Press13 or So review- The Bluegrass Situation
NICK HORNBUCKLE, “CLEO BELLE”
By Justin HiltnerNov 5, 2019
There’s a sort of primitive beauty within the patchwork techniques that have informed and filtered into each individual instrumentalist’s approach to the five-string banjo. Styles rapidly morph and change, aided by the instrument’s relative youth (when compared, in roots music, to all but perhaps the resonator guitar) and its absolute refusal to nestle into any one distinct vein of pedagogy. Scruggs-style, clawhammer and broader frailing, ragtime, picking (i.e. with plectrum), strumming, and even more avant garde approaches such as Greg Liszt’s four-finger banjo all lend themselves to the machine in their own alluring ways.
Enter Nick Hornbuckle, banjoist at large and member of John Reischman’s Jaybirds, who’s just released his second solo album, 13 or So. Hornbuckle’s right hand method defies categorization even by the rule-eschewing standards mentioned above. His two-finger style is decidedly distinct from the eponymous Appalachian, old-time frailing approach, combining aspects of clawhammer, Scruggs-style, and the ethereal, impossible-to-replicate quirkiness of just making your hands do what the music requires without being exactly sure how that works. I.e., playing the banjo.
The resulting aesthetic, which anchors each of the twelve original tunes on 13 or So, falls somewhere within an equilateral triangle whose vertices would be Mark Johnson (of clawgrass fame), Steve Martin, and Noam Pikelny (if he had one finger tied behind his back). “Cleo Belle,” as all of Hornbuckle’s compositions, confounds with its combination of sheer musical athleticism and acrobatics — while remaining absolutely intuitive and organic. With his crew — on “Cleo Belle” that would be Trent Freeman (fiddle), John Reischman (mandolin), Darryl Poulsen (guitar), and Patrick Metzger (bass) — Hornbuckle wholly incorporates vernacular musical vocabularies while still pushing string band boundaries into more art music or chamber music spaces. The arrangement reminds that the western-most communities of bluegrass and old-time acolytes in this country have truly, effortlessly combined the best parts of each, while retaining that rustic, back-porch timelessness that makes the banjo beguiling to all of us.
13 or So review-British Bluegrass Music Association
Nick Hornbuckle knows a bit about Coffee - oh and he knows a bit about playing the Banjo! Using just the Thumb and Index finger, he has developed his own picking style to produce pretty much all the usual Banjo stuff and a number of original effects. You might expect the single string Reno style to dominate, but what you get is a genuine Scruggs feel, with tasteful Melodic
interjections. What makes this musician so special is not just his ability to create unusual rhythms, but his ability to bridge the gap between the Old Time Sound and straight ahead Bluegrass. This is clearly reflected when he plays with John Reishman and the Jaybirds. Using a number of different tunings, he is probably the best exponent of the Two Finger style currently playing today. His talent doesn’t stop there … he has written a lot of original material, and his latest album 13 or So contains his own compositions - more of that later! Many of us were fortunate enough to catch him on tour with the Jaybirds this year in the UK - if you missed him, then the new album is a chance to connect.
Nick’s move to using the two finger style came about in 1998 when he was recording “Up In The Woods” with John Reischman (one of my favourite albums) when he noticed his middle finger wasn’t working as it should. Numerous visits to medical practitioners left him with the problem and no cure …. The end result was a move to using just the Thumb and Index fingers. More information on Nick’s transformation to the two finger style can be found in an interview he did with Pete Wernick (Banjo Newsletter).
Like many musicians with such talent, Nick is just a nice guy who happens to be really good at what he does. If you just like good music, or if you are a Banjo nerd like me …. this player is worth listening too, and worth a study.
A quote from his web site described where he comes from … “A man possessed of two diametrically opposed, yet equally febrile, obsessive and irreverent musical minds. A man at once reaching back to the misty past, coaxing ancient melodies from a centuries old African rhythm stick while with the same hands, the other half of his brain, and a dash of 21st century digital jiggery-pokery, conjuring music of such Ultracrepidarian heaviness that when one looks up 'Ultracrepidarian' in the dictionary, you see his photograph.
And that's all.”
The new album 13 or So features Trent Freeman, John Showman, Eric Wright, Ivan Rosenberg, Andrew Collins, John Reischman, Chris Coole, Darryl Poulsen, Patrick Metzger, Joseph Phillips and Todd Phillips. We have seen many of these names in the UK, and this collection of musicians will give you a clue as to the quality of the album!
The first track on the album starts with Fiddle and Mandolin playing the tune - suggestions of Old Time - when the Banjo and Bass kick in that unmistakable Bluegrass groove takes the tune to a new level.
