Interviewed by Niles Hokkanen
Mandocrucian’s Digest #14
America’s only MANDOLIN publication!
Q: What’s the difference between playing old time mandolin and bluegrass mandolin?
The most basic thing is probably that with old time stuff, you pretty much
just play the tune. Since old time is more dance-oriented music,
as opposed to the sort of solo approach that bluegrass has, at least instrumentally,
what I always did was pretty much just play the tune – follow the fiddle
player. And lots of times, you’d play the same tune for seemingly
days on end, and there wouldn’t be a single break taken by anybody.
Everybody would play the whole way through. As opposed to bluegrass,
where you get a little solo one or two times through the tune, and basically
what you do is follow the structure of the tune but you get your chance
to sort of go and make up – improvise a little bit on it.
JW: Well I can see that in thinking about certain mandolin players – people who are sort of known for having a very syncopated sound – somebody like Jimmy Gaudreau, for example. And even Skaggs when he was playing mandolin pretty much all the time – he had a syncopated style that would sound more like a bluegrass player – if they played a straight-ahead fiddle tune. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that playing old time tunes (I’m just talking about the way I play) – when I started learning to play the mandolin, it was mainly from sitting around in jam sessions with a bunch of fiddle players. I might have been the only mandolin player, or there might have been one other guy and there’d be 2 or 3 fiddlers and a couple of clawhammer banjo players, so I learned to play the mandolin by listening to fiddle players.
I didn’t really study or listen to bluegrass to pick up mandolin licks; I listen to bluegrass because I love the singing, so I guess that I ended up playing more of a straight eighth note approach with a sort of built-in (there’s sort of line a half a dot) triplet feel. But then, you also don’t accentuate any sort of syncopation the way some bluegrass players do – maybe it’s the rhythm more than just the notes.
Q: When I play old time tunes, I like to approach them like a clawhammer banjo player might and I do a lot of stuff across the strings. For me, that captures the sound of that music more than just playing it with a pick (single line). I just wondered if you did any characteristic things like drone placement or things like that?
JW: I don’t know. Ha, ha. Like I say, I would follow the fiddle players. If that meant that when I had an open string to play, especially if it was more than just one eighth note, lots of times I would also hit the next lowest string at the 7th fret and do like a one-note doublestop (unison). I do that with my little finger; I do that a lot, tending to go for that rather than play another couple of notes.
Q: Did you do the slide up to the 7th fret like I see fiddlers do?
JW: Yeah. Rather than hammer-on, I would slide up. Also, lots of times, if the tune involved playing a note on an open string for just one eighth note and then dropping back down to the string below again, I would just ease my little finger and get that note on the 7th fret rather than playing the open string, cause that note would (otherwise) tend to jump out a little bit too much because it is a different string to begin with, and then an open string as well. It might ring a little bit longer. I did that, I guess, cause fiddle players do it a lot, too.
Q. Did you ever try to translate any of that “bow rocking” stuff fiddlers do onto mandolin?
JW: No, never did too much of that. I guess part of it was that a lot of the fiddlers that I learned from just didn’t do that sort of thing, and I started playing back in about ’68, around Chapel Hill and Durham, North Carolina. (I was going to Duke.) There was a heavy fiddle tune scene there in those days – very old-time oriented, West Virginia – Henry Reed, a lot of stuff that Alan Jabbour did (he was still around there when I first started playing.) And those fiddle players pretty much just stayed right in that real straight ahead old time style – didn’t do too much bow-rocking, but like a lot of bluegrassers do. They didn’t do anything like even what Tommy Jarrell would do. They would listen to Tommy Jarrell and go “whew” and shake their heads, “he sure is good” and then play the tune without trying to copy him in any way. I never did try to do too much of that bow technique. Left-hand technique I tried to copy more than anything else, I guess.
Q: Did you ever do the bowings with hammer-ons/pull-offs? Sometimes you can kind of get the slur patterns, but it’s tricky.
JW: Yeah. Yeah, I mean I would hammer-on some notes rather than picking every note, if that’s what you mean. But I wouldn’t do that all the time in the same tune either – just something to make it sound a little bit different every time, even without changing the note you can do different things -- tho you play the exact same notes each time through and still make it sound different, depending on whether you pick all the notes, or hammer-on or pull-off, or slide, or not slide, that sort of thing.
