Fast, furious, and heartfelt – the fiddling of Jim Van Cleve
By Peter Anick
[Reprinted from Fiddler Magazine (Winter 2013/14)]
Listening to Mountain Heart warming up before their appearance at the 2012 Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Festival, I had to laugh at the arcade game flashing to Jim Van CleveÕs right. In bold letters, it proclaimed ŅThe Fast and the FuriousÓ and it might just as well have been describing JimÕs fiddling. Since the formation of the band back in 1998, it has been one of the most energetic and innovative acts in bluegrass and JimÕs irrepressible fiddling has been a big part of the bandÕs powerhouse sound. In this interview, Jim talks about his musical influences and philosophy, the continuing evolution of ŅbluegrassÓ, and what he has learned as a record producer as well as a player.
You are one of the leaders in the current generation of new acoustic music, coming from bluegrass.
JVC: I didnÕt set out to do anything of the sort. I grew up listening to Grisman and Tony Rice but I never thought of what I was doing as an extension of any of that. The Flecktones, Chris Thile, all the things that are current, too. A lot of jazz... a little bit of everything. A lot of rock&roll, actually, and even pop radio and old stuff. On my ipod, youÕd find everything from Sinatra to Radiohead! ThereÕs a pretty wide berth in between there. I try to learn as much as I can about music as an art, as a science, the history, all of it. My production background, the stuff IÕm diving into the last five or six years has really brought my musical knowledge up to a new place. So when I do set out to write something, itÕs a little more ŅinformedÓ, I guess would be a fair word to use.
Did you take lessons?
I did not. IÕm self taught, learned by ear. There were some Suzuki lessons at a really young age, probably six or seven. But it was short lived. It was just enough for me to learn how to hold the instrument, and then I stopped. I didnÕt play for six or seven years after that. I still donÕt read music very well. I can, but thatÕs also self taught. IÕve never been forced into a situation where I had to play something that was completely indiscernible by ear. What I do work on a lot is to develop my ears – their quickness and readiness for different sounds and different musical ideas.
How did you decide to take up the fiddle as a profession?
I have no idea. I have to think that God was a lot of the reason for music even being something I was interested in. The talent comes from Him for sure. I didnÕt take it seriously as a young person in high school – I was more interested in basketball or playing Xbox, or whatever the current platform was. But I loved music and I really had a good time with it. And I didnÕt realize that I took it as seriously as I did. People that knew me realized it better than I did. I didnÕt try to pursue this musical dream necessarily. It just kind of happened.
But fiddleÕs a tough instrument to pick up. It takes a lot of effort, right?
I feel like they all are. I think theyÕre all pretty difficult. But I do think there are people predisposed to play violin, or any instrument for that matter. There are some people predisposed to be singers and itÕs pretty evident that some folks were not!
You ended up developing your own style. Who were you modeling your playing on?
Major influences for me would be Kenny Baker, Bobby Hicks, Stuart Duncan, Mark OÕConnor, some Vassar (Clements), Randy Howard early on. ThereÕs a billion. Almost anybody I come into contact with, at some level. But if I had a Mt. Rushmore of what made me fired up about fiddle, IÕd put Stuart Duncan right at the top of it and the other names I just mentioned would be right there with him. ThatÕs the era I came up in. Funny, but early on my thing was playing a lot of old-time. I grew up around western North Carolina for the most part and we werenÕt far from Galax, Virginia. So I went there (the Galax FiddlersÕ Convention) almost every year since I was eleven to probably twenty-four or five, till I was too busy working to afford to take that time.
