Jim Van Cleve
Taking Bluegrass Music In His Own Direction
By Derek Halsey
A Florida native who moved to North Carolina as a teenager, Jim was exposed to all kinds of music before bluegrass, and the fiddle, caught his attention. As he came up through the bluegrass ranks he played with bands such as Lou Reid and Carolina, Ric-O-Chet, and Rambler’s Choice. But it was his time playing with bluegrass legend Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver that solidified his career. He learned a lot from Lawson in those years, and it was also in that band where he met future Mountain Heart band mates Barry Abernathy and Steve Gulley.
Now, he has recorded a solo album whose title says it all, “No Apologies.” It is safe to say that VanCleve has an open mind about bluegrass music while still appreciating the traditional side of the genre. On “No Apologies,” VanCleve straddles the fence between traditional bluegrass cuts and a powerful set of modern newgrass tunes that push the envelope. The album features an all-star lineup of musicians, from his Mountain Heart compatriots to folks like Bryan Sutton, Sonya Isaacs, Ron Stewart, and Rob Ickes.
In an interview from a recording studio where he is producing a new young bluegrass singer named Carrie Hassler, VanCleve talks about the new Mountain Heart album, his own new album, and the state of bluegrass music as it heads into this new century.
Howdy Jim. What are you up to today?
“I’m in the studio producing an album by Carrie Hassler and Hard Rain. It is a young band that is very good, and Carrie is a great singer. The band features Kevin McKinnon playing mandolin, and his twin brother Keith plays guitar. They are from southwest Virginia. They hang out with a picker named Carson Cooper. He is kind of like a legend up there. (Carson is a well-known banjo picker and teacher and former member of Appalachian Trail) You know, everybody knows Carson Cooper. He had a music store up there forever. So, the twins have been around him for a long time and are both really good players, and they’re nice guys. Josh Miller and Josh Swift play banjo and Dobro respectively, and they are 19 years old. Everybody in the band is 19, except for Carrie who is 25, and Travis on bass, I think, is 29. I’m serious, they kick tail. They are going to be so good. I’m excited about it. I’m tickled with it, and excited for people to hear it.”
Your new album, “No Apologies,” has been blasting out of my speakers of late. What I like about it is it goes from traditional bluegrass to some ripping newgrass along the way. It rocks.
“Thank you! Thanks very much. Well, even though traditional bluegrass is first and foremost with me, I am not a purist in that regard.”
I have always loved traditional bluegrass as well as newgrass, jazzgrass and everything in-between. As far as some branches of bluegrass goes, it still and will always have its roots in the traditional. It is obvious that you have those roots as well.
“Hey, I’m with you on that. I am, and I can be, and I respect it immensely, and it’s a wealth of knowledge. But I grew up listening to Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, and guys like that. They had already taken it a little outside of those lines, so it was unavoidable that I would hear music that was outside of those very traditional lines. It was supposed to be that way. It’s what I grew up hearing.”
My thoughts on it are, shouldn’t you be able to produce the music that you hear inside your own head?
“I sure wish it was like that. I want it to be. You know, it seems like a lot of people don’t want it to be that way. They think that if you decide to build on something and, like you said, make the music that is in your head, then you are showing disrespect to tradition, or something like that. That is a weird conundrum to be stuck in, I think. It’s odd, because most other kinds of music are all about everybody’s identity, and then in certain circles of acoustic music it is all about ‘can you take on somebody else’s identity.’ I just don’t get it. I can understand the tip of the hat to tradition, but within reason.”
To me, the more newgrass that I listen to, the better the traditional bluegrass sounds when I go back to it.
“Yeah, absolutely. There is no disrespect intended to any of those guys. They obviously had to learn from Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs, your list of eight or ten that everybody has to list. Everybody has been influenced by that music, but it is not disrespect if you put your own personality into your music. You are an individual, or why bother?”
Yet, you still have two smoking traditional bluegrass cuts on the album with “Wheel Hoss” and “Train 45.”
