Interview by Soren McGuire
So, Jan. How does a girl from Yorkshire end up playing old-time, bluegrass, folk and americana 5000 miles away from home? I first came to america to teach theatre and story telling at a summer camp. NYC was only an hour away and I met a lot of folks from there. I started working with theatre companies in the village, whose shows combined music, politics, and comedy. There was a very active community at the time creating street theatre in response to the invasion of the Persian Gulf, the Pro- Choice Movement, and AIDS activist groups like Act Up. They all used circus, music, and theatre to get their point of view across in the midst of massive protests in say Time Square, Or Washington DC. I loved it! Not long before, I saw Billy Bragg playing The Red Wedge concert tour. Coming from Yorkshire, he really made a lasting impression on me since I had never seen anyone sing about what was happening in my part of the world, and win people over who knew nothing about it all. When I landed in NYC it was a time when that kind of spirit was very much alive. I was eager to travel round the country, and it soon became clear it was tough to make theatre happen on the road unless there was a whole gang of you. When I first went to coal mining country in Virginia and Kentucky, I could hear traces of Broad Yorkshire in the way people spoke. Then when I heard folks round campfires, and on old porches singing songs they learned from their grandparents...many of these songs roots lay in the British Isles. Although I was faraway, their music made me feel right at home. I determined to learn to play guitar and tried to put some of my poems and story ideas to music.
A lot of good things can be said about NYC, but I would have never taken it as the hotbed of rural bluegrass and country. A lot of music today can be traced directly back to the city's 60's folk scene, but how did the city inspire you to make the music, you're making today? In the 90's NYC was a hot bed as far as performance art - people like The Blue Man Group were on the rise. In the last ten years my focus has shifted to a flourishing country music scene. There are several places to go to hear and play old time, bluegrass or country and folk every night of the week. In '99 I returned to a part of Brooklyn called d.u.m.b.o. (down under the manhattan bridge overpass). It was full of artists and musicians living fairly cheap in old warehouses. There was just one pub - an iron workers bar by the Brooklyn Bridge - which stood there for a century. There was a bit of a gap between the ironworkers, and the artists. Friends of mine had taken over the pub's backroom making delicious organic food (Superfine). They asked me to put on a music show. I realized some of the only common ground everybody in the neighbourhood shared was populated by country heroes like Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Hank Willliams. We started doing tribute shows outside the pub with bands on the back of an old pick up truck. Before long the Federation of Black Cowboys of America, heard about it and started riding down on horseback to see what we were doing! Then I started going to a west village jam ran by 'Sheriff Uncle Bob' a Dobro player and father figure. This was the same part of town the 60's folk revival called home. I met a lot of great musicians there - of all ages and from all across country.
If I asked you to name the three main musical influences that have shaped you as a songwriter and musician, who would it be? Definitely Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard - who were the women at the heart of the Folk revival you mentioned.When Melissa Carper and I started The Maybelles, their songs were at the top of the list. They also played like we do - guitar and upright bass. Crucial harmonies. They hung out with the New Lost City Ramblers and also knew Bill Monroe. I'm a big fan of Loretta Lynn, too - and Coal Miner's Daughter is probably my favourite movie story. My top three more modern influences are Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, and Gillian Welch. If I see an album by any of them I don't already have, I just have to get it.
You're still based in NYC, right? What's the country scene actually like in NYC these days? Is it easy getting a gig in town? Like most major hubs, its hard to get a decent paying - or even paying gig! Especially if you're from out of town. I think there's an illusion that myspace etc have made it easier - but it often only serves the 'conveyor belt' stage mentality that does not always really respect the musicians at all. In this town, rents are high, and its incredibly tough to succeed as a small business. You do have to build a reputation as far as bringing folks out who will spend money and treat the staff right. So, I do keep in mind I am a purveyor of alcohol to a large degree in NYC!! There are regular events though, and good bookers who are also working musicians who truly get it. The steady paying gigs are few and far between - and often the more prestigious venues do not pay very much, if they pay at all. The tradition of passing the hat is alive and well - and luckily new Yorkers are usually generous tippers. A mistake out of town bands often make though is booking too many gigs in the same week, in an effort to make it pay financially. That often backfires, and they end up playing to empty rooms. Its better to focus on one good show, really. Most successful local bands rely on touring outside of town, especially the festival circuit - to make ends meet.
Going back to your music. You perform and record with your own band, The Cheap Dates and as part of the Maybelles. Why divide your time between two bands? Melissa Carper and I met in Arkansas. We just fit. That was more than ten years ago. Melissa is much more of a country girl than I am - so when I returned to NYC I met new folks to play with as well. Rima Fand (The Luminescent Orchestrii), and Parrish Ellis (The Wiyos) were among the first, since we all hung out in d.u.m.b.o. Like many of my Brooklyn band 'The Cheap dates' they have other major projects/touring outfits. Bob Hoffnar was playing pedal steel with me and The Maybelles the last few years - but like a lot of NYC musicians he recently defected to Austin, Texas. He's on the road with Wayne Hancock now, and Its a great fit! Meanwhile, Melissa and I kept in touch, and while she was in NYC we teamed up with fiddler Katy Cox. The Maybelles then became a trio and we tour regularly.