Galax has the two communities there, doesnÕt it, the old-time and the bluegrassÉ
It really does, and there used to be a pretty obvious division between the two. There were the old-time camps and there were the bluegrass camps. There was this era, maybe ten years ago now, where myself and a few of our age guys were getting into playing a little of all of it. Cross-pollinating, I guess youÕd say. I hear when you go to Galax now, the camps all share, they all play together. But what happened was I took a lot of rhythmic sense from the old-time canon. I really borrowed a lot of that, without meaning to, but that rhythmic drive and push were what really informed my playing. A lot of my individualism as a player, I think, comes from that. You see (bluegrass) people play a few licks and then put the fiddle down until those licks come around again, and thereÕs nothing wrong with that – sometimes thatÕs exactly what a song needs – but the musical surroundings IÕve been in, I want to be in there (as) part of the groove. I want to be there digginÕ, helping the band feel better if I can. Those are things that, rhythmically at least, make my playing a little different. Melodically, having so many different influences and being a self taught music ŅstudentÓ, chasing down new ideas that I havenÕt heard in the genre, those are some of the reasons I donÕt sound just like everybody else. I wanted to pursue some individualism as well, so what better way to do that then borrow sounds that arenÕt as readily heard in the genre.
Was Mountain Heart the first band where you made a major musical contribution beyond being an accompanist?
I would have to say yes. The first few gigs I had, I was in high school. I was fifteen and played with a band called Ricochet, a good band from North Carolina. I was young, so I was getting my feet wet, how to be a professional. The first nationally known band I started up with – I was sixteen or seventeen – that was Lou Reed and Carolina. There it was a lot of fun. It was Clay Jones and myself and Lou and Gina Britt. And I was still in high school so it was Ņshred cityÓ for me, you know. Just have as much fun as you can. After that I played a short time with a band called RamblerÕs Choice and I did have some input there because we were working on a record for Rounder. I had just left high school and we did a record called ŅSounds of the MountainÓ and Dan Tyminski produced that. So at that point, I had some ideas and Dan was producing the record – I learned so much through that spell right there. That gig led to Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver. With DoyleÕs band, I learned a ton about being a professional musician, but his music was already what it was and he didnÕt necessarily need my input. He didnÕt shun it either. If I had ideas on solos, he really wasnÕt too corrective on a lot of that. He wanted stuff like on the record but he also allowed me some freedom to go outside that, which I appreciated. But Mountain Heart, I was nineteen and we started the band, that was really the first place I was old enough to even have input, you know. I wasnÕt old enough to drive in the first couple of bands and I wasnÕt old enough to buy beer in the other ones, so by the time we started Mountain Heart, I was just kind of becoming an adult, really. IÕm still working on that [laughs] but as far as the input, it was definitely here that everybody tried to utilize everybodyÕs assets. ThatÕs what I think is still special about this band, that itÕs not ŅWeÕre gonna be this one thing today.Ó WeÕre gonna be what everybody is that day. That philosophy and that dynamic in the band – thatÕs the reason IÕm still here and thatÕs the reason a lot of the guys are so invigorated by the situation, myself included. Yeah, this was my first platform to be able to offer opinions and ideas, arrangements. This was the springboard for everything else IÕve done. I would say that twenty per cent of my career now is playing with Mountain Heart. Maybe even twenty-five per cent is playing fiddle, and the other seventy-five per cent is producing records. But this was the springboard for that.
So Mountain Heart was your first shot at producing. Did you produce yourselves?
Well, we had some help early on, for sure, and then when we joined Skaggs Family Records, you know, keep your mouth shut and learn as much as you can! We did two records with Ricky (Skaggs). I learned a ton through both of those.
What were some of the things you learned in the studio?
Well, theyÕre not just fiddle specific. It was about song structure, flow in the studio, things that albums need, ways to get the best performance, ways to utilize the technology to get the best performance, ways to get the best sound, how to mic an instrument, when not to play, when to play, what not to play, what you should play, how to shape a vowel sound when singing backup. There are so many things! You really have to be a student of the craft to internalize a lot of that and remember it, first of all. And then make it instinct instead of something you have to be grilled over and over again when you go in the studio. Nobody does it all naturally. The only thing you might have is the natural inclination to pay attention and to learn and internalize and then turn around and use that information to better the situation.
How did you go about deciding about how youÕd record your own first solo album (ŅNo ApologiesÓ in 2006)?
