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About Me

Hi, my name is Gunnar, and I’ll be writing this blog. I suppose you might want to know who I am or a bit about me, so I’ll write a quick bio here.

I am a homeschooler, and the second of eight kids, I’m a Christian missionary kid in Mozambique east Africa. I’m a multi instrumentalist, and I mainly play traditional acoustic music, including Irish music, bluegrass and old time, and occasionally some others. I play the Guitar, Harmonica, Banjo, Fiddle and Mandolin mainly, but I also sometimes play the Ukulele, Bass Guitar, Electric Guitar, Tin Whistle, Bamboo Piccolo, Trumpet, Piano, Dobro, and anything else that’s left within my (very long) reach. I’m also an athletic person, and I enjoy playing several sports including soccer, ping pong, tennis, squash and badminton, as well as trampoline trickery. I also am rather flexible, with the ability to do such things as the splits. I love motorcycles, and ride motocross whenever I get the chance, I am a fairly good mountain bike rider and casual level stunter, and I do parkour on a casual level (I can easily scale a ten foot wall)

I am a third generation smart aleck. (No further comment necessary 😂)

I was born in Texas and am an American citizen, but I’ve lived in Africa since before I could walk.

I decided to start a blog so I could easily share whatever brilliant nuggets of wisdom (or just plain chicken nuggets….) with the world. I don’t know what all I’ll post here, but I can tell you that it’ll be interesting and most likely funny.

So please do subscribe here, so you’ll get an email telling you each time I upload content, which could include (but not limited to) videos of me playing musical instruments, columns of various and assorted thoughts, and possibly even interviews with musicians (if you know any who would like to be interviewed do please refer me to them).

You can find my YouTube channel here:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UChFeQSpLfyWuaTrtB4YORAg

And my Instagram here:

https://www.instagram.com/africanbanjogunnar/

My free backing track website:

https://backingtrackers.wordpress.com/

I guess I’ll be done now.

Watch out for mineshafts

Gunnar

In conversation with The Family Sowell!

 Hey y’all! Today I have the honor of interviewing The Family Sowell! Welcome y’all! For those who don’t know you, can you tell us a bit about yourselves?

 We are an acoustic band from Knoxville, Tennessee.  Our band consists of us six siblings—Jacob on banjo, Joshua on guitar, Naomi on bass, Abby on mandolin, John-Mark on fiddle, and Justus on dobro—with Jacob, Joshua, and Abby doing most of the vocal parts.
Most recently, we released our single “Love is the Key”, produced by Grammy-nominated producer, Ben Isaacs.  We wanted to bring some hope in these crazy times with this beautiful song and are super excited by all the support and love it’s gotten virtually.

Cool! So how did y’all get into playing music? 

Our momma grew up listening to her Grandma Clara play the piano.  She always wanted to learn, but never did.  When she had children of her own, she knew that she’d be the happiest momma in the world if the only instrument we learned was piano.  So we all started on piano at the age of five, but God had even bigger plans.  In 2005, Jacob and Joshua joined the Allstars Youth Banjo Band, learning ukulele, tenor banjo, guitar, mandolin, and bass from the teacher, Buddy Griffin.  Naomi, John-Mark, and I also joined when reaching the age of seven.  The Youth Banjo Band performed on quite a variety of stages, including churches, theaters, and conventions. We learned to love music and became accustomed to the stage.   We officially started performing together, just our family, in October of 2010.  Mr. Buddy and the banjo band couldn’t make a gig, so he told the lady to call us.  Because of the banjo band, our music was mainly Dixieland Jazz at the time.  You may wonder how we got into bluegrass and other acoustic music.  Well, rewind a few years to 2006, when we attended the Bluegrass & Barbecue festival at Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri.  There, we all got our first true taste of bluegrass music listening to Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, and Jacob announced his desire to learn the five string banjo.  A few years later, a man showed up at one of the banjo band’s rehearsals offering free five string banjo lessons.  Jacob jumped at this opportunity and bluegrass gradually took over our music making.  Over the years, we’ve all settled into our favorite instruments and our favorite music.  We play bluegrass instruments, but we like to pull from a wide variety of genres such as country, Americana, and yes, even pop.  Though we began as the band that’s family in 2010, it’s been a road with lots of turns.  We like to say we’ve been full time for about 3-4 years.

That’s really cool! So once you got into bluegrass, did you take bluegrass specific lessons, or just learn as you went?

Both.  We learned some things by trial and error, but mainly we sought after guidance.  John-Mark and I took fiddle from various bluegrass or country fiddlers, but most recently, John-Mark takes from Deanie Richardson who performs on the Grand Ole Opry and with Sister Sadie.  Jacob takes from Kristen Scott Benson of the Grascals, and Joshua takes from Jake Workman who plays with Ricky Skaggs.  Whenever our schedule allows, Justus takes from Matt Leadbetter who performs with several different artists, including Dale Ann Bradley.  Our vocal learning was a wild ride with several singers giving us their tips here and there.  In late 2015 things started looking up.  We began lessons with Mrs. Vicki Wehmeyer, a vocal coach out of Brenham, Texas.  She helped reconstruct our shaky foundation of singing, showing us proper technique and teaching us how to match each other when singing together.  We’ve worked on and off with her for the past four years.  We’ve also worked with band coach, Stephen Mougin, who performs with Sam Bush.  He brought tightness to our band and helped us reach the next level in our music.  Lately though, we work mainly with Ben Isaacs, producer of our latest music.  Working with him has really pulled more out of us then we ever knew was there.  We’re excited where the road leads and intend to keep growing and reaching for higher levels in our music!  -Abby

Awesome! So what are five of y’all’s favorite albums, and how have they influenced you musically? 

