Musical Treasures: Auldridge, Johnson, Statman and Thile

L-R: Mike Auldridge, Mark Johnson, Andy Statman and Chris Thile

ON OCTOBER 4, the National Heritage Fellowships Concert took place at the George Washington University Lisner Auditorium in Washington, DC.

The very special event celebrated the 2012 recipients of the NEA National Heritage Fellowship. The nation's highest honor in folk and traditional arts, the Fellowship honors excellence and innovation and includes an award of $25,000. This year’s diverse group of recipients included a shipwright, a Tejano accordion player, a basketmaker -- and two respected members of the bluegrass community: Andy Statman and Mike Auldridge.

Andy Statman (shown at left) opened the concert with a solo clarinet performance of a contemporary klezmer melody that sounded like it might have been written a hundred years ago. Next, he chatted with emcee Nick Spitzer (host of American Routes) about his “amazing musical journey” that began in New York with bluegrass and jazz, and continued into traditional Jewish instrumental music, now called klezmer. Andy was joined by bassist Jim Whitney and percussionist Larry Eagle, members of his Trio, for a performance: first, an exciting fusion of jazz and klezmer… and then, Andy picked up his mandolin and played an electrifying medley of traditional melodies, tapping his bluegrass roots.

As a child in a Jewish household in New York, Andy was raised on Hasidic melodies and show tunes, klezmer, classics, early rock and folk. When his brother brought home a Flatt & Scruggs record, Andy became obsessed with bluegrass and eventually picked up the mandolin. After hearing David Grisman in Greenwich Village in 1965, he asked for lessons. "I always tell people that if the only thing I ever did was give Andy his first mandolin lesson, it would have been a life well spent,” Grisman commented years later.

Andy’s early search for his cultural and spiritual roots led him to an apprenticeship with master klezmer clarinetist Dave Tarra. His passion for bluegrass and folk music would lead to performances and recordings with progressive bluegrass band Breakfast Special, as well as Bob Dylan, David Bromberg, Bèla Fleck, and Vassar Clements. And his rich musical heritage and broad worldview would help form the foundation of the music he plays today: a compelling mélange of jazz, klezmer, and bluegrass, a sound that is unique and unforgettable. Andy’s acclaimed recordings include Songs of Our Fathers with David Grisman; In the Fiddler's House, recorded with Itzhak Perlman; and his bluegrass-inspired Andy's Ramble.

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After honoring a pair of dog sled makers and snowshoe designers, a folk arts advocate, and an Okinawan dancer, host Nick Spitzer (shown at right with Mike Auldridge and Rob Ickes) introduced the next Fellowship recipient with a personal memory.

“I used to go out to the Red Fox Inn and the Birchmere…” said Spitzer. “Bluegrass here took a special shape, because people in the region experimented and innovated with the sound. One of the founding members of one of the most beloved local bands that did that -- the Seldom Scene -- is Mike Auldridge. He is a pioneer who set a standard of performance on the instrument known as the Dobro.”

Mike was accompanied onstage by Rob Ickes, who talked about his mentor’s mastery of the resophonic guitar. “The Dobro is played with a metal bar, metal finger picks, and metal strings,” Rob explained, “so there is a lot of room for noise. Somehow, this guy figured out how to get rid of the noise, and just leave the music.” Andy Statman returned to the stage, joining Mike and Rob for a delightful performance of "Sunrise Serenade," and a medley of "House of the Rising Sun" and the old Ventures tune "Walk, Don't Run."

A Grammy winner and 2007 recipient of IBMA’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Mike started playing guitar at age 13. By age 17, influenced by Josh Graves, he had discovered the Dobro. Mike’s musical resumé includes stints with Emerson and Waldron, Cliff Waldron and the New Shades of Grass, Chesapeake, John Starling & Carolina Star, and Darren Beachley and The Legends of the Potomac. He also toured with Lyle Lovett and Emmylou Harris. But he’s perhaps best known as a founding member of the Seldom Scene, a pioneering progressive bluegrass band that incorporated elements of jazz, folk, and rock into traditional harmonies and arrangements.

