Signal Path Podcast: Casey Driessen
Listen to the latest SIGNAL PATH podcast with CASEY DRIESSEN, an American fiddler exploring musical traditions around the world with his peripatetic OTHERLANDS project.
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Episode 48 – Casey Driessen
For the latest episode of Signal Path, we spoke with the accomplished American fiddle player Casey Driessen. After playing with Steve Earle and Bela Fleck in Nashville and teaching at the Berklee College of Music, he recently took a nine-month journey exploring musical traditions around the world with his instrument. In the podcast, he discusses his roots in bluegrass and jazz, why he chose to embark on his roving Otherlands project and how he managed to fit his fiddle into a Japanese jam session. Shure donated a selection of mics to record and document the Otherlands sessions.
Marc Young: Casey, thanks so much for speaking with me today. How are things in North Carolina right now?
Casey Driessen: Doing good. Marc, thanks for having me. Well, spring is starting to happen. Trees are budding. And I get pretty excited around spring and seeing what happens outside. So I'm excited.
All right, you're an accomplished fiddler and a graduate of the distinguished Berklee College of Music. I've always wondered what happens when a fiddle player and a classical violinist end up in the same room together. Is there a tension in the air? Is there a hint of violence? Or is it more curiosity, a mutual admiration?
There's maybe a hint of violins?
Oh, you got me there.
Yeah, I've heard that a lot. You know, it really kind of depends on the musician, I think. And what's happening now in the violin world is that there's a lot of people that are expanding beyond what their backgrounds traditionally have been, whether it's folk music or classical music, and trying to find new inspiration from different places and finding their means to improvising and finding their means to a higher level of technique and things like that. So really, it's an attitude, I think. And I tend to hang out with folks that are really excited about all this stuff. So less violence.
That's good. So you were taught by your father, is that correct?
Yeah, my dad's a musician. Not by profession, but he's been playing music his whole life. And so I was brought up going to bluegrass festivals with my family.
So that is what you sort of incubated in as a fiddler?
Absolutely. My background is as a bluegrass musician. And then I started playing jazz around junior high and high school. I would participated in orchestras and they're in their public school programs. But that was kind of the extent of my classical background check and books and things like that. So I really don't say I'm a classical violinist. I say I'm a fiddle player.
So what point did you head to Nashville? Is that kind of the logical path for a fiddle player that you go looking for work in Nashville?
Yeah, I would say that's a good place to start for a fiddle player if you're looking to be around the community, you know, and in this industry, Nashville certainly has one of those happenings for fiddlers. I moved there actually the summer before my last year of college and I got a gig down in Nashville through. One of my heroes is Tim O'Brien, multi-instrumentalist, great vocalist, of the bluegrass world. And he was tasked with putting together a band for Steve Earle to do some to do some bluegrass work.
And so he asked me to do that. And I thought, well, this is a good opportunity to check Nashville out for a little bit. So I moved down there for the summer, got to get the lay of the land and meet some folks and did this gig. And then I went back to school for my senior year. And afterwards it seemed like a logical choice to go back to Nashville afterwards.
And then so did you play regularly with Steve Earle? I know you also did a lot of stuff with Bela Fleck. I mean, was this all at the same time or over what kind of period are we talking about? How many years?
Yeah, I lived in Nashville for 11 years and the gigs with Steve was mainly that first summer, kind of like the three months of summer. And then occasionally gigs would happen once in a while, you know, over the next couple of years with him just sort of festival gigs as they came up. And so at that point, I was just a working fiddle player trying to find his way in Nashville, looking for opportunities and get drenched, trying to get out there, really.
I also read when I was doing a little research that you did a soundtrack for the Johnny Cash movie as well. So is that all just part of being a fiddle player in Nashville? I guess what I'm trying to get at is, is it different than, say, the experience of a guitarist? I know there are a lot of session musicians in Nashville. Is being a fiddler different than, say, a session guitarist there?
You know, I don't know what it's like to be a session guitarist, but I would imagine it's kind of similar, but I think there are a couple of different career paths or people sort of can gravitate towards one or another. You might be more in the studio and that's your main gig, or you might be more of a road player and you're playing in different people's bands. And then there's those that sort of kind of balance, both of those, depending on what opportunities.
And I'd say that I did a balance of both of them, I always really enjoyed playing live, and then when I had the opportunity to go in the studio for different projects, I always really enjoyed that. But I wasn't part of the studio machine down in Nashville. Yeah. I think I was a little outside maybe of standard country fiddle playing that was going on.
Well, that's a very good segue to my next question, because obviously where we're going with this interview, I wanted to ask, at what point did you decide or what point did you start thinking about taking the fiddle out of the traditional American music context?
Yeah, yeah. You know, I think it's always been part of my makeup, I think as a fiddle player trying to find inspiration from different sources maybe nonstandard sources, just always getting ideas from different instruments, like I used to develop techniques on the fiddle by listening to mandolin players, and I would learn solos off of records that weren't necessarily the fiddle player. Like, I loved what Tony Rice played on the guitar. And I but I wanted to play that on the fiddle or what? Or how Jerry Douglas backed up a vocal. And I wanted to get that character in my playing. So I was always looking for other types of inspirations.
Can you tell us about your Otherlands project?
Yeah, so Otherlands is a global music exploration. The idea was to travel around letting music dictate where we were going and meet up with musicians that have roots in their local traditions and basically just get together and share and just kind of have an experience with each other. Really, the goal was to just sit down and to learn about each other’s traditions, share a tune, share some stories. We started in Spain and we took a brief dip into Portugal, we went to Ireland, this is an order in Scotland, India, Japan and then Finland, and we had a couple of other things planned.
Listen to the full interview with Casey Driessen and subscribe to Signal Path with the podcast provider of your choice below. Check out OTHERLANDS here.