The MFTBC Interview with Ivan Rosenberg
Conducted by Matt Allair via E-mail between 5/23/2013 / 6/27/2013
Page Editor: XScribe
The following is indeed a digression from the usual format of this blog thus far, but when the opportunity presented itself to interview my very old friend, Ivan Rosenberg, currently a highly esteemed Dobro and Clawhammer Banjo player within the field of bluegrass, it seemed apt, as the intent within this blog deals with personal connections in relation to music. For myself, the arc of Ivan’s musical career has been pleasantly surprising on one level, and on another level it shouldn’t have been. I’ve known Ivan since I was a sophomore in high school, Marin County, CA from the mid and late 80s. I was already playing guitar back then, and like many other peers at the time, acoustic jams became of rite of passage, a place to trade ideas, and socially interact, and a way to develop a silent vocabulary if your social skills weren’t fully refined.
Photo by Patrick Shatterfield
Once high school finished and most friends went off to college, a fairly sizable percentage of these friends stayed connected during the summer seasons or holidays. I remember having a jam with Ivan at his parent’s home, and this was the time I had learned how to play The Beatles’ “Blackbird,” and showed him the riff. I also remember that the first time I was exposed to Ziggy Marley it was through a cassette Ivan had lent me. I remember a massive guitar jam at a friend’s place where Ivan participated, a combination of acoustic and electric players that dueled over a vamp based on the chords to “Hotel California”--not really a straight read, more of a rambling, loose jam. What also comes to mind was visiting Ivan in Arcata, CA at the start of the 90s, at an “A” frame apartment where Ivan lived with a friend while attending Humboldt University, and watching him learn the rudiments of the banjo, and demonstrating his more adept skills with an acoustic; juxtaposed by watching his athletic skills at Ultimate Frisbee on the Humboldt campus field.
One of my underlying impressions of Ivan from back in the day was that he was restless: that creatively he was on a righteous path for something authentic in a superficial and plastic world, yet that path wasn’t easily seen or defined.
As the 90s began to progress, Ivan drifted off to a graduate program at Sonoma State University, and we wandered onto separate paths, so it was interesting to hear back from friends in the late 90s that Ivan had gone professional as a Bluegrass player, and had begun to carve a niche for himself. That included the release of his first solo CD in 2001, his music being used in the background of television programs such as The Daily Show and Oprah, an IBMA award for co-writing the 2009 Song of the Year, and playing on the Jerry Douglas-produced CD Southern Filibuster. So, it is interesting to be in a position to see these accomplishments from a distance. It also makes this interview unusual for me, after the roster of talent I have interviewed for The X-Files Lexicon, to interview someone with such a direct connection and without the usual detachment that one falls back on.
Ivan is the person I remember -- gracious, candid, authentic, with a healthy humility, and an ability to relate that I hope others will see. The interview proceeded as follows...
Matt Allair: How far back does your interest in acoustic music extend? You were first exposed to it as a child?
Ivan Rosenberg: My parents are both musicians. They had some records of the late Doc Watson, whose guitar style is the origin of bluegrass lead guitar. Doc's version of "Muskrat" was the first song I tried to flatpick when I started playing guitar towards the end of high school.
Matt: I understand that the era of Bluegrass you’re a real advocate for is the 60s and 70s, and that you’re also an advocate for vintage vinyl. Was working with the Foggy Hogtown Boys been an attempt to re-connect contemporary audiences with the past?
Ivan: Yes, it was. I like the original first-generation bluegrass—and some more recent bluegrass—just as much, but there's a huge repertoire of great bluegrass from the late-60s through the late-70s that's mostly lost on today's up-and-coming bluegrass pickers because most of it isn't available digitally. You need records and a record player if you really want to understand how bluegrass has transformed over the years. This was a great era for bluegrass; first and second generation players were just pushing the boundaries of bluegrass by adding more varied chord progressions and melodies while incorporating songs from pop, rock, and "protest folk" genres. But it still sounded like real bluegrass. I think bluegrass as a whole may have taken a turn for the worse over the past several years, so I wanted to go back in time and imagine what might have been if bluegrass had never been influenced by the worst of modern popular country music.
Hogtown Sessions Cover, photo by Andrew Johnson, graphic design by Chris Coole 2011
Old time (an older, more "ensemble-style" of fiddle-centric string band music) has had a recent surge in popularity, and I think part of the reason is that old time musicians are comparatively more interested in unearthing great old songs and giving them a new life for a new generation of players/listeners. That's what I wanted to do for bluegrass with The Hogtown Sessions, albeit with songs from the more-recent past than old time musicians are dealing with. Anyway, I wish more bluegrass musicians treated the genre like traditional folk music that should be preserved and studied.
