Interview: Garret Woodward talks Bluegrass ahead of Book Readings Dec 27 & 28

Author and New York native Garret Woodward will host two readings and discussions of his first book “If You Can’t Play, Get Off the Stage.” The bluegrass-centric book covers interviews with dozens of bluegrass, folk and Americana legends, and dives deep into the genre with the performers themselves.

Woodward will be at Champlain Meeting House in Champlain on Wednesday, December 27 and at Nine Pin Cider in Albany on Thursday, December 28. Both events start at 6:30pm. Currently based in Asheville and serving as the Arts/Entertainment editor for The Smoky Mountain News, in addition to duties as music editor for Smoky Mountain Living magazine, Woodward published his debut book earlier this year to rave reviews. His weekly column in The Smoky Mountain News, “This must be the place,” is a must read.

NYS Music spoke to Woodward about his book, bluegrass in New York and what kind of music scene can be found in Rouses Point.

Pete Mason: Your book “If You Can’t Play, Get Off the Stage” features interviews with numerous bluegrass musicians from around the country. How did you select the interviews that made the book, and do you have any particular favorites?

Garret Woodward: Well, the book itself came as a result of my 2016 nomination for “Print/Media Person of the Year” from the International Bluegrass Music Association, or IBMA, which is the overseeing body of the entire bluegrass industry. Kind of like the Grammys of bluegrass, in a sense. Though I didn’t win the award, I realized those that had won it previously had been involved in book projects. And yet, it’s not about winning the award. In all honesty, it was about realizing I needed to take my music journalism to the next level, which is doing long-term projects. As an arts and entertainment editor in Western North Carolina, in the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains, you really can’t throw a rock around these parts without hitting a talented bluegrass picker or singer. This is the birthplace of so many incredibly iconic bluegrass and mountain music performers. What’s interesting is, some of the finest, most intricate pickers I’ve ever come across never actually “left the porch,” where they looked at the picking after dinner or on the weekends as pure enjoyment, as if to say, “if you were lucky enough to hear it and witness it first-hand, you were lucky enough.”

That said, in my five years at The Smoky Mountain News, I’ve had the pleasure of simply being around so many great bluegrass players, many of which live within an earshot of my home-base in Waynesville, North Carolina. Heck, one of the most successful and award-winning bluegrass groups nowadays, Balsam Range, all live in Waynesville. I run into them at the coffee shop, post office and local breweries. We’ve become great friends over the years, too, which I cherish. You also have folks like The Steep Canyon Rangers and Mountain Faith hailing from these parts. Beyond that, the more I immersed myself into the bluegrass scene, the more I kept discovering, the more questions I had, the more musicians I came across, all of which I had, and continue to have, a deep, unrelenting desire to interview and document.

Truthfully, each of the interviews in the book hold a special place in my heart. First and foremost, my decade-long friendship with Peter Rowan, who also wrote the introduction to the book, stands out. He and I have sat down and interviewed more times than I can remember. A true cosmic cowboy. Alongside that, I would also have to add the time I headed up to Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Hall of Fame in beautiful Bean Blossom, Indiana, and covered the Hall of Fame induction of my friend, Western North Carolina native and banjo great Raymond Fairchild. That was a tear-jerker standing there, watching him finally get the recognition he deserved after so many years of being either overlooked or forgotten. And then there was the time I drove all the way down to a bluegrass festival in Florida, and had planned on doing a backstage interview with David Grisman, only to have the “Dawg” bluntly say he wasn’t interested in talking to me. So, I went and sat sidestage and still watched his show, mesmerized. I swear, he kept looking over at me every-so-often and grinned, as if to acknowledge my pure love and interest in what he was doing. Following the show, he came up to me and said, “Ok, you can ask one question, but it better be good.” We ended up talking for the better part of an hour, walking away as friends.

PM: Why bluegrass? What is the appeal of the genre to you to compile a book of this nature?

GW: The beauty of bluegrass comes from the mere fact you can’t hide behind anything. It’s a human being with an instrument and a voice, standing amongst others doing the same. What you see is what you get, what you hear on an album is exactly what you will hear onstage, and amid layers of intricate jamming and soloing. There are no gimmicks or stage tricks with bluegrass. It’s honest music about honest people trying to make an honest living in a sometimes cruel and confusing world. It’s also the music of the history of America. At its core, bluegrass is the intersection of British Isles ballad traditions and African/African-American culture, in terms of slavery coming to this country. Most folks don’t realize that the banjo is actually an African instrument. So, you take those two backgrounds colliding, add in centuries of mountain isolation and a crucial tradition of oral storytelling in these mountains, and you have bluegrass.

PM: You grew up in Rouses Point, one of the northernmost towns in all of New York. I may only be able to get an answer once in a lifetime – what’s the music scene like up there?

