Jenny Anne Mannan

American Songstress

Filtering by Category: Music

Music Festivals: A Family Tradition

Last week I met up with my friend Kimber Ludiker, fiddle player for the amazing and inspiring (and coincidentally all-girl allstar) band, Della Mae, and played an opening set before their show out in the Spokane Valley. The evening turned into a mini festival, with lots of music, passels of kids running around, and a full moonrise over the mountains. Summer night air, high lonesome singing, hot picking...these are the sights and sounds of some of my fondest childhood memories. My darling friend Brittany Roberson showed up with her camera and captured some of the fun.

See, there's Kimber. She's rad. Seriously, I'm not just saying that because I like her. She's a total badass. I mean, both her parents are national fiddling champions themselves, so I guess it makes sense that she's a 2-time national fiddle champion and lives and breathes fiddle magic.

That's my mom's guitar strap, by the way.

There's Caleb and Waylon watching and listening...


And this right here is really what festivals are all about. Throwing as much food and drink at the kids as possible and then turning them loose to run and play so as to keep them out as far past their bedtimes as possible.


Here is my lovely Violet, with my lovely photographer friend Brittany.

This Saturday I'm playing at the Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival, so we'll have a chance to do it all over again. 

Oh and I'll have my brand new CD for sale. You should come. Bring your kids and listen to some music and make some memories!


So. A few things.

This morning I overheard my son telling his sister that he can't wait for swimming lessons, it's gonna be so fun, which reminded me that I haven't even looked at the pool calendar yet. But wait, that's not the part I meant to tell you about. Oh well, we've gotten started now so I guess I'll tell you anyway. Also I was shocked at the unbridled and unfeigned excitement in his voice, since last year I had to try every trick in the book to keep him from making a spectacle of himself (okay, a spectacle of me) at his lessons, including threats, bribery, cheerleading, peer pressure, and shame, concluding each day of fun with tossing him off the diving board to his swim instructor, and still, despite all my wonderful parenting and coaching, he scored a solid NW in every category of his evaluation.

His favorite part of swimming last year was sitting on the edge of the pool and playing with the squirty crab toy. He still talks about it.

But, okay, so he's excited to go back? I have to get right on that.

Anyhoo, that's not the part I meant to tell you about. What I meant to say is, the calendar now officially says it's summer, whether the weather agrees or not, and I've got a few things coming up that I want to highlight.

1. I am working on finishing up my record. Still. It's been exactly a year since we started recording, and I think it's actually going to get done! I can't believe it. I feel like I'm in the last 3 miles of a 1/2 marathon - you know, the part where I'm literally cursing myself out loud and wondering why in the world I ever did this on purpose. I could have stayed in bed this morning and slept longer! I could be drinking hot coffee right now instead of sweating my brains out and running my legs clean off and peeing my pants just so that I can say I ran really far. (I realize that's way too much information. Sorry.) But I just have to try to remember the feeling of crossing the finish line and hang onto that, because I know it will be just the same with this record. It's been such a group effort on so many levels, and sharing my progress, slow though it has been, with all of you has kept me energized and inspired. Caleb and I are finishing up the artwork right now, and I cannot wait to show it to you.

(Yes. That is an open BandAid wrapper in the background.)

2. In honor of the release of my first record, my dad is helping do my very own Hatch Show Print poster. You know, these guys:

The ones who made posters for Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash and The Beatles. The ones whose work is all over the Country Music Hall of Fame. I've had 2 of their posters hanging in my house since I very first set up my house, and those images are so historic and significant. I can't believe I'll get to have my very own! I'll also keep you updated about a very special cd/poster combo pack.

3. I am playing at the Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival on August 11. My first solo festival. I am so excited.

4. On August 19, I'll be participating in a very special benefit concert for the Schuh family. The Schuhs are practically an instution in the Northwest fiddling community; they're the ones who make every contest feel like a family reunion. So of course, the fiddling community is rallying around them as Jay fights cancer. Visit the Facebook events page to find out how to donate, and how to purchase tickets. It's sure to be a great time. You won't want to miss it.

There's lots more of course. I'll keep you posted about swimming lessons.



Creative, Part 3

Does anyone else ever feel like there's an unwritten rule somewhere that says in order to be a real grownup you have to leave your creative dreams behind and get down to business? Stop living in a dreamworld, get your head out of the clouds and get to work? If you do follow your creative impulses, you should only do it behind closed doors, when the workday is done, the kids are tucked in bed, all the laundry folded and the house spotless, so that your self indulgences don't detract from your ability to perform your adult responsibilities.

This issue seems universal to creative, working women and men, stay-at-home moms and dads, virtually everyone who feels the push and pull of self-fulfillment vs. self-sacrifice. In my own experience, I am aware of an underlying logical fallacy that sets fulfillment and responsibility at odds with one another: if I find fulfillment in doing something creative, I also feel guilty for doing it because it probably comes at the expense of my family and children. If I choose to get out my fiddle or spend an evening recording or writing instead of taking my kids to the park or cleaning up the lunch dishes or waging war on the toys that have launched a full scale offensive against my living room floor and the bottoms of my feet, I feel as though I've chosen myself - my hopes and (day?)dreams and wants - over my real job.

Funny Cry for Help Ecard: My mother used to make cookies with me...but now she blogs and I pretty much raise myself.

For me, the trouble is twofold. In the first place, we live in a world that assigns value according to a very superficial, subjective critera. The world in which we live says art for art's sake is basically a self-indulgent waste of time. Artistic expression that doesn't find an audience or generate more than a couple dollars worth of income can't be that good, right? Show us the money! (Or the glowing critique or the published manuscript or whatever other form of achievement we use to define artistic success.) I have addressed this issue in Creative, Part 1 and Creative, Part 2 , exploring the notion that placing value on outcome over process is very destructive to any creative enterprise. But there is an issue that is even more basic than this one: is it true that my efforts at creative expression and fulfillment take away from my ability to perform my adult responsibilities? Does the fact that I'm a songwriter hinder my ability to show up wholeheartedly in the rest of my life? Am I a selfish mom because I continue to work on my projects, even projects that are worth a mere $2.02?

Once again, it's all backwards. I'm looking at my abilities in terms of my limitations. I'm acting as though my resources are finite and can never be replenished, as if investing creatively gives me less to offer everywhere else. I forget that artistic expression actually replenishes my resources, and infuses my daily life with a sense of hope and purpose and joy. What if...what if my creativity actually makes me better at my job? What if it makes me a better mom? What if it enriches my experience with the world, and that enrichment spills over into every area of my life? I know a very wise and wonderful preacher who says that a life of faith looks like running downhill. He says faith brings freedom, and when we are free we do whatever our hands find to do. We wake up every day and live. I don't know about you, but there's not a lot of room for self-doubt when I'm running downhill. I'm just putting one foot in front of the other, looking back with surprise and exhilaration about how far I've come. What if that's true about creativity too? What if I am really free to be myself, a songwriter with ideas and daydreams and deadlines, even in the middle of the busy grind of adult life and responsibility? And what if being my very own authentic self actually makes me a better wife, mom, friend, sister, daughter, worker, person?

So you see, when I ask if I can afford to be creative at the expense of being productive, I am asking the wrong question. If my goal is to be myself -- to occupy the unique space in the world that only I can fill -- I can't afford not to be creative.

Sun Midnight Sun: Sara Watkins

Sun Midnight Sun, Sara Watkins' second album for Nonesuch Records, came out last Tuesday. If you don't have it already, please go buy it real quick. Then meet us back here.

