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Music

Q&A with Montreal's undisputed boss of bluegrass, Matt Large

Posted by Cat / May 25, 2007

20070525_NDGbandmembers.jpgSaturday night will see the Green Room play host to some of the finest pickin', playin' and singin' this here town has to offer. Notre Dame de Grass, featuring songsmith/guitarist Matt Large, composer/banjoist Guy Donis, fiddler Jeremy Penner, mandolinist Bob Cussen, and bassist Andrew Horton will be releasing their latest, "New Canada Road". Notre Dame de Grass's concerts are perenially described as a tour de force, and tomorrow night's show will be no exception.

Midnight Poutine was lucky enough to grab on-the-go frontman Matt Large (who is also the promoter behind Hello Darlin' productions and a never-dry well of bluegrass knowledge) for a pre-show Q&A. Matt discusses his time spent as an old-school rap devotee, the bluegrass 12-step program, and how to scare the folk out of people.

The answer to this question could probably be in book form, so, as briefly as possible, can you talk about the current popularity of roots and bluegrass in Montreal? It strikes me that the fan base has remained fairly constant in size in the past decade or so (even if the people within that base have changed, somewhat), but I'm interested in a more informed analysis.

I think Montreal has always been a unique cultural space to make and perform music in because, in large part, people are interested in music generally. With regards to the local roots music scene I think we are experiencing a renaissance of sorts in terms of the rare and exceptional quality of local performers which subsequently maintains and propagates an adoring and supportive audience. You have truly gifted singer-songwriters like Katie Moore and Mike O’Brien and staggeringly talented bands like The Lake of Stew and Colin Perry and Blind who are making very authentic, very high calibre music. To say there has been an ebb and flow in fan base is certainly factual but for the most part these cycles are normal and to be expected.

From my perspective as a roots music concert promoter and bluegrass musician there has consistently been a critical mass of fans who have been supporting roots music in Montreal since the days of the New Penelope, The Golem, and the Yellow Door and certainly well before that. What enhances these stalwart rank and file folk music supporters is the transient but energetic student crowd. Audience interest and therefore ticket sales seem to fluctuate cyclically but the dark times are never too dark because of this old guard support. Certainly this analysis of the local scene has been borne out by my experience presenting shows with Hello Darlin’.

I enjoyed the headiness of the immediate post Oh Brother Where Art Thou? days when bluegrass and country were hip for six months and Notre Dame de Grass and Lil Andy could fill Le Swimming with 400 people, but I don’t miss those days either. I make bluegrass music for people who want to listen to it and whether the audience numbers 100 people or 1000 I’ll still be making music. That last statement is cliche and trite so let me qualify it by making it clear that I won't go on stage unless there are at least 100 people in the room.

I'd love to hear the unabridged story of your life as musician and promoter in the roots/folk/bluegrass/country music scene, but in an effort to avoid saddling you with another essay question, perhaps you could share your earliest music memory. Was there a defining moment when you and the music just clicked? What were the principle musical influences in your formative years?

My childhood was filled with music both live and canned. My old man has a very interesting and varied record collection including heavy duty country (i.e. Haggard, Jones, Nelson, Jennings) and fiddle music but also Gordon Lightfoot, David Clayton Thomas and Mashmakan. I think I had a very Canadian-centric musical upbringing. My Dad liked to sing R and B and spent equal amounts of time in both Yorkville and on Yonge in Toronto watching Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins or folk singers. So he imparted that love of music.

My mother’s family, however, put actual instruments within reach. My Mom’s family is Salvation Army, so although she, nor I, have ever asked for hand outs at Christmas or done missionary work (we never attended the church) we did benefit from the singing and band tradition that the religious organization is renowned for. I have many memories of group singalongs to pop and tin pan alley and jazz hits in the basement in Willowdale, Ontario. Uncle Ivan playing the organ and a chorus of family members singing. But I also remember equally as well getting access to that organ when others weren’t playing, and trumpet and horns and drums and fiddles etc.

Lastly, I grew up in the Mariposa generation in North York. Public School in the early 70s included actual scheduled time to sing and play music and listen to folk singers and do all sorts of whacked out crazy shit. Old time stringband music feels like home to me. It is natural. Now, when I turned 10 and heard LL Cool J and Run DMC and Kurtis Blow and The Fat Boys and Slick Rick etc. (I was lucky enough to have missed the Sugar Hill Gang altogether) the country and folk went down the shitter. I was only interested in black urban music for years after, until in my late teens I couldn’t deny the bluegrass bug anymore, and much to my local adidas shopkeepers chagrin traded in the jumpsuits and the red suede gazelles for overalls.

The feeling I get when I hear well-executed, hard-driving, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, guitar and bass, with tight harmony singing is the same today as the first time I heard it as a kid. It gets me somewhere that few things do.