GW: The music of Rouses Point was, and I would surmise remains, similar to many other towns of the Northern Tier and Route 11 corridor. It’s a ton of tribute bands onstage in just as many dive bars, many of which playing a heavy mixture of The Tragically Hip, Grateful Dead, April Wine, Phish, an oddly large amount of southern rock, and so on. So many tribute bands, but all of which filled with familiar faces that had, and still have, a deep love for music and musicianship. Aside from that, there is a large segment, and also appreciation, for string music and bluegrass. You have to remember, a big portion of that British Isles culture didn’t come through Ellis Island in New York City, but rather through the St. Lawrence Seaway into Quebec and Ontario, onward into Upstate New York and Vermont. As a kid, I remember plenty of bluegrass festivals, in Plattsburgh, Jericho, Mooers Forks, or wherever there was an open field on a day that wasn’t freezing. Rouses Point is pretty far away from any type of scene, unless you wandered down to Burlington, Vermont, or over the border to Montreal. So, we’d all get a bonfire together and a group of folks, grab a few cases of Labatt Blue, and rock out. There were always instruments around, but more so it’d be somebody blasting the new Phish or Strangefolk bootleg in their rusty truck with a stereo and speakers worth more than the whole vehicle.

PM: The North Country has a music culture all its own. What do you see as a standout feature to the music coming from this region of the state?

GW: A big component of the North Country music scene kind of pertains to what I had just mentioned, which is this huge appreciation for music, and also a keen aptitude for sound and rhythm. In terms of the music itself, it’s sonic signature would reside in that every band is unique, and also a sponge that soaks up whatever everybody else is doing. Running around covering shows in the North Country, and also managing one of the area’s biggest bands for a spell, I will say the camaraderie between groups is incredibly unique for a scene. Everybody who is onstage playing one show will, like clockwork, all go and see the late-night band next door following their set, the same late-night band that was rocking out in the crowd at the initial show. I also have to point out that though the North Country may seem, and is, geographically isolated, it’s that same isolation that attracts interesting and talented folks from all over the world. You see and hear so many musicians up there where many of them came from somewhere else, and with that, brought along all their musical influences and skills, only to contribute to the ever-evolving and growing pile of creativity in the North Country.

Beyond that, with never-ending, merciless winters and just the sheer nature of isolation from urban areas, folks up there have a lot of free time when they’re not hard at work trying to live and trying to survive. So, with that precious free time, they either practice their instruments or spend endless hours listening to music.

What I’ve also always liked about my fellow North Country folks is their sincere gratitude for the experience of a live show. They’ll, and myself included, go to any band that’s playing anywhere in their town, just to get down and sweat out the lingering winter and perhaps stagnant nature of life itself in that small town. And the live show is a congregation of small towns in the North Country, maybe the one time of the week you run into most of the people you know where you live. Those same folks will also throw down on a big show, too. I can’t tell you how many friends and family members of mine truly save up throughout the year to do a Phish New Year’s Eve run or follow moe. around the East Coast. We love our music, especially when performed live.

PM: How have you seen the brand of bluegrass found in New York compare to that of other areas of the country?

GW: With New York bluegrass, the obvious ambassadors would be The Gibson Brothers. They’re from a couple towns over from where I grew up, in Ellenburg Depot, the epitome of a “cow town,” where there are more cows than people when it comes to the population. They have made quite a name for themselves locally, regionally, and nationally, as one of the premier bluegrass acts anywhere today. And their story of how they came across bluegrass, and what it means to be from the North Country and such, is very similar to mine, which is why we’re become good friends over the years of crossing paths at shows and events. With the Gibsons holding strong to that traditional sound, you also see a lot of scrappier, what we would call “mountain music” bands in New York, where it’s not technically bluegrass, in terms of a traditional or mechanical sense, but the attitude and sincerity of the stage show resonates just as deeply and passionately. That scrappier New York style of, well, I guess bluegrass, seems to be played much faster than the traditional style, and with more urgency, where it’s more about getting the crowd going than actually trying to impress the audience, as if to say, “there’s no time to show off, let’s get this party started.”

PM: What is it about music that inspires you to write?

GW: Music is the one thing that makes sense to me. Whenever I’m frustrated with life, whether my own or the world-at-large, going to a live show or throwing on a favorite album brings an immediate calmness to my heart, and also a much-needed spark to the fire within my soul. I started writing about music purely by accident. It really kind of happened out-of-nowhere. And it felt good, so I kept doing it. Now? It’s my “Zen zone,” almost like a meditative state, where I have my headphones on and I dive into the depths of my thoughts, emotions and interpretations of what I see and hear, and why it’s important to, and for, the greater good. I aim to share my love for music with others, because, as we music lovers and freaks are well-aware of, there’s nothing like a live show and making a connection with those onstage and around you.

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