Jesse won the IBMA’s award for Mandolin Performer of the Year in 2009. He was also part of Michael Cleveland’s band, helping them win the IBMA’s Instrumental of the Year award for 2009 and 2011 as well as the coveted Instrumental Group of the Year award for four consecutive years (2007-2011.) His solo CD, Kickin’ Grass was also nominated for an IBMA award.
Accolades like these don’t just fall out of the sky. Jesse has been working on his craft since childhood, starting out at age 9 in his family’s band and appearing on the Grand Ole Opry at age 11. Since then, he’s shared the stage with a who’s who of notable names in bluegrass such as Alison Krauss, Ricky Skaggs, and Tony Rice to name just a few. His talents have been sought out by The Lynn Morris Band, Chris Jones and the Night Drivers and, more recently, Audie Blaylock and Redline.
As if all this wasn’t enough, Jesse still manages to involve himself in writing, arranging and producing projects for others as well as teaching at the respected 317 Main St. Music Community School in Yarmouth, Maine.
We’re so fortunate then, that Jesse will be sharing his talents with us here at the Hudson Valley Bluegrass Association on May 19th, first in a workshop format and later in the show with Audie Blaylock.
Jesse was kind enough to answer a few questions for us ahead of his visit. We talked about all things mandolin, the joy of teaching and the perils of being a musician from Maine.
Tell us about how you came to the mandolin. Was it your first instrument?
Well, actually my first instrument was the fiddle. I took nine lessons with a woman called Gaye Harrison. She performed in an old-time string band with my father. My father thought it would be a good introduction to music. To learn music theory, melody and the fiddle was a nice start and I’m glad they did that. Probably should have stuck with it. I just didn’t have the patience at the time. I was 8 ½ years old and wanted to run around outside. Shortly after that I put the fiddle down and a few months later picked up the mandolin. My sister was playing a little on the mandolin. She taught me the 3 chords and how to keep time and I went from there on my own, listening to records like the Osbourne Brothers, Jim and Jesse and The Stanley Brothers. I got really turned on though, when I heard Doyle Lawson on the Bluegrass Album Volume 1. Ever since then I’ve always been turned on by the mandolin and I’ve always wanted to play like Doyle Lawson.
Who were some of your other influences?
Well, my father grew up around some greats like the Bray Brothers. They were from the Champaign- Urbana, Illinois area. He had the fortune of spending some time with them at jam sessions and some of their shows. It was magical seeing them in person; much like you would see a Flatt and Scruggs show. He’d tell me stories about it and I’d take myself there mentally. I wish I could have known Nate Bray who was probably one of the biggest influences in my mandolin playing at that time and still is. He was very ahead of his time. Of course Bill Monroe was an influence and some of the younger generation, like Sam Bush and Jesse McReynolds. Then there are even younger guys like Chris Thile; hats off to him. I really respect what he’s doing.
You’ve played with Michael Cleveland and Dale Ann Bradley and shared the stage with some of the bluegrass music’s most recognizable names. What’s been a career highlight for you so far?
The Lynn Morris Band would have to be right up there. It was an all-star cast if you will, with Marshall Wilborn, Ron Stewart and Lynn Morris of course. I was very fortunate to have been in that line-up. The first season I played with them was in ’92 when Chris Jones was doing some guitar playing with the band. I took a sabbatical for a while then went back in ’98 and stuck with them for another five years. I recorded two albums with that band and I’m very proud of them. I listen back to them though and I think I’ve grown more since then. At the time you think you’re at the furthest point you can take your abilities.
Mandolin players would love to hear about the instruments you use. What’s your main mandolin? Can you tell us about it?