“Yeah. And then we have a Flatt and Scruggs-Bluegrass Album Band cover of ‘We Can’t Be Darlings Anymore’ that is straight off the Bluegrass Album Band rendition I heard when I was a kid. Also, ‘Let The Big Dog Eat’ is a new song that has a traditional flavor to it as well. Those songs are traditionally based, but they are not recorded in the traditional method of walking into a cheap studio and cutting the whole record in one day. I used a cheapo engineer…(laughing). No, he is sitting next to me, so I had to say that. Really, I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve been able to work with the best engineers. The engineer on my record is the best I’ve ever met. David Hall is a lot of the reason why this record sounds like it does sonically. Just to able to work with somebody who knows what music can sound like, recorded in this day and age, and who is not afraid to work with acoustic music is a rarity. So, it is kind of cool for me to get to record traditional and not so traditional songs in the same way that your big budget bands would go in and cut their records.”
One of the guests on your album is Ronnie Bowman. What was it like to get him in the studio to sing “Let The Big Dog Eat,” which is an uptempo barn burner to say the least?
“I got Barry Abernathy, who knew the song really well already, to come in and sing a scratch vocal for Ronnie because Ronnie couldn’t be there on tracking day. When we cut the track it ended up being a little faster than we had originally thought we’d do it, but it just felt good to do it there. We thought we could get it sung at that speed, but he didn’t know for sure if he would be able to do it. Once he heard the track he was like, ‘Man, that is fast.’ We were not sure if we would be able to make it fit just exactly right. But we were looking for ways to take words out and slide them around, change where we were starting a word, and how to phrase it so it would work at that speed. Ronnie is really good and a natural at phrasing bluegrass music, so 175 beats a minute didn’t affect him too badly. He was able to make it work and it still kicks butt, and that was the main goal. He nailed it, I thought.”
The first song on the CD is “Nature Of The Beast,” and it has some other-worldly sounds on it that are interesting. Were some of those effects done with a fiddle?
“Yeah, there was some fiddle. I played some high-strung guitar. I played a couple of different guitars tuned to different spots, capo’ed up, and I tried to cover as many octave ranges as I could to make a big sound. There were some effects thrown in there, too. The whole thing about that song is that the melody itself is really basic. It is like an old timey kind of fiddle tune. But, I wanted to create a lot darker mood than that. So, we got to messing around with it and me and David Hall started trying to figure out ways to create a creepy, foreboding kind of atmosphere around the song. The melody was grinding, and it sounds relentless almost. I dig that. I’m a big fan of hard-edged rock music just like I am of hard-edged bluegrass, so I want to be able to incorporate both of those attitudes. So, we got in there and started messing around, and David is a whiz in the studio, so together we tinkered with some ideas and we started figuring out how to get some creepiness in there, some things that people might not be expecting. Some curveballs, as it pertains to bluegrass music, because people don’t generally do that stuff in ‘grass. I’m not all about ignoring and breaking all the rules, but I want to push the envelope a little bit. I think that’s fun. And, I think it is fun for people to be a little uncomfortable every now and then. I want it to be within the realm of good taste, but I want it to be a little uncomfortable because a lot of music kind of slides by you. You don’t notice it, and it doesn’t have a lot of personality. Not all music, as there is a lot of incredible music around, obviously. I’m all about music being interesting, and in your face every now and then, and being beautiful at the same time. I want it to be tastefully done, but not watered down.”
“Devil’s Courthouse” is another excellent instrumental that kicks it up a notch.
“That one turned into a jam song for the band. All the guys, they grit their teeth when we play that thing. That is one of the grassier, more traditional songs on the record. We play that in our Mountain Heart show. I’m not sure what it is about that song, but everybody starts head-banging when we play that thing. It is a song we can rock out on a little bit.”
And, your band mate Adam Steffey takes off on a powerful mandolin solo in the song that bounces off the listener’s forehead.
“Yeah, he does. I’ll tell you one thing about David Hall in the studio, I could verbally communicate to David what I wanted to hear the instruments sound like. And he was able to take what I was saying and turn the knobs and run it through the right gear to let me hear what I wanted to hear out of each instrument. I wanted one of the best records, sonically, that had been cut in acoustic music. I wanted it to be a record that people would remember and maybe use as a bench mark for that kind of stuff.”
In other words, if it is a ripping, in-your-face solo, then you want it to sound like it is a ripping, in-your-face solo when it comes out of the speakers?
