The Fretboard Journal doesn’t usually cover fiddlers (no frets on a violin, sadly), but when we learned that Stuart Duncan was about to hit the road with banjo powerhouse Noam Pikelny, we couldn’t resist talking to him. Here, the Nashville session great talks to us a bit about his folk-music filled childhood in Southern California, the Byron Berline show that changed the course of his life and how session work in Nashville has changed over the years.
Fretboard Journal: You are such an in-demand session fiddler. Looking at your All Music Guide credits, you appear on everything from Garth Brooks and Johnny Mathis records to classical projects such as the Goat Rodeo Sessions with Yo-Yo Ma. How do you divide your time?
Stuart Duncan: Well, every year is different. Ten years ago, it was difficult to find the time on Fridays and Mondays to get to a weekend gig with the Nashville Bluegrass Band and get back to do any kind of country sessions that might be starting on Monday. But now I’m doing so many fewer country music sessions that I have weekdays open now and more roadwork. I’m out of town for longer periods of time, but I’m also missing less as far as country music sessions go.
Every year is different. I seem to be doing more non-country things in the past three years, which is kind of how I started… playing more swing music, old-time music and bluegrass music.
FJ: Is that just the changing taste of country music that they’re employing fewer and fewer fiddle players?
SD: There’s that. The budget has a big part of it. The internet has created this notion that music is now free, which is actually very true now. When you can just as easily get a song that you’re looking for on Spotify as you can on iTunes then whoever wrote the song and whoever plays on it makes absolutely nothing off of it.
Everybody has just kind of given up on that. I mean ten years ago they were still fighting that battle and I think it’s actually over now [laughs]. There’s no way to fight it. It’s too big. So there’s that and then there’s also the fact that much like what happened in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, mostly late ‘70s, the prevailing wind of record production went to the safety – they want to play it safe and only include electric guitars and keyboard and drums and bass and not any kind of instruments that point to it being a traditional sound, because that’s just not selling records now… that kind of mentality.
When the wind blows that way everybody jumps on that wagon and it takes another five or six or ten years for it to turn around so they’ll use pedal steels and fiddles again. I’ll just hang around until then!
FJ: At least you have a lot of different projects you can fall back on. Have there been any recent mainstream music sessions that have impressed you in terms of bucking that trend and letting you do what you do best?
SD: I occasionally get a mainstream thing that will come around and whoever is producing will say, “Just be yourself, because we don’t want to say too much or guide you in any certain way,” because they know that I’m the kind of player that does better when you leave me alone.
One of those producers was Nathan Chapman, who’s been producing Lady Antebellum. He also produced Taylor Swift, I believe, and a few others. I did something with him recently where he absolutely did that. And other producers such as Paul Worley, who used to produce the Band Perry, and then other people have done it. There have been a couple of Band Perry songs that had solos from me that were somewhat unexpected in the country arena. I guess the music changed enough that something a little edgier is expected. In fact, one of them even has a plugged-in fiddle with overdrive. I’ve been doing that on the road on the Robert Plant and Alison Krauss tour that I was on, but I don’t think I’ve ever used it on a mainstream country record until recently.
FJ: Let’s talk about your background a bit. In our current issue of the Fretboard Journal, we interviewed Ry Cooder. He talked about growing up in L.A. and Santa Monica and all the country and bluegrass and old-time scenes that were happening there. That’s basically where you grew up, too?
SD: Yeah, exactly.
FJ: Were you at the Ash Grove as a kid? Were you attending all of those shows?
SD: I think the heyday of the Ash Grove pre-dates me a little bit, although I was there as a child in the late ‘70s and saw some folks come through there. But I was living in San Diego County back then until I was like 14. So the folk club that I had experience with was one of those “in-between dates,” artists coming through would play there in-between bigger venues like the Ash Grove or the Ice House in Pasadena, which was even more of hang for me. They had more bluegrass at the Ice House than they did other places.
My dad ran the sound at a folk club in Escondido, California called In yhe Alley. When I was like six and seven years old I would go with him down there to the club to help him setup the mic cables and stuff and then I would hear the first set and then fall asleep by the time the second set came around.
That was my introduction into hearing fiddle players come through. That would have been in 1971 and 1972. The Dillards came through and had Byron Berline sitting in with them. They had made a record back in the ‘60s together. So I got hear Byron and then the next week I got to hear Vassar Clements with the Earl Scruggs Revue. I think those two things were the catalysts for me to say, “I need to play the fiddle.”
FJ: How old were you?
SD: I was seven when I saw those. That’s the year I started.
FJ: Your dad doing the sound obviously there was a lot of music in your house and this kind of music in the house, right?
SD: Not so much bluegrass, but old-time and folk music and Irish and Scottish music and Dixieland was in my house growing up. And my dad played the long-neck banjo much like Pete Seeger had, that sort of thing.
FJ: You’re about to go out on the road with Noam Pikelny. I just talked to him about the gear he’s going to be using on the tour. Can you tell us a bit about the main fiddle that you’re going to be taking out on the road?