Sara is one of my dear friends, and I wanted to talk to her all about her new record. Actually, I wanted to talk to her about all kinds of things whilst, for once, avoiding my kids' finely honed Mommy-Is-On-The-Phone-Let's-Ask-Her-For-A-Bunch-Of-Stuff radar, so I made an appointment and holed up in my husband's office, away from needy voices and distracting antics, for a good long chat with my girl about life after 30, marriage, becoming a solo artist after Nickel Creek, and writing and recording her second album.

So. What have you been up to since your last album came out? What are the highlights?

SW: My first solo record coming out was a pretty big highlight, and there were some other things that happened right away. Turns out there are some perks to working with John Paul Jones, aside from that perk in and of itself, you get to play with some other people too. So I got to play on Jimmy Fallon with John Paul Jones, my brother Sean, and Questlove played drums on “Long Hot Summer Days”. I was freaking out. I totally rushed! [laughs] 

I got to be part of the whole Prairie Home Companion group for a little while, Garrison Keillor having me join the show for so many broadcasts was really nice. Doing the Summer Love tour was so totally different for me because I'm holding a microphone, wearing a Betsey Johnson cocktail dress, getting to walk around in heels every night...

That is just so fun! What was that like, I mean being in that kind of a situation with Garrison Keillor?              

SW: I loved it. I actually practiced holding a microphone while singing, holding the mic in my hand. The only other time I’d seriously done that was this one sort of this gimmicky song with Nickel Creek and then like karaokeing and I sound horrible when I'm singing and holding the mic and singing karaoke, so I thought, "Wow, this is totally different, I need to actually practice how to do this!" So I practiced just so that I wasn't freaked out about the mechanics of it. Which sounds totally stupid, but there it is!

But it doesn't at all sound stupid, because you know, in the setting that we grew up in, being that kind of a performer, especially as a woman, was definitely not encouraged or considered valid. But it's about being feminine and figuring out how to channel all of that energy into the performance, I think it makes so much sense. I wish I could have seen it!

SW: It was really fun. And you're right, we come from the school of sort of roughing it, where if you try to make anything too pretty it’s almost a strike against you. I mean, girls are definitely welcome to look pretty, but it’s a pretty tough scale that people are judging you on, and if you wasted any energy on showmanship when you could have worked on singing a few more notes in better tune, it’s almost unforgivable. Which is totally valuable, but it’s fun to be on the other end of it. It's still the folk world, but it's the most accepting environment possible - Prairie Home Companion fans are so loving and accepting.

What was really fun was getting to be Garrison’s date every night onstage, where I just supported him. It was like we were going to a business dinner every night and he was the selling point and I was kind of supporting him and jumping in when it was my time, and he’d let me shine in my was kind of this whole dance. And I got to sing a few of my own songs, but mostly we were just singing duets all night. I’d sit on this little bench while Garrison would tell stories and do his monologues and then I'd rejoin him and we’d sing lots of oldies and classic American songs.

 And that was a pretty unique situation, right, to be Garrison's sidekick?

SW: Um, I think he'd done some similar things on the tour, but the one thing I did do that was totally unique was guest hosting “A Prairie Home Companion”.

So did he come to you with that idea?                                                                                            

SW: During Summer Love, the final days of the tour, he told me he was hoping to have a guest host. He wanted to see the show from the sidelines, and he thought I would be good at it. I was totally blown away and of course I said yes...I got super nervous, and then I got really excited because he was going to let me bring any guests that I wanted...there were several ideas that I brought to him and he'd say, “Uh, let's do it this way instead.” And I was like, “Totally fair! Totally fair.” And it ended up of course being the right call, because he does know how to run a show after all! He was really generous.

Making the jump from fiddle whiz kid to solo artist - was that a scary transition or do you feel like it happened pretty seamlessly?

SW: It was a little intimidating, mostly on the logistic end of things. We decided in the beginning of 2006 to put Nickel Creek on the shelf, and we gave ourselves 18 months to do that, so I had plenty of time to consider what I wanted to do and just take myself more seriously as an individual artist...That, combined with the Watkins Family Hour, which was basically my other band for all of those years anyway, those were really helpful. But the biggest transition was learning how to tour manage. That was a whole different kind of stress. I kid you not, Jenny Anne, I will be a better mother because I have tour managed!

Oh of course you will!                                                                                                                             

SW: I cannot imagine having a child at that time, having not done really anything responsible, let’s be serious, for more than a couple of days at a time! [laughs] So I took on tour managing, because I remembered that my mother told me all those years that I could do anything I set my mind to. [laughs] But it was just logistics - planning flights, making sure they were the cheapest flights, reconsidering all of the options, and then touring with my brother Sean and 2 other grownup men who have toured under a lot of circumstances and really were nice to me to pal around in a minivan with me all the time and pick up different backline in every town that we were in and sleep in motels and drive hours...all the stuff that bands do but for some reason it felt, because I was making everyone do it and it was for me rather than for a united cause, it felt like I was putting everyone out a lot more. They were all really nice about it but no matter what it’s gonna feel like I’m making them do this and they’re not getting paid well enough. So that was a transition, adjusting to the logistic end of things. And then the accounting is still a nightmare. But I’m so glad for it, gave me this huge pride of ownership for a whole different side of the career, not just being a musician that people make excuses for on the business and social end of things, but owning something a little more, like owning my business, knowing how to do a little bit more of everything.

Do you think that sense of ownership has informed your artistic development also?

SW: Yeah. I think it has given me a little bit more bite into what I care about and what I want to achieve because after all, working harder for something makes you want it more.

It seems like it gives you not only more to say, but it also gives you a sense of authority when you say it.

SW: Cause I’m not just making up stories imagining how responsible people live, I’m trying to join them. [laughs]

It's where the left and the right sides of your brain unite, and there's magic in there!

When did the Watkins Family Hour start?

SW: It started when I was 21, so 2003. We were doing 3 weeks on and 1 week off with Nickel Creek, so during that one week we would do the Family Hour and it was me & Sean and Gabe Witcher. We would have friends join us as guests, people that we knew from Largo [the LA club that the Watkins Family Hour calls home], or friends who happened to be passing through town - Tift Merritt was one of our first guests, she was just passing through one night and she sang some songs. And mostly to begin with it was just us ripping off Tim & Molly O’Brien songs and Hot Rize and Bluegrass Album Band songs, just doing super easy ripoffs basically but they were really fun for us, because it was our “for fun” band.

After a year or two we decided we wanted to put a little more thought into the songs, so we tightened up the screws a little bit and there were a few years there when we had a group of consistent musicians who were the Family Hour band, and then they went on tour and that happened a few times, and the group we have with us now has been with us for probably 4 or 5 years. So whenever they’re in town they play with us. That’s the band, and then we have guests come in. Occasionally we’ll have a whole band come in as a guest, but generally it’s just a singer.  

So that’s how you met people like Jon Brion and Fiona Apple...

SW: Yeah. I met Jon one night at Largo - we opened for him one night, Nickel Creek did, and he let us play some songs with him. I would drive up every Friday night to see him, and it was a 2 hour drive home, so the owner of the club, Flanny, would let me sleep on the couch for an hour while they vacuumed before they closed down so that I could get some sleep before I drove home. [chuckles]  

How did you meet your producer, Blake Mills?