Matt: I want to ask about following your muse. You’ve traveled and lived in several states as a musician; was it about going to where the Bluegrass scene was most vibrant? How would you describe some of your favorite bluegrass communities?
Ivan: I was definitely following the bluegrass for a few of those moves. My first exposure to live bluegrass was in Arcata, CA in 1990. The band to see there was the Compost Mountain Boys (who are still going today), and a couple of them, Tim Wilson and Sean Bohannon, were especially encouraging to me when I started out playing bluegrass guitar. By the way, Arcata is also where I first saw a Dobro being played at the Masters of the Steel String Guitar show. Jerry Douglas—who I tend to think is best Dobro player who ever was or will be—was there, and after seeing him play, I bought a Dobro at Wildwood Music the next morning when they opened the doors. But I really learned how to play bluegrass in Missoula, Montana, which has always had an extraordinary and talented bluegrass community: pickers all over the place, lots of bluegrass jams, great festivals, friendly people. I lived there three different times, mostly for the bluegrass, but also for the ultimate Frisbee scene (which occupied my weekends before I discovered bluegrass festivals).
I also spent a year (plus several visits before and after) near Asheville, NC, and that area has an abundance of world-class acoustic musicians, many of whom just play for fun but play circles around most pros. I went to Asheville purely for the music. I'd previously met the hotshot Dobro player in the area (Billy Cardine) at a bluegrass conference, and I emailed him to see if he knew anyone with a room for rent. His answer was that it'd be great to have a Dobro buddy in town, and that I should just move into his new house with him and his fiancée and their two dogs. I wound up doing just that and had an unforgettable year of Dobro-geeking in the mountains, and making great music friends in western North Carolina.
I know the music scene in Toronto, Ontario very well, too—it's outstanding. Great bluegrass and old time, and really every other genre, too. It's a very healthy, friendly, and noncompetitive acoustic music community—when you go to a show, half the crowd is comprised of the performer's musical peers, most of whom bought tickets even though they could have gotten on the guest list.
Matt: In terms of instruments, a lot of people hear the phrase ‘resonator guitar’, and probably don’t know how a Dobro works. How would you describe it compared to a conventional acoustic?
Ivan: The Dobro® was invented by the Dopera brothers (Do + bro), immigrants to the U.S. from Slovakia. The Dobro has a resonator system that was originally intended to make for a louder guitar, but the resonator also creates the Dobro's distinct tone. Later, the instrument was adapted by Hawaiian-style slide players. They raised the action off the fingerboard and played notes with a metal tone bar instead of fretting notes with their fingers as you would with a regular guitar. So, in a nutshell, the Dobro as it's used in bluegrass is a guitar that 1) has a metal resonator system, 2) has a high nut so the strings are maybe 3/8 of an inch off the fingerboard, 3) is fretted with a metal bar instead of fingers, and 4) is played facing upwards ("lap style"). In bluegrass it's usually tuned, low to high, GBDGBD, though of course you can tune it however you want.
Matt: Was there a certain point when you felt you had arrived in terms of acceptance and respect in the bluegrass field? Was that point something you only realized after the fact in hindsight?
Ivan: That's an interesting question. Since I'm mostly self-taught and have pursued a lot of other interests along the way, I never expected or sought out respect in the music field. Frankly, I've never cared much if anyone likes my music, which is why I make music that's so commercially unappealing. But to pick one occasion, it was a real honor when Jerry Douglas invited me to be a part of a CD he produced called Southern Filibuster: a Tribute to Tut Taylor. The project was something of a follow-up to The Great Dobro Sessions, a Grammy-winning Dobro album from 1994 that featured the best Dobro players in the business. For Southern Filibuster, Jerry wanted to get some new players involved, and I was fortunate to be one of them. Each Dobro picker selected a Tut Taylor tune to play with one of a few all-star studio bands Jerry had lined up, and we convened in Nashville for a few days to record. Parenthetically, I opted to play my Tut tune, "Stevens Steel," as a duet with Chris Jones on guitar instead of with the studio band, since Tut recorded so many of his tunes with just guitar accompaniment. Anyway, it was an incredible event that I'll never forget, and it meant the world to me that Jerry included me. This was also a surprise project for Tut Taylor, one of the original masters of the Dobro, and he couldn't have been happier when he found out that we'd done this tribute for him. So, long story short, when my favorite musician/Dobro player—whose music I've spent thousands of hours listening to—invited me to play on an album he was producing as a tribute to one of the original Dobro greats, that was all the acceptance I'll ever need.
