Known as the father of bluegrass Monroe had go through the ranks of his band, The Bluegrass Boys a succession of great players, the recently deceased banjo great, Earl Scruggs (as in Lester) Flatt & Scruggs) being one of many. Others too many to mention include Del McCoury, Peter Rowan, Kenny Baker, Bill Keith, Jimmy Martin, David Grisman and the great fiddle player Kenny Baker.
The first time I heard recordings of Bill Monroe’s music I was surprised by the excitement in his mandolin playing and singing. I’d never heard that much life before in country music’ states mandolin legend Roland White. On making reference to Monroe.
Laurie, I am ever amazed by the consistency of your music and how each record carves out a special place?
Music is my best outlet for my heart and soul and I try and use it that way. I do not do something to fill up a space on a cd but really want to express myself on everything I put on there.
On your current album I was especially impressed with your song, ‘The Pharaoh’s Daughter’ I believe is one of the best you have ever written?
People seem to be really enjoying that song. Sometimes, when I start to write I don’t know where they are going to end up, I don’t know what the punch line is or the moral of the story! It tends to become clearer as it goes along and it was like that here.
It is like your music, for although you are often termed a bluegrass act there is a whole lot more to it than that. Even though you have made this album in celebration of Bill Monroe’s life and music you are also have country, folk, swing and singer-songwriter ties and it tends to all roll into one?
Yes, I believe Bill’s music was at least half-based on his music songwriting. There is a good argument for bluegrass seen as a singer-songwriter with a string band! Historically, I feel I fit right in there. It is one stream and not many. It was Bill’s way of telling a story; he called them true songs because he wrote from his life experience.
What was it that attracted you to bluegrass music and Bill Monroe in particular?
It was the instrumental playing and the combination of those instruments. You have the bounce, drive and beauty in among the fiddle, mandolin, banjo, guitar and upright string bass— they can do everything. I love the singing style, it feels like it comes from the heart and is plain spoken.
Bill Monroe’s work on the mandolin emphesised just how powerful an instrument it can be performed by the right person it can really rock?
He is after all in the Rock’N’Roll Hall Of Fame! He is there not just for ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’ that Elvis Presley recorded but also for that reason.
As for the album, how did you come to record the songs by Mark Erelli?
I love the Mark Erelli track. He is a wonderful writer. Someone sent me a copy of an album of his and that song was on it, and when I heard ‘Hardfordtown 1944’ I was fascinated by the story and Tom (Rozum) grew up in Connecticut and asked him ‘bout it. Although it was before his time everybody talked about the event of devastating it was, the circus fire somehow shaped the community. When we played there all kinds of people came up to us after the show with their stories of what happened that day, older people and there. One guy who said his cousin was sick so he did not go and that is what saved him from the circus fire that day.
There is a song by (Bruce) ‘Utah’ Phillips on the album that is interesting, because he was a fantastic songwriter and great supporter of acoustic music?
Oh, yes and such a wonderful person. He put his beliefs and politics on the line every time he went on stage and he had a lot to say. I started that song ‘Going Away’ when Utah was sick and did a number of benefits for him. I had always loved it and had never done it before, and when he died we recorded it. It is a beautiful song.
American Chestnut brings us to your love of ecology and caring for the world?
I had not known anything about the American chestnut, the blight or what those forests looked like. It was like the Redwood forests but deciduous trees in the eastern mountains of North Carolina. I became fascinated by them and walking in the woods in the Appalachians in the spring time were all these shots coming out of the ground, that become 4 or 5 feet high then the blight gets them and they die. There is this root pattern just under the surface that is still alive and trying to survive 100 years after they have all been cut down.
Of the performers on the album other than your regular band you have a rather special guest vocalist, Linda Ronstadt?
Isn’t that great having her sing on my album?
You no doubt would be brought on the likes of her music. I particularly loved her early recordings on Capitol
Absolutely. She is like, because of all the radio play she got then if you were a man, it was like listening to your wife on the radio. Linda is so interwoven with my whole growing up you could not escape her voice if you tried. I wouldn’t even if I could, because I love her voice. Hearing her sing next to you is awe-inspiring.
I noticed you have Patrick Sauber (banjo) on the album, a young musician who’s father Tom is likewise a fine player?
He is a wonderful, wonderful musician. He has just worked on a duet album by him and Roland White, a one that I produced and it is going to be just great!
Is this a new string to your bow, producing?