“Exactly. I want that to come across. That is one of the things that acoustic music, and especially bluegrass music as a genre, has not had the benefit of, maybe ever, with the exception of Alison Krauss. Alison is one of the only acts in acoustic music that has the benefit of getting into a great studio with great engineers with the time and the artistic vision to make a record that sounds like records are supposed to sound these days. There is a lot of great music produced that doesn’t have those benefits, but there is so much good music that people outside of acoustic music don’t give a chance to because they don’t hear what they are used to hearing. They plug in a record that doesn’t sound like a Krauss record and they might make it through the first track because it doesn’t sound as impressive as the Dave Matthews Band or Nickelback CD they are listening to.”
How awesome is it to bring in the other members of Mountain Heart for your solo CD? They are such amazing musicians in their own right.
“Oh man, yes, it’s incredible. It was so neat that everybody that I requested help from on this record, right down to Mark Bright who helped me to produce a track on this thing, it floored me that so many people were willing to help me out and try to help me realize the vision I had with this CD. Every night when the band gets on stage, and I’m always amazed when it is stuff that I write, when we actually get up there and pull it off I’m like, ‘Wow.’ Especially when we completely capture what I thought we were supposed to capture. And then we went into the studio for ‘No Apologies’ and did the same thing a million times better than I thought would even be possible. Songs like ‘Fall Creek Falls’ and ‘Highlands,’ because Mountain Heart hasn’t cut much if that kind of stuff, I didn’t know if it would translate well. We got in there and we rehearsed a couple of days at my house first, and when we got in the studio it all went down so easy. ‘Fall Creek Falls’ was literally like falling off a waterfall it was so easy. It was like falling off a log to get that thing cut. ‘Highlands’ is a basic kind of fiddle tune melody that Clay and I wrote on guitars, and it translated to all the other instruments perfectly. The track builds, it ebbs and flows, it does so many things that hopefully you don’t expect, but can still relate to when it happens. I was so happy that everyone was able to musically communicate like that. It was so natural.”
Plus, on the song “Highlands” you have both Clay Jones and Bryan Sutton playing together on guitars. Both of those guys are monster musicians.
“Yeah, I thought that would be a neat thing. When I wrote it I was playing guitar, and I was thinking, ‘I really like the feel of the two guitars.’ We were tuned differently, one was in D-A-D-G-A-D tuning and I was playing out of an open E, like a power chord open E thing, and the melody worked great in both places, but the guitars had a little bit different timbre in those two spots. I didn’t need to play guitar on it because, even though it was my album, I am a more accomplished fiddle player than I am a guitar player. But I still wanted to have that feel. Some of the licks and the melody lines needed to have two guitars for it to really fly. So, when I thought about getting Bryan in here along side of Clay, I didn’t know if it would work or not. I didn’t know if it would work because I thought that they might get in each other’s way rhythmically and things like that. But, not at all. It was perfect. It added so much depth and ‘bigness’ to the track. Then I was like, ‘Ok, I know what we got to do now. We’ve got this one extendo jam section that follows the melody line, and we’ve got to trade this back and forth.’ It’s got to be Bryan and Clay going back and forth for a little bit. It all fell into place. There is a harmony line at the end of it that sums up that whole section, and it worked out perfect. Some of that was by mistake. I don’t know why, it just was. It was supposed to happen that way. So, Bryan took my spot. I didn’t think that would hurt anybody’s feelings (laughs). He is absolutely a monster. Clay is pretty versatile also, so I knew that Bryan would come in and accent Clay immediately because he has listened to Clay, and Clay has listened to him. They are very different players, but I knew they would work well together because all three of us have been in jam sessions together. They play off of each other well, just like I play off of Bryan well, and I play off of Clay well. So I knew by proxy that all these other guys would work to. You know what I mean? I kind of knew that everybody would click like that.”
I knew I was going to like the album when I read in the liner notes that Ron Stewart was playing the banjo throughout. When Ron plays with JD Crowe he obviously doesn’t get to play the banjo very much. But, Crowe is a master at it and I am sure that he has learned a lot from him. To anyone that knows, Ron Stewart is great on the five-string.
