If there is a common thread running through the local music scene, it may be the modern twist on indigenous mountain music. That's one jumping-off point for newcomers Red June, who release their debut, Remember Me Well, this week.
All three members are experienced players: John Miller (vocals, guitar, mandolin) and Natalya Weinstein (fiddle, vocals) were founders of bluegrass band Lo-Fi Breakdown; Will Straughan (vocals, guitar, resonator guitar/Dobro) toured extensively with the Emma Gibbs Band and accompanies singer/songwriters including Eliza Lynn (who co-bills the CD-release show). Bassist Jeff Hersk holds down the low end.
Remember Me Well (funded in part by a Regional Artist Project Grant from the Asheville Area Arts Council), is a complex album featuring tasteful picking/bowing on all things stringed. But a foundation of strong songwriting provides the main hook, planting memorable melodies in the listeners’ heads and drawing them back for more. The album’s characteristic sound is deep and lush, with just the right amount of reverb to retain the wood and steel resonance of the acoustic instruments.
Xpress spoke to Miller, Straughan and Weinstein about their inspirations, backgrounds and dynamics.
Xpress: What is each player’s writing process and how do the others contribute?
Straughan: What inspires me and gives direction to my songs is the feeling behind the melody or the sound of a particular combination of words. I don't really spend a lot of time “crafting” words. If the lyrics feel overwrought or forced, then they lose their music and I can't sing them. John and Natalya have always interpreted the music I write without me having to give them any direction. I think we read each other well as players and we try to utilize dynamics, harmonies and song structure in order to make a three-piece sound greater than the sum of its parts.
Miller: I’m generally a stream-of-consciousness kind-of writer. I like the poetic aspect of songwriting where everything is not completely out there upon first listen. The songs with the most impact for me have a strong emotional component.
Will, your songs on this record, especially “Biscuits and Honey” and “Run Boy Run,” have strong travel imagery. Where did you find inspiration for the stories and characters?
Straughan: After a year of college, I moved to the Teton Wilderness in Wyoming to be a cowboy. I learned the ropes from some men and women who'd been working the land their whole lives. Some of the images and characters that came from that experience provided a storyline for “Biscuits & Honey.” “Run Boy Run” is kind of an ode to Bob Dylan, but also to anyone who chooses the hard path of their dreams.
Can you each talk about your musical background and creative evolution?
Straughan: I grew up in Chicago playing classical and jazz trumpet and piano. I picked up the guitar in high school and started singing and writing. Guitar eventually led to mandolin, steel guitar and a love for old blues, bluegrass, folk and Celtic music. The songwriters and players I came to love — Norman Blake, Neil Young, Elizabeth Cotton, Townes Van Zandt — could make such a big sound by themselves, but their material also translated well to being played in full ensembles.
Miller: I'm originally from Hickory; my grandfather is N.C. Folk Heritage Award-winner Jim Shumate, a bluegrass fiddler with Bill Monroe in the mid 1940s, and also Flatt & Scruggs’ first fiddle player. His brother and uncle were old-time fiddlers and their sister played clawhammer banjo. They all grew up in Wilkes County. Grandpa's story and his music are certainly one of my main musical influences, but I’m into all kinds of music. I played drums in high school and was really into Led Zeppelin, the Dead and hardcore punk.
Weinstein: I started getting into traditional American music during college. I entered from the front end of jazz and newgrass, and worked my way back in time to Bill Monroe and Hank Williams. This journey was greatly influenced by people who were into early bluegrass and country music and introduced me to the old repertoire. I think that’s how I developed my style of melodic fiddle playing which emphasizes the vocal line and keeps the focus on the song and the singer.
Natalya, can you talk about the origin of the fiddle tune “Callahan”?
Weinstein: I learned “Callahan” from Jim Shumate. I love Jim’s bluesy, loose style, and have tried to incorporate it into my own fiddling. Because Jim did not go on the road or teach much, there are not many fiddlers carrying on his style and his original tunes. I wanted to acknowledge his influence on my playing as well as his contribution to bluegrass music.
— Parrish Ellis plays resonator guitar, banjo, ukulele and other stringed instruments in the Wiyos.
who: Red June, with Eliza Lynn
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Saturday, Sept. 25 (7 p.m. doors, 8:30 p.m. show. $10. thegreyeagle.com)
when: Sunday, Sept. 26 (3 p.m. $20 adults, $50 patrons, $5 students ages 13 to 21, free for children 12 and under. Tickets at 257-4530 or 277-4111. www.aapf.ws)