Great question! But, it’s so hard to pick just five albums, and we’re more inspired by artists then specific albums, so five artists that have inspired us are Alison Krauss & Union Station, The Isaacs, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Rhonda Vincent & The Rage, and The Grascals. And all albums by those artists are awesome!

Justus Sowell with Rob Ickes

Those are all great artists! Speaking of which, who are five musicians who you think deserve more recognition? 

 Hard to pick a few. But, definitely Jake Workman, Deanie Richardson, Matt Leadbetter, Jake Vanover, & Terry Smith. 

What’s your favorite album you’ve been part of making?

 Well, we haven’t done a lot of those. So, definitely “Same Kind Of Different”!

So, the only thing that I don’t like about family bands is that they grow up. Where do y’all see yourselves in 10 years? Do you think you’ll still be together or off starting your own family bands?

Unless we feel called to a different path, we see ourselves still playing music together.  It’s more than a hobby for us, music is our calling, and we mean to give our best and keep growing and inspiring whoever God places in our lives.  I honestly don’t know if we’ll start our own family bands… not really at that stage yet haha.

And I understand that playing music has taken y’all on some adventures overseas?

 That’s right! We’ve had the privilege to travel and perform in Serbia, Hungary, Romania, & Montenegro! Another life changing experience was teaching music camps over there and ministering to many children. 

Awesome! So were those trips basically just part of your touring, or were they more ministry focused?

They were more ministry focused.  We met a family from Serbia who came and shared their ministry with the church we were attending at the time back in 2012.  They hosted all kinds of camps in the heart of Serbia as an outreach to children.  We were excited to hear about what they were doing, and that evening, our mom proposed the idea of teaming up with them to put on a ukulele camp.  We wanted to share our gift of music with the children and plant seeds of the Gospel, for as we were giving them a free ukulele and lessons, we prayed they would come to understand and receive the FREE gift of salvation.  It was such a beautiful opportunity that worked out amazingly.  The Lord provided our funds to go back each summer for six years in a row. We got to introduce the kids to our acoustic music as well, and many were inspired to learn other instruments besides the ukulele. We toured the country of Serbia and played a few concerts in Hungary and Montenegro. In 2016 and 2017 we hosted camps in Romania and shared our music there as well. We’ve built lifelong relationships with precious people over there, and even though we have not been back in coming on two years, we still see the fruit that ministry produced.  We are wowed by how the Lord used our time overseas to grow us and prepare us for where He has us today.

That’s awesome! So if you could give some advice to anyone trying to make a living playing bluegrass, what would it be? 

Take it one day at a time.  Enjoy the journey.  Just as failure is an event not a person, so is success.  You are not defined by either.  So practice hard, be willing and looking to grow your unique gifts.  Be who YOU are, not anyone else.  Your time will come at the right time.  Outside of that, other one-liner pointers we go to — be wise in who you trust; get out of your comfort zone; connect with your audience; build relationships; be humble; always grow; pray for success; then wait… and keep on doing what you do.

What are y’all working on right now? Anything big coming down the pipes soon?

We have a lot of ideas in the works right now. However, nothing has been confirmed yet. We are still doing a lot of videos on YouTube tho, and if you folks want to subscribe, that’d be awesome!

I’ll stay tuned! Where all can y’all be found online, and where can we buy your music?

You can find us at our website, thefamilysowell.com, where you can purchase our music as well as other cool stuff, and on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and other streaming services by searching The Family Sowell. 

Is there any question you wanted to be asked, or that I should have asked but didn’t? And any question that I should ask in future interviews? 

Not off the top of my head…

Cool, well thanks for taking the time to chat with me! And y’all be sure to go check out the Family Sowell at all of those links!!

Thank YOU!!

TFS Links:

https://www.youtube.com/user/thesowellcrew8

https://www.instagram.com/thefamilysowell.officially/

https://thefamilysowell.com/

My Links:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UChFeQSpLfyWuaTrtB4YORAg

https://www.instagram.com/gunnarsalyermusic/

In light of recent events, is live music vital for community flourishing?

So I’m going to argue that yes, live music is vital to community flourishing, and I’ll try to outline why I think so.

Chords of Grace at a recent festival

Now, with the lockdown and everything, obviously all live performances have been canceled… or have they? I noticed one of the first things that happened when large gatherings were banned was that immediately musicians started livestreaming music. Why didn’t they just record themselves playing and post videos? I think it’s because there’s a special interaction between people and musicians when music is played live that there isn’t otherwise.

If you have a look back through history, you’ll notice that almost all of the most passionate, united, and determined groups of people had a proud musical tradition, that was passed through live performances. From dances to storytelling, royalty to peasants, people have a natural connection to live music.

Dixie Jubilee performing at silver dollar city

One of the defining aspects of most cultures is their musical traditions. And most of the best defined cultures are well known for their music.