Q: Was mandolin your first instrument or were you playing guitar before that?
JW: I played guitar before that and I had even taken piano and clarinet lessons much earlier. But I started in playing guitar in the early 60’s and was playing pretty much that. And then I was at a music party and somebody had just left their mandolin just sort of sitting around and I picked it up and started doodling on it and decided I would try to find one and see what I could do with it. I got one, a Gibson A-5, symmetrical with two wings/horns, bi-laterally symmetrical. Well, this was unbelievable; the finish on it a very, very yellow and red sunburst that friends of mind called the “lollipop” ‘cause, oh, man, it was something.
My family went on vacation that summer out to my mother’s sister’s house out in Iowa. And I took the thing along and was noodling away on it in the living room one day and my aunt came in and said, “Oh, I have a Gibson mandolin.” I’m just like…”I beg your pardon?” She goes out, literally, out to the garage, climbs up on a chair or something and gets this thing down out of a cabinet up on the wall of the garage, and it was an A-2 that she had bought when she got out of high school, like in 1920 or ’21, hadn’t played it, she said, in 30 years or something like that. She said “You can have it; if you sell it, send me the money.” So I sold the other one and kept it; sent her some money. Ha, ha.
It’s a real nice old A model mandolin. So then I had an instrument that I felt a lot more comfortable about taking out at jam sessions, rather than having people put on their sunglasses. Ha, ha, ha. Cause then they sort of look at it as if it sort of increased my stature in their eyes.
Q: Where did you grow up?
JW: I grew up in Durham, North Carolina
Q: Was the old time stuff something you grew up hearing (No, no) or were you just a rock and roll kid?
JW: Well, I liked folk music in what people call the folk scare of the early 60’s. A friend of mine had started taking guitar lessons from a guy there in Durham, learning folk songs. So I started singing some with him, and then I got a guitar and started playing a little bit. And then he started learning bluegrass banjo, so I started backing him up and we started learning a few bluegrass things.
Then I met those people who were in the original Hollow Rock String Band, there in the first part of 1968, and that was Bertram Levy, Alan Jabbour, Bobbie Thompson, and Tommy Thompson. And then I found out there were parties going on on a regular basis out at Tommy and Bobbie’s house out in Durham County, actually not all that far from where I was, 3 or 4 miles.
Q: What was Bertram Levy playing?
JW: He played mandolin. I guess he really was one of my first influences on the mandolin, although even he wasn’t around for very much longer after I started getting with those people. He was finishing up medical school, and I guess, went out to Seattle not too long after that. But he was basically a straight-ahead, play-the-tune player and didn’t put in too much variation note-wise, and so that seemed to me to be a pretty reasonable way to do it when I was seeing him play at these parties. So I started listening to the tunes and pretty much playing them as I heard them.
Q: When did you get into Hollow Rock?
JW: In a way it was sort of a studio thing. Rounder asked Alan if he wanted to make a record. So Alan asked me and Tommy if we would back him up. After we had done the session and it was pretty much the same sort of thing as the first Hollow Rock String Band record, we thought that maybe we would just call it the HOLLOW ROCK STRING BAND and actually asked Bertram if it was alright if we called ourselves that. And he said, “Fine, weren’t no big deal to him,” or if it was, he didn’t say it was. (Ha, ha.) And we played a few jobs, but mainly it was after all that had pretty much gone by the wayside. (THE HOLLOW ROCK STRING BAND – Rounder 0024.)
Q: Well that LP seemed like it was pretty influential in the second wave of old time revival. I used to run into a lot of people that had it. (Rounder LP and the Fuzzy Mountain String Band.) (THE FUZZY MOUNTAIN STRING BAND – Rounder 010. SUMMER OAKS AND PORCH, The Fuzzy Mountain String Band – Rounder 35.)
JW: Well that may have gotten around more than that first Hollow Rock album, just because of availability. The first one, which came out, I think, in ’68, was on the Kanawha label and they did, I think, one pressing of about 500 copies. He just did this one little teeny pressing and then that was it. So it was a record that lived on probably more in people’s minds than in their actual record collections. Probably tapes of it got circulated and all, and maybe the name of the band got out there more.
