How would you classify your music? At times it is straight up bluegrass, but also a little Americana and more.
As a band, we just play what we like, whether it’s bluegrass, Americana, folk, whatever. Doc Watson had a great phrase for the kind of music he wanted showcased at Merlefest – he called it “Traditional Plus.” I’d like to think that Swift Creek fits into that broad category. In terms of my writing, that usually has a country vibe of some sort, and on songs like “Rattle Them Bones”, “The Levee”, or “Shoes” from our first CD, you could almost call it Southern Gothic. “Bluegrass Hurricane” is the most straight-ahead bluegrass song I ever wrote, and that was certainly intentional, given the subject matter! It was inspired by the hurricane that threatened the annual World of Bluegrass convention in Raleigh in 2015.
Who are some of your top 5 musical influences?
Growing up, it was singer/songwriter/acoustic guitarists like Jim Croce and James Taylor. As I got older and went “back to my roots,” it was Doc Watson, and especially Tony Rice. I always go back to Tony Rice, and I’ll never get tired of the Church Street Blues or Manzanita albums, or Rounder 0044 (J.D. Crowe and The New South.) Over the past 15 years or so, I’ve really enjoyed the music of country cult-favorite Robbie Fulks. I know him a little through a mutual friend, and I love his music and admire his songwriting. It’s literate, funny, moving, and respectful of a wide variety of American musical traditions. I hope I might have absorbed a little of that in my writing along the way.
What do you want fans to take from your music?
I hope the songs hold the listeners’ attention! That might seem like a low bar to clear, but it’s actually quite an achievement when it happens. I’d also like to think they’d find something a little surprising in every song, too, at least upon the first “listen.” For instance, my lyrics often contain references to other songs, or similar little “Easter eggs,” that I hope raise an eyebrow, or make you say “did I just hear what I think I heard?”
Tell us about your latest release, Magnolia?
“Magnolia” is a really accurate snapshot of what Swift Creek is all about. It has driving bluegrass, folk/country ballads, introspective psychological portraits, and jokes, too! We’re really proud of the way it turned out. We recorded with Jerry Brown at Rubber Room Studio in Chapel Hill, and he does amazing work with acoustic bands. He gave Steep Canyon Rangers their start, and artists like Mipso and Mandolin Orange call Rubber Room home now. In fact, Andrew Marlin of Mandolin Orange played keys on three of the tracks.
What do you love and hate about the Music Business in general?
I’m proud to say that I am blissfully ignorant about most aspects of the music business, which probably lets me sleep much more peacefully at night. I suppose all musicians have a love/hate relationship with the music distribution business, though. The combination of digital technology, the Internet, social media, etc. make it possible for small, independent musical acts to get their music heard all over the world, with very few intermediaries, and that is thrilling. Yet, the financial dynamic of the streaming services is still . . . ahem . . . problematic.
What is the best concert you have been to? What do you like most about playing live?
The “best concert” question is an easy one for me. Back in the mid-‘90’s, when Alison Krauss was producing and recording with The Cox Family, they appeared together at Stewart Theater at NC State University. The Cox Family performed a set, then Alison Krauss and Union Station performed a set, then the two bands combined for a set. Small theater, intimate setting, remarkable musicians who seemed as thrilled by what they were hearing as the audience – nothing has ever topped that one, for me. With regard to Swift Creek’s live performances, I know it’s a cliché, but you really can feed off the energy of the room. That’s most obvious on rollicking numbers that get the audience moving, of course, but since some of my “wordier” songs require active listening, that energy can come in quieter, more subtle ways. We did a farmhouse concert a couple of months ago with 65 or 70 fans, and to see them hang on every word, up close, in a room with great sound, that’s a very real kind of energy, too. (Thanks, Heathwood House!)
How has Swift Creek evolved as a band? How have you grown as a writer?
Swift Creek started out as kind of an Americana cover band, and that was really fun for a while. We still have four original members; myself on guitar and vocals, Ann Searcy on vocals, Dennis Hoyle playing bass, and Casey Elder, who until recently had to do most of the heavy lifting from an instrumental standpoint, playing mandolin and Dobro. But the big change for us, and what has really re-energized the band, was adding Stephen Fraleigh on fiddle and banjo last year – he’s a two time winner of the National Bluegrass Fiddling Championship at the Galax Old Time Fiddlers Convention. His playing really took us to another level musically, and that comes through very clearly on “Magnolia.” We’re more of a bluegrass band than when we started out, and we’re doing more of our own material than ever before. Over the years I’ve brought more and more originals to the band, and I’m definitely a more confident writer than I was a half-dozen years ago when we first got together.
Talk about your original songs, your inspiration, writing style, etc.. Do you set aside time specifically to write, like a job? Do you like to co-write?
I’m all over the lot in terms of what inspires my songwriting. Sometimes it’s a turn of phrase that intrigues me, sometimes it’s just noodling on the guitar until I hit on a chord sequence that pleases my ear. It’s funny, but regardless of how my songs get started, I almost always finish the lyrics while driving. For me, there’s something very soothing about driving a car, and it helps me to relax and think in a creative way. It’s very rare that I start out with the intent to write about a specific topic, with the obvious, happy exception of “Bluegrass Hurricane” from the new CD. That song was inspired by the inclement weather (and #bluegrasshurricane tweets) of last year’s International Bluegrass Music Association gathering in Raleigh, and I decided to use the storm as metaphor for the birth, rise, and continued growth of bluegrass itself. I’ve always had a day job – I’m a financial advisor in real life – so I’ve never had the luxury of approaching songwriting in a systematic way.
If you could meet, play a gig, co-write a song, have dinner, get drunk with any band or artist (dead or alive) who would it be?
Boy, that’s a tough one. But right now I’m listening to Acousticity on Tune In radio, and I just heard Hank Williams sing “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” one of the simplest, most beautiful, powerful, haunting and painful songs anyone has ever written. He would be a pretty cool guy to co-write with, right?
What is next for you as a writer? What are some goals for Swift Creek as a band?