Have a look at the Irish for example; Their musical traditions passed from generation to generation in live settings have influenced the entire world, and instantly unify any Irish people regardless of background, position, religious or political views, or region. Whenever they hear a well played jig or reel, they forget all their differences for a moment and just enjoy the music and the fact that they’re Irish.

In fact, one of the first things that usually happens when one country or culture subjugates another is they forbid them from any form of traditional music or dance. And this is done in an effort to demoralize the people, because if you let them have their live music, they’ll be united and a united people is a dangerous people. 

In this american culture of private and separated living, it gets increasingly hard to actually find community rather than just a handful of people who might be in the same place. Music takes groups of individuals and turns them into a community.

We Banjo 3

It’s no surprise that there are so many sold out concerts, huge music festivals, jams, and buskers. Humans crave community, and live music gives them community. One of the last things I did before lockdown was attend a live concert, and one of the first things I did when we were released was take an instrument to the park and play for my own enjoyment and that of those bystanders who cared to listen. Doing so enabled me to meet some people I never would have otherwise.

Music has created many opportunities for me, and the community of musicians is one of the best communities there is. Playing music has gotten me so many amazing friends, opened numerous doors, and been the most fun I’ve ever had. I wouldn’t trade my musical experiences for anything. 

Me with the Steeldrivers after a live concert

So go out and experience some live music. Either as a performer or as an audience, both are equally fulfilling and will strengthen your community and make you new friends. If you don’t, you’re missing out on an amazing experience. 

And yes, live music is vital to community flourishing.

I hope this was an entertaining read, let me know what you think in the comments.

-Gunnar

Excuses vs Reasons: what’s the difference?

So to start off, sorry I haven’t been posting much lately, I’ve been really lazy about my online presence for a few months, but I’m trying to get better about it. Also I started this blog basically as a personal journal for when I couldn’t verbalize my thoughts to another person. So I’m not gonna post unless i have something I need to say.

So something I’ve known for a couple years, but that I’ve really noticed this past week is that there is a widely unknown difference between an excuse and a reason, and most people never think about it.

I get accused of making excuses fairly often, even though I don’t frequently make excuses, and that’s because I usually will give a reason for my behavior/speech/attitude/whatever.

So I’ll go ahead and describe excuses, and then I’ll describe reasons, and then I’ll describe how they differ.

Excuses: excuses are basically reasons why you aren’t to blame, why you aren’t responsible for what happened, why whatever you did is ok, etc. Basically an excuse is to shift blame or get you out of trouble (e.g. “But mom, Billy got in the cookie jar first!”) In that example he’s trying to excuse his behavior and pass the blame.

Reasons: reasons basically tell you why what happened happened. They are mostly informative, and can help to spread understanding, as well as being useful for diagnostics and figuring out how to make it not happen again. A reason doesn’t say “my behavior isn’t a problem because of this”, it says, “I know there’s a problem that needs to be worked on, but this is why I have that problem in the first place”. (E.g. “Sorry I forgot to go to the grocery store honey, right after you told me to go the TV came on and I forgot.) In that example he’s not trying to shift blame, just explaining why he didn’t go to the store.

The difference can be subtle, but is a very important one to note. Motives play a big part in evaluating whether it’s an excuse or a reason, because an excuse shifts blame, while a reason brings understanding while taking responsibility for your actions.

Excuses are what you get when you mix reasons and defensiveness.

It is worth noting that if you give reasons you will almost always be thought to be making excuses.

Ok that’ll be the end of my little rant for now. If you’ve read this far, stay tuned cuz I have a couple of interviews coming up shortly and maybe some more posts too, we’ll see.

Thanks

-Gunnar

Musicians: Expectations and false humility

Hey y’all, I haven’t written anything on here in a while because I’ve been pretty busy trying to….. actually I don’t know. I’ve just not been writing for a couple months and I’m going to blame travel for my literary procrastination.

On to the subject at hand! I’ve been meaning to write something about this for a while and just haven’t gotten around to it (literal literary procrastination) and I’ve had several ideas about the topic but haven’t written any of it down, so this post might be good or maybe not, we’ll find out together….

So it’s intrigued me for a while how most amateur musicians always downplay their own abilities,even if they’re really good they tend to casually understate anything they do, and I’ve come to a couple conclusions. First, most of these people want to not come across as a prideful jerk, which is understandable. But I also think it might be a subconscious attempt to manage your expectations. For example, if I say I can play a little guitar and then play Tommy Emmanuel’s classical gas, you’re going to be really impressed and also likely think higher of me than if I said I was a really good guitarist and then barely managed to play classical gas and maybe have some tone or timing issues. This is a variety of false humility, because your motive behind your “self deprecation” is actually to make people think higher of you.

Another possibility is that most musicians tend towards an inferiority complex, and actually believe that their ability is lower than what it actually is.

Now of course there is that group of people that actually are prideful jerks, and are always bragging about how good they are, and this can do one of two things: either they aren’t as good as they claim, in which case eventually they’ll be found out and humiliated, or they are as good as they claim, in which case they serve to reinforce the inferiority complex of other musicians. Cuz we all are a little bit timid to put our skills out there in fear that someone better than us who is a prideful jerk will come along and totally shatter our confidence with their ridicule.

Fortunately, it seems that at least in the acoustic music world most musicians tend to be fairly nice people and very supportive of each other.

