IBMA SERIES: Amy Alvey of Hoot and Holler
Amy Alvey and Mark Killianski of the Americana duo Hoot and Holler both studied at the Berklee College of Music, studying violin performance and jazz composition, respectively. They have recorded an excellent EP of experimental-country-via-free-improvisation. Amy talks freely about the “communal, participatory nature” of old-time music, and the challenging intervals that they write into their vocal harmonies. Meanwhile, here’s some tongue-in-cheek stage banter from her bandmate Mark, where he refers to one of their songs as “Cowboy Existentialism.” And yet, in spite of all their academic rigor, they’ve made some of the best good old-fashioned mountain music I’ve heard in a while—and they’re friendly and funny to boot. I spoke with Amy as she was gearing up for Hoot and Holler’s performance at this year’s IBMA Bluegrass Ramble.
DW: Hoot and Holler doesn't strike me as a bluegrass group, so that's pretty remarkable that you're going to the Bluegrass Ramble. But what does the world bluegrass even mean in 2019? And what does it mean to be recognized by a bluegrass-specific organization like the IBMA?
AA: This is our second year coming to IBMA. We never really thought about going before that, because we didn't think we were considered bluegrass--the boxed-in bluegrass genre. But IBMA has recently been a lot more open about what they consider bluegrass, which is a good move in a lot of ways. We probably fit more into old-time as a genre. But what we really love is all the music that falls into the cracks between genres like bluegrass and old-time. Like Kenny Baker has a classic album called Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe. And it's a bluegrass band playing all fiddle tunes but Kenny Baker was totally an old-time fiddle player. He wasn't flashy, he played a lot of double stops. But that's the stuff we like. If old-time is simple and bluegrass is flashy, we like the stuff in between. So, I never tell people that we're a bluegrass band. We perform mostly originals, and we look a lot to the old-time and bluegrass canon when we write our songs, but we never set out to make that kind of music specifically.
DW: That makes sense, because listening to your music, you definitely come across as someone who knows a thing or two about bluegrass.
AA: Yeah, and our showcase at last year's IBMA was really well received. That's a good sign, that the lines are getting blurred like that. Because it used to be that if you were in a bluegrass band, you played a banjo with a resonator, and if you played old-time you played open-back banjo. But bluegrass stems from old-time music, which was a much more community-based and participatory form. My bandmate Mark writes stuff that's more informed by Bill Monroe, but I look more toward Roscoe Holcomb and Ola Belle Reed, older mountain musicians who taught Bill Monroe. I prefer to be associated with old-time, because I just like that more arcane style.
DW: I love how you describe old-time music as communal and participatory, as opposed to bluegrass which has a troubling history with celebrity and broadcast media. How do you embody that when you perform?
DW: That song always sounded like one of your more modern songs. It has this eerie quality that you don't always hear in older recordings, but it's directly imitating an old-time song?
AA: Yeah! It's a device that Gillian Welch uses a lot. She has a song called "No One Knows My Name," and the melody is just "She'll Be Coming Around the Mountain." That's how she makes new songs that sound old. But that's a long-standing tradition in old-time music, there are groups of tunes that sound similar but are ever-so-slightly different, or they have different lyrics just as a result of how the songs travel between regions and generations.
Lately, what's been inspiring me is 78 recordings of brother and father-son duets. There's an energy that those recordings have. They probably just had one take so it's rough and raw but the energy behind it is infectious. That's what I try to channel when I perform.
DW: In the videos of Hoot & Holler online, the two of you have some great glances. The way you communicate, it's so clear how well you know each other.
AA: I think most musicians do that, especially when you're performing around a single mic. At IBMA, we'll be performing as a quartet but we're still just going to be around a single mic. So lots of nonverbal communication has to happen. Mark and I have been playing for over 6 years now, so if he moves his arm in a certain way, I know exactly what he's about to play. And so we end up doing a very similar thing at the same time. It's those moments that... I don't want to say I live for... but those are the special, magic moments in a performance that aren't planned, they just come from knowing each other so well.
DW: And in those moments, do you feel like you have some of the energy of the father-son duets?
AA: Yeah, and lots of people have asked us if we're related because of our vocal harmonies. But that's what makes family harmonies so powerful, is that your vocal timbre is most similar to people you're related to. So, it means a lot when people compliment us on our harmonies because it's something we work really hard on.
DW: I never thought of that! That's fascinating.
AA: Like Donny and Marie Osmond, or the Louvin Brothers.
DW: You and Mark are both talented multi-instrumentalists. You've got banjo-and-fiddle songs, but you've also got two-guitar songs. How do you decide who plays what.
AA: Well, we write songs on our own and then bring them to the group. So we'll write on one instrument, and usually, by that point, we're hearing what we want the other instrument to be. But there's still some healthy experimentation when we get together. Mark is the harmony master. He studied Jazz Composition at Berklee. So, while getting into bluegrass guitar, he was also arranging for seven-piece horn bands. So, he understands harmony. He can find it easily, but he can also find interesting harmonies. That's what's so interesting about harmonies in a duet. With more singers, there are formulas about how to arrange harmonies so it doesn't get too messy. But we have more freedom to experiment with different intervals and movements.
DW: I noticed that! It's such an eerie sound. I love that you guys are so willing to reach for those notes.
You can find Hoot & Holler’s music here.
Hoot & Hooler’s IBMA Bluegrass Ramble schedule:
Wednesday September 25, 2019 9:00pm - 9:45pm
Architect Bar & Social House 108 E Hargett St, Raleigh, NC 27601
Thursday September 26, 2019 3:10pm - 3:35pm
Raleigh Convention Center Masters Workshop Stage 500 S Salisbury St, Raleigh, NC 27601
Saturday September 28, 2019 3:00pm - 3:45pm
Hargett Street Stage 80 E Hargett St, Raleigh, NC 27601