Michael Daves is one of the premier bluegrass musicians living, performing, and teaching in New York City. He performs on Tuesday nights at Rockwood Music Hall, sometimes appearing with Chris Thile of Punch Brothers, with whom he also recorded the album Sleep With One Eye Open (2011). I spoke with Daves about how he got started in the genre, whether he imitates Dock Boggs on purpose, and what he gets out of teaching music.
Jordan Katz: What were some of the first songs you learned on the guitar?
Michael Daves: I grew up playing in church, so some church/folk songs. But when I started playing for myself, it was probably ACDC and Led Zeppelin, you know the kind of stuff that 10-year-old boys from the suburbs tend to be into.
JK: You grew up in Atlanta, right?
Daves: I did.
JK: So how did you become interested in bluegrass?
Daves: Well, my parents play fiddle and banjo so it was in the house. We used to have music parties. I mean, they weren't professional musicians, but they had some friends who were and they'd come around the house and have jam sessions. So that was just kind of going on in the background throughout my upbringing. Once I'd developed some guitar skills, my parents would try to get me to play old fiddle tunes with them in the kitchen.
JK: You have said in another interview that you think that bluegrass has become predictable and that when it became mainstream in the 1960s and 70s, it was kind of made to be presentable. Could you talk about that and talk about how your style is a reaction to that?
Daves: Well, you know, bluegrass music is really tied up in Southern cultural history. When you are in the South, and you have people who play bluegrass, they kind of think of it as carrying forth the tradition. And that's just a really dicey area to get into–the question of what is tradition in bluegrass music, because bluegrass is not as old a style as people think. It didn't really develop until the mid 1940s. It didn't really coalesce until like 1946 or so, and so it was after...bebop, for instance, is an older style than bluegrass. So, the people that were putting the music together–Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs–were putting music together in a new way for that time. They were drawing on very old musical traditions that came over from the British Isles–you know, ballads, fiddle tunes–but they were also responding to new stuff too, like jazz and blues and the pop music of the day (which was swing and big band). And what they were doing on their instruments was sort of outrageous for the time. So you could say that the tradition of bluegrass is coming up with something wild and new and iconoclastic, but if you ask people who say they are playing traditional bluegrass, they say what they are doing is carrying forth what has been handed down to them, a tradition of instrumentation and repertoire and singing style, so it's really hard to say what's traditional bluegrass. It is a beautiful and deep tradition, from the mid 40s, but also back to the roots of the fiddle tradition that's hundreds of years old. I find that tradition very compelling and I think here is a lot there that shows what kind of things about music endure. I think that can be a good way of getting to the core of things, getting to what's important and compelling in music. So I think there is that to do, and I try to draw inspiration from the tradition, just learning about it. But if you are not also innovating and being somewhat fresh, then you aren't really doing anything like the fathers of bluegrass were doing.
[Photo credit: Rafael Fuchs]
JK: And you, personally, when you play and when you create, is there a goal that you have with regard to tradition?
Daves: Well, most of my repertoire is traditional. Some of the songs I play were composed in the 40s, 50s and 60s, and others are hundreds of years old. I'm not really much with words. I have not really found much of an inspiration to write, so for me, I like to use these old songs as a vehicle for self-expression. But I think it's more important for me to do something that is bare and expressive--that's about my own experiences in the moment--than it is to necessarily stick to the expectations of the traditional form. So, I kind of just think of these old songs as being a good platform and jumping off point. I don't necessarily play very much to the expectations of the genre, because that can get really depressing.
JK: You've been compared to Dock Boggs, and you say you have been influenced by the Ramones, so I'm wondering, do you deliberately emulate these musicians or if it is something that comes out naturally?
Daves: Well, I try to emulate so many different people that you can't tell where it came from. That's kind of one of the things about traditional music is that you kind of pick up on different performers who have done those songs over the years, and just kind of draw on enough different sources that it just kind of becomes its own thing. One of the reasons I moved to New York and enjoy playing music in New York is because most of the audiences that I end up playing for around here don't have those expectations. I think it can be a lot more fun to play for a New York audience who may not have heard bluegrass music much before and so they're coming to it fresh, as compared to going down to Nashville where everyone thinks they know something about the music. I think people listen differently when they're new to the music, and what they are used to hearing is the fresh and new stuff that's going on around here.
JK: Would you say you try to play to cosmopolitan sensibilities at all when you play to New York audiences or are you more trying to teach about the tradition?
Daves: Well, I try not to be too pedantic. It is tempting though. I mean, there is a lot of history behind the songs. Occasionally, I'll get carried away with saying where some song came from and whatnot, but I try to curb that because ultimately, I think it should just be about hearing music and you shouldn't need to know anything about the tradition to hear it and appreciate whatever's there. I wouldn't say I play specifically to a cosmopolitan audience, but I do appreciate that openness that I was talking about. I feel like a New York audience is maybe a little more receptive to...for example, if I do things that are more angular, or louder. I feel more of a freedom to be unhinged with the music in New York. People here are not fazed by screaming, or pounding on the guitar. In the South, bluegrass can be much more genteel.
JK: So, you do this weekly gig at Rockwood Music Hall on Tuesday nights. How long have you been doing that for?
Daves: Six years.
JK: And I understand Chris Thile sometimes plays with you?
Daves: Yeah, Chris has done that with me on a number of occasions. Not as much recently because he's been spending so much time on the road. The Rockwood is one of the main places that he and I have developed what we do as a duo. That and some jam sessions. And whenever we perform at the Rockwood, whenever he comes to play with me, there is never a set list. It's always just show up and play and see what happens. We'll usually only announce if Chris is even going to be there a couple hours before the show. So you have to be on the mailing list, or Facebook, or on Chris' twitter. He's got a huge audience, so if we announce it too early, the Rockwood becomes overwhelmed.
JK: When did you and Chris come up with the idea to do Sleep With One Eye Open?
Daves: Well, it was something we had been talking about for maybe two or three years before we recorded it. Partly because Chris is so busy, finding a time in his schedule where we could even get into record was a little difficult. And the other issue is that since what we do is so spontaneous, we kind of felt for a long time that we needed to develop more of a concept for the album and that really wasn't happening because what we like to do is just show up and play traditional tunes and be spontaneous about it. So finally, Nonesuch Records was like "Guys, just get in the studio, record what you do. Stop worrying about it. Just do it. It'll be fine." So we did, and we had a lot of fun with it.
JK: Well, it sounds really live.
Daves: Well, we recorded it all live. It felt like the only way to go about recording for us.
JK: As someone who has made a career out of an artistic craft, how do you incorporate creativity into your life outside of performing?
Daves: Well, I teach. I find teaching to be a very creative endeavor. I enjoy teaching for its own sake. I think a lot of performers will take on students if they are not getting as much touring work as they want and it's kind of a secondary thing. But for me, teaching is compelling and something I am very devoted to. Part of that is that I just like working with people and helping them learn about music, but I also see it as helping grow the bluegrass community here in New York. That's one great thing about bluegrass music anywhere you go: it can accommodate a lot of different levels. We have jam sessions that happen where you have everyone from total beginners to say a Chris Thile showing up, maybe even playing all together. It's something you just don't get in other kinds of music like classical, rock, or jazz. So it's the community aspect that I like. And from an educational standpoint, teaching is something I take very seriously.
Daves says he doesn't have any concrete plans to record in the near future, but the next thing he does record will be a solo project.