Like “Over the Waterfall.” That’s where “Over the Waterfall” came from was that first Hollow Rock String Band record. This old time tune that everybody learned to play cause it was a nice, pretty-sounding tune and not very hard. It ended up – I heard a guy in Alaska playing it one time, sitting ‘round playing it on his guitar and he finished it and said, “That’s a nice old Irish tune, isn’t it?” I said, “Actually – well……” (Ha, ha.)
So I guess the Rounder album just got out to more people because of its distribution and all.
Q: Why don’t you tell us something about what was going on there in regards to the old time scene during that period?
JW: The Fuzzy Mountain String Band was doing an album for Rounder about the same time that we did the Hollow Rock, they were still living there. Alan at this time was in Washington already; he was head of the Folksong Archive, Library of Congress at that point.
But Tommy and I were still there in Durham and Chapel Hill and all the Fuzzies were there too – Bill Hicks and the Owen Brothers and Bobbie Thompson. Let’s see … they did two records. I think Barry and Sharon Poss might have been in on … or Sharon, at least, was on the second one. Barry Poss started Sugar Hill (Records); he got in there with Dave Freeman and County (Records) and originally Sugar Hill was sort of an off-shoot and then became totally separate. But Barry was an old time banjo player back then.
So there they was – we’re talking now ’71 or ’72. The Fuzzies were playing around. There was still a pretty good music scene there, old-time scene. In fact, there still is, to a certain extent. It’s not so centralized as it was back then where people would throw regular parties. But there is still a number of real good old-time players in Durham and Chapel Hill.
Q: What relation was Bobbie Thompson to Tommy Thompson?
JW: They were married, and then she got a job at Princeton and left Durham and on her way up there, she got killed in a wreck and that was in the first part of ’72, I think. She was a real good guitar accompanist for fiddle tunes, a lot of bass runs, but nothing fancy, and really kept the beat real good. She was an influence on my guitar playing for the old-time stuff, too, ‘cause I liked the way it sounded – what she did.
Q: Now, Red Clay Ramblers started out as a straight old-time outfit…
JW: Yeah, pretty much. Tommy and I had been playing together as an old-time duo, starting about ’69 or ’70. For awhile we had a guy playing with us who was more of a bluegrass fiddler who liked old-time music and knew a lot of tunes…a guy named Al McCanless. He was on that first, that Folkways, album that we did – THE RED CLAY RAMBLERS WITH FIDDLIN’ AL MCCANLESS.
We had been living in and out of town for a few years and in the fall of ’72, Tommy and I were back in the Durham/Chapel Hill area and asked Bill Hicks to start playing with us. He was still more or less playing with the Fuzzy Mountain String Band, as much as they were working, but that wasn’t all that much.
We just started playing in the bars in Chapel Hill doing any sort of old-time music that we felt like doing. We did a lot of vocals. (The Fuzzies and Hollow Rock were…well, the Fuzzies did more vocals but Hollow Rock hardly did any singing.) So we did more vocals than instrumentals. I played guitar mostly, although Tommy would play some guitar and I would play mandolin. Doing tunes and old-time songs.
Q: But then you started getting into the original material – stuff somewhere between Tin Pan Alley and Zap Comix. “Merchants Lunch” and all that.
JW: Part of that was the guy who played piano with us, Mike Craver. He liked the music that we did; he got into playing old-time music listening to me, Tommy and Bill playing in bars in Chapel Hill. We ended up doing a play there in Chapel Hill that Mike was playing piano for. We played some music together and we liked the way it came out so….
He was more into Tin Pan Alley stuff than the rest of us. When we got him to join the band, we could then do more swing and blues type stuff than we’d been able to do before…with the piano and all. That also freed me up to play more mandolin. I had been playing mostly guitar ‘cause we needed the more bassy sound with Tommy playing mostly banjo, and Bill on the fiddle.
We started out as a trio and then added Mike. (The bass player, jack Herrick, came along later.) So when Mike joined I could play more mandolin, when it was appropriate.
So, we could do more of this Tin Pan Alley stuff, and just for variety…And because we were willing to try anything….At least try it. (Ha, ha.) Whether it worked out or not…If we decided it didn’t work, we wouldn’t do it anymore. If we thought it worked, then we would do it and we didn’t worry so much about whether we were being an old-time string band or not; we were just interested in playing music rather than being locked into a particular type of music.