Matt: Are there certain keys or tunings that you prefer to use when composing?
Ivan: When I write on Dobro, it's generally in standard G tuning. Clawhammer banjo players, however, change tunings all the time. Certain tunings suggest certain kinds of melodies, so the tuning does wind up being an important precursor to the composition. For what it's worth, I really like F tuning on banjo, and I like to use lower-than-standard varieties of that and other common banjo tunings; I find the banjo to be more serene when it's tuned lower, and it also matches my vocal range in lower tunings.
Matt: When you’re composing music, will you visualize an arrangement in your mind? Or leave things more open-ended for other players?
Ivan: If the song is intended to be played with a band, I do some loose arranging, but mostly I try to round up musicians whom I know will come up with something better than I would on my own. Pick the right musicians, and the arrangements largely take care of themselves -- at least with the kind of music I write. I've come to believe that bluegrass is best when it's at least somewhat spontaneous, when people are playing in the moment instead of solely performing notes they've rehearsed. So I like to leave room for improvisation and interaction among musicians.
Matt: Do personal experiences influence your original writing?
Ivan: Indirectly, yes, but since I mostly write instrumental music, the influence has more to do with mood.
Matt: I understand that most of your tunes on Back To The Pasture were written on the mandolin, and not the banjo or dobro. Have you written anything on the piano to further stretch out your playing?
Ivan: Nope; I don’t know how to read music and can barely find a C note on piano with both hands.
Pasture cover by Patrick Shatterfield 2002
Matt: Prior to working on tunes, do you listen to genres outside of your comfort zone, for example jazz or world music, to inspire riffs that aren’t typical to the Dobro or banjo?
Ivan: Yes, especially with my new album, Oldies and Old Time. I put a lot of effort into finding ways to adapt the clawhammer banjo style to blues, R&B, doo-wop, and classic country music.
Matt: The new album, Oldies and Old Time, has an interesting selection of songs from Walter McGhee, Hoagy Carmichael, Fred Rose, Cindy Walker / Eddie Arnold, Mel Torme / Robert Wells, and Frederic Weatherly; were these songs selected for melodic reasons or because they connected to your past?
Ivan: Part of the attraction of the classic pop hits--the ones that have endured--is that they tend to speak to the general human condition. So, in that sense, I think most of us could find an emotional connection to a song like "You Don't Know Me" or "Don't Pity Me." But they were primarily chosen for the "golden" melodies and chord progressions you're not likely to hear in solo clawhammer banjo or Dobro arrangements. They were also used as a means of stretching out on banjo and Dobro, while still keeping an overall folky mood. I wanted the solo acoustic instrumentation to be the "glue" that made these songs work alongside new and traditional old time or folk songs.
Old Times cover sleeve by Pharis Romero 2013
Of the ones you mentioned, "Don't Pity Me" by Walter Brownie McGhee was the trickiest to pull off on the banjo. I came up with a tuning that, on the fretted banjo strings, is equivalent to the inside 4 strings on guitar, which allows for guitar-style chord shapes. The next challenge was to adapt the clawhammer style to convey the mood of blues guitar. In clawhammer playing, you're limited to downstrokes with your fingernail as well as notes played with the thumb, and after some experimentation, I found ways to play some classic blues licks using "drop thumb" clawhammer technique.
For an effective solo Dobro arrangement, you need to convey the chord changes and the melody, but you're limited to what you can play with the bar (which I like to call my "one stupid metal finger") in conjunction with open strings. "Georgia on My Mind" and "The Christmas Song" were good exercises in finding non-standard ways of playing full or partial chords while never losing track of the melody.
Matt: How long did the new record take to complete?
Ivan: I recorded most of these songs in the fall of 2011 during a rare couple of weeks when I had nothing do to but work up banjo tunes and record them. I didn't touch it again until winter 2013. I finally finished recording the album an hour or two at a time during month 9 of my wife's pregnancy, and then I mixed and mastered it on headphones in the wee hours while looking after our new baby this April. So it did take a while to complete.
Matt: Some of the cuts from Clawhammer and Dobro reminded me of the feel of David Grisman. Which musicians influenced you during that period?
