Talkin' Bluegrass: An in-depth conversation with Mike Marshall (Video)
Updated: Aug 20, 2021
Mike Marshall is without a doubt one of the greats of modern acoustic music — a multi-instrumentalist who has been at home in different genres and styles from the very beginning of his career. He is not only one of the best-known contemporary mandolinists — he's also one of its most famous educators, teaching at the online music school Artistworks.com.
Mike joined the quartet of seminal bluegrass player David Grisman when he was only 19 years old — quite a way to start his career! He has since then not only founded several bands — including Psychograss and the Montreux Band, but also worked and played with numerous like-minded musicians such as Darol Anger (Mike's long time collaborator), Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile and of course with Marshall's wife, famous German classical mandolinist, Professor Caterina Lichtenberg.
It's highly recommendable to listen to his whole discography, starting with his solo record "Gator Strut", "Chiascuro" (with Anger, released on Windham Hill) and going all the way to his collaborative classical albums with Lichtenberg. Marshall's music is always a wild and joyous ride through what acoustic music can do. His latest release is an EP performing Bachs Cello Suite #1 on the Mandocello (available on Bandcamp). He lives in Wuppertal, Germany as well as in Oakland, California.
I was delighted to talk to Marshall via Zoom. See the interview here — or read an excerpt below.
WATCH THE FULL VIDEO HERE:
Markus Brandstetter: Can you talk a bit about your beginnings?
Mike Marshall: I was born in Pennsylvania, in the north. My heritage is actually Italian, our name was originally Marshariello, but it was changed many years ago, when my great grandfather came over. We moved to Florida when I was about 12. That's when I got into playing guitar. I just took lessons from the fella down the street at the local music store. I was very fortunate because he played all of the different stringed instruments. He knew a lot about traditional music, bluegrass, folk and blues and so on. So, from the very beginning, I had this nice wide variety of education. He made sure that I learned to read music. I played some classical guitar, but also started a bluegrass band with some of his fellow students. We formed a group, it was all playing by ear. We had mandolin, banjo, guitar and bass. We went around to the Bluegrass festivals, it was a teenage bluegrass band called The Sunshine Bluegrass Boys. That's what introduced me to traditional American music, actually going to these events and hanging out with the real southerners who owned this music. This was a very exciting time for acoustic music in America because the movie "Deliverance" had come out. I don't know if you remember that movie, it had banjo and guitars in it. And the album "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" by the Nitty Ditty Dirt Band also made a kind of explosion into the pop world really. It was on the best selling charts and "Dueling Banjos" was a radio hit. It drew people back to American music and made it popular and hip again, especially amongst young people and urban people. It was much the same as what "O Brother, Where Art Thou" did more recently: it sort of drew attention to our great traditional music. That was sort of what got me into it. One thing led to another and I started meeting all the greats who played that music. The first festival I went to, for instance, J.D. Crowe & The New South were there with Tony Rice on guitar and Ricky Skaggs on fiddle, Jerry Douglas on dobro, Marty Stuart was there playing with Lester Flatt. And so I just kind of got thrust into this. I came back with a stack of LPs and started learning the music mostly by ear the way it was done them before YouTube, before the internet.
I became particularly interested in what contemporary bluegrass players were doing. People who were stretching the boundaries. There was a band called The New Grass Revival that caught my attention. Sam Bush was their mandolin player and became a bit of a hero of mine and of our bluegrass band. When I think back on it was almost a New Grass Revival cover band by the end. We were playing all of their material and I was learning all of his solos off of those records. That was my initial inspiration.
"Will The Circle Be Unbroken" was an incredible record because Vassar Clements was playing fiddle. And I also learned fiddle during that time, Earl Scruggs was on banjo. John Hartford's first records were coming out. His record "Steam Powered Airplane" was really forward thinking in terms of bringing other elements into the music. And certainly that was what Sam Bush was doing. There were some folks in New York, Tony Trischka, Andy Statman, who were doing this sort of New York urban version of bluegrass. It was just a great exciting time period for bluegrass. Bill Monroe and all the other famous guys were playing these festivals, but there also were all these newer, younger people, introducing other elements to the American string band idea.
You started with guitar, right?
Yes, I started with guitar. But the teacher I had played mandolin, banjo, fiddle and bass. He ntroduced me to all the different string instruments. [He taught| the idea of reading music and learning theory, as well as playing by ear and, you know, just jamming and improvising.… So from the beginning, I kind of had both things happening, which I've always been grateful for.
So you have been a multi instrumentalist from the very beginning, playing all different kind of styles.