As far as the mandolin goes, I had played some bluegrass, so I could pop chords just like a bluegrass player. Somebody actually talked to me one time about the fact that he hadn’t really seen an old-time mandolin player play bluegrass-type chords. So, I didn’t feel like I had to play the tune all the time.
Q: Were you comfortable taking solos?
JW: Yeah. It was basically again…the solos that I took on stuff like that were more like an old-time style rather than being a more uptown or jazz flavored type of solos.
Q: So it was more like fragments of the melody with kind of connecting runs and licks between important notes.
JW: Yeah. Yeah. And I guess that was getting towards an old time bluegrass style than just an old-time-fiddle-tune style of playing, back when the mandolin wasn’t so much of a spectacular….
Q: Brother duet era…
JW: Yeah, that kind of stuff.
Q: When did the Red Clay Ramblers really start to take off or catch on? Could it be dated with any particular album?
JW: It’s kinda hard to say.
It’s like each album was getting more people aware of us. Like I’ve
talked to Robin and Linda Williams and they said that STOLEN LOVE, which
was the first one we did on Flying Fish (FF 009) – they listened to that
all the time. Now we had piano on that and I think we had a Bessie
Smith song on there, and a World War One song, “Keep the Home Fires Burning,”
that Mike knew. We just did a bunch of different stuff. STOLEN
LOVE had piano on it as a member of the band and that was sort of new in
terms of what everybody else was doing in old-time music those days.
We’d find a song and if we all liked it and thought we could do it, we would go from there and say, “Well, how do we want to do it?” We would try some songs several different ways – noodling with the trumpet or piano, or two guitars, or mandolin and fiddle – however we thought we could mess with it.
And then some with the original stuff, too. There weren’t very many bands, old-time style bands, that were writing any material, especially some of that weirdo stuff…
Q: “Merchants Lunch”! (Ha, ha.) That’s like an S. Clay Wilson (underground) comic or something.
JW: Well, you should have been in there that night! We played a job in Nashville at Randy Woods’ Old Time Pickin’ Parlor and then after the show went out looking for something to eat, and went into the Merchants Lunch down there on Broadway.
Q: So it’s an actual place?
JW: Yeah, it was right next to the Merchants Hotel which is mentioned in “Nobody Eats at Limebaughs Anymore,” a great song by John Hartford. I can’t remember how long Opryland had been open at that point, but Opryland took away a lot of the sort of whatever classy nature there might have been in downtown Nashville. What it left behind was the same bars that had been open, but everybody who had thought they could come to Nashville and be a star and had been there ten or fifteen years and hadn’t gotten anywhere and were reduced to playing anywhere they could.
It was pretty much the same situation like the malls are at the edge of town so everybody goes there and nobody comes into downtown anymore and so it goes downhill. That’s basically what happened back then to Nashville.
So we went into the Merchants Lunch. It was late at night and there was a country band playing and a lot of people who looked like they’d been bumping into walls all night long. So we just sort of sat there and watched our backs a lot.
But I’m sure that most everybody’s had something like that happen to them at some point. You go into a place and you sit down before you really check the place out. Maybe you get sorta established there and then you take a look around and realize you’ve made a very serious mistake! (Ha, ha.) Tommy and Mike, at some point later on decided they needed to write a song just trying to get across the basic atmosphere of the place as opposed to any particular event that happened. And that’s basically what that song is about.
Q: A Tom Waits kind of scene!
JW: In a way. More upbeat… I’m telling you, that was something. And then they wrote this song…They had a whole bunch of lyrics and had the idea of one guy singing a line and the answering back and everything. They said, “Well, we might have to change some of this.” “No, no, we can fit it all in.” So, it turned out to be really weird in the way the rhythm came and the way all the lines worked together; we would have to jam some real close together and stretch other things out, rhythmically speaking.
Q: That seemed to be one of your “hits.”
JW: Yeah, it was…because it was so bizarre. It was a funny song and the arrangement of it was the sort of thing that grabbed people, too. It was in a minor key, and with one guy singing by himself and three other people answering back in three-part harmony. And sort of up-tempo and a trumpet break in the middle of it and a key change later on. It had all the elements that at least people would notice. And that sort of thing just sort of happened; we didn’t sit down and figure out, “Well, what can we do to the song to make people really listen to it?” It was sort of an organic arrangement, in a way.
