Newly reissued and until now long unavailable, the legacy of Tony Trischka’s 1985 album Hill Country has been kept alive by musicians and fans via carefully-guarded vinyl pressings and cassette dubs. On October 21 Rounder Records will release the highly anticipated re-mastered edition, complete with extensive new notes and a bonus track, restoring to print a pivotal piece of bluegrass history. By investigating his roots in the tradition, maverick banjo virtuoso Tony Trischka crafted an album that revealed limitless potential for innovation within the boundaries of classic bluegrass – inspiring all those who heard it.
1. Brandy Station 2:46
2. Sunny Days 3:31
3. Bloozinee 2:28
4. Crossville Breakdown 2:43
5. Looking for the Light 2:00
6. Hill Country 2:00
7. New York Chimes 3:02
8. Flat Gap 3:27
9. Strawberry Plains 4:07
10. Mississippi Sawyer 1:39
11. Stop Action 2:20
12. Crosseyed Cricket 2:04
13. Buffalo Creek 3:55
Tracks 1-4 and 7-9 were recorded on January 30, 1985 at the Nashville Sound Connection, Nashville, Tennessee by Bil VornDick.
Tracks 5-6 and 10-12 were recorded on February 20, 1985 at Bias Recording, Springfield, Virginia by Jim Robeson.
“Buffalo Creek” is from the Rebel album Knee Deep in Bluegrass: The AcuTab Sessions and appears here courtesy of Rebel Records.
“Hill Country” (the song) was remixed on March 27, 1985 at Evergreen Recording, New York City, by David Stone.
The Nashville sessions were produced by Béla Fleck.
The Bias sessions were produced by Tony Trischka.
All the mixing was done by Béla Fleck with assistance from Tony Trischka.
Mastered by Toby Mountain at Northeastern Digital, Southborough, Massachusetts.
All tunes were composed by Tony Trischka with the exception of “SunnyDays,” composed by Sonny Osborne and Tony Trischka, and “Mississippi Sawyer,” which is traditional.
Lyrical assistance on “Looking for the Light” by Dede Wyland.
This album is dedicated to Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs, and I want to make a special dedication to Don Reno, who opened so many creative doors and who, personally and musically, gave so freely of himself.
Thanks, as always, to Ken Irwin and all the Rounders past and present.
And special thanks to my amazing family Assunta, Sean, Zoe, Nona and Grandpa.
Front and back cover photographs by David Gahr.
Original design and artwork by Susan Marsh.
CD design by
Liner notes by Tony Trischka, Ron Thomason and Tom Adams.
Also available by Tony Trischka on Rounder:
18964-0124-2 Fiddle Tunes for Banjo (with Béla Fleck and Bill Keith)
11661-0171-2 A Robot Plane Flies Over Arkansas
11661-0247-2 Solo Banjo Works (with Béla Fleck)
11661-0294-2 World Turning
11661-0296-2 Rounder Banjo Extravaganza Live (with Tom Adams and Tony Furtado)
11661-0321-2 Minstrel Banjo Style (with Bob Carlin and others)
11661-0354-2 Glory Shone Around: A Christmas Collection
11661-0454-2 Bend (Tony Trischka Band)
82161-0493-2 New Deal (Tony Trischka Band)
11661-0548-2 Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular
11661-1508-2 Dust on the Needle
18964-1578-2 The Early Years
Also available by Tony Trischka & Skyline on Flying Fish:
18964-0664-2 Ticket Back
These are the first liner notes I’ve written for my own record. I’ve done this because the music contained in these grooves represents a departure for me and I want you to know why I’ve made this move.
For a long time, I’ve been considered a modern, or avant-garde, banjo player and this reputation is certainly well founded if you listen to my past records. However, there’s another aspect of my musical personality which I don’t get a chance to express very often – and that’s the traditional side.
I spent many hours when I was getting started, wearing out my Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, Jim and Jesse, Reno and Smiley, Osborne, Stanley and Country Gentlemen records. I tried to absorb not just the techniques of their music, but the emotion as well. I’m still moved by the power of “Stoney Lonesome” and “Can’t You Hear Me Calling” and I think a lot of that feeling has gone into my music over the years. This, however, is the first album I’ve recorded where I’ve tried to put that emotion together with songs and note choices that reflect my love for traditional bluegrass.
I should point out that Sonny Osborne and I co-wrote one tune, ten others are mine and one, “Mississippi Sawyer,” is truly a trad song. Still, the original tunes were written with an eye toward “playing it straight” and I have to say I probably have more fun playing these songs than just about any others I’ve written.
I can’t finish these notes off without thanking all you guys on the Nashville session, the members of The Johnson Mountain Boys and the McCourys with Buddy Griffin. Your support and talent made it all possible.
And special thanks to you, Béla, for being such a good friend and producer.
–Tony Trischka (1985)
…let me share with you an inspiring anecdote which involves a well-known American banjo player by the name of Tony Trishka.