So be confident in your abilities, but don’t overstate them, and realize that if someone comes along and ridicules your honest efforts it’s only because they are so insecure that they have to put someone down to feel validated, so instead of letting them shatter your confidence you should rather pity them and don’t listen to the voice of their jealousy, and don’t become like them, just let it go and heed the voices of kindness and encouragement which often are the voices of the very best of musicians.

I didn’t really have a point with this I guess, I kind of just wrote it as I typed…. I hope you got something out of this, and I’ll try to have some more organized thoughts for y’all soon. I’ve also written several tunes recently which I’ll try to post here soon.

-Gunnar

In conversation with Jake Stogdill

Hey guys, today I’m really excited to be interviewing Jake Stogdill!Jake, for those who don’t know you, can you tell us a bit about yourself? 

Howdy Gunnar,
  Thanks for reaching out.  This will probably be a short interview because there’s not much beneath the surface of “Jake Stogdill,” haha.  Plus, I always feel weird talking about myself, but here goes I guess.
 I live in a deep holler in the Ozark mountains of Missouri with my wife Michelle and two kids Nevaeh and Noah. 

Jake and Michelle

My interest in music didn’t start until my mid teenage years, which is late in life compared to most nowadays.  I see kids still in diapers on the internet now who play better than I ever will.  
My interest in music is mostly credited to my dad, who was a very good banjo player.  I still have his first banjo, a 1927 Vega.  His brother found it in the trash behind a restaurant in California, and my dad acquired it as part of a bundle deal.  The only reason he bought it in the first place was because he really wanted the hunting rifle that his brother would only sell if he bought the rifle AND the banjo at an inflated price.  So since he had the banjo at that point he figured he better learn to play it.  My dad and mom were always very supportive of my playing and always tried to afford me opportunities that they probably couldn’t actually afford if you know what I mean.  
Before I got in to music I was a Yo-Yo champion and traveled around competing and doing demonstrations.  When I got into high school though I realized that girls were more interested in guys who played the guitar, and my yo-yo skills weren’t as admired as they once were.  Ha!  So I made the switch and even gained the hand of my lovey betrothed as a result.  Mission accomplished.  I do still toss the Yo-Yo around every once in a while.  We had a yo-yo ministry of all things which still gets requested from time to time, and I’ll break it out during a bluegrass show on rare occasions too.  
In my early years of playing I got to play a lot of cool shows and big events with my dad and our band Crazy Mule.  Weird stuff too I mean.  Like one time we did a show with Jerry Mathers (Leave It To Beaver) and Miss Missouri for an awards banquet.  I was even fortunate enough to fill in with some of the Dillard’s (The Darlin’s on the Andy Griffith Show)…who are among my musical hero’s.  My dad and I grew pretty close to Dean Webb (RIP), the mandolin player, and we all had a lot of laughs over the years.  Playing this music has given me the opportunity to get to know a lot of my hero’s.  “Most” of them incredibly nice and down to earth people.  
I focused a lot on contest style playing early on too, and even managed to win one every once in a while (pure luck.)  I had pretty much given that part of it up, and hadn’t competed at all in over a decade.  But then just this past year I decided on a whim to try my hand at another one and got lucky again.  Maybe this time the winner was decided by sympathy vote?  On a serious note, what I always liked about playing contests was how it forces you to work hard and push yourself to give the best you have.  It’s a great way to become better technically and imaginatively.  
Moving forward in time, as soon as I got old enough to drive I began working at music stores, recording studios, and giving private lessons, along with playing in a band.  This kind of thing has really been my way of earning a living ever since.  I eventually went to work at one of the largest online bluegrass retailers in the world as a setup specialist, earning several factory luthier certifications from company’s like Gibson and Taylor Guitars, and worked my way up to eventually be the General manager of the store.  During this time I built up my YouTube channel and Facebook page to a fairly respectable number of followers and viewers, and I’ve gotten several professional job offers along the way to play music full time.  But it would require “up and leaving” my home and family so it never seemed worth considering.  I’m way too rooted for that kind of lifestyle…plus I prefer my own bed and bathroom.  
Things went on like this for a long while, just normal life…until a few years ago when the bottom fell completely out from under us.  Within a few short weeks, the company I had worked at for better than a decade closed its doors suddenly, my mom had a massive heart attack but survived, and my dad passed away unexpectedly from a stroke.  He was 63.  I felt like a mule had kicked me right in the gut.  I needed to find a new way to make a living and to take care of my mom too.  To add insult to injury, about another week after this all happened I ruptured my left leg and couldn’t walk for 3 months.  And it’s not like I didn’t have anything I needed to get done under the circumstances.  Haha.  
During this time, God taught me a whole lot about humility.  If it weren’t for the outpouring of love and support from so many people we wouldn’t have made it.  It was the only time in my life where I was truly helpless.  There was literally nothing I could’ve done in my own power to overcome these obstacles, and that’s a very humbling experience.  What would unfold over the next year I couldn’t have seen coming with some of those fancy magnifying goggles.  
Enter Banjo Ben Clark.  We casually knew each other from internet land but had never really talked much on a personal level, and he called me right after dad died and we visited for a while.  We have a lot in common, and it instantly felt like we had a brotherly bond.  As things began to unfold, he and his family would soon be taking a vacation very near me.  We met for lunch and the topic of starting the “Banjo Ben General Store” came about organically.  It started so small…like we were going to sell one set of strings to one of his students and use the profits to buy one stick of bubble gum and another set of strings.  Haha.  Honestly though, that’s not too far from the truth.  