SW: I met Blake through Benmont Tench - Benmont has been the piano player for the Family Hour for many years, like 6 years now, whenever he’s not on tour [with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers]. He has on Sundays these weekly music hangs, at his house whenever he’s home, and Blake came to one of those. I think Gillian Welch brought him. And then I would see him at jams and hangs - a few times in a short while - and then we started bringing him down to the Family Hour and he would play with us. And I was trying to figure out who I would want to produce my record. I knew that I didn’t want to go for some big producer who had a big giant career and a big sound... even if I had the option. I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to afford them anyway, but I knew that I wanted something else. I loved Blake’s Break Mirrors cd and I liked his songwriting, and I saw that he’s the kind of player that when he’s around everyone kind of plays a little differently, and adjusts a little bit, and kind of redirects their thought process a little bit. It’s not through any kind of forcefulness or attention getting - on the contrary he’s more...people just sort of go to him and kind of gravitate toward where he’s directing songs. And that was really intriguing, and I always liked where things went when he was sort of directing traffic. So I asked him to produce a few songs - I knew I wanted him to produce the whole record but I kind of chickened out and just asked him to produce a few songs, to see if we could test it. He said, “Yeah, I’d love to, what do you have in mind?” And so I told him a few things that I wanted for the direction of the songs and how I wanted to approach the record, and he said, “Sounds great, let’s do it!” So we did 4 songs in November and it went really really well, and we knew by then that we were planning on doing the whole record together, so we recorded the rest of it in December and January.  

Was it kind of an audition then, those first 4 songs?

SW: It was kind of like an escrow process - an out option for both of us where...I just wanted to make sure that we worked well together in the studio. If there’s an out option, even if it doesn’t seem like anyone’s going to take it, sometimes it just helps the process...So it was just kind of, “You know, if you’re miserable, or this turns out to be a horrible idea, we don’t have to do this.” But it went really well.    

How important do you think friendships are in the studio? Do you think if you’re too close that it can inhibit the process?

SW: [laughs] That’s so important! Sometimes it can really help to know people really well, and sometimes it can get in the way because you might be working with them in a different way than the relationship generally works. So in this case, I didn’t know him very well at all. I knew that we got along, and I knew that he was a really nice guy, and that everyone respects him. He has a very good reputation. I also knew that he’s 5 years younger than I am, so that was a little funny. I really loved that he’s young. I found out after the first week of recording that he had never produced anybody officially before. He had co-produced things - stuff for Jessica Hoop, and a lot of other people - but his name was only on one or two other things and it was all co-production stuff. So this was going to be the first thing that he had produced by himself. So it was really fun. And we did it in the studio that he basically grew up in, and used his engineer...I wanted the songs to be formulated with Sean, and me, and Blake all there. That was really important because I didn’t want myself to get carried away with some really exciting idea that was totally new but really had nothing to do with who I am as a musician and who I will be out on the road...I didn’t want to put on these fancy costume clothes that I would never really wear, and I could totally see myself doing that. So having Sean there, in addition to having his incredible musical insight, was really nice because he is my band, basically. That was a guarantee that we would be working with some of the tools that I have on the road, and also it helped me stay grounded in where I come from and a place that I might be going to, and then Blake was just adding to that. So instead of leaving something familiar and adopting something totally new, having Sean there was really valuable in maintaining this continuum.    

I think that definitely comes through in the record, because Sean’s playing and what he does on your songs is such a part of the sound that we hope to hear from you, that if that weren’t there something really important would be missing. There’s all of this new and exciting stuff happening on the record, and then there is an element of grounded authenticity...which I think all works together to make something that is so multi-dimensional.

SW: Thank you!  

The duets on this record are so amazing. I remember you posting something on Twitter about recording with Fiona Apple and having a runner’s high. And then I heard the song, "You're The One I Love", and I completely understood why. Was that a song that you thought of doing with her from the beginning?

SW: Yeah. So, Fiona is a frequent guest on the Watkins Family Hour. Well, she is more than a guest - she has declared herself and we have declared her a member of the family. [laughs] So I’m always looking for songs to do with her, and I was on this Everly Brothers kick for awhile, and I heard that song and really liked it, and I just felt like it should be a little bit darker and a little bit more stalkery and more obsessive-sounding, and I thought I would really like to sing it with Fiona. I thought it would be really fun to sing it with a girl...In the fall of 2011 I finally sent it to her and said, “Dude, do you want to learn this and sing it with me?” And she said yes, and so we sang it for a few Family Hours, and then in the second half of making this record we were looking at adding a couple of songs, so “Impossible” got added, and this one, “You’re The One I Love”. I asked her to record it with me and she said yes! I had never been in the studio with her before, and she was into it, which was so much fun. We had the song recorded, and then she came in and we sang it together in the same room. And it was just so fun and so intense, it was really awesome.

Was her persona different in the studio than what you’re used to when you play live with her?

SW: Yes, not personally, she’s still Fiona. But she sounded different on the mic - like when she was singing on the mic, I thought, “Holy crap, this is the voice that I heard so long ago before I knew her!” Just the subtleties of how she gets in and out of notes, you can hear a lot better when you’re in headphones, and when she’s singing with headphones on, I think, she gets to those places. It was just really fun. And we tried a few different ways of singing it, and then the last 2 passes we didn’t break eye contact the entire time. And it wasn’t awkward, we talked about it afterwards and it wasn’t weird, you know, “Oh shoot we were looking each other in the eyes, I’m going to look away now,” it was just like the most focused energy I’ve ever had singing with somebody.

That energy really comes through. One of the things I’m always sad about when I listen to a record vs. hearing people live is that a lot of times the intensity of the performance doesn’t always translate into the studio. It’s not about the mechanics of the engineering, it’s just that the energy is so different in the studio compared to when you have an audience. But in this situation it was so obviously a magical moment that completely transcends literally feels like you’re sitting there in the room watching it. So awesome.

SW: Thanks!

And then all of the string parts on that song are so cool. On the whole record, really.

SW: Blake was really helpful with the string parts, actually. A lot of the really definitive parts, like on “I’m A Memory”, there were certain things that he asked of me that I wouldn’t have thought to do, which is always the fun of playing with people who aren’t necessarily string players. Like those soaring string parts that are kind of cinematic? Blake was like, “Can you just get from the lowest note to then the highest D in like a bar?” And I said, “Well I don’t know how I would do that without it just being like a straight arpeggio, or something, I can’t really scale up that fast...” And he came right back, “Okay, so you can’t do it. How would you do it?” Which is such a great question! So I basically just faked it 3 times in a row and it sounds like this [laughs] small string section playing fairly accurately! So suggestions like that are so fun and helpful.

I love that part! It worked out. You did it. How did you do it?

SW: I just played a bunch of notes!

I remember that you meant to have Jackson Browne sing with you on your first record and that didn’t work out.

SW: Yeah. The timing just didn’t work out, you’re right, I’d forgotten that I’d asked him that first time around. So it worked out this time. He just came by and, he’s on “You & Me”, and then “Take Up Your Spade”. And I just love how his voice comes through - it’s pretty recognizable, even though it’s not really featured. Oh and he’s on “I’m a Memory” too, he’s on 3 songs. He and Blake are really good friends, and they’d worked more closely together than I have with Jackson, so we played a couple songs for him and mentioned, “Yeah, we were hoping you’d sing on this one.” And he said, “Great!” and so he did. It was so funny when we were soloing his vocal in mixing because his voice has so much to grab onto when you listen to it - there’s the roughness, there’s the smoothness, there’s the way he gets out of each note with this’s just wonderful.

How did it feel having a person whose voice is so iconic sing a song that you wrote?

SW: It was pretty great. He’s just such a sweetheart that you don’t think about it as much as you might think because...well, of course you think about it when you’re in there because you’re aware of what’s happening, and I’m human, but he’s just singin songs, and he is so sweet and generous with this time, that he doesn’t put any additional sense of “You should appreciate that I’m here” onto anything. He’s just very gracious. But yeah, it is pretty crazy that he’s singing 2 of my songs. And I especially loved him on “Take up Your Spade” because I feel like you can really hear his voice stand out, and it was fun to hear him and Fiona. It was really fun hearing them together, that was a fun little...almost like a trick that I played on everybody. [laughs]

“Take Up Your Spade” is one of those songs that you hear that you sort of always wish you could have heard your whole life - it’s like it’s familiar in all of the right ways but it says things in a fresh way, like you think you know where it’s going and it does go there, but it’s in a way that surprises you - so timeless and so beautiful. Where did it come from?

