On June 13, 2001, bluegrass heavyweights Ralph Stanley, Ricky Skaggs, Alison Krauss and Jerry Douglas could be found on stage at New York City’s Carnegie Hall, feeding the new mainstream bluegrass and acoustic-music frenzy that sprung, almost unaccountably, from the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Alongside this group, playing to the capacity crowd, was Asheville native Chris Sharp, who contributed guitar and vocals to the Grammy-winning O Brother release and its most popular track, the ubiquitous “Man of Constant Sorrow.”
Sharp had reached a monumental point in his career. After the success of the Carnegie Hall show, a group of musicians who’d contributed to the soundtrack hit the road as a traveling caravan called Down from the Mountain (the name came from an earlier benefit concert, held at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, that also featured O Brother-soundtrack performers; the Ryman show would eventually spawn its own live album and a feature documentary).
Sharp lent his talents to the tour, as well, which sold out premiere venues from coast to coast, including Radio City Music Hall in New York City and the Universal Amphitheatre in L.A.
After finishing the tour, the guitarist returned to Nashville, where he’d lived for the previous six years, four of which were spent playing guitar for late, legendary newgrass pioneer John Hartford.
With Hartford gone, Sharp searched for other opportunities in Nashville — with no success.
“Nashville is a place where things are really happening for you and things are really clicking, or there’s nothing going on,” Sharp noted in a recent interview. “I went through a three- or four-year period where everything was clicking, [and] then I went through a dry spell.”
This past July, Sharp returned home to the land of the sky with the hope of rekindling a musical project he’d left behind.
Rehearsals began with old friends and fellow Asheville natives Kevin Sluder (bass) and George Bruckner (banjo), the latter’s impressive resume including stints with Bill Monroe and Ricky Skaggs. Without losing so much as an ion of musical chemistry from their original incarnation six years ago, The Tipton Hill Boys were reborn.
The powerful acoustic trio impresses the listener as being a chiefly traditional outfit (albeit with the occasional original tossed in the mix).
But that label might not suit the group for long. Sharp hints at some unusual tampering with the bluegrass formula that may set the band on an entirely different course.
“We’re not trying for a straight-up traditional thing,” he says. “We’re getting accused of it, but we’re not really trying for that. After we get it together the way we want it, we’re probably going to incorporate a drum or something that’s definitely going to separate us.
“At this point, the music probably sounds traditional because there’s only one lead instrument, which is the banjo,” Sharp continues. “[We’re] a real vocal-oriented group that works around Kevin’s high lead singing. I play rhythm and add more vocals. We do a lot of standard tunes, and we pull out a lot of tunes that you don’t hear a lot today — [songs] like Buck Owens’ ‘Waiting in the Welfare Line.’ We try to play different things that you have heard, but never do hear now.”
The band is getting ready to record its first album on Red Clay Records, a Japanese label that released Sharp’s only solo record, Good Fa-air Side.
“We’re writing some songs for the record, and it will have two or three familiar tunes,” Sharp says. “Everybody likes to pick up a record and see at least one song they know the title to.”
But don’t count on the usual suspects: Sharp and crew have diligently chosen less, well, standard standards.
“We’ve abandoned some things and started new things,” the guitarist explains. “We’re doing some things that were popular back in the ’60s. Back then, everyone recorded the same songs. If somebody had a hit song, then everybody cut that song. So we’re taking some of those songs that were popular, like ‘Danny Boy.’ A lot of bands aren’t doing it now, but back in the ’60s, everyone was playing it.
“We’re thinking heavily about putting that on the album, [and other] stuff like that — stuff that people will love to sing with you on.”
But once the songs are selected, then the real trial begins.
“When we’re ready, we’ll go down to Nashville, probably in the next two months, and take about three or four days. We’re gonna hire a really good steel player and a really good piano player,” says Sharp, before revealing further formula-disturbing ideas.
“Rather than have a fiddle, we’re gonna have a string section.”