Ben and Jake get along very well…… usually


From there it began to grow and grow, and has become a real life bonafide music store.  To the point that my wife works with me here now, as well as other friends and family.  We are a tight knit unit who plays hard and plays harder!  Or wait, how does that saying go?  One of the things that makes this store special over all others I’ve known is the commitment to treating every customers order as if it’s our own.  If we wouldn’t be happy with it, we won’t send it out.  The crew here is a big part of why that philosophy works, because in addition to Ben and myself we have Josh who is a great luthier/builder, and Adam who is a certified banjo slinging gangsta.  Even Michelle and Kirstie, who handle more of the clerical things, are well trained in the products we carry.  So the bottom line is we feel like we know our customers because we are our customers.  Seriously, Adam rarely takes home a paycheck because he trades it all for banjo stuff. 
Anyway, that pretty much brings us up to date.  I’m playing in a new band now called “Spillwater Drive” with some incredible pickers.  We’re having a ball and playing a ton of big festivals this year.  We have an album soon to release too.  And I’m teaching guitar again this year at the second annual Banjo Ben Cabin Camp, so if that’s half as much fun as it was last year, then it will still be twice as much fun as should be legal.  So anyway, that’s “a little bit about myself” in long essay form.  

Wow, lol I love giving out information in long essay form…. So you started on guitar, did you teach yourself or take lessons? And did you start in bluegrass or a different style? 

Yeah man,
  Good question.  I started on guitar, yes.  My dad showed me the basics to get me going and from that point on I was self taught.  I did attend a couple of one day guitar workshops early on but those weren’t any kind of steady lessons at all.  Aside from that I had no formal instruction, and I guess I was probably of the last generation to have to do it with no internet too.  Haha.  I imagine if I had the internet back then like we do today it would’ve made things much easier.  Fortunately though this area I live in is a real hotbed for talented musicians.  So there were tons of jams and shows to attend to be able to hone your skills.  

…oh, and yes, it was always primarily bluegrass I was interested in.  Especially in the beginning. I’ve since branched out some into other genres but bluegrass is always my default setting. 

Cool. So did you get in a band pretty quick, and what bands have you been in?

Yeah, pretty quick with my dad in our band “Crazy Mule.” Aside from many the offers I’ve had to play in bands, I really only dedicated myself to two.  That first one and now my new one “Spillwater Drive.”

Spillwater Drive

I’ve heard spillwater drive, y’all are great. What other instruments can you play?

Guitar is my main instrument, but I also dabble in mandolin, banjo, and bass.  On the banjo I specialize more in the old timey clawhammer style ironically, even though I don’t play that style much on any of the other instruments I play.  

So who are some of your guitar picking heroes?

Too many to list.  Literally everyone who is anyone would probably make my list in some way or another.  And my list has changed over the years…at least where I place emphasis on which elements of bluegrass guitar are more important.  Initially, as a youngster – someone new to the music, most of us are impressed by the technical ability of it all.  The speed, precision, and brightness of flatpicking.  So that’s what draws us in.  But as I’ve matured over the years I realize I missed a lot of subtleties in the beginning.  Like tasteful arrangements and tone (think David Grier, Russ Barenberg, etc.)  And above all I’ve DEFINITELY shifted to caring more about rhythm playing.  I’ve since come to the conclusion that I’d rather be a good rhythm player than a picker.  The rhythm guitar sets the tone for the whole band.  And it’s most fun to play too because you get to be more reactive to what’s going on within the band.  As such my list of inspirations goes well beyond who most folks would think of as a killer guitar player.  People like Jimmy Martin and Del McCoury (and many others) on strictly more the rhythm side of the scale make my list because of their sense of timing and emphasis.  
But some of my all time hero’s who can do it all within a bluegrass context are folks like Tony Rice, Tim Stafford, Kenny Smith, Josh Williams, Clay Jones, Clay Hess, and on and on.   Those are some of the more recognizable names on my list of the ones that are both great “offensive and defensive” players as it would be related to sports.  Again, there are too many to list, but these days especially you gotta be bringing heat in the rhythm department for me to be interested in it much.  If somebody is a great picker but rather dull on their backup then it usually doesn’t do much for me personally, and although I can applaud their abilities, they don’t usually get me in “the feels.”  

And who are five musicians who you think are underrated or don’t get the recognition they deserve?

Whew. That’s a tough question for me to answer these days.  In the age of the internet it seems easy for anyone to get their playing out there and get some recognition, to an extent anyway.  Plus I stay so busy with work in my little bubble that I don’t have a good broad perspective anymore on who’s getting recognized and who isn’t.  There is one guy just a short distance up the road from where I live though, he has a port-a-potty business and is one of the greatest tele pickers I’ve heard.  Haha. True story, his name is Denny.  I imagine there are people all over just like him who are as good as you’ll ever hear, if only you’d ever be able to hear them.    

So what are a few of your favorite albums, and how have they influenced you? 

