Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Raising Sand musician Mike Seeger cherishes traditional sounds

Bob Dylan's is one of those names many musicians drop when asked to identify their largest influences. But dig deeper and ask Bob Dylan who influenced him, and you're likely to hear a name like Mike Seeger's.

Now aged 74 and still very much active, this authority on most string instruments has had a very important musical career dating back to the 1940s. An inspiring band of Seeger's, called the New Lost City Ramblers, is currently celebrating its 50th year of existence. The lesser known younger brother of folk singer Pete Seeger, he continues to perform regularly in live settings and often lends his creative hand to compilations of previously undiscovered folk music. His solo albums -- including one released earlier this year and another on the way shortly -- reflect his deep fascination with ranges of traditional styles whose diverse origins span the globe.

Mike Seeger is also one of a select few who joined Robert Plant and Alison Krauss in Nashville last year when they were recording the album that will be released next month as Raising Sand. When Seeger received my request for an interview, he wasn't quite sure why I would want to ask him about his involvement with the album. After all, he reasoned, his contribution was very minor -- limited to playing music on only one song. Besides that, unlike me, he hadn't heard the finished product yet.

To top it all off, he said he couldn't offer much insight as to the profoundness of the alliance of the former Led Zeppelin front man with the bluegrass vixen. Seeger sounded apologetic on the phone today when he confessed:
"I don't know if I should really make my ignorance known, but I didn't know who Robert Plant was. I've heard of Led Zeppelin, but I'm so engrossed in traditional music including bluegrass and country-western that I don't know other kinds of music much."
While he might not be able to distinguish Plant from, say, Ian Anderson or David Coverdale, much less Ric Ocasek, Seeger says he was familiar enough with some of the other personnel on the Plant/Krauss project to agree to contribute to it when asked. Basically, he took their word for it. "I did know Alison Krauss," he offered. "Alison is a wonderful singer and fiddler and bandleader … and on the strength of her music, and with T Bone [Burnett] producing it, I thought I could help some."

The project gave Seeger opportunities to partner again with Norman Blake, a traditional guitarist and Dobro player he admires, and percussionist Jay Bellerose. Seeger said he was most familiar with those musicians, although he did also recall having worked with Burnett and upright bassist Dennis Crouch in recording an album for dear friend Ralph Stanley, released last May.

Seeger's sole contribution to Raising Sand is on its closing track, "Your Long Journey." With its lyrics about the imminent passing of a loved one, it is credited to the husband-and-wife duo of Doc and Rosa Lee Watson, who originally recorded it for the 1963 LP Doc Watson & Family (available on CD since 1993 as The Watson Family).

Seeger, who played a prominent autoharp on the new version for Plant and Krauss, proclaimed the track to be "one of the most beautiful songs in the genre." Asked why he might have been selected to contribute to the album, Seeger speculated, "Well, I think it was that I play a fairly traditional-sounding autoharp style, and it fits with the older songs."

He deserves credit for being awfully open-minded. "I'm interested in a lot of sounds," said Seeger. He was raised on a steady regimen of recordings his parents often carried back from trips to the Library Congress. "I was reared on those field recordings and my parents' singing to us and my brother's music." (Mike Seeger was still in his teens when his brother Pete formed his first band.)

As far as not being versed at all in Led Zeppelin's music, it's forgivable in Seeger's case. He does seem interested, though. After learning where his preferences lie, I laid out for him the bit of Led Zeppelin history that was most relevant to him: John Paul Jones, on his recorded cover of "Down to the River to Play" available on his 2002 album The Thunderthief, employs an electronic technology called Kyma to layer musical lines played on the tripleneck mandolin; it is also a process that can be duplicated live. Seeger said he would be very interested to hear that and asked me to send him a copy. On that note, I plan to oblige.

1 comment:

  1. Great interview with Seeger. Many thanks. Side note on the Mothership greatest hits release. I support the band 110 per cent, and I know it's a record company decision, but the track listing is virtually identical to the Early Days/Latter Days 2-disc release save for three songs I believe. Pretty unnecessary if you ask me. The guys in the band could have chosen a different set of tunes, understanding that some songs have to be included. By the way, who was responsible for the best rock and roll band in the world to shown in astronaut suits?


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