SW: The melody started like 2 or 3 years ago when I was in Scotland on tour with Transatlantic Sessions, this group of people from America and UK who tour, a wonderful little series, and Bruce Molsky was in the show. And I got the melody idea from hanging out with Bruce. I knew that I wanted to write a song - this is actually a song that I did have some goals for - I wanted it to be congregational in feel but not religious in lyric, and I hoped a group of people would sing it together someday. And it was really nice having it turn out that way - I hadn’t told that to Blake, but he was the one who brought the idea of having everyone who was singing on the record come and sing on that song at the end. And I really loved it and it helped the song kind of come around to what I was originally hoping for. The subject matter came from something that my mom used to always say to me, especially if I’d had a particularly difficult yesterday, my mom would wake me up and say, “Good morning! It’s a new day, without spot or wrinkle!” and I loved that. I still think about it a lot, and so I wanted a grown up way to say that. And it carries with it a little bit of baggage, the feel of the song - I wanted it to have this realistic sort of trudging that you feel as an adult when you’re just starting the process of acknowledging that you can start over again. I wanted it to feel adult but still have what my mom used to say to me in there.

How are the instrumentals on this record different from the way that you would have treated an instrumental on your album a few years ago?

SW: The first song, well both of them, changed quite a bit from how they first started. They were both sort of fragments. The first one we did was what turned into “The Accord”, and that was a fiddle song that was originally very fiddle tuney. It was uptempo, and had kind of a double time feel to it, and I played it for Blake and he just basically said lets’ try playing it half that speed, what if we did it like this? And he started playing it at the tempo that it ended up being recorded, and we changed a few chords and added a couple phrases here and there and it just ended up having this great little personality. I’m really glad for how it turned out because, I think I told Blake before playing it that it’s always weird doing a record and then the novelty of “Heeere’s a fiddle tune!”, just “Aaand I play fiddle too!”, and so I was really pleased with the direction it took because they both fit in with the sung songs a lot better than they would have the way that I’d written them. And when I wrote them, I didn’t know what the record would turn into and I didn’t really have any context, so it was nice to put them together with Sean and Blake after we saw a little bit of how the record was turning out.

The other song, “The Foothills”, I did write for the record because I wanted to have another instrumental on there. I had the start, and Blake helped me finish it, and then he started messing with the tones on everything. I played it 6 times - 6 fiddles in unison, and they were really close to each other...they all matched and we couldn’t really hear the difference, so we messed with it a lot and tried a lot of different things - putting some effects on some tracks, using different mics with only one or two fiddles, amping and different things, and eventually we ended up with the way it sounds on the record. That was one of those times where I thought, “I’m just going to let Blake see this through until he’s done with it, because I really don’t know what I think yet,” because on principle I hate effected violins. So there were certain things where I was firm, “No, we’re NOT doing that, this sounds like a violin we’ve all heard that does not sound good.” So I put my foot down in certain places, but it was exciting and enticing to be in a situation where I decided, “Okay, I trust Blake, I obviously want him to have an opinion on this record, because I hired him. I’m a little uncomfortable right now because I would not be making these decisions, but that’s why I have a producer, because I want somebody else’s opinions. I’m going to sit back and wait until I know if I actually like or not, I’m not going to react out of being uncomfortable...” And sometimes that would end with, “Okay, I’m really not comfortable with this, this feels like you, it doesn’t feel like me.” And other times, “Okay, this is great,” and either he’d come around to a place that I was comfortable with on his own, or I would come around to seeing that there was a purpose for this and I do identify with the sounds that are coming out of the speakers right now. And on “Foothills”, I realized that what was working was that it’s not just the fiddles that have effects, it’s the whole stinkin track that’s squashed and distorted and lumpy sounding. And the more I heard it the more excited I got. So I couldn’t be more pleased about that song.

What I think is so interesting is that there parts of the bowing and nuances in your playing that you can hear so much more clearly because of the effect on your fiddle than you would be able to if you had just recorded it in a traditional way. To me, it almost replicates how it would sound live if I were sitting there watching you - some of the bowing is just so YOU - it was so fun to hear it and be able to actually picture you playing it. Because I think it's the spirit of how you play your fiddle on a song like that.                                             

SW: Thank you! That's awesome to hear!

Thinking about some of the life changes that you’ve experienced since your last record: you’re married now, you’ve turned those things give you a different perspective about your music-making and creativity?

SW: I think that a huge part of my creativity is a result of the security that I have in my marriage. Because he’s so unstoppably encouraging of my career and what I do and just the fact that it’s part of who I am, because he’s so relentless with all of that encouragement - and believable, like I actually believe him that he likes all that stuff about me - that relieves me of any kind of guilt...not any kind, I mean I still feel guilty...but a lot of the guilt about time away from home, and just the way that my life affects his life in sometimes a difficult way...because I know that ultimately he supports me 100%, even when he’s sad that I’m leaving, that first of all makes me work even harder, and it helps me be more creative and free with writing and it keeps me excited about music, because I know that I’m not just letting him down. I know that a lot of people in relationships have a hard time maintaining their excitement about music or their art, whatever it is, when they have the feeling that it’s making their loved one jealous. And I’m so lucky that I don’t feel any of that jealousy from Todd, regardless of the fact that I’m gone a lot. He could be jealous of people, of time spent with music vs. time spent with him...there are a lot of things that you could be jealous of - other families that have a much more stable, normal life - and I think because I don’t feel that, because I have a relationship that I feel gives me the freedom to be this, I think that helps me feel freer about creativity.

We’re always talking around here about the creative process. Had you been writing and collecting these songs for awhile, or did you write them specifically for the record?

SW: They were just sort of songs that had come up since the last record. And there were several songs that I’d worked on that didn’t make the cut, which was nice - I was glad to have some to throw away. I have a hard time...whenever I’m writing a song and I take a moment to stop and admire it, or think, “Wow! this would be really good for this or that,” I just lose it. And all of a sudden the song becomes half of what it should have been, because it’s more of a show than just existing. I loved your blog post about creating for creating’s sake, and I think that for me, as soon as I stop and admire something too early when the process isn’t completed yet, it takes away from what the end result could have been and it changes the whole perspective on why I’m doing it. It’s almost like a curse - whenever I’m writing a song and think, “Oh I hope so and so likes this lyric, maybe they’ll like that part,” immediately I want to slap myself because I know that I’ve come out of it and I have to either put it away or just refocus and shake myself out of that mindset as quickly as possible. And so, in saying that, I mean that I wasn’t writing any of these songs for this record. I haven’t figured out how to write with a goal. Except for “Lock and Key”; that one had certain constraints: it’s a me & him story, it’s okay to have some old timey lyrics, and I have an idea of how the story’s going to end, and so there are certain rules around it but I might not always even have those rules. I’ve never been able to write with a purpose, really, at least for a record. Not yet anyway. People write with themes, like, this whole record is about something, and for me I feel like either it’s going to be about that thing because you can’t write about anything else right now, or you have to really concentrate and it’s sort of this challenge to yourself to focus things. I don’t need to have any more challenges to writing a song - I just feel like I’m lucky to get any song!

Yeah, you want it to be real and you want it to come from a place of authentic inspiration, and sometimes if you have too many parameters, it can kill the actual spark, the real life place that it comes from. Didn’t you used to do songwriting challenges when you were on the road with Nickel Creek?

SW: Yeah. We’d pick a title and then write a song within 24 hours with that title. I think that was really helpful, if for no other reason than to help me not take myself too seriously and not be too precious about everything and feel like everything has to be good. It’s like, no, you’re just doing something, you’re just using crayons or something...and that was really good. I’ve done those songwriting games since then, and it’s really helpful if you have this block where you feel like nothing is good and so you’re not doing anything - that’s totally unproductive and it’s very hard to get out of it if you don’t just get the wheels turning.