No, it is something I have done every now and then through the years. Only I seem to be doing more of it recently. I love doing it and have got to work with some wonderful people. I think we have made some wonderful recordings and I don’t know if you are aware of a Bay Area musician called Ray Bierl and a really good bluegrass album by a young guy called David Thom I have just finished one on him too. It too is a great album.
Talking about producers, you of course have had one in your band for many years bass player Todd Phillips?
He is great and so much fun to work with in the studio. I am most grateful to have had that opportunity!
You were one of the few female acts on what I think is the finest tribute imaginable to Bill Monroe, True Life Blues (Sugar Hill) that Todd produced?
Right, I got to be on two cuts on that album. The title-cut ‘True Life Blues’ and ‘Used To Be’ with Kathy Kallick it was a great honour to have been on the record plus, it won a Grammy too so that was great.
Among other collective projects you have been involved with is the one with Dave Alvin and The Guilty Women?
Yeah! We toured a lot with that group for me. It was like being in a rock’n’roll group for me, it was very loud and with lots of energy. It was especially a treat to tour with the fantastic Cindy Cashdollar (Ray Benson’s Asleep At The Wheel).
Being involved on a tour as just another player and not the bandleader would give you time to relax and enjoy life more?
It was really an unexpected pleasure to be able to play music and not deal with logistics and everything. It made it a lot of fun.
Do you see Tom and yourself making another duet record?
We have some material we are working on and not sure when it will be but I think Tom needs to do a solo album first.
Will you be the producer?
I think so. I sort of held off and said, you should look for another producer and not look so close to home and that would be better for him. The more I listen to his music and his songs the more I think I am going to have to jump in there and make it happen! She laughs. His music is so great and it seems to be a sticking point for him to go out there and find someone else so I am going to jump in and make it my next project.
Going back to the record, I notice you spell ‘Ten Brooks’ (of the song ‘Mollie And Tenbrooks’) differently (Broeck) to Bill’s version of the song why was this?
That is how the horses name was originally spelt. I believe he was named after his owner who was Dutch hence the spelling.
It is one of those songs that have stood the test of time as has ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’ —what decided you to include it on the record?
Because I love it! I love Bill’s version of it, with Chubby Wise playing fiddle and the mandolin-playing tremolo behind the fiddle solo and stuff I just wanted to reproduce that in some small way. Try and give it a nod of appreciation of Bill’s original version of that song.
What do you see as being your own next recording project?
This album is pretty much just out and I haven’t been looking ahead right now. I have a couple of ideas and a bunch of songs I have written and want to record. But they aren’t particularly of a bluegrass vein. We will have to see how they manifest themselves when I record them so that may help decide what direction the album will go. I tend to follow my muse when it comes to situations like that.
Quite recently I heard The Sweetback Sisters do a version of Texas Bluebonnets?
Yes, I love their version and was so honoured to have such a great band do the song. For they are a great live band.
Do you think it is easier to make a good recording today compared to 25 – 30 years ago?
Yes, it is. You can get a good recording in your house. Which is how a lot of the stuff on Skippin’ and Flyin’ was made. You have to buy good equipment and know what you are doing. However, the flip side of that is difficult once you get an album out to get people to pay attention because the market is flooded with music. It is so hard to get people to pay attention to a new record because there is so just so much music accessible and the fact everybody can put something out.
What is it about the West Coast and acoustic music that makes it sound so special?
Well, I think the landscape. It tends to shape the music quite a bit. It draws people and it keeps people here. It keeps me here! I love the land here so much. I think about moving elsewhere once in a while but every time I come back and smell that ocean air and see my beautiful hills of home I don’t want to leave. It has that attraction and draw to a lot of creative people so there’s a lot of give and take in the community. It is very exciting living here!
Finally, who were you heroes when you were growing up?
Um, when I was growing up. I had my big heroes on early television. I had the Lone Ranger, Cisco Kid, Tarzan and Robin Hood, she laughs. Then music jumped in, I was a big fan of Sam And Dave, Otis Redding before I got in bluegrass where it has been Ralph Stanley, Carter Stanley, Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, and Vern Williams and Ray Park our local heroes. There are so many great players I could mention.
Is there any chance you might do anything else with Linda Ronstadt?
She isn’t really doing anything these days but we did do a great duet for a Tribute Album to Hazel Dickens that Rounder is putting out. It is an a cappella version of ‘Pretty Bird’ and I just love how it sounds!
She was an amazing person. Who helped pave the way for acoustic female folk country, bluegrass acts. She was a female version of Utah Phillips if you like? She was outspoken and fought for a number of causes especially the rights of those working in the mines?
Yes, exactly she was just going to say that.