Cara Ellen Modisett
Well, first of all, why bluegrass, and why the banjo? I know that's where you started.
True, I'll tell you. Well, I guess I was at a certain age, you know, I was 11, no, was it 9, 11, 11 I think when I heard Earl Scruggs - it's hard for me to remember back that far now, you know, but [laughs] a kid has to be a certain age you know before anything impresses him really, and Earl Scruggs did with his banjo. That was what drew me to this kind of music. 'Course we'd been listening to the Grand Ole Opry - that was on when I was a kid, and my dad and my brother listened for sure - the whole family did, really - but that's what drew me to bluegrass in the beginning was the banjo - just the sound of that thing. And one song in particular, the backup - it wasn't the band or whatever, but it was the banjo backup in "Rollin' my Sweet Baby's Arms" - of course, the guy's a genius, I found out later - I didn't know it then, you know, but what I heard in that backup was really somethin'.
So it was a backup, rather than this solo, flashy thing that appealed to you?
That's right, you know. I guess I heard everything else, but it was the backup behind the singer - it was just - he knew how to do that too, that was one thing about Earl Scruggs - he was a great instrumentalist - he was a great lead player, but he was also a great backup banjo player for a singer. And that's what appealed to me.
How do you have to play different - how do you have to think different, I guess, to play backup, as opposed to playing solo?
Well, yeah, it's true - solo, if you take a solo, like on a banjo or fiddle or mandolin or whatever, you mainly have to play the melody of the song - that's what you should do, unless it's impossible to do. But then when you play backup behind a singer, you just play things that kinda enhances the singin', and kinda boosts the singin', I think is what it is, at the time I heard this I didn't realize that's what it was, but that's what it is, you know [laughs].
So you do a little bit of both these days, or what?
You know, I haven't played banjo - I can't tell you how long it's been. Once I got a job with Bill Monroe -
Yeah - after that, I never really seriously went back to playin' it anymore. And I got busy with a band, playin' guitar and singin' and recording songs and just didn't have time really to play the banjo that much anymore.
Well, do you miss it?
Well, at times I think about it, but I really don't miss it that much. I thought I would, but I'm still in music, and I think that's what - that's what I was really interested in anyway was music in general. And at the time, you know, banjo was it. But after - I played it 10 years, I played it 10 years 'til I got that job with Bill, and then I switched over, and I thought, well, maybe I'll go back, but I never really did seriously. I went back and played some, but once I got a taste of singin' and playing rhythm, you know, I knew I could do that job, and I thought, well, it's gonna be the hardest thing in the world for me to find a rhythm guitar player and a lead singer and a tenor singer and an emcee and all these things - I can probably find a lead banjo player, you know, which I have, all through the years, so for me to run a band it worked better this way.
Can you tell me about the first time you met Bill Monroe?
I can. The first time I saw Bill Monroe was 1950, and I would have been 11. I heard Earl Scruggs in 1950, and I saw Bill Monroe in 1950, the first time. But the first time I met Bill Monroe, to speak to him, I'd say was in '62, when I was with Jack Cook - I was playin' banjo with Jack Cook. And Jack was an ex-bluegrass musician from Virginia, from over in western Virginia, in southwest Virginia, and I was playin' in Baltimore with Jack. So Bill comes through there from Nashville to New York City - he needed Jack to go with him to play this date, and so they took me along to play banjo, and that's how I met Bill. He never did - he was never a guy to talk much, you know, but he offered me a job that night, and that's how I come to work for him, later.
You say he was pretty quiet - what else was he like, personality-wise?
He was - you know, I think he was bashful - I think Bill Monroe down deep, he was a bashful guy, and he never had much to say, just one of those people - it'd be hard for you to do an interview with him, because a lot of the time his answers were "yes, ma'am" and "no, ma'am," you know? He was just that kind of a guy. [laughs] And he had all these things in his head, but he didn't let other people know what they were! [laughs]
Why do you think that was?
You know, he was - he's Scotch, you know, and he reminded me of a lot of my people - they're Scotch-Irish, you know, and they - they just keep things in, instead of lettin' it all out. And he had a brother that was the opposite - Charlie Monroe - they were a duet at one time. And he was outgoin' and jolly and he was the singer and the guitar player in that team then. But Bill was the opposite - he was just the complete opposite. And it's kinda like the Stanley brothers were that way, I always thought, Ralph and Carter were at the opposite ends of the scale, you know. It's funny. And a lot of times it takes that for a team - it takes, like, opposite personalities, you know, to make a team. That’s funny.
Do you think it affects the music, people's personalities, in that way?