Wellesley Station has a great melody that cracks along at a good pace. Nick - always in control, and handling those tricky triplets in perfect time …how does he do that! After a couple of times listening, I found the tune going around inside my head - always a good sign. Mandolin (John Reischman) and Guitar (Darryl Poulsen) support the Banjo - the playing of the highest quality - tone, taste, and timing impeccable .
On to track two - The South Road. The track starts with a solo Banjo - could almost be Old Time Frailing but isn’t! Nick has produced yet another melody that sticks in your brain. No surprise then when the Old Time Banjo (Chris Coole) is added seamlessly to the mix. Twin Banjo’s in harmony go on to develop the melody line. I can see this track having appeal to Old Time and Bluegrass alike.
The Crooked Man in contrast to the first two tracks is a typical modal offering in true Bluegrass style, and if you like your stuff with groove and bounce, then this is going to appeal. The inclusion of the Bass in the melody line at the very beginning kicks everything off to a great start, and with the addition of the Dobro from Ivan Rosenberg creates a completely different feel to the opening tracks of the album. Ivan Rosenberg has been across to the Uk on a number of occasions with Chris Stuart and also to teach in Sore Fingers. The Mandolin part is taken by Andrew Collins another Sore Fingers tutor - playing of the highest quality.
Harvey is a cat - and the inspiration for the next track - Hopping Harvey.
John Reischman provides the rhythm for the Banjo to play the melody. The Banjo with the low C tuning provides that distinctive tone of melodies played in that key. With just two instruments Nick and John between them provide a full and complete sound - nothing else needed!
I quote from the sleeve notes available on Nick’s web site - Fleetwood's Ford - Houston 'Hewes' Fleetwood, my paternal great, great grandfather's brother, founded a store and ferry crossing on the Red River in the Terral Indian Territory, OK in the 1880's. He grubstaked half the neighbourhood and his financial support was crucial to the success of many prosperous farmers, ranchers and businessmen in the area. Special kudos to Ivan's evocative, Knopfler-esque solo. The Banjo and Dobro work together beautifully supporting each other in lead and back up. Patrick Metzger does a great job on the Bass and is supported by a subtle John Reischman on Mandola.
Chausson de Ruby - Inspiration from a chance meeting - a short solo Banjo track in complete contrast. An album of instrumental music always has the risk of sounding a bit the same - not so in this case, the tracks have been carefully constructed to provide plenty of interest. A different tuning for the Banjo, and a change of playing style has resulted in a beautifully recorded melody.
A secret swimming hole where Nick’s daughter learned to swim - Cleo Belle,
Banjo Chimes representing the splashes made by a little girl jumping into the water! More of a straight ahead Bluegrass offering with plenty of space left to feature great individual breaks (Guitar - Darrel Poulsen) (Fiddle - Trent Freeman) and of course (John Reischman - Mandolin)
Family and History are part of Nick’s life and part of this album with the next track named after his Nephew - Zebadiah’s Stomp. Catchy tune that bounces along nicely! The melody is enhanced with nicely improvised breaks from Guitar, Mandolin, Dobro and the Banjo itself.
13 or So - The title track of the album, different again - a haunting melody with the Banjo and Fiddle taking centre stage. Trent Freeman provides a sympathetic back up before seamlessly interweaving with the melody. The 13 is a reference to the beginning of maturity and not the number of tracks on the album!
A Farewell (to the Cowgirl with the Pigtails) - Another quote from Nick’s sleve notes …. “My mother was endlessly loving and supportive of my brother and I. She encouraged me to 'just stick with it' when I was struggling to make something, anything, close to music emerge from my banjo. She and my dad Chuck were instrumental in my success. She passed away suddenly, unexpectedly, September 9, 2015, the same day I was nominated as Instrumental Solo Artist of the year by the Canadian Folk Music Association. I'm sure she would have appreciated the O. Henry-ness of it all. I love you Zana.” Another track to feature the Trent Freeman Fiddle - beautifully recorded with just the right amount of reverb to give it atmosphere.
Some years ago I was lucky enough to visit Vancouver Island, and indeed the love of the Island sparked the next tune Sooke. Fiddle and Banjo always
work well together, and Sooke provides an atmospheric track - you can almost imagine the countryside ……
When the Black Dog Came Around - The final track on the album, a brisk melody again with some great supporting breaks. Nick like a lot of our top players manages to make it sound easy - most of it would be hard enough to play using conventional methods - his two finger approach generates all the melodic sounds you will ever need with as much syncopation as found in the Scruggs style.
The album can be obtained through Nick’s Web Site (where you will find a comprehensive set of sleeve notes), or from Spotify, or Amazon.
Nick has agreed to answer questions from our UK audience, so if you have anything you would like to ask, please email me email@example.com with your request, and I will send them along to Nick! Questions may have to be limited, so first come first served!!! Hope to post his answers on the BBMA web site.
Richard Holland (BBMA Sec.)