But first I must tell you about Earl Scruggs. For most of the first several decades of my life I thought that Earl Scruggs was the best banjo player I had ever heard or would ever hear. I loved his timing, his organic approach to music, and I believed that no one ever had thought of or ever would think of more appropriate banjo licks and put them in better places than Earl Scruggs always seemed to do. So you can imagine the thrill which filled my heart when I awoke one morning in a Hillsdale, N.Y. motel during one of the first Winterhawk (now Grey Fox) festivals to hear Earl Scruggs playing just outside my window. He did all of his classics. It was the most wonderful playing I had ever heard. Every note was just as he had recorded it. It had the same feel; the same soul; the incomparably powerful attack that he had put down on records in bygone days. It was only missing the scratches from the records themselves – and he was unaccompanied. I could tell from what I was hearing that this music was being played by a man who truly loved the banjo and who was doing the music for no one other than himself.
After almost an hour of selfishly indulging in such listening, I went outside to get an even closer listen to Earl’s playing. And under a tree on the side of the hill just above the motel playing the music I had been listening to sat Tony Trishka. Right then and there I decided that there sat the best banjo player I would ever get to hear and I have never changed my mind. And I say that with grateful, unabashed respect to Earl and Ralph and Sonny and the so many other banjoists whose music I have cherished nearly all my life.
Dry Branch Fire Squad (2007)
Verily the word was sent forth from record company executives unto their trusted employees and unto their manufacturing plants throughout the land that long-playing albums, being analog in nature, should henceforth be issued as compact discs, being one with the digital realm, and that although they would prefer this conversion to take place immediately, there occasionally could be the span of some half-dozen years during which time such albums would come to be known as (gulp) out-of-print.
Well, you can file that moniker with last year’s corn dogs, because Hill Country – The Tony Trischka Bluegrass Album is about to make up for lost time. Originally released on vinyl in 1985, Tony’s first bluegrass record, through the miracle of modern technology, becomes the follow-up CD to his most recent bluegrass adventure, Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular (Rounder, 2007). Fans of the widely acclaimed DBBS, curious to explore more deeply into Tony’s traditional side, will find in Hill Country a plenitude of paths to lead them directly to bluegrass music’s first-generation innovators.
While the language of traditional three-finger bluegrass banjo picking draws heavily from the primer set down by Earl Scruggs in the 1940s and ’50s, Tony’s reading list obviously also included works by Don Reno, Ralph Stanley, and numerous others who laid the thumb to many a definitive break. But it isn’t just the banjo solos that one needs to study in order to assimilate this highly improvisational genre. It’s the concept of the ensemble – the collective energy that is bluegrass – that flows from the grooves of the old mono 78s, grabs a young banjo player and asks, “Got it?”
Tony not only got it, he transformed it, deconstructed it, and then drove it to surroundings unfamiliar to most bluegrass banjo enthusiasts. His first solo album, 1973’s Bluegrass Light, found the banjo in close company with, among other instruments, a saxophone – a collaboration which may or may not have been the subject of late night conversations between Carlton Haney and Jimmy Martin. Over the ensuing decade, Tony’s subsequent albums visited new frontiers and returned with a whole new audience primed for the banjo and all of its possibilities.
And one of those possibilities became Hill Country, an album that included ten Trischka originals, one traditional tune, and a banjo duet co-written with Sonny Osborne, all presented with Tony purposely using only picking conventions ascribed to traditional bluegrass banjo playing. The year was 1985: Chris Thile was four years old and Alison Krauss’ debut album was still two years in the future.
Making the drive westward on Interstate 40 from east Tennessee to Nashville for the album’s first session, it occurred to Tony that several of his tunes still needed names. Travelers familiar with that part of the United States will recognize references in the titles to Strawberry Plains Pike near Knoxville, the town of Crossville on the Cumberland Plateau, and billboards for the Crosseyed Cricket campground near Lenoir City, Tennessee. The name for the album’s title track comes from the Texas Hill Country region near Austin, a favorite destination of Tony Trischka & Skyline in the 1980s.
The core group of musicians for the Nashville session was made up of Mark Hembree on bass, Tony Rice on guitar, Sam Bush on mandolin, and Blaine Sprouse on fiddle. Jerry Douglas on Dobro and Mark O’Connor on fiddle appear on several tracks and producer Béla Fleck takes the middle banjo solo on the tune “Sunny Days.”
Recorded using his 1932 Gibson PB-3 original flathead, Tony jumpstarts the Nashville session tunes with “Brandy Station,” forging a groove ahead of the first downbeat that builds all the way into his final solo. Listen for the band push on the final A part followed by Rice’s impeccably placed guitar runs that herald the tune’s crescendo.
The setting for “Sunny Days” is the Key of G, the home of many classic banjo compositions like Scruggs’ “Flint Hill Special” and Reno’s “Remington Ride.” Played as a double banjo piece, that’s Sonny Osborne in your right ear and Tony in your left. Plenty of tight harmony playing on the tune’s first part gives way to the spacious chordal movements in the second. Béla’s break sits comfortably in the middle and offers a perfectly improvised solo to complement the duet bookends.