I think it does. I think their personalities come out in their music, always, you know. And I think Bill Monroe - he had a lot of things that he wanted to convey to people, and the way he did it was with music, with playin' that mandolin and with singin', more so than anything. And the thing about him was that he was a great writer - he wrote songs, he wrote instrumentals - he was a great rhythm player, he was a great lead player, and a bandleader, so he just had so many attributes, Bill Monroe did. And he trained so many musicians - I think he liked that too. I think he liked to do that, where a lot of bands, they don't wanna be changing musicians all the time, you know, but he didn't mind that, for some reason. I think it would hurt him sometimes when people would leave, but at the same time he just did that his whole life, he had new musicians comin' in all the time.
I was talking with Doyle Lawson a little while ago, and he's kinda the same way, you know, he has musicians come into Quicksilver, and leave, but he was also saying that he felt like Bill Monroe didn't realize how different what he was doing was, for a long time - how much he really changed music with what he was doing.
He didn't - I'm sure he didn't. You know, I think he - he and his brother broke up, you know, in 19... maybe 38 or 39, and I guess he had all the confidence in the world that he could make it on his own, but he was pretty young there yet. But he had ideas about music that didn't go along with Charlie's, you see, and - but he didn't - I'm not sure he knew exactly what he was huntin' for. He had a great voice, he had a lot of elements, but the musicians he had in the beginning, they weren't – as years went by, his lead singers started to be more like tenor singers. They had high ranges where they could sing really high for him to sing with ‘em. And it would really make him work harder, and it made him – I don’t know, it just made his music sound different than it was in the beginning, in the very beginning.
That “high lonesome” sound, they call it?
I think so, you know – and he was, he had Lester Flatt with him, he had Chubby Wise, he had Cedric Rainwater on the bass and when Earl Scruggs come in, it was that one ingredient that they – well, I don’t know if they were lookin’ for it, but it was there, and it came in. I don’t think Bill Monroe was lookin’ for a banjo player, because he asked Lester Flatt, they said he asked him, “Lester, what do you think of this guy’s playin’?” And he said, “Well, beats Stringbean!” And you know, Stringbean was playin’ the old-time way, which all banjo players played then.
And that’s the clawhammer banjo playing, right?
Well, I think he played two-finger, what they called thumb and finger, you know? But a lot of ‘em played – now, he could do that too, but I think at the time he was with Bill he just played two fingers. So this was a big difference – they put a lot of drive in there, you know, behind the singin’, and I’m sure Bill heard that, and he thought, “this is what we need, you know?” That really solid drive, and they could play fast, and that’s what attracted me to the music! ‘Cause all the music I’d heard before that as a kid was just – I mean, Frank Sinatra just didn’t do nothin’ for me, because [laughs] he’s a crooner, you know? Bing Crosby – and I didn’t realize – and Elvis – but I didn’t realize ‘til years and years later how good those guys were, you know. I just thought Bill Monroe and this Earl Scruggs, man, that’s it, because they’ve got some fire in that music – and that’s what a kid likes, you know. If – for me, probably at that time, that was like rock and roll later for other kids, you know? I think it was.
What do you listen to now? Besides bluegrass? Do you do much listening to other musicians, other styles?
Not really, you know, probably accidentally sometimes I hear things, but I really don’t listen to that much radio – now my wife at home, she has WSM on, 650, and ‘course they sometimes have classic country on, like old country, and then bluegrass, but I don’t hear things that I’d be interested in recordin’. The only way I get them is if people give me CDs of things, songs or from other genres, you know, and that’s about the only time I really intently listen to music is when I’m getting’ ready to record I listen to all the stuff, you know, people send me. But otherwise when I’m on the road when I get back home I just kinda forget about music, and [laughs]
Yeah, ‘til I go out again and I know I have to play music, so figure, well, if I just don’t listen that much, maybe it’ll be fresher to me when I get onstage to entertain folks and just sing, you know.
You perform mostly with really family, these days, your sons – what are the pros and cons of touring and performing with a family as opposed to a band that’s not related to you?
Well, you just said it, I think. People that are family, they kind of think alike, so it takes less work to say, do a record, to do anything because brothers and sons and fathers they kinda think alike, in music. And it’s – it just takes less work, and it’s smoother, you know. Even though I know a lot of bands, for instance, Bill Monroe, that classic band he had in the ‘40s, they just set the standard for everybody from that time on. And it was just one of those once in a lifetime combinations that comes along. But now him and his brother, they were family but it didn’t work out. They probably just thought different.
They were so different there was conflict.
I think they were so different, that’s right. But with my boys when they came along, they were interested in doin’ what I was doin’, and they just enhanced it all, you know. And they’ve become such great musicians that I don’t know how I’d replace them.
They bring some of their own ideas to the music, too, I was reading on your web site - it sounds like you all aren’t afraid to kind of experiment a little bit.