“Man, he’s great. I thought about a couple of other guys, banjo stars so to speak, and there are a lot of players that I really like. But, at the same time I was thinking that Ron is one of these guys that can play a lot of styles of music, but is not going to go too far out. I knew that he would be an anchor for these tracks. With some of the stuff that was a little further left of center than some people might be comfortable with, I felt like Ron would be an anchor for that kind of thing. He would still be pile-driving it, but he would be a voice of reason within some of the craziness we were about to attempt. It is kind of like in Mountain Heart. Barry Abernathy is a great musician, and obviously his handicap on his left hand keeps him from playing some things as he knows a lot more music than he can physically pull off. Knowing that, he can play within himself very well and keeps the band grounded. He’s kind of like an anchor, and that is a good thing. I’ve come to really appreciate that. If you have something going left of center, you have to have something going right of center.”
You also brought in Rob Ickes to guest on the Dobro. The sound of a resonator in his capable hands compliments many of the songs wonderfully.
“Well, especially with ‘Fall Creek Falls.’ I knew the minute I was humming the melody five years ago. I didn’t even hear a fiddle on it. I didn’t know what key to put it in for a fiddle to really work well. I heard Dobro from the first second that the melody came into my head. I knew I wanted a Dobro playing that, and I knew exactly what I wanted it to sound like. Rob was the first call for that. He is an incredible musician and a good friend. I knew that he would be willing to come in and work with me until I got exactly what I wanted out of it. All of these guys were like that. They were willing to sit in there a little longer than usual for the same money, or for less money. It was a neat thing to hear Rob pull off ‘Fall Creek Falls’ and ‘Grey Afternoon” like he did. He nailed it. All of it. I knew with those melodies that I wanted another expressive voice. I don’t need to kick off every song. I don’t care whose record it is, I want the best music possible, and whatever instrument needs to voice that melody is who is going to do it if I’m producing it. There is a bunch of these songs where I only take one solo on them. I don’t care about pyrotechnic playing. I could go out on a limb and do all this stuff, but if it doesn’t belong in that song, I do not want it there. I especially don’t want myself playing it there. I want everything to be within the realm of good taste. I knew that Rob playing some of these melodies was what was needed to be there, rather than me playing it just because my face is on the cover.”
You step up with a couple of lead vocals on this album, especially on the song you wrote with Jon Weisberger called “Way It Always Seems To Go.” What were your thoughts on picking this song for the project?
“I felt like I needed to sing some stuff on the record and I didn’t have a good sense of what I wanted to do. Then that song came back to my mind, and I said, ‘Oh yeah, I forgot about him.’ So, I started working on it, and I felt like we could get a good bouncy groove going on in the song that would be fun to listen to and fun to play. Then, I felt like I wanted something that added to the song’s identity. I was driving to meet the bus one night and I was driving with my leg and had my fiddle in my hands and was fiddling while I was driving, and I got to thinking about some crazy kick off ideas. I knew I was going to forget it so I called my own voice mail, I had a wireless headset on, and I played the idea on my fiddle onto my voice mail and kept saving it for the next couple of months. We got to rehearsal and I said, ‘Ok, I’ve got a couple of ideas I’m going to try. Hold on.’ I got my phone out and I called myself so I could hear them and remember them.”
Tell me about the song “Scars.” You brought in Sonya Isaacs to sing it. It is a different sounding song compared to the rest of the album, yet Sonya has such a wonderful voice.
“Oh man, she’s an angel. She sings just like an angel. I heard that song about two and a half to three years ago and what the song was saying I knew would apply to anybody who was brave enough to listen to the words and be able to look at themselves in the mirror at the same time. I knew it would mean a lot to them. I’ve had more compliments, comments, and remarks about that song than anything else on the record, except for the traditional bluegrassers because they won’t listen to the words. If it doesn’t have a banjo right on the front of it, they don’t even want to hear it. They’re missing the point, and that is their loss. But, there is a huge message within that song, and I think if you got the guts to listen to the words of it you are going to get something from it. That song has been an inspiration to me. It’s helped me deal with some really hard things. I am so glad that she was willing to cut it and Mark Bright was willing to produce it because that meant the world to me. I felt like it was one of the best songs I’ve ever heard. I felt like if I put one of the best singers I’ve ever heard, and one of the best producers I’ve ever heard, all in a room together I couldn’t go wrong.”
