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).
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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)
Y’all be sure to check out everything Jake is doing at these links:
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”.
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:
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:
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.
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!
little disclaimer here: this is the first time I’ve interviewed someone, so be a little forgiving of my questions.
Hey guys, today I’m excited to be interviewing Dr. John Cockman! For those unfamiliar with you, can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Hi Gunnar, thanks for requesting the interview. I started fiddling at the age of thirteen (32 years ago), in order to compete at local Fiddlers’ Conventions with my Dad and three brothers. Our group is called “The Cockman Family.” Real original, right? Later our older sister joined us on vocals and we have been making bluegrass-gospel music together ever since. Now that we are older, our children (14 cousins in all) have started forming their own bands, and we still all get together to perform locally. For my day job, I teach Physics at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC, a State institution with about 20,000 students. This is my 20th year at the University. My father and mother were both teachers, so it is kind of in my blood! About ten years ago I started a YouTube channel dedicated to fiddle instruction, which has more than 15,000 subscribers. At about the same time, I started free weekly “Fiddle Camp” group lessons at my home. Instruction included guitar, dance, and three levels of fiddling. Since we live in and adjacent to some economically-challenged mountain counties, I wanted to help sustain the regional folk traditions of fiddling and dancing by teaching free lessons to local children. It is also my goal to share God’s love and the message of Christ at every meeting. These group sessions grew until about 70 area children were coming each week, at which time we decided to move to Blowing Rock Memorial Park, where the lessons continue every Tuesday evening during the summer months. At one point, one of my Fiddle Camp attendees donated a domain name, “BluegrassDaddy.com,” and encouraged me to create an online fiddle instruction website. I decided to offer affordable instruction, capped at less than $10 per month, for students who are unable to find free instruction in their area. This website is now the primary focus of my fiddle outreach. Through member subscriptions and donations, we have been able to provide more than 100 violins to area youth, along with strings, rosin, maintenance, and free instruction. On a personal level, my wife Jennifer and I have were married in 1996, and have four children together (two biological daughters, plus an adopted son and daughter). We have also been fostering for the last six years, and every child who stays here ends up playing a musical instrument!
Cool! So what made you want to pick up the fiddle specifically?
When my brothers and I started performing, we either saying a capella or we were accompanied by my Dad on guitar. We soon found out that in order to compete as a band in competitions, we needed at least three instruments to qualify. My Dad borrowed a guitar which I started to play, and he bought a Sears and Roebuck mandolin straight from the catalog which my brother Billy began to learn. Later, while performing at a church, we came across a used Kay bass fiddle which the church agreed to sell to us. I started playing the bass but found it to be rather uninteresting. Soon after, we decided to add fiddle and banjo. Billy handed his mandolin down to our youngest brother Ben and took up the banjo, which we had also borrowed from a friend. My mother enrolled herself in violin lessons at a music store in Hickory, NC, which also provided us with a rental fiddle. She was going to learn to play, then teach my 2nd brother David what she learned. However, when she came home with that rental fiddle, I fell in love with it. I handed the bass down to David and took up the fiddle instead. Mama quit her lessons and we borrowed a fiddle from a friend at church. I began learning the fiddle and really enjoyed it, but had no teacher. At a local Fiddlers’ Convention, we met two musical brothers, Joel and Donnie Little. They agreed to begin teaching Billy and me banjo and fiddle. I took lessons from Joel for three years, until I graduated from High School.
Ok so can you quickly give an introduction to your siblings?
All of my siblings live near my parents on the family farm in Sherrills Ford, NC, along with their wonderful spouses and children. I am the only one who moved away, due to my work at Appalachian State. My older sister’s name is Caroline Fisher. She is our lead singer/songwriter. She plays piano in church. My 1st brother is Billy Cockman. He plays and teaches banjo and guitar, and is also our lead singer/songwriter. He is a first-place banjo champion at the South Carolina State Championship in Hartsville, the North Carolina State Championship at Carolina in the Fall, and the National Championship in Winfield, KS. My 2nd brother is David Cockman. He plays and teaches bass and guitar. He has won multiple local and regional bass competitions. My 3rd brother is Ben Cockman. He plays and teaches guitar, mandolin, banjo, and fiddle. He is a first-place guitar champion at the South Carolina State Championship in Hartsville, the Merlefest Championship, the Wayne Henderson Championship, the West Virginia State Championship in Huntington, the New England Championship in Cornish, ME, and the National Championship in Winfield, KS. We are all very close, and bring our families together to jam and perform often.
Did you ever play in any other band besides the family band?
Yes, I have performed locally for the past fifteen years with a group called Amantha Mill, named after a mill in the Amantha community that was washed away in the 1940s flood. The band includes Judge Becca Eggers-Gryder as bassist, lead singer and songwriter, also William Helms on guitar and banjo, and national champion Tony Reese on Dobro. We perform mostly during the summertime, and have recorded several CDs together.
Cool! Speaking of CDs, what’s your favorite album you’ve played on?
I have been on some fun projects! However, all of my favorites involve my family, because those hold the most meaning for me. I still listen to a CD called “Whatever Happened to the Yodeling Cowgirls” by my daughters, who had a Western duo called The Butterpats. Foremost, I love remembering their little voices, but it also includes some great Western tunes and originals, and absolutely virtuoso yodeling. I think my favorite CD is the most recent Cockman Family CD, “Dedicated,” which isn’t very recent at all (maybe about 6 years old at the time of this interview). It is the one CD that reflects how my siblings and I sound, and I just love to listen to them. The band is tight, the musicianship is solid and it contains both old hymns and songs that we wrote.
Awesome! And where can we find those albums for sale or streaming?