Actually one project that I have been a part of that I'm really proud of is called For The Sender, it’s a really cool project that my friend Alex Woodard put together, and that’s one time when I was actually writing for a purpose. It was a really good exercise where we had these letters that people would write telling us their life story, and we’d just pick something out of the letter that seemed to make sense...that was really fun. I was co-writing with this guy Jack Kempshon, really great songwriter, and the feeling that I got from him while we were writing...because he’d just be sitting there with his guitar and singing these melodies and spouting out words without really being self-conscious at all about if it was going to work or not, and just seeing what people grabbed onto, and he would build on it. And he was so quick moving that there was no time to say, “No, I don’t really like that.” I’d have to suggest something if I wanted it to be different, because we’re moving right along here, so if you don’t like it then what’s a good suggestion? And that was really helpful - a really nice tempo and a different way to go about it.

I think it’s helpful to just accept where you are. I feel like I’m much more critical...I have better taste than ability in a lot of ways. [laughs] I hate it, it’s horrible, but what can you do about it? To an extent I just have to be there and do it, and I feel like I have a better idea now that I’m a little older too about what the past and the future means, which is funny, because you’d think you’d have a bigger idea of the future when you’re younger and you have more life ahead of you. But going into this whole record - the artwork, everything about it, partly because of how much I put into the first record and how much I learned about the process in terms of artwork and promotion and how you portray yourself and what you want to do and what your goals are and figuring all of those things out as I went, I’ve got a little bit better idea of what I want now, and I also know that this is this record. And I’m really proud of it and I’m excited for it, but it’s not my last record. It’s this record. And there will be more. There’s a lot of comfort and excitement in that. Not in a surrendering kind of way, “Oh well, there’s always next time,” it’s just, no, this is how it is now, but who knows what it will be next time?

Right. This is another piece in the puzzle.

SW: Yeah. And I actually did try as hard as I could for this - I didn’t phone it in, and I was really lucky to work with Blake and a lot of things fell together that made me really proud of the outcome, and all of that makes it something to celebrate, and I guess see it as, “Oh sweet! This is what happened that represents the first big chunk of my life.”

You've always done such a great job of communicating with your fans - I remember when Nickel Creek was touring and blogging wasn't even really a thing that people did, and you would write journal posts on your website from different cities. You've always treated your fans like friends, it seems like. Is the feedback mostly positive for what you're doing now?

SW: Yeah, I think so. It's funny, a lot of Nickel Creek people don't know that I'm doing this. A lot of times I'll be playing, opening for somebody, and towards the end I'll mention that I grew up playing with Nickel Creek and they'll realize, "Oh, that's how I know her!" It happens all the time. And I always feel glad, "Yes! I got another one back on my side!" To an extent I'm still trying to spread the word to anybody who cares, who felt an attachment to the band, I'm doing this other stuff here so please join me. All the while still trying to be myself and not live in the past too much.

I'm so excited for you. It's such a great record. It's spectacular music, and it's so inspiring to watch. I feel like I could talk to you about this for hours and hours, but you have been so generous with your answers and your time! Also, I just think what a great idea to make an appointment with my friends to hang out on the phone!

SW: I know! I should enter in the GoogleCal, "Call with Jenny Anne" much more often!

Visit Sara for upcoming tour dates and info.


Creative, Part 2

In Creative, Part 1, I talked about the progression from Listener to Artist, and how each phase of artistic development calls for unique qualities. For years, I made the mistake of evaluating my artistic endeavors with the same perfectionism I'd used as student, only to find that an entirely different skill set was required if I was ever going to make something new, something only I could make. Drive, ambition, and mental toughness are all wonderful, necessary attributes, but they can so easily lead to self-critique, perfectionism, and an orientation more toward performance than to creating. The priority becomes the result - the output - and the value of the process - the input - is lost. For me, creativity is a result of freedom and joy and belonging, not a means to them.

Yesterday, I forgot all of this and climbed back up into my tree. Remember the Tree of The Knowledge of Good and Evil? People have been camping out up in there since the beginning of time. It's the place where we go when we doubt ourselves, when we think we have to be good and we're afraid of being bad, when we forget that just being is enough. Theologians call it Original Sin; I call it Default Mode. Up in the tree, I ascribe value to all the wrong things, and I ask 2 questions: "Why am I doing this?" and "Is it worth it?"

I've been working on this project for the past year, and in the beginning it was like running downhill. I felt inspired and confident and free. I honestly didn't mind if my little songs ever found an audience. I was just happy to have them. They are an authentic, spontaneous result of who I am, and I am proud of them. I didn't ask why I was doing it, I just did it. But with limited time and resources, I sometimes have to reconcile the discrepancies between the vision in my head and the reality. I'm writing everything, I'm playing and singing all the parts. I'm piecing it together. These days the downhill run feels more like a steep pull. After a year of effort and about 20 minutes worth of recorded material, I start to wonder if it's any good. Why am I doing this again?

Here's the trouble. My focus, once again, is on the output. The product. I'm looking at the result, the number of minutes and megabytes worth of material I've created, and I decide it isn't enough. I should have more to show for all of that effort. Instead of placing value on the process, of focusing on the input, I'm looking at the result and finding it wanting. Of course! No wonder I'm right up in my tree. Once again, I'm looking outside of myself for validation, confusing means with results.

So why is the process valuable? What does it mean to focus on the input?

My husband is a lifelong believer in the value of the creative process. He has been writing in his spiral bound notebooks since Junior High, telling stories and creating worlds whenever and wherever he can. When our daughter was first born, he wrote a 120,000 word novel by hand while doing a nightly paper route and managing a coffee stand by day. Over the past 6 years, 15 minutes at a time, he has written 3 novels, some short stories, and reams of poetry. He believes to his soul that creativity is important for its own sake, that artistic value is intrinsic to the creation. He tells me all the things I already know, but that I forget in the daily implementation. That necessity is the mother of invention. That he thinks it's bitchin that I'm piecing it together and doing everything myself. That if I didn't do it that way it wouldn't sound like me. That these songs are my babies, they carry my DNA, and they're all me. That this is what makes them valuable and important - the objective quality of the output has no bearing here. He thinks I'm valuable, therefore he thinks my songs are valuable. Even the misfires, because they all add up to one important thing: authentic expression.

So if all of those things are true, I just need to be me. I need to remember to focus on the input and the inspiration. It's ridiculous and self-indulgent and honestly kind of gross to get so caught up in self-evaluation. It looks like this:

Ew. Total buzzkill. Who can find inspiration in that?

Inspiration is not magic. It's elusive, yes, but it is possible to find. When I was working on my song, "Down the Mountain", which tells the story of my husband's grandparents leaving Oklahoma during the Dustbowl, he bought me a Depression-era enamel bowl.


He emailed me these photos from the Library of Congress.

This is the kind of inspiration I need, the kind that gets me out of my tree. Tactile, visual links to beauty and pathos and empathy. Who cares if what I come up with is any good? These are stories worth telling. This is art. This is worth it.



Creative, Part 1

I create, therefore I belong.

I used to believe that.

Creativity for me was a re-interpretation of the greatness I loved and admired, "mediocre copies of another man's genius." (Name that movie!) It was all about what was outside of me - the inspiration, the material, the medium, the work, and the critique. Now I realize it was about a search for connection and belonging. If I was good enough to fit in, then I was good enough. A few decades and failures and mercies into this life, I see the need to belong informing everything I did, artistically and otherwise.

