Q&A: Casey Houlihan of Trout Steak Revival
Colorado may not be the first place you think of when you hear ‘bluegrass.’ But there’s a thriving scene there. And that scene is free and loose, allowing for non-traditional interpretations of bluegrass, that represent the pioneer spirit of the west. Hot Rize, which formed in 1978, was one of the first bluegrass bands to draw attention to the scene in Colorado. And The Infamous Stringdusters might be the most recognizable name in the scene presently. But one of the hottest rising acts in Colorado at the moment is Trout Steak Revival. So, it’s no mistake the band has drawn the attention of Stringduster’s Chris Pandolfi, who produced their latest album.
In a way, the Rocky Mountains are the only place where a band like Trout Steak Revival could have formed. It’s remote enough from Appalachia for its musicians not to feel beholden to the conventions of bluegrass. And yet, it’s still a mountain range with a deep history of folksong. And mountain music’s got to come from the mountains. I spoke to their bassist Casey Houlihan, about IBMA, his instrumental approach, and the joys of writing as a five-piece.
DW: Trout Steak Revival has a pretty progressive sound, a transcendent, even post-rocky feel to some of its songs. I get the impression that you have a deep knowledge of bluegrass but you don't want to be restricted by the most boxed-in definitions of that style. Is that fair? And if so, what does it mean to be recognized by an organization like IBMA?
CH: I think that's pretty spot on. We all came to the music by studying its traditions, learning standards and what-not. But the more we performed, the more seriously we took the band, the more we wanted to write original material. And the stuff we imitate in our songwriting is stuff that's more relevant to us than old songs from the 30s and 40s and 50s.
DW: Which are often based on even older songs.
CH: Right, exactly. And yet, IBMA is interested in us. It feels good to be let into that inner circle of bluegrass.
DW: And you've got a hell of a time slot: 9PM at The Lincoln Theater!
CH: I know! We're very fortunate. It used to be just old timey bluegrass but increasingly, more stuff is falling under the umbrella. It's great.
DW: Let's talk bass. There is a very prescriptive approach to bluegrass bass and country bass in general, the root-fifth thing. Does Trout Steak Revival provide you with an opportunity to break out of that? Or do feel more like the grounding force, vouching for the status of the music as country or as bluegrass?
CH: It can be either, depending on what the song calls for. Early on, in our formative years, we attended the Rockygrass Academy. And the first year we did it, the Punch Brother and the Infamous Stringdusters were the teacher. And learning from Paul Kowert was so amazing because he's a classically trained bassist. And he encouraged me to transcribe old recordings. And there's definitely a lot of root-fifth stuff there. So in our originals, that helped recognize when a song sounds traditional and needs a traditional bassline, so in turn it's also freed me to do other things on the bass. Just-root stuff and walking basslines when the songs need them.
DW: You mentioned The Infamous Stringdusters, and your last two records were produced by their Chris Pandolfi. What was it like working with him? And I understand you're currently recording a new album, is he behind the boards again?
CH: The new recordings we just wrapped up were self-produced with a little help from our house engineer Kyle Zender. But yeah, the last two were with Chris. The first time we worked with him was pretty eye-opening. He really helped us understand how to get through a batch of songs in the studio and maintain a positive attitude, focus on what's going well, what sounds good. That's a tough thing for a young group to learn, how to not get too critical and just do another take. And then working with him the second time, we already had that vibe going, so it was even smoother and faster.The Stringdusters were always at the front of the progressive bluegrass thing so we really looked up to him.
DW: What was self-producing like, then? And what effect do you think it's had on the music?
CH: Chris helped us understand that we're evolving as songwriters, and after working with him twice, we felt that we had learned enough from him about how to make a record that we could do it ourselves. And we're really proud of it. We're excited to get it mixed and finally hear it. We've been playing some of the new songs out on the road but we're trying not to completely let the cat out of the bag.
DW: I'm fascinated by larger bluegrass groups who play originals. Especially you guys share writing credit on every tune and there are five of you. In your band, who writes, who arranges, and how collaborative are those processes?
CH: We all write. Sometimes people bring songs to the table that they've thought so much about how they want it to sound, all the rest of us have to do is trust their vision and learn it. Other times, people bring songs in looking for help with them. For me, I bring in a chord chart, lyrics, and a song structure, but I'm always excited to see what kind of instrumental hooks and harmonies my bandmates can come up with. I try to pull out the best of what everyone can bring to the table. And we don't get hung up on who has three new songs and who only has one. We just try to spread the love around.
DW: I love that! That must keep writing fun.
CH: Yeah, we just finished recording the old album and we're already writing new stuff. It’s so fun.
TROUT STEAK REVIVAL IBMA SCHEDULE:
Wednesday September 25, 2019 9:00pm - 9:45pm
Lincoln Theater 126 E Cabarrus St, Raleigh, NC
Thursday September 26, 2019 4:20pm - 4:45pm
Raleigh Convention Center Masters Workshop Stage 500 S Salisbury St, Raleigh, NC
Saturday September 28, 2019 6:30pm - 7:30pm
Capitol Stage 90 Fayetteville St, Raleigh, NC 27601