This album is meant to bridge the gaps between roots fans and bluegrass fans. I'm assuming that many people like both. But are the camps fairly distinct in some cases? If so, how do you appeal to fans of two different (though related) genres, and are there any risks in trying to please diverse groups?

Although one would think it sensible to group bluegrass fans in the larger roots music category I fear this is folly. Bluegrass people are a breed unto themselves, just as the genre of music itself stands proudly independent of other folk and roots traditions. There are indeed many people who like a wide range of genres: folk, blues, bluegrass, Cajun, zydeco, cowboy songs, unaccompanied Appalachian balladry etc. Let’s call these the well-rounded sensible people. Then there are others, kind of like me, who are so absorbed in the bluegrass world that they rarely find time to listen to anything else cause there is another god-damned new cd been released. I have gotten much better in recent years, I’m in the bluegrass 12 step program, and my ears have reopened to the broad world around me. But man, people who like bluegrass like it a lot. We have our own magazines, trade shows, festivals, cruises, etc. So yes, the camps are distinct. When we go to folk festivals or conferences the folkies are usually worried that we will play too fast and that they won't be able to keep up. They are scared, and they should be.

With this new record I have not gone out of my way to make a record that will appeal to folkies and bluegrass lovers. This isn’t “Notre Dame de Grass Plays Folk Music Favorites”. I just happen to write songs that seem to appeal to both hard core bluegrass junkies and people who have never heard of Bill Monroe. I don’t want anyone to ever think that because this is a bluegrass record that it isn’t for them. It is meant for anyone who likes original acoustic music.

In addition to your original songs and arrangements, the album contains contributions from some very complementary musicians and writers, such as David Francey and Norm Dionne. I'm particularly curious about how you came to work with the Elder Berryman Hicks. Any stories to tell?

David Francey is a good friend and the finest songwriter working in our country today. If you don’t know his work - find some, steal some, buy some, whatever. I hold him in the same esteem as I do Gordon Lightfoot and Stan Rogers. He is superb and his simple melodies and folk-rooted chord progressions lend themselves to bluegrass well.

Norm Dionne is the best country writer I have ever met. I loved this song the first time he ever sang it for me and I hope I have made it my own.

The Elder Berryman Hicks, like many of my daily companions, lives only in books and the research I have done. He wrote the words as a poem or lament to his wife when he was away from home and gravely ill. He thought he would not make it home and thus wrote her this goodbye. I learned it from a source singer named John Cohen from The New Lost City Ramblers.

What's currently in rotation on your turntable/ipod/car stereo to keep the toes tappin' and fingers drummin'?

Old Man Luedecke – Hinterland. A kid like me from North York who fell in love with old-tyme music. He, like me, refrains from writing “Little cabin home on the hill” songs and writes about real life. Relevant, heart- warming or wrenching music that sets the toe to tappin’ or the tear to fallin’. He even has a song about Fairview Mall.

Bill Monroe
- Bear Family Box Set 1950-59. I have every song Bill ever waxed and constantly go through them again and again. I am particularly into a set of recordings Bill made with my number one bluegrass hero Carter Stanley of The Stanley Brothers. Competitors in the bluegrass game during the 50s, Carter’s brother Ralph was in a car wreck and unable to tour so Carter became a bluegrass boy for a few short months in 1952. These recordings are simply awesome, and not in the Spicoli sense of the word, I mean awe-inspiring.

Before playing a show, are there any food preferences that assist in better pickin', harmonizin' and stompin'?

Yes of course! Pulled pork, turnip greens, dumplings with red eye gravy, corn bread and some mountain berry shine. No – a good home cooked meal, a couple belts of Maker’s Mark and a bottle of water does me fine.

Notre Dame de Grass show and cd release
with special guest Terry Joe Banjo
Saturday, May 26
The Green Room (5386 St. Laurent)
8 p.m. doors / 8:30 p.m. show $10

Discussion

12 Comments

Hello people / February 1, 2008 at 03:05 am
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archie / October 31, 2009 at 01:54 am
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Dear Bluegrass Fans Montreal,

I thought you might like the traditional / bluegrass blend in world famous piper Fred Morrisons new CD "Outlands" featuring Ron Block and Tim O Brien with sample tracks on:

www.fredmorrison.com

www.myspace.com/fredmorrison

and an interesting interview with reporter Sue Wilson on
www.hi-arts.co.uk/Sept09-interview-fred-morrison.htm

Fred plays his own reelpipes on these tracks(www.fredmorrisonpipes.com) and this site contains details of his tunebook and other CDs

Best wishes from Scotland,
Archie
Rehan / February 5, 2015 at 03:32 am
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