Our program, The Culture of Bluegrass Music in North Carolina: My Life as an Accidental Bluegrass Musician, will be held on December 4, 2019 from 1:00 pm to 2:30 pm at the Governor Morehead School for the Blind. Our program’s speaker will be Bluegrass Musician, John Santa. Before the program, I had a chance to interview Mr. Santa and I am thrilled to share part of it with you before it’s published in full in a our next digital exclusive Tar Heel Talk.
What got you into music?
photo by Lillie Elliot
c 2010 Blue Seven Productions
I was 13 and walked into my friend Bob Schmidt’s room in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He had some blues playing on his record player. I went over and picked up the album cover of what was playing and turned it over. There was a photograph of an old black man, Huddy Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly, sitting stiffly in a dark wool suit with a high cellulose collar posing in the formal photographic portrait style of the time. He looked very serious, almost ominous. And he was holding a 12-string guitar.
I was transfixed by that guitar, the man and the music. It was as if he reached out of that photograph and grabbed me by the lapels and pulled me in and whispered “Come ON, son!”
I put the album cover down and turned to my friends and said “I’m going to play the 12-string guitar.” They all laughed because I did not own, nor could I PLAY, a guitar. A year later I bought my first 12-string.
You play eighteen instruments. That is not an easy task. Could you please list the instruments?
Well it’s eighteen if you count the 12-string, 6-string, Nation Steel Bottleneck guitar and electric and acoustic guitars as separate instruments which I guess some do.
Same with electric bass guitar and upright acoustic bass (we call it the “doghouse bass” in Bluegrass.) Mandolin, Cello, Dobro, Banjo, Violin, Sitar, Tambora, Keyboards i.e., piano, organ and synthesizer, Harmonica, Drums, I used to play some sax and clarinet but haven’t in a long time. Same with my bagpipes. Those suckers are LOUD.
Eighteen instruments is not that big a deal really. Not when you’ve been playing all your life like I have! And most of them are strings so they’re all basically the same concept. ‘Course MUSIC is all the same so in the big Zen giggle of it, it’s pretty accessible….
At any rate, all these years later I still love the 12-string guitar though I don’t play it in public that much anymore.
You are a bluegrass musician, but do you ever play any other genres of music?
Oh gosh yes! Blues, folk, rock ‘n roll, Americana, some jazz, a little classical
Practicing is essential to every musician. What are some of your practicing methods you would be willing to share?
Well , this is completely self-serving, but I teach so I try to practice what I preach.
I have a series of exercises a hand therapist developed with me that really work the specific muscles in the hand needed to play guitar, and I do those before every recording session to get my hands in shape. But mostly I think you just have to play. A LOT. Put on music and play along. Mix up the genres so you’re challenging yourself.
Have fun, but REMEMBER the good licks and things that work so you LEARN and get better.
Honestly there are three pieces of advice I like to give musicians who are starting out:
1.) Always play with people who are better than you. I do that to this day.
2.) LISTEN. Music is a CONVERSATION. You can’t respond if you’re not hearing what the other person is SAYING. I see SO MANY musicians who just don’t LISTEN. It’s tragic.
3.) This one isn’t mine; it’s from Charlie Parker: “Master your instrument. Master the music. And then forget all that bullshit and just play.”
When you are writing songs, where does your inspiration come from? Do you put lyrics to a melody or a melody to the lyrics?
It’s only recently that I’ve begun to write songs AWAY from an instrument. It’s a pretty bizarre feeling, but I’m getting used to it.
I had this idea for a song with the title “Jim Beam, Jack Daniels and Me” about a guy sitting by himself in a bar. The title gestated for quite a while and then suddenly some lyrics would just pop into my head and I’d start typing them into my lap top so I wouldn’t lose them, and the rhythm of them, the way they scanned, SOMETHING, just gave me the melody and the whole song went like that.
Later it was kinda weird making the guitar conform to the melody I’d created since that is the opposite of how I usually work. Most of the time I’ll be siting with my guitar or mandolin and come across a melody or phrase and that will kick off some lyrics or a thought in my head and then it just goes from there.
Some songs are done in a half an hour. On others I was in labor with them for YEARS!
Ideas come in weird ways too. It’s all how your brain deals with your life stuff. My friend Meg Scott Phipps and her husband Robert were going to move to the mountains, and I was bummed about that cause we’d filled their house with crazy musicians and laughter for YEARS at our annual New Year’s Eve party.
And then somewhere I heard a banjo player I only peripherally knew had died, and that was in my head. It all got rattled around in my brain and became the song Resting Place (The Mountains Are Waiting for Me) I knew it needed to have a North Carolina theme and the lyric took kind of a black humor twist.
Here’s a sample verse:
I got people pushing daisies in the Piedmont
I got folks who scattered ashes on the breeze
We all got a resting place somewhere
And the mountains are waiting for me
Where the Blue Ridge trail winds
Through the very tall pines
And there’s ten million star you can see
We’ve all got a resting place somewhere
And the mountains are waiting for me
(© 2018 Blue Seven Productions)
And you can see how my co-lyricist Martin Brown and I worked the theme of loss and the mountains into the song. One of my fondest memories of performing this song was at an annual gig we played on the 4th of July over in Hillsborough.
We played the song, which in spite of its themes is actually a pretty cool and uplifting tune, and when we finished Greg Eldred, our fabulous guitar player and a great song writer in his own right, leaned over to me and whispered
“Well that’s just GREAT! Now I’ll have THAT song stuck in my head for the next two weeks!”
Don’t get much better than that!
Who are some of your favorite bluegrass musicians? Do you have any favorite musicians or groups outside of bluegrass?
Because my band EIGHTwentythree (named for the first time we ever played together, August 23, 2001) plays a lot of original music, at this point I try NOT to listen to what other Bluegrass artists are doing.
But certainly Sam Bush, Rhonda Vincent, Chet Atkins, Alison Krauss, Charlie McCoy, the always incredible Doc Watson and of course the man himself, Bill Monroe. I’m blessed to work with some genius musicians and we’re constantly challenging and redefining our sound and who we are, so it’s hard enough to keep up with THEM, let alone what’s out there on the radio or online.
Our CD, The Blessing Of The Strings is entirely made up of original songs and we’ve sold over two thousand copies without any major label backing or advertising so we must be doing SOMETHING right!
Outside of Bluegrass, keep in mind I grew up on the Beatles, James Brown, Zeppelin, The Who, Sly And The Family Stone, Smokey Robinson and the mostly male dominated pop music of the time.
Heck, the first music I ever purchased was by Little Anthony and the Imperials! And of course, I filled up my head and my heart with Sonny Terry and Brownie Mckee, Robert Johnson, and Leadbelly to name but a few. I listened to Stan Getz, Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, and Toots Thielemans. But now I tend to listen to mostly female artists.
At this point in my life, I know how men think so that has very little interest for me. When I first got into Bluegrass I was AMAZED at how egalitarian the music was. Women were EVERYWHERE and, on every instrument, and many of them were multi-instrumentalists. So, Bonnie Rait (particularly her earlier stuff), Iris DeMent, Adele, Loreena McKennitt, Joni Mitchell, among others. And I still crank up Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill” and fly down the interstate from time to time.
Do you have any advice to offer for any aspiring musicians?
If you’re a writer, write.
If you’re a painter, paint.
If you’re a musician, mus-ish. And by that, I mean play music.
Play the gigs, do the sessions, teach lessons, PLAY. If you make music the center of your life you may not get rich and famous, but you’ll succeed.
If you haven’t signed up for our December 4th Bluegrass program and would like to attend, please follow the link below: