IBMA SERIES: Jamie Harper of ClayBank
In my opinion, bluegrass is too young a genre to have so many revivals in its history. If we agree that it came into public consciousness with Bill Monroe’s 1940s performances on the Grand Ole Opry, then it’s been around for fewer than 60 years. And if you ask me, that’s not long enough for there to be traditional, neotraditional and neo-neotraditional forms. It’s in conversation with ancient American folk music, and it’s played on instruments that have been around for hundreds of years, so to historicize modern bluegrass as a series of decade-long revivals seems silly.
Jamie Harper doesn’t particularly care about how traditional or progressive his music is. As he told me, “good music is just good music.” He teaches that good music as part of a music teaching cooperative in Clemmons, NC, and he also makes lots of good music—on record and on the road—with his group ClayBank. We talked over the phone about the recent history of bluegrass and the resemblance of the fiddle to the human voice.
DW: So, some congratulations are in order. You're playing the IBMA Bluegrass Ramble this year.
JH: Yeah! We're looking forward to it. We've all, in various other bands, played something to do with IBMA, but this is ClayBank's first time.
DW: A lot of the attention that you've been given in the press has focused on your relative youth in the world of bluegrass. Do you get the sense that you're held up as proof that young people are interested in old-fashion styles of music?
JH: Growing up, I always thought bluegrass music, or picking in general was just something you did. My family played and I was always into it, never forced into it. I just thought that everybody had people over to jam all the time. I think it was around 3rd or 4th great that I realized I was an oddity in that respect. It was also around that time that I started going to fiddle contests where I met so many of my brothers and best friends, people that are still in the industry and play at a professional level, people I've been friends with from eight years old until now, in my mid-thirties. But a couple of the guys in ClayBank are very youthful. Zach just turned nineteen. And when we first got the band together it amazed me how good he was, even though he hadn't been playing for very long. I think younger people are learning by leaps and bounds. When I was young, we didn't have YouTube or Skype Lessons or anything. And also, the generation that I learned from learned from the generation before them. So, where that first generation was just laying the groundwork, and every generation since has had more opportunities to invent. So, these younger players are learning so fast and inventing so much, they're way better than I was at their age. What they're doing is not just keeping bluegrass alive, it's growing it, which is important because if you don't have growth, you have death.
DW: So, you don't feel an obligation to keep the traditions of hardline bluegrass alive. You're interested in seeing what people can do to challenge those traditions while still understanding what bluegrass is. You want to see it grow.
JH: Yes. I have a idea of what good music should sound like. Everyone has their own idea of that. But I also want a band's sound to be identifiable. I love traditional bluegrass with all my heart, but what I love about progressive bluegrass is that it gives you an opportunity to be an individual. Of course, New Grass Revival used to be progressive to me and by today's standards that's not progressive at all.
DW: So, in a sense, even the most traditional bluegrass still says something about the people performing it. They're carving out their own niche in a way.
DW: Where do you see ClayBank on that spectrum from traditional to progressive?
JH: We get pigeonholed as a 90s bluegrass band. Because our music reflects a lot of late-80s-early-90s neotraditional bluegrass. That's the music we enjoy the most so it shows up in what we play.
DW: You're reviving a revival! While we're talking about style, there's a misconception about bluegrass, because of the name, that it's only bluegrass if it's from Kentucky, but there are a lot of different related regional styles up and down the Appalachian mountains. Do you think the Carolinas have a style? Could you describe it? Do you have any local heroes of Carolinian bluegrass music?
JH: We wouldn't have the whole genre without Earl Scruggs. I could say the same for Jim Shumate, Don Reno, the list goes on and on, and it includes some long-gone heroes as well as some people I used to look up to who are now my close personal friends. As far as a sound, the whole Piedmont area, not just the Carolinas has a distinctive style that all comes down to Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs. Especially Earl. He's at the top.
DW: In your opion, what is the role of the fiddle in bluegrass? I feel like I've been talking to a lot of guitar players lately and I'm curious what you have to say about what feeling the fiddle imparts on a typical bluegrass tune?
JH: It's a support role. At least that's what I like to do. There are definitely fiddle-driven bands who do fiddle tunes with fiddle breakdowns. But ClayBank is all about the singing and the fiddle is a support role. I'd rather back up a singer than play a solo. A lot of the fiddle players I admire, I admire because of the way they back up a singer.
DW: That's interesting because the fiddle is the one instrument in a bluegrass band that sounds the most like a human voice. It has a singing quality in a way that maybe a mandolin doesn't. Is your goal to blend in to the voices, almost add another part to the vocal harmony with your fiddle?
JH: The fiddle, in its range and its sustain, resembles the human voice a lot. It rubs against vocals in a way that no other instrument can. So, in a way, it's a shame how some fiddles play over the vocal. That's the most important thing to me: to create a supportive space where the fiddle is not overpowering anyone but it's not getting lost either.
You can find ClayBank’s music here. They’re performing at the IBMA Bluegrass Ramble, September 24, 8:00pm at the Vintage Church AND September 25, 8:10pm, at Raleigh Convention Center Masters Workshop Stage. Tickets for the Ramble are available here.