It just seemed like it was time. I didnÕt just want to do a record. I wanted to try to put something together like some of the records that really inspired me – the (David Grisman) Quintet albums, (Tony RiceÕs) Manzanita, some of the Alison Krauss projects. Chris Thile had ŅNot All Who Wander are LostÓ. That felt like a great record. It was well recorded, well mixed, well produced, well played, just artfully done. I wanted to put something together that was artistic and well done from top to bottom, not slapped together. I waited and waited and waited until I felt I knew enough about how things should work in the studio. I waited until after Mountain Heart had worked with (Nashville producer) Mark Bright and I had been privy to world class engineers and great studios and I kind of had a sense of how that would work. Then I aligned myself with David Hall, a world class engineer and a world class guy, too, one of my best friends. I asked him if heÕd be willing to work with me on a solo project. We dove in and he helped me capture what it was I wanted to hear. When that record came out, it did very well for me – Grammy nomination, album of the year, things like that – and I guess it made me feel confident: ŅOkay, you can probably go do some of this (record production)Ó. I think it was the bridge to everything else IÕve done since then, but at the time it was really personal. That record was a statement that I needed to get out.
You do some wild stuff on that first tune (ŅThe Nature of the BeastÓ). What did you do right at the beginning there?
Yeah, there are some effects in there – a couple of reverse notes, some delays and thereÕs a flat nine in the very first chord that kind of hurts a lot.
It sure catches your attention.
That was my point. I wanted it to be a slap in the face a little bit: ŅHey, pay attention!Ó Hopefully this wonÕt be an ordinary, ho-hum kind of experience. That was my goal but I didnÕt know if it would really come across like that. I definitely didnÕt expect it to come across as strongly as it did before it was all done. I just kept babysitting every little detail and when it was done, I stepped back and ŅDang, IÕm sick of hearing it but itÕs pretty good!Ó
How long did it take you?
It took a while, probably four or five months. But thatÕs not a long time compared to a lot of guys doing these records at home and what not. TheyÕre taking three, four, five years to put a record together. I think at that point you lose your vitality a little bit. Kind of forget what it is you were trying to say.
There are some fast tunes on that record that almost leave you tired just listening to them - in a good way.
Me, too. There were some of them where I struggled to play, for sure. But we did a bunch of that record live. The work came in trying to mix it and make it feel like I wanted it to, and adding layers to songs that just needed more complexity. Soundscapish kinds of things.
Are you applying the same kinds of ideas now to Mountain Heart?
Somewhat, but I do so much production now that one of the fun things about Mountain Heart is not having to do so much of that. I like seeing where everybody else is going. If youÕre always spilling your own guts, how do you learn anything? If youÕre talking, itÕs harder to listen, IÕve found. IÕve had fun just being attentive, like I used to do in the studio with Mark Bright and Ricky Skaggs. IÕd be silly not to mention (original Mountain Heart mandolinist) Adam Steffey. Nineteen years old and starting a band with Adam Steffey, who is already a legend for most folks, including myself. I learned a lot just from being around that kind of professionalism.
How has your fiddling been evolving over the years? Today, with everybody listening to the same stuff, it can be hard to develop an individual style.
Well, I donÕt really know. ItÕs kind of like you donÕt know what your voice sounds like until you hear it back. I spend more time listening than playing. IÕm doing the same thing on stage a lot, too. IÕve always listened to other players. I like the interplay between the guys, spur of the moment. ItÕs like having a musical conversation. IÕve always really, really enjoyed that.
Do you hear things in other genres or on other instruments that you say, ŅWow, I could do something like that on the fiddle.Ó?
ThatÕs every bit of it. I donÕt listen to a lot of any one particular thing. Most everything I do is informed from someplace different.
So youÕre a bluegrass band but youÉ
Well, I wouldnÕt even say that any more. WeÕre going to be today (at the Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Festival) but most of the time weÕre actually not any more. I think that has been taking my playing a lot of different places. The unspoken set of rules that youÕre supposed to play within, IÕve let a lot of those go in the last three or four years and had a lot of fun with that. Because our material is all over the place. If youÕre not playing within a sound, it doesnÕt feel like it has to sound one way, so therefore you are allowed more freedom to go wherever.