Well, I’ve acquired a mandolin that I think is the best I’ve played on stage. It’s a Gibson Sam Bush model which I got when Charlie Derrington was at the factory and making some positive changes for the company. Danny Roberts made it possible too. The two of them teamed up and brought a batch of mandolins out to me at the factory. It was a week after IBMA and I went over there because I was having problems with the mandolin I was playing at the time. Danny Roberts had let me borrow his personal Sam Bush model and I really liked it. They brought some out and the one I’m playing now is the one I chose. It just keeps sounding better and better and would be pretty hard to beat. There are some independent makers who want to place their mandolins in my hands, so we’re working on a couple of deals. I won’t ever put the Sam Bush down completely but I’d like to give some independent builders a chance.
I know you’ll be leading a workshop for us. Is teaching what’s keeping you busy lately?
Well I’ve been freelancing quite a bit lately as well as teaching. I’m teaching at a place called the 317 Main Street Music Community in Yarmouth, Maine. It’s a privately owned music school and they’ve been fortunate enough to have funding to keep the school going. They have over 400 students come through there each week from guitar, ukulele, cello, mandolin; you name it. They’re doing a great job for the New England music community.
Is that where Joe Walsh (mandolin player with the Gibson Brothers) teaches?
I actually took Joe Walsh’s place. Joe is now at Berkley teaching the Americana / Roots music program and doing a wonderful job there I hear. When he moved down to Berkley it left an opening. I didn’t take the job right away but decided it would be a good opportunity for me
Is it hard to be a musician living in Maine? It’s a long way home from anywhere.
It is. The oil prices are really affecting the air fare and I’ve found that I’ve actually had to pass up on some gigs. I’m up in my own little world in Maine and if you drive it you could be doing a good two days just getting to a gig! I’m trying to find my niche, you know? I’m doing selective dates. Of course I’m coming to New York with Audie Blaylock and Redline and looking forward to that, as well as doing some other dates with Audie this summer. I was also in the studio with Audie, working on the new band project, which I think is going to top everything he’s ever done. He’s taken on some new ideas which I think are going to be extremely marketable and still in keeping with the traditional ties of the music. I think it’s going to turn a lot of heads and impress a lot of people.
What’s next for you?
Well, up next, I’m going over to England. I’m going to be teaching all week at a camp called ‘Sore Fingers’ about 1 ½ hours from London. Quite a few of our peers have taught there: Marshall Wilborn, Ron Stewart, Lynn Morris and Stuart Duncan among others. I think Missy Raines is going over this year to be the master bass player. Chris Stuart and Janet Beazley are coming over so we almost have a full band right there. I wish we could stay over there longer and maybe make a tour of it but people have to get back for their own commitments.
Bill Monroe famously said that once a person has learned to play bluegrass music that they should go out and get their own style. Is that something you ever think about? How would you describe your style?
It sounds exactly like my father. He instilled that value in me; to be your own entity and create a brand of your own. There’s already one Sam Bush, one Adam Steffey and one Bill Monroe. You have to make your mark and create something unique and work with that. I love the playing of the people I’ve just mentioned and would love to play like that but it’s not me. It’s already being done so why copy it?
If you could impart one kernel of wisdom for all students of music, young and old, what would it be?
Melody; stick to the melody as much as possible. There’s nothing wrong with going out on a limb and weaving in and out of the melody but you’ll never go wrong just sticking to it. You may hear me on stage getting away from the melody but as long as you play it straight the first time around you can come back the second or third time and put a little twist on it.
If you could jam with any musician, living or dead who would it be? Why?
Oh wow. I would have to go back to Nate Bray. He passed away a year before I was born. I know he was revered by many bluegrass greats. Going back and playing with Lester Flatt would be special. Some of these guys won’t be with us much longer so I’m trying to cherish every moment I get to be around them.
If this whole bluegrass thing hadn’t worked out, what would you be doing now?
I don’t know. I’ve been in and out of the corporate world. I worked with computers for a while. I worked in the shipping business. I worked with heavy machinery. I drove a forklift. I broke my finger lifting heavy boxes. I really don’t know what I’d be doing if I wasn’t playing music. I think about that every day.