Sometimes self-expression was a genuine motivator as well, but as all burgeoning artists know, imperfect execution of an imperfect vision can lead to frustration, fierce self-censorship, and an eventual climb straight up into the Tree Of The Knowledge of Good And Evil (or as I like to call it, the 'Is it good or is it bad?' tree). We talk about fear of failure and how it keeps us from being creative, but I think for me, the certainty of failure kept me from being creative. I was driven more by the result than the process and I was never satisfied with the result. Of course.

The timeline of artistic development is different for every person, but in general I think everyone has certain phases in common. Phase 1: Listener. Phase 2: Student. Phase 3: Performer. Phase 4: Artist. Clearly there is a lot of overlap between all of these, but I think the focus is on one or the other as we grow from eager listeners to confident creators.

It is incredibly natural to apply the same criteria for success to all phases of development, and incredibly harmful. Success as a student has to do with diligence, work ethic, competition, imitation, praise and recognition, satisfaction of learning something new. Success as a student depends on the student and the outcome they produce. It depends on their performance. It is about evaluation, critique, measuring oneself against some standard and adjusting the input to produce a satisfactory output. It's about learning everything you possibly can. Being a student is the pathway to being an artist, but if I measure success as an artist with the same standard I used when I was a student, I will only place value on the output and the product. I will fail to see the importance of the input and the process. I will look outside of myself and my work for evaluation, and I will measure my success in terms of performance.

I got stuck here for a really long time. I didn't realize it, of course, I just knew that I wasn't enjoying the process anymore. I wasn't happy with anything I did. Every effort at creative expression came across like a narcissistic cry for validation. Gross, right? That's when I realized I wasn't in love with music for its own sake anymore. I had been stuck in Phases 2 and 3 for so long that Phase 4 seemed unattainable and Phase 1 was a distant memory. I felt empty; in making music I was trying to make something out of nothing.

I took a really long break. I moved across the country. I got married. I decided I needed to find out who I was in the world without identifying myself as an artist or a musician, because those words were not happy words anymore. I didn't play very often. I thought I didn't care to, and I didn't at first. It was deliciously liberating to find out that I was okay even without my music to recommend me. (Remarkable, the reasons we think people love us! All that time, I always thought I was valuable because of what I could do. No wonder everything I did sounded desperate and sad.) Thanks to my husband's absolute insistence on listening to music all the time, I went back to Phase 1. I just listened. I listened without that sick feeling of envy, that inability to appreciate music because I'm so tied up in knots that I didn't think of that or that person is succeeding even though they're not technically as proficient as they should be. I watched MTV. I listened to Tom Waits and Roscoe Holcomb and Radiohead and John Hartford and Jamey Johnson. I realized I responded to people whose music was rough around the edges, people with stories to tell, with life and flaws and desperation and ghosts and history in their voices.

That's when I realized I'd had it all backwards. I'd been trying to polish everything up before I wrote it down. The qualities that made me so successful in Phase 2 - perfectionism, attention to detail, give me the formula so I can get it just right - became obstacles to Phase 4. I threw everything out the window. I tried to forget everything I'd learned. I didn't know if I'd ever create anything worthwhile, but I also knew I didn't want to live without music anymore. So I decided to start writing what I know. And then I realized I still didn't know the answer to the most important question. Do I belong?

The road to belonging was long and super painful. A crisis of faith, personal failures, family tragedy, and slowly, slowly, the underlying, constant theme of love restated in a thousand ways went beyond my subconscious until I heard it and recognized it. I came to believe that I am loved just because I am. I belong. I am part of a family, and my place is not dependent on anything I do or don't do. I am one unique expression of God's infinite creativity, and as such, I am free to put bow to strings and pen to paper and work it out and see what happens. It doesn't have to be good or bad. It can just be. What I write and play and sing is no longer artificial matter I've conjured to fill a void. It is real. It is an overflow of joy and freedom and love and good things.

Sometimes I don't really care about what I write and play. Objectively, I can tell it isn't that great. But it doesn't matter much, because I can try again. Every note, every song, even the bad ones, are all part of the process. I'm not trying to do anything amazing, and most of the time I'm not looking for credit. I can honestly say that I would make music even if no one ever heard it. And now I know why.

I belong, therefore I create.


On The Road

Maybe I'm referencing Jack Kerouac.

In a way, I think I am. But mostly I'm talking about the trip Violet and I took last week with Michael Londra and Celtic Fire.

Now, the tricky thing about playing Irish music and having a daughter who was born on St. Patrick's Day is that I am often busy on her birthday. So this year I asked if I could bring her on the road with me, and I am so glad I did. It's easy to develop a jaded view of travelling and to dwell on things like the irregular mealtimes, long hours on the road, late nights, early calls, separation from home and family, exhaustion - all of which are a guaranteed part of the touring experience. But bringing a wide-eyed 6 year old took care of all of that. We ate catered meals with chocolate cake for dessert, had as much juice and as many cookies as we wanted, stayed in a hotel that had a couch AND a tiny fridge, watched movies in the van and played go fish with the dancers, and rode on an airplane while it was still dark outside.

Night #1: Spokane, Wa. I didn't take pictures. So lame. The theater was beautiful, the audience even more beautiful. There is truly nothing so magical as a hometown crowd.

Night #2: Wenatchee, WA


On my left, musical director (and general manager and caretaker of all complaints specific and general in nature), Mellad Abeid. Just behind him, brilliant drummer and percussionist, Steve Holloway.

Piper and whistler extraordinaire, David Schultz. Just behind him is the string section who joined us for the Wenatchee show. Just beyond them, though I wasn't able to capture his image on film (he's kind of elusive that way), pianist Peter Storms.

Directly behind me, the light of my life and the most eager audience member in the history of mankind, Violet Mannan.

Night #3, Canyonville, Or.

My view from the back of the van.

Look! The Gorge!

Blurry? No, that's exactly how I saw it!

Best traveller of the bunch. Every time I asked her how it was going, she'd smile and say, "It's GREAT!"

Night #4, Bremerton, Wa.

March 17, St. Patrick's Day, Violet's 6th birthday.

She was cheered and toasted and well-wished by dancers, crew members and musicians alike. Here she is with one of the dancers, the lovely Katie.

Before the show, she put on her 'dancing outfit' and practiced her steps behind the curtain.

Pre-show with 2 of the dancers, Katie and Rachael.

The trip was indeed a whirlwind; we covered 1361 miles by car in 4 days, did 4 shows, celebrated a birthday, and made wonderful memories with old and new friends.

What Do You Want To Listen To?

This is Caleb's favorite thing to ask me. I think it's his way of making me check in with the present. A gentle way to say, "Babe, you're going away. Come back to us."

My sister-in-law, who is a psychologist and a very gifted, compassionate therapist, was once chatting with me about dissociative disorders. She told me that a good strategy to employ with people who tend to disassociate is to ask them to engage in a tactile, physical activity. "I see you're getting overwhelmed. Would you like a drink of water?" That sort of thing. Now, I am neither confirming nor denying a propensity toward dissociative behaviors. I will say, though, that my 4 year old has taken to demanding, "Mommy! Watch me and look at me!"

So in our family we ask each other what we'd like to hear. It's our way of reminding each other to check in, to let go of the chatter and grasping of our minds, to be here and share a common experience. The kids chime in their requests, the two who speak English duking out over "Radiohead!" "No! Kings of Leon!" I swear they could do that for hours.

Here's our Recently Played List.

Etta James, At Last. This is a weekend staple. Sundays aren't complete without "Sunday Kind of Love".

Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues. This is always a great way to start the day. And a great way to end the day. And a great way to spend the day.

Wanda Jackson, Town Hall Party. This rowdied our Friday night right up.

The Black Keys, El Camino. Speaking of rowdy. Saturday night dance party guaranteed.