Again, this is probably another one of those questions where there are too many great albums worth mentioning for me to be able to give a decent answer.  I’ve thought about this for 20 minutes and simply cannot narrow it down to less than 30 or 40.  My brain just doesn’t work like that, haha.  I’ve been playing for 21 years now, and have been listening my whole life.  I have probably listened to and studied hundreds of albums during that time.  So there are literally dozens and dozens of albums that I have an equal love and respect for, and that have influenced me.  I will say that during my initially few years of getting in to this music, back when it was all very new and exciting, two bands I couldn’t get enough of were the Bluegrass Album Band and Blue Highway.  I found their albums to be a clinic in how a bluegrass band is supposed to work.  There is also a more regional band called Lonesome Road who I tried to copy a lot.  These bands along with the Dillard’s (for completely different reasons) seemed to be my first blueprints

Ok cool. So what’s your favorite album that you’ve had part in making or played on?

Any of those old albums I made with my Dad.  They’re the most sentimental now.  There was also a collaboration album I did with some pretty esteemed musicians a few years back, it had Jed and Harry Clark on it, Daryl Price (played with Roy Clark) Jake Simpson (The Lil Smokies) and other great guest musicians too.  That a was a fun one.  Right now we are in the process of finishing up an album with our current band Spillwater Drive.  I’m really proud of it so far, all the songs on it are originals…and these guys can really play so very well too.  I’m excited to see what becomes of it.  It may even find its way onto coffee tables in 5 or 6 houses as a coaster.  That’d really be moving up in the world for us.  

So what equipment are you using right now? (Instruments, picks, etc)

It varies depending on what mood I’m in.  I often say that “I change my gear about as often as I change my underwear…which is once every few weeks.”  

Lol, I’m sure your bandmates and coworkers appreciate that…..

Right now I’m using medium elixir phosphor bronze strings (they last me longer when doing shows regularly, especially during the summer) a Lakota strap, McKinney Elliott capo, and a variety of “tortoise shell like” picks ranging from the ultex variants to the Bluechips etc…typically I prefer a traditional tear drop in around a 1mm-1.2mm thickness.  

…oh, my bad…forgot the most important part.  Haha.  Guitar wise I am currently playing a Recording King RD-328.  I like anything in a good Dreadnaught style Martin copy.  It’s really the golden age of instruments these days in a sense, because back when I was learning if you wanted a guitar that sounded like a Martin, you pretty much had to go and buy a Martin.  But now with companies like Recording King, Eastman, and Blueridge to name a few….you really can get something about as good (from a performance perspective) for 1/3 the price.  But I have a small collection of nice instruments too that I play from time to time.  I guess I figure if the inexpensive ones sound as good, why drag my other ones out in the elements?

Cool! So can you tell us about your instrument collection? (Not just guitars, anything remotely musical, even if it’s a kazoo or a saw….lol)

Yeah man,
     I have a modest little “collection” if you want to call it that.  A few of those imported guitars like we were talking about, a couple of prototype custom Williams guitars that my dad and Charlie Williams designed/built.  We sold a ton of those while he was making them.  Then I’ve got a couple old Martins laying around somewhere, an Old Gibson J-45 that belonged to Dean Webb of the Dillard’s, an Eastman 515 mandolin, a couple of my dads old banjos (even his first one) and his dobro, an upright bass I acquired early on that my dad and David Hayworth rebuilt after hauling it out of an attic in several trash bags because it had just disintegrated, so most of my stuff these days are those kinds of sentimental pieces.  And I’m sure there’s probably a million harmonicas and kazoos and jawharps scattered around here too.  Haha!

Awesome! So how did you first get into lutherie? Your dad?

Actually, not really.  The first company I worked at had a need for those kinds of skills so I eventually worked into it that way.  I had always done my own setup work from early on, because it interested me.  Like anything else, I’ve always been of the mindset if you’re going to do something try to learn as much about it as you can. You’d be amazed how many new instrument owners don’t realize how often they are going to need to do something as simple as tune their instrument.  Especially if it’s a banjo.  Haha.  I’ll get calls like that all the time.  

Jake with his idea of a sense of humor…

Ha, yeah basic maintenance is a valuable skill. So do you ever build instruments or just set up and repair? 

I’ve never built one from scratch, no.  Always been pretty much busy full time with repairs/set-ups that I didn’t have the time to build anything.  You know what they say, a roofer always lives in a house that leaks, because they spend all day at work doing that kind of stuff and don’t much feel like doing it after they get home.  

Is there any question that I haven’t asked that I should have? 

 Man, I can’t think of any.  You did a great job I think.  Sorry if some of my answers are less than stellar.  I thought hard about all of them and I just don’t think of some things in the same way many folks do.  Haha.  Let me know if you do think of any more questions and I’d be glad to at least “try” to answer them.  Thanks. 

Oh, so what’s next for you? Anything new you’re working on, or more of the same awesomeness?

Haha. Well, I don’t know about any of that.  But exciting growth is happening this year.  Lots of big things in store for the General Store, got the Banjo Ben Cabin Camps coming up in a couple months I have to teach at, our band has a new album coming out soon, and we’re playing lots of big and exciting shows this year.  So lots to look forward to.  

Alright well thanks for taking the time to have a chat with me, and I wish you all the best in your upcoming projects! (And I look forward to meeting you at camp) 

Thanks man.  