The Maybelles sound more rooted in traditional bluegrass, folk and old-time, while there’s a darker edge when it comes to the music you make with The Cheap Dates. It sounds more NYC'ish, if you know what I mean? Am I completely off track here? You hit the nail right on the head. Again, when we started out as a duo Melissa's repertoire was a deep well, since she grew up in a family band playing country and gospel - and has been on upright bass since she was eight years old. She carries so many great tunes, and is a big fan of Jimmie Rodgers, and introduced me to songs by the Delmore Brothers, Doc Watson, and the Carter Family. She also writes a lot of up tempo, and often really funny old timey songs - which counter balance my tendency to write slower songs in a minor key. The other Maybelle - Katy Rose - is also really good at playing fast, hard and fiery - and through that I am learning how to play instrumental classics I would never have tried on my own. On tour gigs are anything from an hour to three hours, so there's lots of room for traditionals as well - whereas The Cheap Dates hometown shows here in Brooklyn are usually under an hour before an audience that prefers originals, rather than tunes they already know. That influences the set list enormously.
Would you say that there's still, after so many years in the US, a certain English influence in your songs? I hope so. I studied English literature and playwrights, and hope I have retained something of that sharp British wit. It also depends what's happening back home. During the last foot and mouth outbreak I was traveling up north to see my family - and was painfully aware there were hardly any sheep or cows to be seen in the fields along the way. To cheer myself up I thought - what would Woody Guthrie have to say? So, I kept an ear out for what folks told me - what was the truest truth? I came up with 'Carried by the Wind', which tries to see Mother Nature down through time as something other than the enemy. I'd also written 'Yorkshire Water' after my grand dad died - trying to honour his life as a coal miner. I used his own words as much as I could, and there's some broad Yorkshire in there. I decided not to worry if people don't always understand every exact word. I enjoy plenty of music from around the world, and don't have a clue what they're actually saying. Its the depth of feeling that counts, and music is an international language after all.
Samantha Parton from The Be Good Tanyas produced Songs For Love Drunk Sinners. The Be Good Tanyas can rightfully be credited with bringing new life to bluegrass and old-time, even before the whole Oh Brother Where Art Thou got the ball rolling. What was it like working with her? Sam and I met on the road in Memphis, and were immediate pals. Soon after we both wound up in New Orleans in the ninth ward - staying with Mike West and Myshkin. We got on like a house on fire, and started playing in the French Quarter. We called ourselves 'The Illegitimate Daughters of Johnny Cash' - we were not ambitious about it at all, just had a whole lot of fun. A year or so later, Sam returned to Canada and started The Be Good Tanyas. Years later, when I embarked upon 'Songs for Love Drunk Sinners' Samantha was the only one I could imagine working with. She took time out to come to Brooklyn in several stints to record the album. She is very detail oriented. Its as if she keep hundreds of ideas up above in tiny threads - and then in the studio she will pull them down one at a time and weave it all together. Since she is a song writer, and also has such a great ear for ideas and arrangements - she is a dream producer for someone like me, and I can't wait to work with her again. We all agree Sam brought out the best in each of us on that album.
The Maybelles play a great cover of Gillian Welch's fantastic song, 'Caleb Meyer', and you also take on Hank's I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry. While pretty much everyone in country music has recorded their own version the latter, is it more difficult covering a newer song? Chances are you might run into Gillian and David one day. I asked fellow founding member of The Maybelles to answer this one, since she leads both those tunes: Hey, this is Melissa of the Maybelles. Well, I sure hope we run into them some day and I sure hope they don't mind that we love to play their songs. We are all huge fans of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. I feel like Gillian Welch has written so many great songs that are going to be standards--like these old standards everyone covers today--everyone will be playing her songs for years to come. So many of them sound timeless. I primarily listen to old music such as Hank, Jimmie Rodgers, Leadbelly, The Carter Family, and then I listen to Gillian Welch. I like to listen to singers that have some meat and soul in their voice. It did feel good to record a song off of one of her older albums though and give it some three part female harmony and fiddle and nothing too fancy.
Final question - and one I should have probably asked sooner come to think of it. While your music still sounds heavily rooted in traditional folk and bluegrass, it's not that simple, is it? There's an edge to it, something that makes it more than just traditionalism. What do you think that is? Naturally people compare us to any female trio in the Americana realm, although bands like Nickel Creek and the Duhks were doing far more ' new grass' type stuff to my ears. We are much more traditional. I think what sets The Maybelles apart, is that we reach deep down and really sing it out loud and true. plus we have a lot of humour in our set. We don't whisper sing, or lightly pick the strings. We like songs with a real drive to them, and again our heroes tend to be the more on the outlaw side of country. I do feel we are part of a circle of younger bands who know and play songs they learned from recordings by Merle, Hank, The Carter Family, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson...there are so many greats - but they are not going to live forever. Songs and stories and a way of life that made this music - are passing out of living memory. One of the things we hear the most after our shows is how it reminds people of music from a time gone by you don't hear much anymore. At the same time, songs like 'Christian Girlfriend' bring it all right up to date - and although a few folks might find that one a bit shocking - its the 21st century and we're not the first ones to throw some light on all that. We usually save that til the end of the set, and hopefully by then, even the most conservative mind set has been won over by our dedication to soulful country, and the 'true story' sincerity of all our original songs.
Both albums are out now. For more info on Jan Bell, go to janbellmusic.com and themaybellesmusic.com