After the concert, Mike said he’d been astonished to learn of the Fellowship. “I was blown away,” he commented. “I thought only classical violinists and people from the ‘highbrow’ side of music won honors from the NEA.”

But the sweetest moment of the experience happened offstage, when he saw the website created by Ickes and Betty Wheeler (a co-producer of the annual ResoSummit workshop event). “I was amazed at how many people from around the world signed on and said the most wonderful things imaginable,” he marveled. “I had no idea how many people I've influenced with my music over the years!”

The site includes personal tributes from friends and artists like Jerry Douglas, David Grisman, Patty Loveless & Emery Gordy, Jr., Tim O’Brien, Eddie Adcock, Niall Toner, Mary Chapin Carpenter – and dozens of Dobro players who had found their way to the instrument through the music of Mike Auldridge.

In what might be the most exciting news of all, Mike tells us that he is working on a new project with Ickes and Douglas: a "Dobro trio" recording. “The CD,” he says, “will feature just the three Dobros... no band.”

Watch the entire concert at http://www.nea.gov/honors/heritage/Oct4-webcast.html.

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Late this past summer, Mark Johnson took the day off from his demanding job as emergency management director in Levy County, FL. It had been a long, challenging season. Mark watched wearily as a FedEx truck pulled up to his home. When the driver handed him an envelope, he couldn’t resist a quip about Publishers Clearing House.

Much to Mark’s shock and delight, the envelope contained a letter notifying him that he’d been selected as the recipient of the third annual Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. Also in the envelope: an unrestricted check for $50,000.

(At right: Steve Martin & Mark Johnson)

Established to reward artistry and bring greater visibility to bluegrass performers, the award was previously given to Noam Pikelny and Sammy Shelor. Judges for the award include musicologist Neil Rosenberg, plus a group of highly-regarded banjo players: Tony Trischka, Alison Brown, Béla Fleck, J.D. Crowe, Pete Wernick, and Steve Martin himself, as well as Martin’s wife, writer Anne Stringfield.

The recipient is a person… who has given us a fresh appreciation of this music, through artistry, composition, innovation or preservation,” the letter said. As the innovator of clawgrass, a style that combines clawhammer picking with three-finger bluegrass banjo technique, Mark’s approach to his instrument caught Martin’s ear.

“Every time I listen to one of his records,” Martin told a New York Times interviewer, “I think, wow, this is the sound of the banjo that made me fall in love with it.”

Almost two months later, and it seems like the wild ride has just begun for Mark Johnson. “I am still pinching myself,” he says. “It is bigger than I ever thought or imagined.”

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For quite a while, mandolinist Chris Thile ignored the mysterious phone calls. Emanating from a Chicago number that he didn’t recognize, the calls kept coming, and then he got a cryptic voicemail, advising him not to tell anybody about the message. His manager checked out the number. The calls, he told Chris, seemed to be coming from the MacArthur Foundation.

"I think I must have turned white," Chris told the Associated Press. "I've never felt so internally warm. My heart was racing. All of a sudden, I felt very askew physically. I was trying to catch my breath. ...I thought, 'Oh my God, did I win a MacArthur?'"

(At left: Thile waits for the call in a dressing room.)

Indeed he had. After launching his career as a hotshot young mandolinist with progressive bluegrass trio Nickel Creek, and making intriguing, wholly unique music with acts like Punch Brothers and the Goat Rodeo Sessions, Chris Thile now belongs to a truly exclusive group: recipients of the MacArthur Fellowship, a “genius grant” in the amount of $500,000 paid over the course of five years.

Each year, the notoriously private John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awards 20-40 grants to a small group of U.S. citizens or residents working in any field, who "show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work." According to the Foundation's website, "the fellowship is not a reward for past accomplishment, but rather an investment in a person's originality, insight, and potential."

Chris says he may use some of his award to “work on a project that would exist with little regard to genre or the preconceived notions that might go with it,” he told an interviewer for Paste Magazine, adding laughingly, “I also think I might get a mandolin.”