Y’all be sure to check out everything Jake is doing at these links:

Band website: http://www.spillwaterdrive.com/

Band Facebook: https://m.facebook.com/spillwaterdrivebluegrass/

Jake’s YouTube: https://m.youtube.com/channel/UCWg481tAsuS0D_P4DcilD6g

Jake’s Work: https://store.banjobenclark.com/

Jake’s Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/jakestogdill/p/BmRYYBunMja/caption/ginseng-sullivan-in-open-e-this-is-my-buddy-jed

An interview with Alani Sugar

Hi guys, today I’m excited to be interviewing Alani Sugar! Welcome Alani, for those who don’t know you, can you tell us a bit about yourself?  

Hi, my name is Alani Sugar, I am an 18 year old bluegrass fiddle player and I’m from Maryland (Baltimore area).  I’ve been playing fiddle for about 9 years.

So how’d you get your start in music? Was fiddle your first instrument? 

I started playing music when I was 9 years old.  I joined my school orchestra in fourth grade and started learning violin in school.  It wasn’t until four years later, my mom signed me up for violin lessons at a local music shop, that I discovered fiddle tunes.  Which eventually led me to bluegrass.  The teacher that I was paired with happened to be a bluegrass fiddle player.

And did your classical background help in learning bluegrass? And were there any ways it slowed you down?

I would say my classical background helped me learn the basics of technique, which were pretty helpful in starting to play bluegrass.  It also helped me learn how to read music, which is a huge asset for me since not all bluegrass musicians can read music.  I don’t think there are really any ways that it slowed me down.

So how’s the bluegrass scene in your area? Was there lots of jams to attend right away, or were they hard to find?

In Baltimore, we have a really great bluegrass scene.  And lots of other traditional music as well.  There is a lot of Irish music, Old Time, Gypsy Jazz, Trad Jazz, etc.  There is a bluegrass and an old time jam that I attend regularly, and there is also no shortage of other events to be involved in.  Plenty of bluegrass/ old time concerts, house concerts, square dances, even festivals.

That’s awesome! So what bands have you been in?And have you recorded or been part of making any CDs?

So, I play in my bluegrass band, Ghost Sugar.  Our website is ghostsugarband.com.  We have a lot of fun playing together and I have learned a lot from my bandmates since we formed a little over a year ago.  
I also am a regular guest with a local group called Morning Sky.  They are a husband/wife duo that sing beautiful harmonies and play guitar and mandolin.
I have not recorded with either of these groups yet, but I did record fiddle on the song “A Rolling Stone Gathers No Moss” on Jim Bell’s album, “She Turn’s Me On”.

ghost sugar

Cool! So what are five of your favorite albums, and how have they influenced you musically? 

Hmm, good question!  In no particular order:

1. Charm City Junction- Charm City Junction

2. Charm City Junction- Duckpin

3. Travelin’ McCourys- Travelin’ McCourys

4. Che Apalache- Latingrass

5. Che Apalache- Rearrange My Heart
These three bands all have members that are friends or mentors of mine.  The fiddle player in Charm City Junction was my first fiddle teacher (Patrick McAvinue).  He was the person that introduced me to fiddle music and I have no idea where I would be today if I had never met him.  
The fiddle player in the Travelin’ McCourys (Jason Carter) is one of my other fiddle mentors.  I met him at a music camp (Delfest Academy) in May of 2016.  I really like his style of fiddling, and strive to emulate it.  Not to mention he is just a wonderful person and I enjoy playing music with him.  
Che Apalache: I am good friends with all the members of this band.  And their fiddle player (Joe Troop) is a mentor of mine as well.  I love their music, and the message they share with the world.  They are some of the nicest people I know, and I enjoy spending time with them, as well as learning things from them.

And who are five musicians who you think don’t get the recognition they deserve? 

1. Sam Stuckey- he’s an up and coming Pittsburg based musician.  Really good guitar player, singer, songwriter, and band leader

2. Ricky Mier- One of the most talented and versatile banjo players I’ve ever heard.  He also is great at mixing bluegrass with electronic music, which you would never guess could go together so well.

3. Dean Phillips- Really talented traditional bluegrass banjo player.  He has only been playing about 5 years, I believe.  But plays like a professional.  And he learned from Baltimore banjo player, Mike Mumford.

4. Akira Otsuka- He’s basically the Japanese Bill Monroe.  He played in one of the first bluegrass bands in Japan, now he lives in Maryland, plays shows every once in a while, and is also a producer.

5. Garrett Wren- He plays many instruments, including mandolin, guitar, and four string banjo, and many styles, including old time, Irish, and bluegrass.  Very versatile and virtuosic musician.

So how many types of instruments do you play? 

Well my main instrument is fiddle.  I also can play a little bit of mandolin, guitar, and a tiny bit of clawhammer banjo.  But the only instrument I “really” play, is fiddle.

Tell us about your fiddle? Do you have multiple fiddles, and which is your favorite?

I only have one fiddle, and although it’s not a very nice fiddle, I love it and am content playing it.  I surely would buy a nicer one if I had the means, but I do really love the one I have.

Do you know anything about the history of your fiddle, or how you came by it?

I believe it is a German fiddle from the mid-1800s, but don’t quote me on that.  I got it from a lady named Amy Hopkins, from New Freedom, Pennsylvania. She is a great instrument builder, luthier, and private music teacher.

Does it have a name? And if so, what, and is there a story behind it? 

Yes! My fiddle’s name is Lindsey, named after the violinist Lindsey Stirling, who was one of my heroes around the time that I got this fiddle.

