Alison loves all those too, and so do Barry and Dan, and Jerry – and really, Jerry was one of my main influences!
So again, we’re back to that common rootedness. Then when you bring all your other influences to bear, you begin to get a unique chemistry. That’s why Alison doesn’t sound exactly like a traditional bluegrass singer or fiddler. She can if she wants to, but she’s got all these other influences and sensibilities informing what she does, just like I have. The rootedness, the passion for the core, is there, but the dress is different.
And so suddenly you have these crazy bursts of blues and boogie.
That’s part of the fun of this record–combining the influences of Earl Scruggs, J. D. Crowe, Leon Rhodes, Larry Carlton, Pat Metheny, Eric Clapton, and all the rest of it. Hogan’s House of Boogie was really Flatt & Scruggs and the Texas Troubadours having a party in my head.
One more thing—you do stellar work with the band, and we have Walking Song with Rebecca Reynolds’ mind-blowing lyrics, and now at last a fully instrumental record. Can we look forward to any more Ron Block lyrics in the future?
For sure. I love making music and can’t stop.