A hunger for the past

With their ears tuned to music from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s, Massachusetts bluegrass band The Hunger Mountain Boys are getting ready to serve up some hard-hittin’, high energy duet numbers this weekend for the folks at the Mount Pearl Bluegrass and Old Time Country Music Festival.

Elling Lien spoke with Kip Beacco, who plays mandolin, guitar, fiddle, and sings for the group.

So I want to take you back. I’m looking at your bio right now where it says you first really got into bluegrass at a festival in 1989. How did you end up at that festival?

There was kind of a group of people that went there every year, for maybe 10 years in a row and I had just heard about it like a year or two before that. It was just a cool, fun thing to do each year in July, and finally someone just talked me into going. I had no idea what to expect. I thought we were just going to camp out and have fun hanging out and that was it, but I was pretty much blown away by the music. …

I think the thing that really caught me was the campground pickin’ – the community built around the music. A stranger would walk into campsite and say “Hey I got a fiddle here, you got a mandolin, let’s play that old tune Billy and the Lowground.” And within two minutes two strangers are jamming and it sounds like they’d been playing together for years.

That was really it. For me that was really new. It struck me like "Wow, i really have to get in on this. This is pretty cool."

How old were you when you went there?
Let’s see… It was 89′, so I must have been 21.

In our neck of the woods, country music tends to have an older audience. Did you have much exposure to bluegrass before that?
Yeah, not really. It’s kind of amazing how little exposure I had to any country music. When I was a little kid I remember hearing a lot of Elvis records from my grandmother. We lived right next door to her and I remember spending a lot of time with her and she was a hard-core Elvis fan. [laugh] After that, when I started getting into music, I started on drums, and I played whatever people were playing back then… Rock music. Yeah, I really didn’t have much exposure at all to anything about country music.

And if someone had asked me at the time what country music was, I would have answered with whatever was on the radio at the time.

I didn’t know anything about Hank Williams or the earlier guys. I had to discover it on my own.

How did you do that?

Well the bluegrass festival was the starting point. I found out about bluegrass music, I got into who I could find – Peter Rowan and Tony Rice and those guys, and just started listening to that, and I started wondering "Well, who did these guys listen to?" I heard Peter Rowan say that he played with Bill Monroe [the ‘father of bluegrass’] and so I checked that out and it just snowballed back in time.

[The Hunger Mountain Boys] and the circle we hang out with, we’re just really drawn into the older stuff. The more you dig, the further back you go.

And through bluegrass I discovered the earlier stringband stuff and the real, classic country stuff like Lefty Frizzel and Hank Williams and all those guys…

Why the urge to look back?
I don’t know. To me, the older music – not to say that it has to be old for me to listen to it – but it seems like the older stuff has a certain spirit to it.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s the sound of the recordings. It all just seems to sound warmer and truer. …A lot of that is probably inherent to the recording process, back then they really couldn’t afford to go back and do more than a take or two, whereas today if you’re dumping it on a hard drive or something you can record ‘til you’re blue in the face, and tweak it all you want digitally.

So the spirit and the honesty. Me and the band are listening to a lot of early jazz and swing stuff now, and it’s the same thing. What I enjoy the most is the early jazz, like Dixieland jazz and swing stuff and the big band swing stuff. As it gets later into the fifties and sixties it stops being as appealing somehow.

Is the simplicity of the earlier bluegrass appealing?
Yeah, that might have been part of it. If you look at bluegrass music today, it seems like a lot of them are just following some kind of formula.  And it seems like everyone is a virtuoso.

Someone made a comment to me the other night they were saying they thought of bluegrass as the heavy metal of the acoustic world. Guys trying to play as fast as they can and show you all their licks, kind of like the heavy metal guys, you know? That kind of rings true. [laugh]

Is that true of the Hunger Mountain Boys?
That’s not what we’re trying to do at all. We go around to different festivals and jams and stuff, and we always feel like everybody around us is like a virtuoso, and we’re just some raw, ragged pickin’ guys that are never going to come close to approaching someone like Chris Thile’s technical ability.

But we’re not really going after that. We’re more into just writing songs and singing well and pickin’ as good as we can, but not placing too much importance on that stuff.

So if other bluegrass bands follow a formula, what do you do?

When we started four years ago, Ted and I were a duet and we decided we should write our own songs right away, but we also decided that we should try to learn some brothers style – Monroe Brothers, Lueben Brothers – stuff just because we were working with what we had. In the past two years we’ve been trying to let go of any preconceived set of guidelines. You know, when we started we thought we should try to stick to this sound because that’s what people want to hear, I mean that’s what they’re used to hearing and that’s just what you do. But now we’ve decided not to worry when we write something if it fits into those guidelines. Is this going to work with what we do? We write whatever comes out. And now we’re listening to so many different kinds of music. Obviously we don’t want to come out, overnight, playing some kind of polka. That’s not going to work at a bluegrass festival, but somehow we’ve let new influences creep in.

What does bluegrass mean to you?
I don’t know, I think that changes all the time. If you would have asked me that five years ago I would have had a much different answer than now.

Now it seems that  contemporary bluegrass – and I don’t mean this in a bad way necessarily – is going the way country music went back when Nashville Nashville-ized country, and rather than the popular stuff being the gutsy, raw Hank Williams and Lefty Frisell and Buck Owens-style guys, all of a sudden it’s Garth Brooks and Toby Keith. When you turn on the radio, you get the stuff that’s being force-fed from Nashville. And I almost feel that’s what’s happening to bluegrass right now. That’s my take on it now.

But I think bluegrass is a great music that is a real community, sharing kind of music. It seems to be a real family kind of music, and it’s really nice to see young kids picking up the instruments. Kids around ten, eleven years old who are around the festivals with their parents and they’re just hanging out having campfire picking sessions, and it’s a real family music. And if anything, that’s really grown. It’s pretty huge.

Bluegrass seems to me a music that appeals to a wide variety of people and ages…
Yeah, it certainly has grown that way. It seemed a couple of years back that it was definitely an older music, but as younger are more exposed to it, and that movie O Brother Where Art Thou definitely helped bring it to a wider audience.

What is it about bluegrass that’s appealing to younger people?
Well, aside from the whole sharing, community thing, the singing was what really got me. When I first heard the Stanley Brothers it just blew me away. That’s when I realized that’s the heart of bluegrass: the vocal harmonies and the really earthy, spiritual singing. There’s just so much spirit and soul to it. 

And a touch of melancholy.

Yeah, a lot of the subject matter too is depressing if you really think about it. Most of the songs are heart-broke, love-sick subjects or murder songs, but the music is always played in major chords. Happy-sounding major chords. [laugh] I’ve heard a lot of people say this but for some reason I attribute this to Tim O’Brien, a big bluegrass guy in the 70’s. I remember seeing a show of his and he said, “You know, the cool thing about bluegrass music is if you want to be happy, you just listen to the music. And if you want to be sad, you listen to the words.” And I think that’s true.

One comment

  1. rcashin · April 14, 2011

    Hey there … I saw these guys at the festival (Mt Pearl Aug 06). Got one of their CDs which I’m listening to just now. Google’d to find some lyrics, and discovered The Scope !!

    These guys are unbelievable – the songwriting, the vocals!!!, and yes, despite their talk of everyone ELSE being ‘virtuosos’ – their skill on the instruments. I’m definitely a FAN.