What do you get when you take a string band and move them into a log cabin in Kentucky for a week and a half to record an album? Probably not what you think.
Kentucky Native, the new release from innovative cellist, vocalist and songwriter Ben Sollee, does delve into bluegrass music but it layers it with the music of diverse traditions from Mexico to the Congo, stretching it, twisting it, and challenging the listener to rethink what bluegrass actually is or could be.
Sollee makes the case that incorporating other musical traditions into bluegrass is true to the origins of bluegrass, which was a distillation of the music of people who came from other places, like Scotland, Ireland and Africa.
Sollee says, “I wanted to make music that was native to Kentucky but also inclusive, just like bluegrass music was in 1948 when Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys got together. They incorporated all those styles. Today if Bill Monroe was around, and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, I think they would have incorporated music from Mexico, and music from Somalia and the Congo, and all these different places where we have residents from in Kentucky that are good musicians, that are working folks, that play music in the evenings.”
For a healthy dose of Mexican influence, listen to “Mechanical Advantage.” Years ago, Sollee was struck by the sense of happiness and ease of a beautiful, long-legged woman riding a vintage bicycle in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Since then he has wanted to find a musical expression that matched the feeling of the visual poem that he experienced.
He found it in huapango, Mexican folk dance music.
“It’s a very different meter,” he says. “So it took a little while to get comfortable playing over it and it took even longer to get comfortable singing over it. But once I got comfortable with it I took it to the band, and those guys are so amazing– Julian Pinelli playing fiddle, and Bennett Sullivan playing banjo. They really took to that style and made it their own.”
Sullivan, who Sollee describes as a “banjo chameleon,” was the solo banjo player in Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s recent Broadway production of “Bright Star.” In “Mechanical Advantage,” he plays a melody line that dances through the piece, similar to the melody that might be played on a cuatro, a small guitar, in traditional huapango music.
Sollee’s interest in Mexican music actually goes back pretty far.
“I came across it as a kid,” he says. “I loved the movie Three Amigos. And as culturally inappropriate as that is, as stereotypical as that stuff is, it still had a lot of really great traditional music. It instilled a love for that kind of music in me. And then I grew older and I found the actual authentic music. So I guess Three Amigos was my gateway drug to huapango.”
In “Carrie Bell,” Sollee draws from two different sources, both field recordings. The first is a recording that ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax made of the Georgia Sea Island Singers as part of his Southern Journeys Series. Sollee gravitated to the song, which is sort of a chain gang type of chant, in 2006, and has been singing it at sound checks ever since.
When he finally decided to record it, he drew upon a very different kind of music to back up the chant-like singing.
“I was experimenting with chopping up field recordings that I like, and tracing or imitating them, or singing along with them, and I found this field recording from the Congo, from this Pygmy tribe. It’s the Bayakas, I think. It’s this amazing percussive drive and I started tracing it with my cello and adding in harmony and when I took the recording away I had a groove that was kind of like what you hear on the recording.”
Kentucky Native is the name not only of the album but also of the ensemble that was born in that log cabin. It includes Sollee, percussionist Jordan Ellis, who is a long-time collaborator, Bennett Sullivan on banjo, Julian Pinelli on fiddle, Jonathan Estes and Josh Hari on bass, and Jona Smith on background vocals.
“We literally built a studio in a log cabin,” Sollee says. “We slept in bunk beds and cooked for each other and drank bourbon with each other. We tended the fire, we went on hikes. It was a really deep dive, 10 or 11 days, with each other.”
The intimacy and the morning to night togetherness allowed them time to let songs grow and evolve, sometimes in unexpected ways.
Sollee had written “The Wires” years ago but hadn’t recorded it. Finally with the group of musicians he had gathered in the log cabin, he thought it was the right time.
He recalls thinking, “Oh man, I’m starting a string band, let’s do a really burning bluegrass version of it.”