You mentioned some musicians earlier that you grew up listening to, such as Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas and Bela Fleck. They were guys who would make music their own way back in the day and take the heat for it and keep moving forward. That seems to have rubbed off on you.
‘Exactly, and it has been a long time coming for them. I’m sure that when they started breaking the rules there were a lot of diehard traditionalists who were giving them a hard time over it. But they stuck in there, and it seems to have worked out pretty well for most of them. I just have to use that blueprint right there and hope that the result will be the same.”
You are also riding high with a new Mountain Heart album that is out now as well. The band brought in producer Mark Bright for the album, who has worked with Rascal Flatts and other top country groups, and you have chosen some interesting songs for this effort. Tell me about the “Wide Open” CD.
“I think it’s our best effort so far. Getting to work with Mark Bright, and getting the quality of songs that we got, I never would have expected it. I met Mark through a chance meeting. I was at a session with Sara Evans and Mark was there because he was getting ready to produce her new record, and Sara’s manager told me that I should go and introduce myself to Mark. I did, and it turns out that he was a big bluegrass fan. Sara’s manager said, ‘You ought to see if he has your CD,’ because she had it and liked our band and wanted to be nice and help us, I guess. So, I introduced myself and he said, ‘Oh, I already know who you are. I know all about you guys. I love your band.’ My jaw hit the dirt, and he laughed. I was like, ‘Oh, wow. I’ve got this record,’ and he said ‘I actually already have this album. I went and bought this a few weeks ago. But, do you mind if I have this copy too?’ It was ‘Force Of Nature.’ I said, ‘By all means.’
He was sitting there and was looking over our liner notes while he was listening to Sara sing some demos, and I was just kind of hanging out. We got to talking after that and I mentioned that we had been talking about some different options for producers. I felt that it was a ridiculous long shot, but he had been so nice that I thought I’d mention it to him. I said, ‘I know you got plenty to do, and huge budgets to work with, and we would never have that, but if you would ever be interested…da-tada-tada.’ He cut me off and said, ‘I would literally jump at the opportunity to work with you guys.’ That was how we hooked up with Mark Bright, and our management company facilitated the whole thing. I couldn’t believe it. Then we started actually going through with the proceedings and Mark and his assistant Kirsten are sending us songs that I wouldn’t ever have thought that Mountain Heart would even get to listen to unless they were on the radio. We picked through about 250 A-shelf songs to put our record together with.
There are hits on the radio right now that we turned down for our record. There are hits playing on the radio right now, and I won’t even bother to say what they are, but there have been three on the radio within the last six months, with one playing right now in the top ten on the country charts, that we turned down. I think that it is definitely our best record. We’re all playing the music that we all want to be playing. We’re taking chances, yet like with my record, we’re still trying to stay within the realm of sanity and reason. We’re trying to have fun with it, and it makes us who we are. It’s our identity. ‘Wide Open’ is the best picture, so far, of what we are about both live and on record.”
And now, you have the best of both worlds. Mountain Heart is more song oriented, and on your solo record you get to rip on some wild stuff.
“Yeah, and go for it. I know. That is such a blessing. I love it. And I want somebody who is a Flatt and Scruggs fan or a Del McCoury fan to listen to ‘No Apologies’ and ‘Wide Open’ and dig that, and if they are a Sam Bush fan I want them to listen to ‘No Apologies’ and ‘Wide Open’ and dig that too. I think that is what we’re getting at. I think that we have a real large range of stuff that a lot of different kinds of listeners will enjoy and appreciate.”
Who sparked your interest in bluegrass music as a youngster?
“Tony Rice, The Bluegrass Album Band, David Grisman, and Peter Rowan were people that I can remember hearing as a kid that got me interested in it. I had some family members that played just for fun here and there. They played acoustic instruments, but listened to a lot of bluegrass. I wouldn’t say, necessarily, that they were playing bluegrass, but they were listening to it. So, I grew up listening to a lot of different kinds of music and I kind of backed into bluegrass being my passion. Not just bluegrass, but acoustic music in general. I love so many different kinds of music. I play an acoustic instrument so I get to explore within that realm, but it just kind of worked out that way.”
