IROQUOIS – Straight from the heart of bluegrass country in Virginia, winner of numerous major American awards in music, and inducted into the Virginia Country Music Hall of Fame in 2015, Nothin’ Fancy will be one of the headliners at the Galop Canal Bluegrass Festival coming to Iroquois, June 15-17.
Along with nine other top flight bands, Nothin’ Fancy is set to perform at one of the fastest growing, and most critically acclaimed international Bluegrass Festivals around, right here in South Dundas.
Nothin’ Fancy, which was established in 1994, is made up of Mike Andes, Mitchell Davis, James Cox, Caleb Cox and Chris Sexton, all renowned musicians.
I had the pleasure of talking to Andes, singer, song-writer and noted mandolin player about his love for, and deep understanding of, bluegrass music.
I told Andes that Jim Collette, a member of the outstanding down east Canadian band, Grasstic Measures, gave his definition of bluegrass in a 2016 interview with The Leader.
“It’s the happiest music attached to the saddest songs. Heartbreak, with maybe a little murder tossed in,” Collette said. “The main difference between country music and bluegrass is there are no pick-up trucks in the lyrics.”
“Actually,” Andes laughed, “Jim is pretty much spot on. There’s just so many venues in bluegrass, since it’s built on songs and music that originally developed out of a hard era.
This was the music written by men on chain gangs, men living a hard, knock down life.”
Andes explained that even today, bluegrass bands have to get back to those original roots when they write or perform. Tradition remains very strong in bluegrass: longevity matters and radio stations are as likely to be playing music from the 40s and 50s as anything more modern.
“When Nothin’ Fancy performs, we still have to do a moonshine song or a train song in our sets,” Andes added, laughing.
However Andes, author of many of the group’s original songs, said that he still felt lucky.
“Audiences request our own music as often as the traditional,” he said, “and that’s humbling, and means a lot to us.
I think Nothin’ Fancy is leaving a footprint in the bluegrass world, although the truth is,” he added, laughing “we’ll probably get lots more air time for our songs when we’re dead and gone. We accept that.”
I asked Andes about writing bluegrass songs, and what the music means to him.
“I think of this as real music, honest music. The best bluegrass songs are real because the person performing them has felt every word. As a singer, I know a good song and it has to have an emotional connection.
When I sing a song like ‘Andersonville’ (based on a brutal prison where hundreds died in the American Civil War) my voice is full of emotion: I have to live through the pain of that song. A true singer, I believe, has to always sing from the heart.
Bluegrass lends itself powerfully to emotion. Songs can spring from people just sitting on a porch pouring their souls into the music.”
Like many bluegrass performers, Andes doesn’t read music.
He “visualizes” a song, often on long drives, where his car becomes his “think tank.” Songs both sad, and comical, set up a kind of “video” in his mind, he said. One of the band’s big hits, ‘Daddy Made Moonshine’ was born this way.
Despite its hard knock roots, however, there’s a lot of humour in bluegrass music. Andes, who has a powerful sense of humour himself in conversation, pointed this out.
‘I Met My Baby in the Porta-John Line’, an hilarious single by Nothin’ Fancy, came out of those light-hearted moments that are also woven into bluegrass.
“After all,” Andes explained, tongue-in-cheek, “festivals are often surrounded by porta-johns, and, when I wrote the song, I just pictured this guy and girl standing in those long lines and falling in love… even though they’ve really got to go. Sometimes,” he said, “something I see or hear is just so ludicrous that it absolutely begs to be turned into a song.”
What differences does Andes see between Canadian bluegrass and American bluegrass?
“We’ve been to Canada several times, and we love the crowds there. They are just so supportive of our music.
But there are some differences in the bluegrass sound.”
He said that the first key difference would have to be the accents. “American and Canadian, not the same.”
“Many Canadian bands, especially regional bands, I find cling to what I call the wholesome music, music that looks for deep meaning. Canadian bluegrass seems more down home. What I will say is you have some great song writers up in Canada.
American bluegrass may branch out a bit more, offering up approaches that can be tragic or comic, or even a bit rock and roll or gospel.
In the end,” said Andes “even if we live in different worlds, all bluegrass musicians draw from what they feel strongly about or deeply connected to. Canadian or American, we can each celebrate our heritage in our music.”
Full weekend passes to the 2017 Galop Canal Bluegrass Festival, June 15-17, or individual day passes, with rough camping at the Point also possible, are available. Contact 613-543-3114.