“And we sat down, and we totally wasted maybe half or two thirds of a day trying to figure out how to record it as a bluegrass tune,” he says. “It just would not go there. Every time we did it, it felt forced for sure and it felt a little hokey. So, we were like, ‘OK, what can we do to make this interesting and different?’ So I pulled up this little chunk of music that I’d written for a film years ago called Maiden Trip. It was scrapped; it didn’t get used in the film. It’s this really cool sea shanty sort of tune and we started playing around with that, sped it up, turned it in a groove and then I was like ‘What about this cool Soca music?’ And we put a Soca groove under it (note: Soca is a genre of Caribbean music) and then played that in a really odd time signature, then the bass player started nerding out and trying to do this weird contrapuntal bass line. All of a sudden within 20 minutes we had the bones of the song as you hear it. So that’s proof of sticking to it in the artistic process, but also we probably should have followed our noses a lot sooner and not tried to force it.”
In “Pieces of You” Sollee examines our relationship with physical objects. The video for the song was recorded in an exhibition of work by Louis Zoellar Bickett II, a Kentucky artist who has spent decades building an open-ended work of art he calls “The Archive,” in which he painstakingly organizes and labels thousands of everyday objects from his life: a roll of scotch tape, a receipt, children’s shoes, hair from a haircut. The full archive is in his apartment, blurring the line between art and life.
In 2016 Bickett was diagnosed with ALS. So Bickett was on Sollee’s mind, and it made him remember a snippet of a song that he had written in Austin after visiting the “Cathedral of Junk,” an installation in an artist’s backyard that’s made of a huge pile of objects like old telephones, crutches and bicycle wheels.
It was Bickett’s diagnosis that spurred Sollee to complete the song and to think more about the role of physical objects in our lives.
“Things aren’t worth anything until you care about them. And I think that’s the biggest challenge when we’re talking about things as simple as keepsakes around the house and things as big and important as water. And mountaintops. All these things, they’re not worth anything unless you’re connected to them and you have an intimate knowledge of them.”
His growing family has also made him think more about physical things.
“I think that one of the biggest things that is pushing on me about physical objects right now is not only the fact that my son is growing up–he’s nine now–but also that he has a little sister on the way. And that’s really pushing on me, knowing that I’m bringing another life into the world. I’m really excited about that but I’m also recognizing that that’s going to be that much more impact on the planet. And how different it’s gonna for her…for her it’ll be profoundly different. She absolutely will never need to drive her own car. She will absolutely have some kind of digital identity that will be just as important as her physical identity in many ways. It’s wild.”
The state of Kentucky weaves like a thread through the album but the most remote place it shows up is in the song “Moon Miner.”
Sollee got the idea for “Moon Miner” from a science fiction story that he read.
“I subscribe to something called MIT Tech Review and twice a year they put out this collection of commissioned sci-fi stories called ‘Twelve Tomorrows.’ I was reading through that, thinking about all the interesting twists and turns that we may take on our future path as humanity. And one of the twists and turns is private mining corporations on the moon, mining for Helium-3.
“So I was pondering that and then I thought ‘Somebody’s gonna have to go up there to run the machines. I wonder who that would be.’ And I thought, ‘I wonder if that would be a Kentucky boy. And I wonder what that would be like.’ To be up there with all that technology at your helm and you’re still just digging rocks. So that was the spawning of the song, in a very nerdy place.
“I wanted to write a near-future folk song in a Woody Guthrie kind of aesthetic that addressed the fact that we’re such a consumptive species, us humans. And what it would feel like to be that far from home. Same story, different celestial body.”
Sollee thought about the articles he’s read about people who have lived on the International Space Station, and how they look down and see the green and blue spots, the empty brown spots, the water and clouds, the sunrises and sunsets, and how they look at it as a planet and not a collection of countries.
“I just think that if I was up on the moon looking down I would still have an affinity for my homeland of Kentucky.”
Group photos by Mallory Cunningham