Lana Del Ray, Born To Die. Rowdy in a whole other way. Mostly we have to listen to this after the kids are in bed. We realized Violet is actually trying to memorize the lyrics, and while these are certainly fun, we don't exactly want our 6 year old singing them.

Chris Thile & Michael Daves, Sleep With One Eye Open. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say this is one of the most important albums of our generation. Also, it's Waylon's favorite.

Johnny Cash, Songs of Our Soil. 'Nough said.

Tyler Ramsey, The Valley Wind. My favorite line, "We have no past, we won't reach back, stay with me forward on through the night."

Bill Monroe, The Very Best of Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys. Normally I am not a fan of collections, but in cases like these it's so important to build a definitive collection. I want all the records, but I have to prioritize and just buy the albums from specific eras with the most songs.

Mark Lanegan, Blues Funeral. This is dark and haunting and heartbreaking. One reviewer called Lanegan the voice of a Cormac McCarthy character. Perfect rainy day songs.

After a decade of marriage, I'm onto my husband's tricks. I know that when he asks me what I want to listen to, he's asking me to show up. He's asking me to be a person, right here and right now. To have input, to quit worrying about my To Do List for a second and just enjoy a moment of good music with him. And I love him for it.

What do you want to listen to?

Remembering Dick Barrett

A kid who’s been raised on the side of a mountain and educated at home is just bound to develop a special relationship with her fiddle teacher.

My parents taught me everything - how to read and write and figure, how to ski, how to throw a ball...well I didn't really ever learn to do that, but it wasn't my dad's fault. He tried to teach me how not to throw like a left handed girl. But it turns out I AM a left handed girl, so what could he do? Mom and Dad taught me how to sing, how to recite poetry, how to talk to people. But one thing my dad realized he couldn’t teach me was how to play the fiddle.

So, when I was 9, Dad took me and my 10 year old brother Luke on a roadtrip from Grants Pass, Oregon up to Rapelje, Montana, to study contest fiddling for a week with Dick and Lisa Barrett. I had taken lessons from people here and there, but I'd never had a teacher who treated me much like a student before, and I had no idea what to expect.

Dick was a REAL fiddler. The kind who grew up in Texas during the Great Depression, who learned to play in dance halls after long days of picking cotton. He played with his brothers and brought his earnings home to his folks and 8 siblings. He played because music was the only thing that relieved the sorrow and hopelessness that surrounded him. He was the kind of fiddler who learned about spirituals and the Blues from a black man named Amen who sang his troubles away in the cotton fields.

Of course I didn’t know any of that when I was 9. I just knew he was pretty gruff at first, and I was nervous as heck when I tried to play for him. He was an intimidating personage, with a big voice full of John Wayne and Johnny Cash Americana. But it didn’t take me long to figure out that he got a kick out of kids who were impertinent and precocious (as long as they were generally well mannered), so I pulled out all the stops trying to make him laugh. Like the time he introduced me to a buddy of his and told me, "Now this guy is one hell of a fiddler," to which I replied, “Wow, you must be really great if Dick is saying that!” and Dick laughed his huge laugh that sounded more like a bark and slapped his knee and said to his friend, “See! What did I tell you about her?"

Dick wasn’t happy unless I played each tune exactly the way he showed me. And he didn’t tell me how to do it. Not at all. He showed me. I guess he figured if he had to tell a student too much, then they weren't worth teaching. If I didn’t catch on right away, he’d record the song on a tapedeck and say, “Now you work on that for awhile. Let me know when you’ve got it.” So I would, muddling through and taking special care to get the bowing just right, and when I’d play it for him he’d shake is head and say, “No no no, like THIS!” And he’d take my fiddle and play it for me again, opening his eyes wide and enunciating each note and making that perfect combination of singing tone and steady groove look effortless. Then his wife Lisa, herself a champion fiddler and master luthier, would take my fiddle from Dick and say, “Here. This is called a hook. You play the triplet going up the string, all in one bow, and then you sort of hook your bow over to the next string and hit the open note.” And that’s when I’d get it. Dick taught me to play Durang's Hornpipe and Forked Deer and Huckleberry Hornpipe and Sally Johnson and Leather Britches and lots of others. He didn't like it if I tried to get too fancy - he said I had to be able to play the straight melodies first, and for goodness sake not too many slides or triplets. If he said it once, he said it a thousand times, "Kids need to learn the TUNES, not the variations! Nobody plays the melodies anymore."

About a year after we first met them, Dick and Lisa came to stay at our house. My parents had decided it was time for me to buy a really quality instrument, so Dick and Lisa brought some fiddles with them for me to try. I was having trouble deciding which one I liked best, so they agreed to leave my favorite with us for a few weeks and let me give it a good test run. The following weekend, as I was carrying the fiddle across a cement floor, I tripped and fell right on top of it. I sat on the floor staring at the bruises and cracks in that beautiful wood and sobbed, "What will Dick and Lisa say?"


Turns out Dick had had his own accidents with fiddles, and when I called to tell him about my mishap he told me the story of a time when he'd left his fiddle on the ground behind his car and backed over it.

You better believe I bought that fiddle.


After that first week of lessons at their house, Dick and Lisa treated my brother and me like lifelong students, always chipping in suggestions and encouragement, tweaking things here and there, guiding us through the contest nerves and pressure and giving us a sense of belonging in the fiddling community. Every time we drove anywhere close to their house (which wasn't often, since Rapelje isn't on the way to anything) we'd swing by for a visit, and it was never long before we found ourselves getting out our fiddles and learning something new. Every summer I looked forward to seeing Dick and Lisa at the National Oldtime Fiddler's Contest in Weiser, Idaho, where Lisa accompanied me on the guitar many times. As I headed out of the noisy practice room to compete, Dick would wink at me and growl, "Give em hell."

Would you believe contest fiddling is subject to fads? Well, it is. I mean, I know people probably think of old time fiddlers as a bunch of old guys wearing netback hats and overalls with envelopes of chewing tobacco in the front pocket, playing tunes like "Liza Jane" and "Billy in the Lowground". Mostly, they're right. That's exactly how the real ones are. But the upstart young kids have to find ways to reinvent the wheel, so every now and again a certain tune comes into fashion, or a certain rhythm or style. When I was about 16, kids were trying to get away from the smooth as glass sound of the late 80's and get back to playing with lots of drive - real aggressive, ballsy rhythm that sort of attacked those tunes and showed em who was boss. I was really working on that whole idea, trying to shake some of my early influences and play with a lot of confidence and guts. As I was warming up for a contest in Louisiana or Oklahoma or somewhere, Dick listened and nodded his head. Then, when no one was looking, he put his arm around my shoulder and said, "That was good. Just don't forget to be nice to your fiddle."

The last time I competed at Weiser, in 1998, I took second place in the Junior division. I don't even know how many times I finished second, but this particular time I was a little discouraged about it. Silly, really, since in general the competitive spirit at fiddle contests is not fierce; it's incredibly friendly and supportive in fact. But this was my last year in the Junior division, so it was really my last shot to win that title. Anyway, I will never forget Dick's sympathy when he told me that he'd never won the Championship title, but that he held the record for the most second-place finishes. Suddenly second place didn't look so bad.

Last week, at the age of 93, Dick passed away. I can't help but feel as if an era has ended - an era of authenticity, of organic artistry born out of desperate, stubborn hope. I played waltzes pretty and slow, with as much feeling as a sheltered kid who's been pretty well taken care of can muster. Dick played waltzes quick and to the purpose, because he learned to play those tunes in dance halls, and folks paid him a nickel if he played their special requests. I learned tunes like Grey Eagle because they were great tunes that showcased my skills as a fiddler. Dick played those tunes because, when his family lost everything in the crash of 1929 and took to the cotton fields to try to make ends meet, music gave them all some relief and hope. In his own words, "After I found out what it was like to pull a cotton sack up and down a row all day, music was a warm healing balm to the soul."