The Punch Brothers have done that as well. TheyÕre a bluegrass band in instrumentationÉ
But not in material choice, or in chops either. ThereÕs never been a band put together that can do some of those things. I would liken us more to that than anything at this point. Musical freedom is what you could call that. A lot of the things that IÕll choose to play now donÕt come from anywhere related to stuff I listened to early on. As much as I love to hear anyone whoÕs coming across that stage thereÉ and if I went to play with it, IÕd play hopefully what fit that style. But I just want to be as versatile as possible, to play in as many musical situations as possible and feel authentic. ThatÕs what makes anybody unique is you trying to pursue other interests but you still are what you are at your core.
It used to be when a bluegrass band would do a Beatles song, it would almost be a novelty number.
Yeah, and it used to be kind of corny sounding, too, right?
Yeah, but now itÕs gotten to the point where a bluegrass band can play a song like that and make it sound authentic.
Yeah, the rules are all changing. I am an advocate. I love that. Hopefully, thatÕs what weÕre doing, too. Find as many of the rules we could and, still in good taste, try to break them.
Bluegrass itself is getting redefined.
I think peopleÕs definition of bluegrass is broadening. I find that this is true of jazz, of country music – there are traditionalists/purists who can be a little radical almost how staunch they are in their beliefs of what it should be, so that when you get somebody trying to rock the boat a little bit, they really oppose that and theyÕre really vocal about that. But thereÕs a lot more people who are really hip to the scene, things changing up a little bit. There doesnÕt have to be one flavor of pizza every day, you know? We definitely subscribe to that thought. As long as there is new vitality brought in, itÕs going to be a genre that thrives. When people want to cut off the musical creativity and stifle that out because they like it one way, it will die. Attendance will go down and theyÕre going to go listen to Phish or Mumford and Sons, where there are no rules, but it still kind of almost works. IÕm a firm believer in the big tent philosophy because IÕve seen it. IÕve lived it, and IÕve seen shows where there are a lot of people and shows where there are a few people, and theyÕre there every year. ThereÕs no right or wrong, but if youÕre going to try to earn a living doing this, it makes a lot of sense to play for as many people as possible!
The trick is always how to do that without compromising your musical principles, I guess.
You have to determine what those are, I guess, first. Mine are that I donÕt want to play anything that isnÕt well done, whatever it is. Wherever it goes, whatever style itÕs from, I just hope itÕs well done. Do it in a way that is believable, played with conviction, hopefully in tune. I want it to feel right. EverybodyÕs said it at some point, but thereÕs only two kinds of music, and thatÕs good and bad. I canÕt agree more.
What do you think is next for you?
The band is in a great spot right now. WeÕre in our thirteenth or fourteenth year, which is hard to believe. IÕve got three young children at home, and a wife. I spend a lot of time in the studio and a lot of time on the road, and right now everything is great. My production schedule is filling up rapidly, which I love. Each record has its own set of new challenges and rewards.
What would you say to young fiddlers who are trying to play like you? What would you suggest to them?
The instructional DVD I did has a lot of that in it. That would be a great starting spot. People want to learn licks and stuff that sounds flashy, that really catches their ear. I think that those things are important but they are a by-product of your philosophy, your practice habits, the way that you listen to music and even warm up, things like that. If you just learn licks, thatÕs kind of just regurgitating info and that ends up being empty. If you donÕt have a real understanding and you just Ņknow the answerÓ, itÕs not you at that point. It doesnÕt really speak to folks. ItÕs like not knowing what a songÕs about but knowing the words and singing it. It seems like it would be really difficult to communicate emotionally with people without knowing what itÕs about, being able to identify with it.
What are your practice habits? What do you do to keep in shape?
