The music on place of growth, the new third album by Nashville acoustic string band Hawktail, is about a lot. One thing he decidedly doesn’t recall is the late country singer and songwriter Roger Miller.
And yet, here on a Zoom chat, quartet bassist Paul Kowert sings the first line of Miller’s children’s song, “Robin Hood.”
“Robin Hood and Little John and welcome to the forest,” he intones in a clumsy, singsong voice a la Miller, from a hotel room in Seattle where he is on tour as a member of the Punch Brothers. That, understandably, has a crush on Hawktail violinist Brittany Haas, also on Zoom from her Nashville home, fresh from a duet tour of Europe with her cellist sister Natalie.
What is scrapbook Is evoke is a beautiful walk in nature in a lively suite of pieces including “Antelopen” (German for “Antelopes”), “Updraft” and “Pomegranate In the Oak Tree”, and three related short “Wandering” interludes. Kowert, who is releasing the album on his label Padiddle Records, is wary of overplaying this angle, however.
“It’s not programmatic and the titles aren’t even prescriptive,” he insists. “It’s just that you need a title and what could be more universal than nature? It kind of brings it all together, and there’s a kind of storybook quality to the music.
Hence Miller’s ditty.
Kowert, keeping a remarkably straight face, adds, “So it’s not inherent in the play.”
But it works.
“It works, yes,” he said. “It’s just that the album would take your imagination on a journey of its own making and every thing that comes along would take you a little further on your journey. This was the desired effect. »
So yes, Roger Miller is an unlikely reference. But what about Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, with its strolling interludes, and – dare we say – Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, aka the Pastorale? Given Kowert’s strong classical background before he got into bluegrass, that’s no exaggeration.
place of growth wanders through landscapes where bluegrass, newgrass, fiddle tunes and, yes, composed classical music come together vividly, reflecting the musicians’ sensibility, with guitarist Jordan Tice and mandolinist Dominick Leslie rounding out the quartet. More immediate antecedents would include the artistic scopes covered by Chris Thile (Kowert’s Punch Brothers boss), Béla Fleck, Bruce Molsky and Sam Bush.
More directly, they cite two mentors: Kowert, who grew up in Wisconsin, studied at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia with multi-genre composer and double bassist Edgar Meyer. As a teenager, Haas, a native of the San Francisco Bay Area, bonded with fiddler Darol Anger, a founding member of the bluegrass-gypsy jazz hybrid David Grisman Quintet and the Turtle Island String Quartet straddling the classic jazz. Not only did he take her as a student, but put her in her Republic of Strings set.
Highlighting the classic connections, Hawktail has released a companion to the album: sheet music from the magnificent place of growth “Shallows”, arranged for violin and guitar by Kowert. Vinyl? Tape? No matter. This is the true return format.
The letterpress print is lavishly illustrated with a majestic heron and flowering vines by friend Heather Moulder, including a limited edition hand-tinted version. This follows two finely crafted old posters made by Moulder incorporating musical notation.
“It was sort of an early response to the pandemic,” says Haas. “We lost a bunch of gigs and we were like, ‘Let’s do something.’ You put the music in the hands of people in their homes and they can read and play it themselves.
So are fans playing from the score?
“Some people are,” Kowert says. “Even if you don’t, it’s a work of art. It’s quality. It’s typography. You can run your fingers over it. You may not be able to decipher the music. You may not even be a musician. But you can see the line going up. you can see it go down, see how long the melody is. It’s like sharing the spirit, even if you don’t read the music.
Oh but it’s falcon tail play written music? Well…yes and no.
“I prefer as much variety as possible,” says Kowert. “Our music will have a five second segment where everyone is dialed in and 20 seconds where two people are dialed in but two are improvising, 10 seconds where one person is dialing in and one person is improvising and the other two are resting.”
“It’s pretty fluid,” says Haas. “Like, ‘This person will take this melody or this thing.’ But it’s still like you don’t have to do what he says.
They both laugh.
“We always want everyone to be themselves inside,” she adds.
Tice and Leslie add bluegrass roots — their dads both play banjo and Tice’s mom is a fiddler — but go way beyond that. Tice cites Tony Rice and Norman Blake as influences and has performed with the Dave Rawlings Machine (as has Haas), Carrie Newcomer, Steve Martin and Yola, among others. Leslie, who grew up in bluegrass-rich Colorado, played with Noam Pikelny and is currently on the road with Molly Tuttle.
Haas, Kowert and Tice connected on the festival and camp circuit over 15 years ago while attending college – Haas (who had joined “chamber-grass” band Crooked Still alongside singer Aiofe O’Donovan) at Princeton in New Jersey, Kowert at Curtis and Tice at Towson University in Maryland.
“When we first met, it was clear there was a synergy between us,” says Kowert. “Jordan had a car so he would pick me up in Philadelphia and we would go see Brit and we would play [Norwegian hardanger fiddle player] Annbjørg Link and [Swedish trio] Väsen tunes, music that really suited our ensemble, stuff that we could get excited about and play for fun.
Not exactly Bill Monroe canon.
“It was also music that was slightly outside of what was most commonly played,” says Kowert.
This continued with the Haas trio album Kowert Tice 2014 you have this and the first two sets of the Hawktail quartet, 2018 Unless and 2020s Trainings.
place of growth is a culmination of that, meant to be taken as a whole. And that’s how Hawktail played it live – when they had the chance. Given the active career of each of the members in other activities, this is tricky.
“Hawktail is a project close to all of our hearts,” says Haas, who is artist-in-residence and a teacher in East Tennessee State University’s bluegrass program these days. “So we make time for that when we can, and we really appreciate that time and the kind of musical bond that we’ve forged between the four of us. It’s instrumental music, and in the world at large, it’s not that there isn’t a place for it. There are absolutely. But that’s not common. And so it kind of finds its way, it curves through.
Rightly, she turns to nature for an analogy.
“It’s like a little stream running alongside a bigger stream of music or something. It’s something that will always be there for us.”
Kowert adds, “Hawktail was our way of putting our own spin on it. It’s like, ‘Oh, it’s a string orchestra. They play this violin tune, but this kind of thing happens, I didn’t expect it. And we like that.
Photo credit: Benko Photographs (main image); William Seeders Mosheim (inset)