002houston August 10:002houston 7/21/10 2:32 PM Page 78
recording By Lance Scott Walker Photography by Anthony Rathbun Assisted by Kevin (KT) Taylor Hair & Makeup by Eliana Olivo
EVEN IN HOUSTON’S DIVERSE MUSICAL LANDSCAPE, THE IDEA OF A BLUEGRASS VIOLINIST MERGING INTO THE CITY’S LIVE MUSIC SCENE WITHOUT CHANGING STYLES WOULD SEEM FAR-FETCHED. UNTIL HILARY CAME ALONG. So how old were you when you first started getting out and playing with people, playing live? You were in the church when you were young, right? Yeah, singing in the church. It was a cappella, harmony singing. So I guess I was about 19, 20, and I had taken a couple of years off from playing altogether, and I started going to bluegrass jams and started playing bluegrass again, learning how to improvise, throwing myself in there with the musicians. Coming from playing a lot of classical and music that was just, you know, very rehearsed. It’s actually a very difficult thing for most of us to jump in there and sort of suck at times, really, and force yourself out of your box. It wasn’t until I hooked up with Umbrella Man I guess about 4 years ago that I really started getting into the club scene here inside the Loop that I really started meeting the musicians that would change me in some really profound ways, musically and personally – that I can make a lot of different kinds of music and still be myself with my style, and keep that integrity. You’ve said you feel a sort of responsibility in your lyrics – but what about the music? Do you feel a sort of responsibility to the history of bluegrass, musically? Very much so. I mean that’s a very insular, hardcore culture, and it has been so co-opted and corporatized… the people really just feel this pull to maintain a lot of those tones and sounds and everything that is ancient coming from Celtic music, our Irish heritage, so you really want to keep that connection and, yeah, I want to play and experiment and grow but I want to keep my roots tied down into that. It’s a very specific genre. How do they treat innovation within bluegrass circles, if you want to innovate and push the boundaries? Generally, it’s squashed, like a bug (laughs). It’s like jazz, where you’ve got your jazz snobs – jazz snobs and bluegrass snobs have so much in common. It requires so much discipline to play it; people are so much more passionate about keeping the roots alive. And there’s a lot of conservatism in the culture. I know many musicians who tried to get involved and tried to go out to the festivals and they just really were discouraged because they were open-minded individuals and a little different. Bluegrass has definitely turned away the next generation of innovators, and also a lot of people who innovate in bluegrass music are leaving. As popular country has taken this dive in the last 20 or 25 years to where it’s basically pop music, has bluegrass further divorced itself from the overall genre? No, because you take somebody like Bill Monroe, who just stuck to who he was through all those years. No matter what happened, it was not accepted by country music. I mean bluegrass is sort of left over from the old days, and it seemed to be an embarrassment for a while. But then people like Ricky Skaggs – people loved Ricky when he did his country thing and that whole movement of Ricky Skaggs and Emmylou [Harris] – bluegrass was in the music, like Ricky would unplug and his band would play bluegrass at the end of his shows, and that was really, really rare but the artists themselves, I mean,
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so many country artists just adore bluegrass music, they have bluegrass musicians on their albums… but I think anything that’s just too… deeply Hillbilly is not going to be embraced by the corporate culture because hillbillies… you know, you can’t control them. I mean they don’t need you (laughs). They’re not gonna take a lot. They’re going to be honest and tell it like it is. But there are artists who are really trying to put themselves out there and make compromises. I mean my album is pretty pop and it has a lot in common with mainstream pop country, but it’s still me and all those roots are down in there. On one hand, you have this frustration with mainstream country and the way things are going and on the other hand there’s so much beauty in the pop song. I love the pop format and simple arrangements and whatnot. I think you can do something that’s really emotional and deep and really affects people, in a pop format, and still be sellable, still be successful and make some money. There are always ways to walk that line or find that balance. When you have cover versions on your record, but also sort of a storyline or theme, do you think about how you’re incorporating someone else’s lyrics into your storyline? I guess I sort of have a vision that I try and stick to and things do happen organically and little pieces of the puzzle come in at different times. The songs that I really love and the ones that I end up using come through very quickly, just writing it down basically. It’s so hard to talk about, how things come together, where they come from and because of this… just seemed like this belongs here, you know what I mean? It all comes together. What’s the biggest difference between your new album and the last? Well, the last album was recorded live and it was first and second takes. I wasn’t going for technical perfection, I was going for feeling. This one, I went to Tommy Detamore’s studio with my favorite musicians – Paul Valdez on drums, Kelly Doyle on guitar, Geoffrey Muller on bass and Wayne “Animal” Turner on guitar. Some wonderful things happened, and I was able to get exactly what I wanted, sound-wise. I wasn’t really going for something that sounded really mainstream or pop-ish but that’s kind of the way it turned out after I got everybody together, recording them. It just came out. It’s really simple and clear and really very angelic in a lot of ways. A lot of fun. A lot of it’s about dreams, dreamy, love songs and dealing with the aftermath of love. But, yeah, it was a whole different process and sort of terrifying, but I think that the best things that you do are absolutely terrifying.
Hilary releases “Angels That Promise The Stars” September 17 at Rudyard’s. www.myspace.com/hilarysloanmusic
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