Usually I donÕt have to worry about it because I either play on the road so much gigging or in the studio. But my ears on the other hand, IÕm always trying to find new things to listen to. Whether it be some jazz record I hadnÕt heard before, a legend or master player, or just something new and fresh all the time. I try to listen to stuff IÕve heard before in different ways even, you know, focus on different instruments and listen. It all comes down to how much, how hard, how intently you listen. And not just hear, but listen. Really dig in and pick out all the details. DonÕt obsess over it when you go to play, because youÕre going to do what you do, but listening takes it to where itÕs going to be that day for me. It gets your brain going in ways you donÕt even know. And when you go to play, your subconscious kicks in there eventually and it will go places that you werenÕt expecting. So listening is paramount. For warm up, I work on metronome practice to keep my speed and chops up. IÕm always trying to find new ideas. I find a new idea and really try to exhaust that, if I can. Whether it be practicing through the modes I should already be well versed in but donÕt pay a lot of attention to sometimes, or it be learning a solo thatÕs really complicated note for note, just because I never took the time before. Because that also makes your brain work in ways youÕre not used to, your fingers work in ways youÕre not used to. The rest of the little trinkets and tools and ideas, theyÕre hard to explain but I could show easily, and do in the video or on skype (lessons). Those are things that I help people with a lot. They look silly in print but once I can demonstrate it, itÕs like taking the training wheels off for some folks.
What would be an example of that?
Well, IÕve got a metronome that will play a single note. It was intended for tuning purposes but I have found that if you just start that note, it takes the distractions that you usually fight away. So IÕll put on head phones and turn on this one note and listen to it and IÕll just start playing my instrument versus that note. You wouldnÕt believe where you can go with just that. You could do anything literally with one note. ThatÕs one little thing IÕm able to show folks in lessons or workshops.
What is the last solo that you studied or worked out? Is there one you remember?
I sat down and finally forced myself to go through, on guitar, all the changes of ŅThe Christmas SongÓ by Mel TormĀˇ. ThatÕs a standard that if people are not musically inclined, they may not know that itÕs ridiculously complicated. ThereÕa lot of chords in it. The theoretical foundation for that song is just intense. So to just sit down and play those chords and hum that melody above it, thatÕs intense. ThereÕs a lot going on there! Things like that, thatÕs what IÕm talking about. Find something different. ThatÕs the last thing that I sat down and forced myself to work through, and the day before, I worked through one called ŅThere Will Never Be Another YouÓ, an old jazz standard everyone has heard, IÕm sure. But I love the melody, IÕve jammed on it before, but I sat down and learned all the chords, figured out all the (chord) extensions and why, why all the leading tones are there, and just sang the melody while I learned all the chords. That got me thinking about stuff I wouldnÕt have thought about before. Fiddle players are predisposed to thinking melody lines and extensions, not bass lines versus that. So as a producer, I need to know both. Now that IÕm writing these charts for sessions in Nashville, I want to know exactly what IÕm doing. ThereÕs a lot of reward in that - theoretically; it informs my playing. So thatÕs more about where some of my stuff might come from, learning more about the theoretical possibilities. Places you wouldnÕt expect, I guess, from a Ņbluegrass fiddle playerÓ. For myself, I was first a fiddle player, second of all a band member, and now a producer. And hopefully all those things together. That has been my journey.
You can follow Jim and Mountain Heart on their website: www.mountainheart.com. The instructional DVD that Jim refers to in the interview is ŅJim Van Cleve: Become a More Complete FiddlerÓ, produced by AcuTab Video. It is a four hour, 2 DVD set which covers a number of topics designed to help an intermediate bluegrass player develop, as the title says, into a more complete fiddler. In conversation with AcuTabÕs Jim Loveless, Jim answers many of the questions a fiddle student would (or should) be asking: how to practice to build speed, how to get that classic bluegrass vibrato, how to play sliding doublestops, how to approach improvisation, etc. Joined by a band, Jim demonstrates how he constructs a solo, using standard tunes played in a range of keys. In this section, Jim gives examples of licks that work particularly well in each key. He also shows how to use the fiddle behind other instruments and vocals to add excitement and create momentum in key places, something fiddlers often neglect or do poorly. Finally, he teaches four fiddle tunes (musical notation included) at a slow pace. Camera angles are good throughout the video for picking up bowings and fingerings. While the DVD is ideal for an intermediate level player, there are many tips here that could help an advanced player and plenty of inspiration for a beginner. You can see clips and order the DVDs on the AcuTab web site: www.acutab.com.
Peter Anick, author of Mel BayÕs ŅOld Time Fiddling Across AmericaÓ, teaches fiddle and mandolin and performs with the Massachusetts bluegrass group Wide Open Spaces (www.wideospaces.com, on facebook as Ņwide open spaces bandÓ).