Ivan: The music I've listened to the most over the years is the bluegrass-influenced new-acoustic stuff from the 70s through the 90s by greats such as Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas, Russ Barenberg, Todd Phillips, John Resichman, Scott Nygaard, David Grisman, and so on. The tunes on Clawhammer and Dobro, listening back, probably show the influence of John Reischman the most, while some of the Dobro lines are influenced by the riffs I heard Billy Cardine playing upstairs in my North Carolina days. I've never listened to much clawhammer banjo music, and my banjo style is mostly adapted from my approach to the Dobro.
Matt: A lot of your work with Aaron Parrett was a real surprise as far as the introspective feeling, and the Bee Gee’s cover on Back to the Pasture was another surprise. “Chatuvondoo” from The Donkeys seemed like another departure. Have there been cuts you’ve worked on where you’ve surprised yourself?
Ivan: Aaron and I used to play pretty regularly when I lived in Missoula and he lived in Great Falls, and then we met up years later to record that album when he was in Portland for a short time. Aaron is one of the best Americana songwriters anywhere, though unfortunately not enough people outside of Western Montana or Georgia know that to be the case. I knew most of his songs inside and out when we recorded that CD. The surprising part of that project for me was that I worked up all the harmony vocal parts, which was new to me at the time. Billy Cardine wrote “Chatuvondoo” and some other complicated tunes on The Donkeys, and it took me days to devise means of playing those “Chatuvondoo” lines on the clawhammer banjo. Figuring out how to play Billy's songs in general was a big stretch, in part because he grew up learning and understanding how music works, while I spent my free childhood time watching crappy TV and eating Doritos.
Matt: Your use of the internet was been very interesting in terms of marketing, and very open; do you think the internet can substitute for grass roots footwork? Do you feel that touring city by city is the best option? How do you balance the on-line world with regular gigging?
Ivan: I actually don't gig that much (just a few tours, some local gigs, and a couple of workshops per year is plenty for me), and I don't really know what to make of internet marketing these days. It seems like Facebook is awash with musicians self-promoting to other musicians, and it's unclear how much good that does for most folks. However, the internet is great for getting the attention of bloggers such as yourself, and it's great for staying in touch with radio DJs. I did more promotion on the internet when I released my first CD. At that time, just 12 years ago, only a handful of Dobro players were making CDs, and there was a dearth of original Dobro tunes. Also, most of the bluegrass world was just starting to figure out the internet. So I got ahead of the internet game with my first album, and that really helped me establish a name among bluegrass Dobro fans. Over the past few years, I've steadily trailed off from using the internet actively.
Matt: You have gone the route of releasing a lot of independent albums without the need of a major distributor. Has it been liberating? What pitfalls have you encountered?
Ivan: There's not much of a market for CDs of mostly instrumental, mostly medium-tempo bluegrass/old time tunes, so there's never been a good reason to seek a distributor. On the other hand, I own 100% of my original music, which has enabled me to get placements in hundreds of TV shows. It turns out that my songs are perfect as background music precisely because they're laid back, melodic, and not flashy—they don't demand your attention, so they can be used effectively to support something that's happening visually.
Matt: The roster of film and TV licensing that has featured your work has been impressive. How did that come about?
Ivan: Having total ownership of my music and total decision-making power has made this possible. I got in early with several companies that do synch licensing, and I was fortunate to become a favorite among many music supervisors from various cable television networks. Also, I had songs from my first CD on many websites, and I was lucky that Luke Eddins from LukeHits.com happened by one of them on Garageband.com. He asked if he could pitch it for a Hollywood movie called Kangaroo Jack, and that was my first film placement. Years later, I started working with my friend Doug Hawes-Davis at High Plains Films in Missoula, Montana. He used a tune of mine for his Emmy-nominated documentary, Libby, Montana, and with subsequent films, I recorded new score music specifically for HPF documentaries such as Facing the Storm: The Story of the American Bison, which recently won a regional Emmy award.
Matt: Chris Coole has been a really important figure in your career; what set him apart from other musicians?
Ivan: Chris is a shockingly good clawhammer banjo player as well as an excellent guitarist and songwriter—and his singing has an authenticity to it that's hard to describe. He and I have very compatible approaches to music: melody-based, lots of space, similar taste in what constitutes a good song and a good arrangement. We play a lot of unison and harmony lines in our duo act, and since I also play clawhammer banjo, I have an easier time than most Dobro players would matching his banjo phrasing. We each have an easy time doing roughly 50% of the work associated with performing music without any badgering required, we both fit in one small car with all of our stuff, and I can't recall us ever having an interpersonal issue of any kind. All of that is worth its weight in gold when it comes to recording, touring, and promoting a musical act.