With “Bloozinee,” Tony unleashes the familiar 12-bar blues form in a not so familiar key, shifting the role of the banjo’s open fifth string from that of continual drone to one of featured blues-maker – sometimes wailing in the spotlight, other times sitting out several bars in a row. It’s during these latter sections that the picking moves front and center to the instrument’s first three strings, reminiscent of the playing of Don Reno.
The twin fiddles that open and close “Crossville Breakdown” pay homage to the bluegrass sound so closely identified with Bill Monroe. Even on this tune, Tony remains true to his vision of delivering an entire album’s worth of straight-ahead playing, forgoing the melodic or fiddle tune style often heard on Monroe’s Decca and MCA sides of the 1970s.
As you find yourself absorbed in any one of the amazing performances offered here, consider that it’s not just a cascade of notes or the unexpected turn of a phrase that has captured your imagination. Rather, it is the expressiveness in each of Tony’s solos that so deliciously wraps itself around you. That smiling face in the mirror – yeah, that’s you.
And the mechanism of expression – the right hand. A banjo player’s right hand is no more set in stone than is his left. The obvious motion of the left hand as it darts forward and back across 22 frets, pauses, then shifts vertically – looking all the while like a squirrel trying to negotiate an exit ramp on the Dan Ryan – that’s the visual download most folks bring with them to the CD listening experience. But the subtle moves of the right hand – the acoustic picker’s answer to a whole floor full of effects pedals – therein lies the factory that cranks out the cool notes, not those black ovals and stems that sit on the printed page – I mean the cool notes. By selecting just the right point of attack between bridge and neck, the physics of metal pick striking metal string steps aside and allows the intent of each solo to take center stage. A slightly more aggressive attack here, an unexpected syncopation there, and you’re hooked.
Now back when discs had two sides, the remaining three instrumentals from the Nashville session took up residence in the first three grooves of Side 2. But somewhere along the line the tune’s titles were delivered to the wrong addresses. This CD re-issue of Hill Country corrects the original lp’s track listing. The driving, mountain modal piece that follows “New York Chimes” is “Flat Gap,” a rugged expedition into Ralph Stanley country and one that is sure to resonant with today’s crop of bluesy, plucky five-stringers.
Cheery and crammed with Scruggs rolls that twist this way and that, “Strawberry Plains” provides the perfect yang to “Flat Gap”’s yin. In fact, each tune in this collection presents a different facet of bluegrass banjo playing. “New York Chimes” is built around the tradition of using harmonics in a tune’s B part, but Tony even puts that on a new wavelength, suspending one chord over another en route to his masterful second solo.
Well, three weeks after cutting the Nashville tracks, Tony traveled to the Washington, DC suburb of Springfield, VA to record with two of the mid 80’s most invigorating exponents of hard-core bluegrass, Del, Jerry, and Ronnie McCoury and the Johnson Mountain Boys.
The McCourys, with their synchronous instrumental and vocal chops, lay a solid foundation for the album’s title track and singular vocal performance. “Hill Country” rises from the banjo being voiced in an open D tuning and the trading of solos with Buddy Griffin on fiddle and Ronnie McCoury on mandolin. “Looking for the Light” is a powerful performance from brothers Del and Jerry McCoury with a must-learn break by Tony for any serious student of bluegrass banjo.
Tony’s musical association with the Johnson Mountain Boys goes back to the early years of Skyline when the two groups shared the bill at several east coast venues. “Mississippi Sawyer” pairs Tony with the JMB’s Eddie Stubbs on a fiddle and banjo duet, a form often utilized by Benny Martin (later Paul Warren) and Earl Scruggs on their early morning radio programs. In “Stop Action,” Tony pulls out other techniques associated with Earl Scruggs – namely the use of the d-tuner and ascending-descending staccato chord movements, as on the original Columbia recording of “Randy Lynn Rag.”
Arranged so that the final measure of one refrain is actually the first measure of the next, “Crosseyed Cricket,” with all of the energy of a ping pong ball in a lottery machine, was the album’s original closing number. This updated version of Hill Country however ends with the track “Buffalo Creek,” originally released in 2000 on the Rebel album Knee Deep in Bluegrass: The AcuTab Sessions, providing an interesting bridge between Tony’s playing from 20 years ago and the music he’s composed and performed more recently.
Over the past three decades Tony Trischka has never made the same album twice. Maybe some familiar ground is re-traced, but in a different season. Perhaps some familiar companions make the journey, but on a different quest. Hill Country gives us a glimpse of the past. What we see and hear from our vantage point in the present is mysteriously comfortable. Twenty-some odd years ago, Tony Trischka was pointing the way before anyone else even knew they wanted to head in that direction. This is music that influenced a new generation of musicians to re-think and re-draw the boundaries of roots-based bluegrass. Roots that run deep. And ’grass that keeps growing.
– Tom Adams
East Berlin, Pennsylvania