I was reading in your liner notes about your fiddle. Who made it?
“That is Jon Cooper, a guy up in Maine. I think he is the best builder in the country right now. The waiting list is a mile long. He is building extremely high-quality instruments. I know Mark O’Connor has played them. Alison Krauss has a Cooper. Aubrey Haynie plays a Cooper. The just did a write-up on him in Bluegrass Unlimited a while back, if I’m not mistaken. He is a really nice guy, and I lucked out. I’ve heard all kinds of fiddles and played all my hero’s fiddles, and I like mine close to as good as any I’ve ever played if not better. I lucked out and found the one that suited me the best, and was able to afford it at the time. Well, I had to have a co-signer on a bank note to get it, but I’m glad I did as it has worked out well for me.
How old were you when you first played the fiddle?
“I was about 12 years old, so it is going on 15 years playing now. It’s hard to believe that it has been that long because it doesn’t feel like it to me. I didn’t really take it all that seriously. I was doing it professionally before I realized that I liked it as much as I did. I took the job with Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, and I had recorded some albums and played with some bands part time and semi-professionally, but I fell into doing it full time for a living. I don’t know that I set out to do that, but now that I am, I can’t envision me doing something else because I love it so much. I love music, and it is 20 hours a day. If I’m not sleeping, I have some kind of music going on in my head, or I’m listening to something, or I’m thinking about something. It never stops. I get family members and girlfriends where it gets on their nerves after a while, but they kind of laugh because they understand. Or they try to. They don’t, but they try to understand.”
What did you learn from Doyle Lawson while playing in his band?
“I think the most valuable lessons that I learned while I was in Quicksilver were about the business end of music, and how to keep a band together. I learned how to put an effective show or a live performance together, what kind of things get an audience going, and how to approach the business end, more than anything. Being around that level of musicians, with all the guys that he has in his band, everybody has a professional attitude and that definitely rubbed off on me. I was 18 and 19 years old when I was there, so that was definitely a benefit for somebody my age to see how professional musicians treated that profession because there are a lot of professional musicians that don’t treat it as such.”
Did you learn anything about harmony singing from Doyle?
“Yeah, just by watching. I really didn’t take part in much of it. I took part in a little bit, but I learned a bunch about it. Then, as I grew as a musician I started to listen to a lot of different things like Take 6 and the stuff that Doyle draws most of his gospel material from. The old black gospel quartets, all the old stuff from the 1930’s and 40’s like the Golden Gate Quartet, the Suwannee River Boys. He gets all of is arrangements from that music. When I started going back to listen to those guys, I was like, ‘Whoa! This is incredible stuff.’ So, a little dose of that coupled with some Take 6 and whatever is on the radio that has some cool stuff going on in it, and I’ve learned quite a bit about harmony structures. I do it instrumentally in my head, then if it needs to be sung then I can sing it. Or, I can tell somebody who is a better singer than me how to sing it. I enjoy it. Cool harmonies are intriguing to me.”
Last question, Jim. Mountain Heart made a trip to South America to play bluegrass music some time back. How were you received, and what was the experience like?
“It was pretty cool, actually. We went to Uruguay and Paraguay. A lot of the chaperones spoke pretty good English, so that was comforting. When we got down there, with music being the reason why we were there, we didn’t know what to expect. If you go to a local folk festival here and see all of the different acts, you feel like it is neat to see what they do. Down there we were the science experiment. You know, when you see folks go to a pet store and tap on the glass? We felt like that because people were walking up and looking at us like, ‘What in the world are they doing?’ But it was so cool at the same time because we were doing what we always do, and those people didn’t understand the words we were singing, but they were really digging the vibe and the groove of the music. They were into it because it was so vastly different from what they were used to hearing. We got to meet some people that were big in the music industry there and we got to hear some of their music. The meeting of the minds like that was a lot of fun. I enjoyed learning about the different cultures. Music is a part of their culture just like it is here. Music is a part of their life like it is here, it’s just a different kind of life. It’s not that much different in spots. In other places it is, but music is a human phenomena. It is kind of a cliché and a catch phrase, but it is absolutely the truth because when we got down there, music ended up being the common bond between everybody.