Matt: Other musicians that you’ve followed and worked with include John Reischman and Chris Jones. What impact have they had on your work?
Ivan: I've been a John Reischman fan for years, and I think my favorite CD ever is The Singing Moon, which he recorded with guitarist John Miller. John is among the very best tune-writers in the business, and his approach to the mandolin is unmatched in terms of being melodic, intricate, emotive, tasteful, and toneful—and he'll knock the ass right off a blazing fast bluegrass song. He played in a band called the Good Ol' Persons with Sally Van Meter, a Dobro legend, and he often had Sally or Dobro maestro Rob Ickes on his instrumental albums. Over the years, John and I started crossing paths more often, and I had the good fortune of filling in with his band, John Reischman and the Jaybirds, on a couple of tours. I was really happy when he asked if I'd do some of the engineering/mixing on his latest solo album, Walk Along John, and as the project developed, I even got to play on one of the tunes. That was a real milestone for me.
I've been listening to Chris Jones ever since I started trying to play the Dobro seriously. Chris has put out several outstanding bluegrass CDs, and he typically had Rob Ickes playing Dobro on them. I spent so much time with those Chris Jones albums, trying my best to pick apart what Rob was doing, that Chris's songs became deeply engrained—I know them inside and out. And bands I've been in over the years have covered his songs. I should mention that Chris was always really nice to me when I was learning to play, and he even had me come up onstage at a couple of festivals in the late 90s/early 2000s, a bit before I was able to play at a stage-worthy level. Years later, Chris and I had the chance to play when we were both teaching at bluegrass music workshops, and at one of them, the idea came up to play a few shows as a duo. We wound up doing a couple of small tours and playing a couple of festivals, and I've also had the opportunity to fill in a couple of time with Chris Jones & The Night Drivers. I'm happy to report that I got to add some Dobro to a couple of songs on the next Night Drivers CD, too.
Matt: Do you view every album as a musical diary? Was the material from Oldies and Old Time a reaction to things you wanted to do differently on previous albums?
Ivan: I've never thought of it quite that way, but a "musical diary" is a nice way to look at it. The albums certainly reflect my musical interests at any given time. I've never recorded much of my own lead singing prior to Oldies and Old Time, and when I have, it's been overdubbed, so I could take as many shots at the vocal as I wanted. Oldies and Old Time was tracked live, instrument and vocal together. Though there are some mistakes here and there that I would have fixed in an overdub situation, overall I like the live feel--you play differently when singing along, and there's just no way to replicate that interaction with overdubs.
Matt: What Bluegrass musicians are you currently listening to? What musicians outside of your field are you listening to?
Ivan: I mostly listen to records still, and Larry Sparks probably gets the most spins. I've also been getting more into the music of Jim and Jesse. One new band I just heard who's playing my kind of bluegrass is Jeff Scroggins and Colorado, based in Lyons, CO, who just released a very cool CD called Western Branches. My favorite recent recording in another genre is Billy Cardine's Django jazz Dobro album, Six String Swing. His new "global Americana" album with The Billy Sea is just as good—that band would be wildly famous and successful if there was any justice in the music world.
Matt: As a musician, where do you see yourself headed in the next five years?
Ivan: Probably doing roughly the same kind of music. I'd love to have more time to practice, and hopefully there will be plenty of opportunities to play with my wife, Kristin Cavoukian—she's a great singer and guitarist. With any luck, I'll still be playing with Chris Coole, too, and still producing music in my recording studio, The Schtood.
Single-mindedness and certainty are difficult traits for musicians to arrive at. There’s a common denominator I have found with musicians that make the most difference–a passion and belief in what they are doing–a focus that tells them others will follow in time. It does no good to waver and second guess as a songwriter, you have to create music you are into. Second guessing the audience is a death knell, and often leads to no good results. Also, allowing your fans define you, and attempting to meet their expectations of what they believe they want to hear leads to nothing positive. Bob Dylan, circa 1966, is a great example of that problem. Once you find your voice, then you have to stick to it and let the marketplace find you.
Ivan has found his voice within the wide pantheon known as Bluegrass, and I wish him the very best with all of his future efforts.
You can check out his work, order on CD or download all of his music on his website: Ivan Rosenberg