I'd have to say yes to that. Of course, as time went on, I discovered many more styles beyond what Jim had introduced me to. There's a natural inclination for us bluegrass pickers to be attracted to gypsy jazz, Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli. So I found myself down that rabbit hole for a long period. One of the most influential bands of American acoustic music was the David Grisman Quintet. And when their first record came out, I really just ate it up and became kind of obsessed. David was a really a musicologist, if you will. He's always been interested in music from everywhere all over the world, very hip to jazz and classical music as well. But he knew as much about traditional American music as anybody. So he formed this band and Tony Rice joined the group, a great guitarist, who passed on last year. And I knew Tony from his work with J.D. Crowe and I actually met him at some festivals.
Tony told David about me. He said, "there's this young kid in Florida, who's really great". And David had started a mandolin magazine. At the time that he started his band, a little pamphlet that came out four times a year. He thought that having a magazine would support his artistic endeavors. Of course, the opposite happened. The band actually produced the magazine, Darol Anger was the fiddler and Todd Phillips was the mandolin player and later became the bass player. Bill Amatneek was on bass.
The record they put out, their first album, "The David Grisman Quintet" was just tremendous. It just leapfrogged over probably 10 years of musical development in one recording, and all of us acoustic music buffs just kind of gravitated towards it, and went crazy. And it was just one of those. "What the hell is this?"- moments for acoustic music. I was fortunate enough to have known Tony, he told David about me. And I just called David on the phone one day, to order to whole bunch of the LPs and a bunch of the mandolin magazines. I kind of befriended him and told him that I love his music. And he replied, "if you're ever out in California, come on over and we'll jam. My sister was living in Las Vegas. I flew to Las Vegas, in August or something. And the next day, we drove to California, and I showed up at David's house and all the guys were there. I was already playing the music. I knew all the tunes, which to me seemed really normal on all the instruments. So they immediately just said, "you're in the band. You got it. You're one of us. You're crazy for this stuff like we are."
You got to play with Stéphane Grappelli during that time.
David was in the middle of a soundtrack to a movie, "The King of the Gypsies". It featured Stéphane Grappelli playing violin. And he hired Stephen to play on the soundtrack. The week that I showed up, the next week, they were about to go to L.A. to finish recording that music with Stéphane and a 80-piece orchestra. And he said, "Do you want to come on down?" David was having some tendinitis problems. He said, "You can play all the rhythm parts for me that are causing me trouble in my hand". That was mind-blowing experience. I was 19 years old. This was in 1978. So you know, the top of my head came off. And I was just thrust into this amazing experience to be playing with my heroes. And then it's playing with Stephane Grappelli, who I didn't even realize was still with us. I thought of him as somebody that was recording in the 1930s. He kind of disappeared for a while, and then resurfaced in the late 1970s, playing that music that he had played with Django. It was just unbelievable. I went back to Florida, I packed up everything and came and moved in with Tony Rice and started hanging with those guys. And that was just like graduate school for me, on every level, in terms of learning about timing, tone, and how to play in a band and how to be in a recording studio, how to write music, all of it. David was an incredible mentor, and had an incredible collection of records. We would just go over there and listen to everything from John Coltrane to Japanese Shakuhachi, to Brazilian Bandolim.
David introduced me to Darrell that started a long term relationship that many things spun out of, because we became neighbors just played music all day and all night. We were on tour with David and when we would come home, we would write our own music and think about "Yeah, we have to do our own thing someday, man!" It was an exciting period.
What was it like to be on stage with as a young man with those older, famous cats? Do you remember how it felt to stand on stage with them for the first time?
Well, I remember the first time playing together in the living room and that was the most intense magical thing I'd ever experienced. It was like flying, that's how I'd like to describe it. Because the sense of rhythm that those guys have, especially with Tony on guitar. When he started playing rhythm is unlike anything. He passed on last Christmas, December 25. You can watch and listen to lots of interviews from all the great musicians who got to play with Tony. And they all say the same thing: When Tony hit the rhythm, something happened, everything elevated and it also got super focused on the details. But it was also like driving a sports car and taking corners really easily. It wasn't metronomic. It was buoyant and floating. And yet it was perfect. That's probably the way jazz musicians talk about Jack DeJohnette, Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones. What's it like to be with that guy like that, driving the truck? You know, it's just it's a ride, man. It's a ride. And, you know, with him gone, it's gone. No one can do what he did.
David's sense of writing tunes and leading a band, being able to corral all these tremendously talented musicians and get them focused on something was his skill: to get us to actually play the arrangement, to make the stop where the stop happens and play two choruses, not 20. These kind of bandleader things he was great at. He also knew how to negotiate the music business. He had a manager, he knew about record labels, promoters and the dark side of the music business. He could navigate us through all of that and protect us, so we could just be creative musicians. There was a lot I was learning about being on stage. I saw the band two nights at the great American Music Hall. And then, three months later, we were on tour with Stephane Grappelli. And shit, what can you say about that? Stephen was probably 75 years old, we were all 20 to 30. I have to laugh because David called himself "the old man in the band". "Your old dad", he called himself. There was, Stephen, as David described it, throwing lightning bolts at us. With every solo he took just burying us young punks. (laughs) With elegance and finesse, and harmonic understanding and rhythmic virtuosity and interest. Soul. All the things you want to hear. That was that. So Michael Connor was on guitar for that tour. Touring with Mark and learning about the whole Texas fiddle tradition through him… Yeah, it's definitely a "pinch yourself"- kind of experience to get to have. No question. I'm always grateful to have gotten to play with all the cats I've gotten to play with.