Cool! Have you written any songs or tunes? 

Yes!  Well, I’m just learning how to write.  I wrote an instrumental tune over the summer, called Camel Ride.  It was inspired by my first time riding a camel.  I thought the experience was so fun, I was texting all my friends afterwards and telling them about it.  Later that night, I was busking on the streets of Jerusalem, when (one of the people I texted) Jason Carter, who is a mentor of mine, texted me back and said I should write a tune about it.  So I started improvising a tune right there, and that’s where the idea came from.  If you’re interested, here’s the link to my bands version of the tune:

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lunoDkwXpUQ
I have been dabbling with the idea of writing songs with lyrics, and have written some songs, but I haven’t showed them to anyone yet.  So maybe one day.

Alani with Jason Carter

That’s cool, I love that casual name drop lol. So last year you did a fiddle tune every day, which is how I found you, what was the reason for the tune a day challenge? 

Well there were a couple of reasons I did it.  I first saw this challenge done by Fergal Scahill, a great irish fiddler, in 2017 (and again in 2019).  Turns out a bunch of other people have done it, including Vi Wickam in 2012 and Patti Kusturok in 2015 and then again in 2019.  At first I was interested in watching these videos but never considered doing the challenge myself.  My first fiddle teacher, Patrick McAvinue, started this challenge at the beginning of 2018.  That’s kind of what planted the seed that I could possibly do it too.  So I started planning and preparing.  Patrick only lasted about 50 days with the challenge, so that partly made me really excited to do the challenge because I knew I could “beat” him.  

And what did you learn from doing the challenge? (Other than a bunch of awesome tunes) 

I definitely learned that there are so many fiddle tunes, practically an infinite amount of tunes to learn, especially if you take into account all the different folk music traditions (bluegrass, old time, irish, scottish, new england, etc.)
The other thing is more of a thing I learned about myself: I have the willpower to set a goal and stick to it until I achieve it.  Something that apparently not everyone has.

So what’s next?

Well I have been working on some new projects lately.  I have been trying to learn how to teach, so I have a few students but have been looking for some more.  I’ve been playing with my band, Ghost Sugar, a lot lately, and having a lot of fun with that, and also learning a ton.  I’m learning how to sing, and how to sing harmony, both which are so hard!  I also am hoping to get involved in more bands so I can learn and play even more.  My goal is to become a professional musician, and in due time, I think I can do it!

Is there any question that I didn’t ask that you wanted to be asked? 

No, I think that’s good!  Maybe also mention again that your viewers should check out my band, Ghost Sugar on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and our website, ghostsugarband.com.  And that I’m available to teach fiddle lessons in person or via Skype.  They can find more info on my website, alanisugar.weebly.com.  
Otherwise, thanks so much for interviewing me!

Ok thanks for taking the time to chat with me, and I wish you all the best in your future endeavors! 
Y’all be sure to check out everything Alani is up to here:

Alani’s YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCtBE4i3o_AagaEBzJQf6V5g

Alani’s website: alanisugar.weebly.com

Band YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCCqemn_oxk5Mww6JdRDnODQ

Band website: ghostsugarband.com

Band facebook: facebook.com/ghostsugar

Band instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ghostsugarband

Hope y’all found this interview interesting! Till next time

Thanks so much for having me!

Y’all thanks for reading!

-Gunnar

Happy New Year y’all!

Here’s a classic Scottish new year song, Auld Lang Syne.

And here’s Ashokan Farewell, which is a wonderful tune usually played at fiddle camps as the last tune of the camp, so I thought it an appropriate last tune of the year:

I hope you all have a great new year, enjoy the rest of the holidays, and I’ll see y’all next year!

“Why stay up till midnight? I’d rather start the year having slept well the last night, rather than sleepy and delirious”

-Gunnar

My new original tune: Midnight Firefly

https://m.soundcloud.com/user-609577945/midnight-firefly

I wrote this tune the other day while playing clawhammer banjo to put myself to sleep, and I saw a firefly flying around my room and decided to write a tune for it. The midnight part is easy to figure out lol.

I’ve posted a couple videos of this on YouTube, but none with all the instruments together.

Hope you enjoy it!

-Gunnar

Merry Christmas y’all!

So here’s all the Christmas music videos I made this year!

Oh Come all ye Faithful:

Deck the Halls:

Away in a Manger:

Silent Night:

What Child is This/Romanza:

Oh Come Emmanuel:

Ballad of St. Anne’s Reel:

And saved the best for last, here’s an overseas duet we did of Away in a Manger:

Hope you enjoy those!

Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and Happy new Year!

-Gunnar

Check out this Christmas song duet we did!

So, this collab was completely online, and done through banjobenclark.com the arrangements are also from banjo Ben Clark.

Here’s the post at banjobenclark.com

https://banjobenclark.com/forum/t/away-in-a-manger-mandolin-guitar-duet/10023/47

So, she asked me if I would learn this for an online collaboration, and of course I couldn’t turn down a fun request like that, so I said totally! So I learned my part, and filmed myself playing it, (listening to the mandolin part in my ears) and then uploaded that to YouTube as unlisted and sent her the link, and she played the video on her TV, (I’m actually larger than life on that TV 😱😂) and played her part along with me, and filmed it. It was a really fun project, and not too hard, I really enjoyed doing it!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

-Gunnar

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