SD: For the first time in a long time, I’ve got a second fiddle that I’m fairly proud of. So I’m not so sure of which one I’ll be spending the most time on, but the one that I’ve played most of life, since I was 12 years old, is an old German fiddle that I bought from Kenny Baker, who was Bill Monroe’s fiddler at the time.
And it’s been my go-to fiddle for everything in the studio and live, anything not plugged in, because I don’t keep a pickup on it.
I have one now with a pickup on it. I’ve been traveling with Diana Krall with this other fiddle. I’m really, really happy with it. So I may be using them both. They’re both German.
FJ: That’s an unusual connection between you and Noam: You were on Noam’s Kenny Baker record (Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe) and you bought your main fiddle from Kenny Baker himself!
FJ: How did that violin transaction happen with Kenny?
SD: Interestingly enough, my dad had made me a violin for my 11th birthday and I had been playing that for about six months. I wasn’t really looking for a fiddle because I knew how hard my dad had worked on that.
So we were at Bean Blossom, Indiana, Bill Monroe’s festival. I think I had just turned 12. Kenny was real nice to me and encouraged many young players who were trying to play his tunes. He was very nice to me and said, “Let me show you some of these fiddles I’ve got.” So I went and played every fiddle he had at a table where he and George Chestnut were selling them.
I came across this fiddle that just sounded better than all the rest to me. My mom and dad both grudgingly agreed that it sounded better than the one that my dad had made me. I kind of looked at my dad. “Wow, that’s really good, and how much is it?”
I believe Kenny said, “You can have that for $260.00.” So it was like next to nothing compared to what I would have expected. My mom said, “I think you should have that.” So she just got her checkbook out and bought it from him right then. I still have the check.
I got used to it and I can’t play any other fiddle and have it sound the same way.
FJ: That’s amazing. Is it a well-known or even known maker?
SD: Well, part of the reason that it was that cheap is because it doesn’t have a name in it and it had a few cracks in it that needed to be fixed. But it has been the best $260.00 I’ve ever spent … or my mom’s ever spent.
FJ: Let’s talk a little bit about what you’re doing with Noam. I chatted with him about the repertoire and how you’re going to be bringing out stuff from both of his solo records. He also mentioned that you’re quite a vocalist. How long have you been singing?
SD: Longer than people know about. Wisely, early in my life, I surrounded myself with really good singers, so I didn’t really have to worry about it. During that time, I have been practicing and trying to get better at it myself, because I’ve always loved to sing. Just because I have been getting out there and trying to do more solo things, I decided to sing a little bit [in public]. It’s only when I’m surrounding myself with people like Tim O’Brien and Alan O’Bryant and other great singers that I feel like, “No, maybe I should let them have it.” But if they’re not in the picture why not, right? So I’m just trying to do what I love, that’s all.
FJ: What kind of tunes will you be singing on this tour?
SD: Well a mixture of maybe some things that are more expected from me from the bluegrass tradition and then a couple of things that are more ballad-like. One from Merle Haggard and one from Carl Jones, who wrote for Norman Blake and wrote “Last Time on the Road,” for the Nashville Bluegrass Band. Noam and I are also going to cover the Stanley Brothers a little bit, singing together. I’m not sure anyone will have seen that coming.
FJ: You’re also a phenomenal clawhammer banjo player. What banjo do you take out on the road for something like that?
SD: I have an old Vega, like a Vegaphone, that would have been made in the ‘20s. It has a skinhead on it and I really like that. I also have a Lyon & Healy fretless that I love with nylon strings on it.
One of the points that got brought up in discussing how to be a multi-instrumentalist on this tour is the fact that we’re going to be flying for a couple of legs. So I think what’s going to happen is that I’m not going to get to take my banjos. I’m going to have to play one of Noam’s. He’s going to take two banjos, one for other tunings. He’ll switch to the one in alternate tuning and then I’ll play his good banjo. That’s the way that I’m hoping that will go, because then I get to play a pre-war Gibson!
So I’ll be clawhammering on his bluegrass banjo, which is not maybe the most comfortable thing, but it will be imitation of the real thing.
FJ: The banjo-fiddle duo is not a common thing these days. Have you thought about how you approach it as fiddler?
SD: Yeah, that’s one of the first things we did was to just conceptually talk about it before we ever started to play anything together. “Let’s talk about what else can be done before we ever strike a note.”
When you’re working out a tune in a bluegrass band, sometimes maybe only one or two of the guys have heard the song or are a part of writing the songs. You end up like taking on the role of the mandolin with the fiddle in your hand, playing a percussive chop. Or you even take on the role of the guitar with the fiddle, strumming chords on it. Instead of just showing somebody how the tune goes and letting them play it on the guitar, we’re actually playing the whole thing that way on the fiddle instead. And letting the instruments take on other roles within the bass, too. The absence of bass and guitar are the most noticeable, but what we noticed is that it gives the banjo a lot more room for all of its voices to be heard, even the low-end. In a bluegrass band, the low-end of the banjo is one of the first things that gets swallowed by everything else that’s happened. With just the fiddle being above it, you really get to hear all the bass tones that the banjo has, too. I really like it, it’s great.
[Editor’s Note: Read our corresponding interview with Pikelny about this tour here.]