Q: Did the success of that song widen the path in a certain direction?
JW: Well I guess I don’t know whether it would have been that song in particular any more than sort of everything we did taken together. We would do old-time fiddle tunes, we could do Tin Pan Alley type stuff. We could do sort of Dixieland sounding stuff, Carter Family tunes. We did a whole variety of stuff and the best thing about it all was that it always sounded like us. It didn’t sound like a bunch of people sounding like several different bands. It was one band, always the same band, but doing a variety of material.
Q: You were also playing upright bass then too?
JW: Whenever Jack played trumpet, then I’d play bass, pretty much. And that might only be two or three songs a set; actually it wasn’t all that much. Most of the time I played mandolin.
Q: When did you leave Red Clay?
JW: Mike Craver and I actually left about the same time, about three years ago. Some of the guys were doing a play for a little while and the band actually didn’t play for about six months. And they worked a couple other people in and there’s been another personnel change since then.
Q: The later LPs seemed to move further and further away from the string band tradition and turned more to ‘20’s and ‘30’s type stuff.
JW: Well, we did…Yeah. (Ha, ha.)
You’re right. That’s just the way it developed, I guess. We would do…the instrumentals we did were still more the old-time style although we started getting more into Irish music.
We got a new fiddle player in ’81, a guy named Clay Buckner. He was more into Irish stuff than Bill Hicks was, and Jack started playing pennywhistle, so we started doing more Irish stuff.
Now, I think they’re doing more because one of the guys, I think, plays accordion and can also play that sort of Irish style guitar accompaniment like what Michael O’Domhnaill does and those guys in that DADGAD tuning.
Yeah, we started doing more modern type stuff, anyhow.
Q: And there was all that stage production stuff going on.
JW: Yeah, yeah. Actually I think one of the last albums that we did, one of the last ones that I was on, which was the music from A LIE OF THE MIND which was this Sam Shepard play we did in New York, starting the very end of ’85 and running to about the first half of ’86. We put together a bunch of old-time stuff and country stuff and a few originals songs to go with this play and then did an album of that stuff. I like that album a lot.
Q: Do you have a favorite Red Clay album?
JW: Well, I think either that one or MERCHANTS LUNCH. The MERCHANTS LUNCH album was like…that had everything that we did. It had straight-ahead old-time stuff; we had a fiddle tune with just guitar, fiddle and banjo. Me and Mike and Tommy sang “Daniel Prayed” on that. We had “Merchants Lunch” –the song, a Fats Waller tune – “Sweet and Slow.” We had a bunch of different stuff on there, but also really good, what I thought was, good, solid stuff.
And then I like the LIE OF THE MIND album (Sugar Hill 8502) because I think that the material on it is really strong. I got to sing a really country song on it – “I Love You a Thousand Different Ways.” We had some real interesting original tunes on there, several written by Tommy and Jack, and one written by Mike. Some old blues stuff – an old Skip James tune that Sam Shepard liked a lot and wanted in the show. And did “In the Pines” using basically three-part harmony, bluegrass type harmony, all the way through but accompaniment only with a finger picked guitar and mandolin, and then with the Bill Monroe high falsetto stuff at the end.
It’s a pretty interesting album. It’s got some little instrumental shots that were pieces of underscoring and stuff like that used throughout the play. Some of them lead into tunes, and goes out of others.
Q: Were you writing any original material?
JW: I wasn’t. I have made up about three or four tunes in the last couple of years, on mandolin, I guess, but not songs or tunes back then.
Q: You guys were all full-time players during those years?
Q: Did you ever get to the point where you said, “I can’t take this anymore?”
JW: Actually, no. I always did like the travel, partly because I really love doing performances, I think is what it comes down to. I love playing music, especially in band situations. I always did like going to jobs, different places, meeting new people, getting up in front of a crowd and doing our stuff as good as we could do it, making everything sound right.
And I still do. I’m playing a lot of bass with Robin and Linda Williams these days. It’s great fun working with them and I’m singing harmony parts with them, too, filling in the third part. They’re wonderful people to work for. It’s just fun to get out there and play the music.
And I never did mind so much
sitting in a vehicle and riding for hours, but a lot of people – it drives
‘em nuts, I realize that. I’m sort of maybe even unusual in this
respect. But I always have a good time. Well…not always, but
most of the time it doesn’t bug me like it does a lot of people.