Cool. And what’s your favorite 5 albums that you were not involved in?
That is a really good question! I have a lot of great albums that I love, it’s too impossible to give a Top 5. I’ll make an attempt to list the five bluegrass recordings that have probably gotten the most play by me, in no particular order: (Since the advent of Spotify I’m less likely to play an entire album by an artist, but I’ll try to pick the album(s) that contain the largest grouping of my favorites by the artists.) Crooked Still: Shaken by a Low Sound Tony Rice: Native American Aubrey Haney: A Man Must Carry On
Nickel Creek: Nickel Creek Balsam Range: Marching Home
Moving on from recordings, when did you realize you were a good teacher?
I have enjoyed teaching for as long as I can remember. When I learn something new, I automatically want to start teaching it to someone else. Teaching helps me to more fully understand what I am learning because it forces me to dig a little deeper before presenting it to my co-learners. I certainly don’t consider myself to be a master who is distributing knowledge. I have always been more of a quick learner who is trying to inspire others to learn as well. It is wonderful to have friends along for the journey, especially when I see them traveling farther than I ever could!
So your older daughters have both done some overseas missions work, have you also done missions overseas or just locally?
My oldest daughter, Arwen, volunteered for five weeks as a doctor’s assistant at Pioneer Christian Hospital near Impfondo, Congo. My second daughter, Lorien, volunteered for six weeks at the Missionary Children Home in Bangalore, India. However, my mission has always been on a local, personal level. Jennifer and I do a lot of work through our Fiddle Camp, fostering programs, Bible studies, homeschool support, and music ministry. However, we do have the opportunity to participate in overseas work from time to time, usually through preaching or music ministry.
One memorable trip was a two-week visit to the Sunchild Native Reserve near Rocky Mountain House, Alberta Canada. BluegrassDaddy.com member Rodger Rinker has long-established a church and Bible school on the reserve and invited us to stay in his home for two weeks. We helped with mission operations which include caring for dozens of local children and maintaining the church and Sunday School materials. Rodger has collected many beginner-model fiddles, and so we taught a Fiddle Camp at the mission.
Here’s a link to a more detailed report about this mission trip
We also did daily musical programs at the local k-12 Sunchild First Nation School. It was a wonderful trip because of the perspectives I gained and because of the friendships we formed. I would strongly recommend overseas missions at some level during a person’s lifetime.
That’s wonderful! Missions is something very dear to me for obvious reasons. So who are your personal fiddling heroes?
I have so many fiddle heroes! First off my teacher Joel Little who got me started on the right path, but then there are so many that I really look up to as musicians, even though I may not know a lot about them personally. There are a lot of really amazing fiddlers out there. When I think of my heroes though, I think about the ones that made me want to play. There are some that may be better at the technical aspects, but these are the fiddlers that inspired me to learn their tunes. Again, no particular order: Kenny Baker Bobby Hicks Johnny Gimble Charlie Daniels
And who are four fiddlers you think are underrated?
OK there are tons of underrated fiddlers out there, but here are four that are actually famous and underrated: Donnel Leahy, Sam Bush, Allison Krauss, and Eck Robertson. Donnel Leahy because he is in the shadow of his wife Natalie MacMaster although he’s a far better fiddler. Sam Bush because he is most noted as a mandolin player although he’s actually better at the fiddle. Alison Krauss because she is known as a singer but she is an incredible fiddler with a very distinctive style. Finally Eck Robertson, because he is mostly remembered for being rediscovered as an old man in the folk revival era, but as a young man he was probably the best old-time fiddler living. Please don’t ask me to list four fiddlers I think are overrated!
Ha why not? Lol.So what are you working on now, any new projects or more of the same awesomeness?
I’ve always been bad to start a project yet never finish it. I would like to expand BluegrassDaddy.com to include other instruments taught by me or my brothers, but that is very daunting because of the distance, training, and time involved. Going the other direction, I have also thought about creating a mirror site for BluegrassDaddy.com that contains gospel fiddle tunes only. My siblings and I recently committed to making two more CDs, one gospel and one instrumental. On a personal level, I have started two books that need to be finished. One is about some mathematics found in scripture and another is a daily devotional for scientists.
I’ve had the same problem…So how many instruments do you have, and what are they?
My first instrument was the harmonica, which I played in a little church band with my parents and sister. My Mom teaches piano out of her home, so I was compelled to learn to play from an early age. Before settling on the fiddle, I played bass and guitar in my family bluegrass band. I play the other bluegrass instruments as well, but my favorite by far is the fiddle! If I am in a jam that includes too many fiddlers, my second choice of instrument is the mandolin, followed by guitar or dobro.
How many fiddles do you have? And which is your favorite?
I have a house full of fiddles! My three daughters all play, plus we have become a revolving door for fiddles through our “Fiddle Camp” outreach. On a regular basis, local families are taking or returning fiddles as their children grow into the next size. My nicest fiddle is “Ava,” a 5-string built for me by Bob Kogut of Lenoir, NC. It is a wonderful instrument. I am currently stringing her with four octave strings instead of 4 regular strings with a viola C. However, my favorite fiddle to play is “Evangeline,” a French fiddle that was built in 1917. She is very lightweight and easy to play, with a bright tone that really stands out in a jam session.
Awesome. Is there any question I’ve missed that you want to be asked?
I don’t think so, but if you think of anything else, feel free to ask.
Ok thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to chat with me, and keep doing what you’re doing! And readers, I strongly encourage you to go check out everything John is doing, he has been a tremendous help and inspiration to me and countless other learning fiddlers, he’s awesome!
Be sure to go find what John is doing at all the following links