It’s true, you know. I’m sure they had influences other than bluegrass when they were growin’ up, and I can hear some of that, but at the same time, when they started playin’ their instruments – like Ronnie, he listened to Bill Monroe, and when he was comin’ along there were a lot of young mandolin players that were playin’ progressive styles and things, you know, but still I told him, I said, “You know” – and I’d heard all this – and I said, “You know, the guy that invented bluegrass mandolin playin’, the rhythm, the lead, the whatever it is, the dynamics – was Bill Monroe. And if you listen to him, he’s got somethin’, you know?” [laughs] “And the same with Robbie, when he come along to play banjo, there was a lot of young banjo players, and they were flashy, and melodic, some of ‘em, but I told him – ‘course they realized that, too – they realized just how good those pioneers were, you know. Even by today’s standards, those records are just so good.
What do you think of things like new grass and all of the things that are changing bluegrass in some ways – what do you think of that experimenting – is there a place for it?
Yes, I think so. I tell you, when I realized that, I started playin’ festivals – my band got started with the first bluegrass festival in Fincastle over here, in ’66. I didn’t get to play the ’65 one, but 1966 I did, and I owe a lot to Carlton Heaney for that because it got me exposed, when I first went on my own, really. But at the time, Sam Bush, you know, started with those guys and they had this progressive music, and you know, I liked to listen to it, but I couldn’t picture myself doin’ it. It just wasn’t interested – it wasn’t my interest, you know, to do that. But at the same time, I like to hear it, you know, I like to hear these guys because I knew that they were influencing young people and bringin’ new fans in, and it was good music, too. It was. And it’s still that way today, you know. There are a lot of young bands that are playin’ different styles and bringin’ it in – now, but see, it’s a matter of personal tastes. Now my taste is music is like, Bill Monroe with Flatt & Scruggs and Chubby Wise, you know? [laughs] When I want to sit and listen, I still listen to that because it was so good. Like I said, they set that standard, you know? And the thing about ‘em was, they were all so good at exactly what they were doin’, but yet they could play together and sing together, and they were just the best at the time, even the best in today’s standards.
If you were not in music, what would you be doing?
Oh, my. What would I be doin’. You know, I’ve done – I would be doin’ – I can’t stand to be behind a desk, or in a factory. I would probably be doin’ – and I don’t like numbers, I don’t like things like that, you know [laughs]. I would probably be doin’ somethin’ outside because I always – I was raised on a farm. And I’ve done everything there probably is to do outside. I worked construction outside, and I worked cuttin’ timber, and that’s mainly what I did besides farmin’. And I would probably be doin’ one of those things, because I like the outside and everything that is connected with it. I don’t like bein’ in one spot.
In your opinion, why do you think – what do you think it is about the mountains and about the geography of the mountains that makes the music the way it is?
You know, I’ve wondered about that. I think what happened, these people, that – and my folks the same way – my mother and dad were from the western North Carolina, just over the mountain from Johnson City, Tenn., over there in the mountains, and they – Momma, she sang a lot of those old ballads that I didn’t realize at the time, but they came over from Scotland or England or somewhere over there. And I think that music came over here and a lot of those songs, and then at the same time they started playin’ these different instruments, along with this, that they didn’t play over in England and Scotland, I don’t think – [laughs]
Bagpipes, they didn’t have them here either, you know. And I’m sure the old people that migrated here, they heard bagpipes. But they kinda took their own instruments and started putting their songs and their sounds on these new instruments somehow, and it seems the mountains, the mountain people, I think we owe it all to them. There were other sounds, but nothin’ sounded like mountain music, it seems. It was just – and I don’t know if was the part – you know, there’s a lot of Indian too, in this, lotta Indian, and Scotch-Irish, and I think some of the sounds are from Indians, I think so, and a lot of the other sounds are from Scotland and England and Ireland. I think so.
It’s just those long roots.
I think. It’s funny, you know. I guess we’ll never figure out exactly how it all came about, but I know Bill Monroe – I know he’s completely Scotch, and he, you know, back in the ‘50s he recorded songs and then he evidently he’d a heard bagpipes ‘cause he did that Scotland number, and it sounded like bagpipes with the fiddle, and the mandolin. And at the time even then I didn’t realize at the time that he had these sounds in his head that he was tryin’ to get out. I just thought, well, it’s somethin’ new for him to do, but he – I’m sure that back through the generations these sounds, he’d heard ‘em somewhere, and they were comin’ out, you know. And I think that’s what it is.
My mother, she sounded like Ralph Stanley when she sang, and she could play things – she could play the guitar, she could play the harmonica, play the piano, and that’s where us boys got our music from. And it’s funny, my sisters, neither one of them plays. They boys got their music from my mother. [laughs] And my dad, he was never interested – he was a hard worker, and he was never interested in the music enough to play it – he loved to hear it, but he never played it.
It sounds like you have a little bit of both of them in you.
I think so. I think I can hear – in my vocals, I can hear both of them, because in church I heard ‘em both sing, my dad and my mother both, and I can hear both of them in my singin’.
Well, thank you, so much. Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Well, I can’t think of anything. If you think of anything you need, you just call me!
I will! Thank you!
All right – thank you!