I wanted to ask you about bluegrass. Looking at your discography, you've always had a very progressive approach. You combine elements and musical worlds. Bluegrass players are often said to be very conservative and purists.
I think it's important to understand the origins of bluegrass. If we go back to the early American string bands: everything in America is this mixture at its inception. You have a British Isles music colliding with African drumming. That's pretty much it. The African syncopations and rhythms that came out of the blues. That's why it's called Blue Grass. Mix with the Irish fiddling music and all the English ballads, Irish songs. The early bluegrass musicians. I believe that the reason bluegrass was born was because of these hillbilly people who lived way out in the country. It was because of radio that came to them in the 1920s. All of a sudden they were hearing urban music, they were hearing Benny Goodman, they were hearing classical music and they were hearing all this other music, Caruso or what have you on the radio. So they took their String Band instruments. It was a fuse from the beginning, that's my point.
What Bill Monroe did on mandolin was extremely modern. And what Earl Scruggs did to the banjo was the same thing that Bela Fleck did the banjo. And what Chris Thile did to the mandolin is what Bill Monroe did to the mandolin. When you relate it to the people who played before them in a very folksy, simple, laid back, not very fast way. You know, these guys were hot rodding the music, and in bringing elements of jazz into it, believe it or not. Even though they didn't know jazz or study it, you can see the influence. If you hear interviews with people like Benny Martin: Yeah, they were listening to people like Joe Venuti or Stéphane Grapelli. They didn't have any idea how to play that music. If you look at the Texas fiddle tradition, they were hearing swing and jazz coming over the radio from New Orleans. That changed Texas fiddle music and made it more swing oriented.
To me, it's just a continuum, you know that that hasn't really stopped. What happened in the 70s was a big explosion because of all these urban people, people from the north and the big cities, and David Grisman is one of them, Tony Trischka, Bela Fleck come from New York. The 60s gave us this interest in American traditional music. Folk music. It was people like Ralph Rinzler, a great musicologist who worked for Smithsonian Institute and Folkways records and went down to the South. He discovered Bill Monroe, discovered Doc Watson and brought him to Gerde's Folk City and all these folk clubs in New York. He helped him tour around the upper cities in northern cities, introducing them to these m college kids. So college kids found out about this music in the 60s. When they got interested in it, they started bringing other elements because they grew up with a whole other set of influences. So naturally, they're going to do that. I think what happened to bluegrass: It goes through periods of expansion and contraction. There's periods when folks are really kind of honing in and saying: "No, this is bluegrass, from this date to this date is real blue grass, and then anything after that is contemporary". And then not "acceptable". It's kind of a silly idea. Because, to me, it's always changing. It's always evolving. As a musician, you can choose to play a certain period. Just like in jazz, you have people who play a particular era of jazz, and are not interested in — or say classical music, you know, you have Baroque music specialists who want to just play the period instruments, and try and get as close as they can to that. I admire it. I certainly have an arm reaching back to the traditions. And I grew out of it, and I understand it. But it's not 100% where my heart is, my ideas of music making has always been to see where we could go with the music next. Both in terms of technically, what was possible in the instrument, and then to expand our embrace, and to embrace classical music and world music , well, I don't like that term, music from all these other places, which led me to having such an interest in Brazilian choro music and other Latin styles. Music from the East, Bulgarian music, all the music from the Balkans. I love it. pop music, The Beatles, Little Feet, Allman Brothers, all that stuff I'm crazy about. But I'm an acoustic musician, primarily. I think you just have to find where you're comfortable. There are some people who want to sound like a bluegrass album band. To them that's the pinnacle of what bluegrass can be and should be. I would be inclined to agree with them. That is a very high level of a bluegrass band. That is pretty much it. But it's not Bill Monroe. It's not Lester Flatt singing. It's not Benny Martin on the fiddle. It's a very refined version of that music from that those guys created. They just took it to another level. They didn't expand on it in the same way that Sam Bush did with the New Grass Revival. They didn't introduce other rhythmic elements, or long improvisational solos or any of that. They just refined the tradition. But that's not me. I'm not a great enough singer. Bluegrass is really a singing style, 90% of it is singing. And so I you know, I always thought, Well, I'd rather hear Tim O'Brien or Ricky Skaggs than Mike Marshall.
You want to know more about Mike's career, his life in Germany and hear him play his famous Gibson 1924 mandolin? If you haven't checked out the full video yet, this is a good time to do so.