Back when I took lessons from him, I didn't know very much about who Dick was to the world. I didn't know that at the end of the Depression, when he'd been playing outfield for a AAA baseball team, he was drafted into the Combat Engineers and became a sniper. I didn't know he played with Tex Ritter or the Sons of the Pioneers, or that he came to be referred to as the "Elder Statesman of Contest Fiddling". I didn't know when he taught me those tunes, insisting I play the simple, straightforward melodies, that he was giving me a piece of his history and sharing part of his soul. I just knew he believed in me enough to tell me the truth. I knew that he made his fiddle sing in a way I'd never heard. I knew who he was to me.

I was honored to call him my teacher, and privileged to call him my friend.

Thanks for everything, Dick. Happy trails and love to you.


(Thanks to and The National Fiddler Hall of Fame for biographical detail.)


You're Welcome, Bon Iver

Last night Bon Iver won Best New Artist at the Grammys.

It's a tricky business for indie artists to garner mainstream recognition without alienating their base of anti-music-industry fans. But Justin Vernon handled it masterfully, letting everyone know he was uncomfortable with the award but that he was grateful all the same.

I am a little sad that he refused to perform on the show. He has a lot of fans who would have been delighted to see him live without having to hire a babysitter, take a roadtrip to Portlandia, and develop a hipster alter ego for the evening so that they blend into the crowd and don't go home depressed that they are undeniably and officially 30-something.

It's alright. This video does the trick.


"Thank you to the nominees and the non-nominees that have never been here and never will be here."

You're welcome.


Contest Memories

27 January, 2012

Fiddle contests are as much a part of my history as Bible stories and the sound of Emmylou's voice and that really annoying habit my sbilings and I have of speaking to each other in movie quotes. I'll never forget my first ever contest in Castlegar, BC. I was 7. I'm pretty sure I played Irish Washerwoman. And undoubtedly the Tennessee Waltz.

For a homeschooled kid who lived on a mountainside, and whose weekly social highlight was when Denny the UPS man dropped off a package at our house and stayed awhile to visit, fiddle contests were absolute heaven. Other kids play the fiddle too? And then after we compete we wage violent war with water guns? And practicing super hard actually gives me a little cred instead of qualifying me as a bona fide super nerd? (I'm not saying I wasn't a super nerd, I'm just saying my fiddling wasn't necessarily to blame.)

A dear friend from my contest days, Ed Carnes, recently shared some really priceless photos from his archives.


Here we are - my brother Luke, my dad, my mom, and me at the National Oldtime Fiddler's Contest in Weiser, ID. I honestly can't remember what year this was. I think it was either 1987 or 1988. I don't think it was '87, because my mom would have been pregnant with my baby brother Jed. And then there's the fact that we're both playing something in the 3rd position, which I don't think we knew how to do yet in '87. So it was probably '88, which means it was the first in a decade-long streak of wins for my brother Luke. He was busy winning; I just figured somebody's got to come in second.

Here's Luke in 1993 at the Grand Master's Fiddle Contest in Nashville, accompanied by Dad, Rudi Booher, and Jerry Thomason. That hat was awesome - I remember it well, that George Straight hat, which we all knew was way more legit than its Clint Black counterpart.

The coolest thing about the Grand Master's was that we never knew who might show up.

Like when Mark O'Connor, "Texas" Shorty Chancellor, and the one and only John Hartford just sat around playing some tunes. In retrospect, it's probably best that I was too young to realize I should be in paralyzing awe of these people. I didn't know any better than to whip out my fiddle and start playing.

So I did.

I didn't know we were playing in the famous Gaslight theater (just spitting distance from the Grand Ole Opry stage) or that Minnie Pearl was hanging out in the wings, or that Porter Wagoner emceed the event. Really. I was just trying to impress my teacher, make my parents proud, and keep that hair of mine from wigging out in the southern summer humidity. And I was pretty stoked to be rocking that brand new herringbone-check western circle skirt.

My knees were buckling for a variety of reasons. I was standing next to Colt Tipton, the most beautiful boy I'd ever seen. (I'd never known someone to wear puka shells and Wranglers together. I bet Kenny Chesney got most of his inspiration from Colt.) I had just made the top 10 at the Grand Master's Fiddle Contest. And I was being told to play "Golden Slippers" with the rest of the finalists to accompany the Melvin Sloan cloggers - a song that apparently all fiddlers can play in their sleep, except I wasn't totally sure how it went.

But I faked my way through it. Sometime I'll tell you about how every year we had to talk my Grandmother into competing in the clogging contest, and how she never brought her clogging shoes so she tied her red flats to her feet with damp paper towels.

The magical part of contests is the way they bring people of so many ages and walks of life together, creating bonds that last a lifetime and beyond. I treasure every one of these memories. Most especially, I think of the great fiddlers and musicians and friends of fiddling who are no longer with us...Randy Howard, John Hartford, Charlie Bush, my brother Jed, and so many others...whose legacies live on every time I hear somebody play "Apple Blossom" or "Maiden's Prayer" or "Kentucky Waltz" or even "Golden Slippers".



Work Station In Progress

10 January 2012

 Caleb is always talking.

(Talking not pictured. He was busy driving and listening to rock n roll.)

Lately he’s been asking me all about my work station - you know, that perfectly quiet, orderly place where I can go to shut out all the sounds of the kids and the world, where the chaos is contained, where all visual and tactile stimuli are perfectly designed to enhance creativity…I hope you can hear the hollow laughter in my head. It’s pretty loud.

But pipe dreams notwithstanding, I think he’s onto something. Caleb’s writing desk is strewn with favorite books, WWII knives, and vintage bookends, among lots of other things that taken as a whole look like clutter but individually comprise his physical sources of inspiration. He says when he gets stuck, he looks at a book, or picks up a physical object that gives him a tangible link to his work.

I like him. I think he’s wise. And I like it when he talks. So, I’ve been working to set up my desk in a way that makes me take a deep breath, ignore the lunch dishes that are still on the table, and listen to those ideas in my head. Even though I can choose to look at the dirty water glasses at my elbow, I also have the option of looking straight ahead.

See? The antique owls aperch behind the vintage rosin on the stack of pretty books? I feel inspired already.

Then there’s the question of what sort of book in which to write. Spiral bound? White paper? Lined or unlined? Ball point or roller ball pen? It’s a highly personal choice, and finding the perfect combination is a little like finding the perfect wand (“The wand chooses the wizard!”). I’m a spiral bound, unlined, matte paper with a ball point pen kind of girl:

It’s coming along. Waiting for inspiration is a little like waiting for lightning to strike. But it’s so much better if I’m prepared when it does.

Climb Up Sunshine Mountain

10th November 2011

My husband’s mom sings a song to all of my babies. I’m sure she sang it to her kids when they were babies too, because they all seem to know it. I’m willing to bet its origin is somewhat obscure, like many mountain hymns, but come to think of it, I’ve never asked her about it. I’ll do that next time I see her.

Climb, climb up sunshine mountain,

Heavenly faces glow

Climb, climb up sunshine mountain

Sumthin sumthin sumthin sumthin know…(I didn’t hear it when I was a baby, alright? It’s not deeply embedded in my subconscious. Oh wait, here’s Caleb. I’ll ask him how it goes.)

Hang on, I have to start over. (Clears throat.)

Climb, climb up sunshine mountain,

Heavenly breezes blow,

Climb, climb up sunshine mountain,

Faces all aglow

Turn, turn from sin and doubting,

Look to God on high,

Climb, climb up sunshine mountain,

You and I

Copyright 2016, Jenny Anne Mannan. All rights reserved.