JW: We did a lot of travelling. We went to Africa one time – one of those USIA tours.
Q: What was that like?
JW: It was wild. For one thing…now, this was one time where the trip was too long—it was 8 weeks’ trip, 10 countries in 8 weeks. It got to be so that we were tired of going places.
There was another band, a zydeco band along with us – John Delafose & the Eunice Playboys. They were a lot of fun to be around. They had a couple of guys in the band that were really hilarious guys, fun to spend some time with.
It was interesting to just get over there. You go to some places with some sort of preconceived notion about what it’s going to be like, and I found that once I got over there I just had to chuck all of that out the window and try and just start completely from scratch. Because…not that everything was so wildly different from what I thought it was going to be…I don’t know if I can explain it. The whole atmosphere was different than it is over here, and you’ve just got to go into it with a completely open mind. L If you have any preconceptions, get rid of ‘em, just so you can sort of take everything in as it comes to you and not have it affected by the way you thought it was going to be.
It was a real interesting trip; saw a lot of great things, drank a lot of good African beer. In some ways, beer is the best thing to drink over there. They’ve got a lot of really good local beers in the various countries. You could of course get the imports for about 5 times more dough, but the local beer was at least as good as anything else you were going to get. In some places you go into and they say, “The water’s fine.” And other places they would say, “Don’t even think about using it. Don’t drink it, don’t brush your teeth, watch out for a drink with ice in it.
It was a fun trip; I’m really glad I did it, but it was too long, travelling on planes, trains, and all that stuff. It just got to be too much.
Q: Did you have a particular favorite among the European countries?
JW: That’s hard to say. We had a pretty good time in all of ‘em…again, when the travelling wasn’t so gonzo. There were some trips we did that were absurd…Like the first one, I imagine, for everybody that goes over there is just crazier than it ought to be because you don’t know what you’re getting into. And, that’s the way ours was; we went over for six and a half weeks and rode around in a Volkswagen bus packed in like sardines. We may have done 10,000 miles in that particular time.
I can speak a little French. We had been in France for like a week and a half and I was going all the MCing, trying to speak French. People would come up to me and I would try to talk to them, and it’s hard because I hadn’t studied French in ten years and I hadn’t been that great a student. So we went to England after being in France and it was like such a relief being able to talk to just anybody, to be able to read just anything, to be able to know everything that’s going on without having to work at it so hard! I was getting sort of physically exhausted from having to speak French. But they liked the music all over the place, so it’s kind of hard to say whether it was one country that we liked better than anything else.
Q: When did you start playing with Robin and Linda Williams?
JW: Last fall. I’ve known them for a long time and have played music with them; I even did a little recording with them about ten years ago, I guess it was, on the DIXIE HIGHWAY SIGN album. Played bass on a few cuts. But I got into actually travelling with them last fall.
Q: What had you been doing in the interim?
JW: Well I worked in summer times at this theater in Lexington, Virginia – Lime Kiln Arts. An outdoor theater, sort of repertory theater. One of the shows they do is a musical based on the life and times of Stonewall Jackson which Robin and Linda wrote the music for, Peter as well. So, I do a little bit of acting, play bass on a bunch of the tunes, guitar on a few. This was my third summer there.
And in the meantime, I was mainly just staying around Chapel Hill just doing a variety of musical things – playing bass in a bluegrass band. And playing mandolin in an old-time band with Bill Hicks and his wife and another banjo player. Our approach was kind of like Red Knuckles & The Trailblazers –doing the music as good as we could but the presentation behind just sort of as off-the-wall as we could possibly make it.
So…just play as much music as I could and have a good time doing it.
Q: You’ve got an old Gibson F-2 which is somewhat unusual because it is a brown sunburst instead of the usual red sunburst or blackface.
JW: The story that I’ve heard is that it was refinished in the ‘30’s. Now that was binding that was added on the back was probably done before the refinishing because it is the same color as the binding on the top.
Q: Do you have a preference for any particular strings? What kind of pick do you like?
JW: I use a pretty stiff pick, kinda triangular. Strings…those bright bronze d’Addario. I like the sound of them and they last. I haven’t always been able to find them. In fact, the music store in Chapel Hill just isn’t what it used to be.
May 20, 2007