King Wilkie's Reid Burgess
King Wilkie's Reid Burgess
First of all, I’m sure you’re asked this from time to time, but why a farmhouse in Charlottesville?
Oh, Ted and I were in school up in Ohio and when we graduated we wanted to get out of there, and I had this idea of going down South. There was a couple of others with us then, and we wanted to sort of get to play together every day and learn from other people down there. It was sort of a romanticized idea, coming down to Charlottesville and being in Virginia, the countryside, and playing music.
What was your image of Virginia, and the Virginia mountains, before you came down here?
Well, my mother’s from here, so I’d been here – well she’s from Richmond, but we have relatives in Lexington. You know, I just, it was like music was always something that was a big part of my image, and I’m a history man, so the history of the area and of the music, it just seems like it’s always been a part of the culture here…
I know that the band is named after Bill Monroe’s favorite horse – do you remember the “a-ha!” moment when you realized that was the name for the band?
We were kind of hesitant – we had a couple names, and that was one of ’em – got it from the latest Bill Monroe biography that came out, Richard Smith wrote it. It wasn’t really an “a-ha!” moment! [laughs] [It was] “ok, that’ll work.”
I’m reading that your influences range widely – Bill Monroe, of course, The Cure...
The Cure? Really?
That’s hilarious. I read it in one of these articles.
My God – someone’s – ? Sure, we like all that! That’s funny, that that’s out there. [laughs]Sure. That’s true, and that’s a good, broad – I would just say that the influences went, you know, pretty wide. You could throw those people in there.
Do you disagree with The Cure?
Why bluegrass? What was it about the sound that drew you?
…Partly it was like an alternative to the alternative. It was something completely different, coming from a totally different place, than what we were growing up with – a lot of the more metallic, or you know, electric kind of things – and I think we gravitated towards that almost in a rebellion kind of way, ’cause it was different, you know. And it was cool and unique, and also the energy and the power of the other stuff was there – it was just quieter, you know. I think my ears would probably hurt from going to too many loud concerts, and it was refreshing.
Connected to that, why traditional bluegrass? Why have you not gone the route of Nickel Creek, or Bela Fleck, or the New Grass Revival?
Well, I wouldn’t call us traditional bluegrass, but that especially initially was a lot of our influences, and what we were excited about was the stuff from that first generation, the ’40s and ’50s. There’s somethin’ about that – it’s like a black and white photograph, but more than that, it’s like – I don’t know, it just – it hits harder, I don’t know, it seemed more authentic, and just the traditional was pretty much what was speaking to us then.
You say you’re not traditional.
How do you measure the balance of traditional and contemporary in your music, and what do you do that’s different from traditional?
It’s hard to draw the line, ’cause I think some people still call us a traditional bluegrass band and other people would say what they like most about our music is how unique and different it is. I think we sort of blur those lines a bit, I think. I like that because that is where we’re doing something in our own way, which is what we wanna do, and that’s what Bill Monroe did, and it’s taking the roots and making it into something that is your own.
How do you blur those lines?
Well, not in everything we do, but a lot of times there’s this certain measure of success when you feel you’ve done something that’s new but at the same time captures the essence of bluegrass, some of the spirit, some of the spirituality and some of the soul of that, but’s still doin’ somethin’ like your own. In that I guess we just – we’re like the original guys, it’s not like they were out there trying to recreate or revive any tradition, it’s just tryin’ to make a personal statement within an idiom that draws from all your different sort of, you know, stuff that’s in your head.
What kind of responses do you hear from your listeners – positive, negative?
Mostly positive [laughs]. I don’t know – I don’t read a lot of our – anything that’s written. But the people we meet, and I really appreciate them, come up and show and [are] generally pretty positive.
What about other musicians, especially the traditionalists?
That’s something that’s really been great for us, one of the more rewarding things is getting to meet and be accepted by a lot of our heroes and our earlier musical inspiration – people like Del McCoury and Peter Rowan and these guys – and then play with these guys. It’s almost like well, man, we’re tempted to retire now, ’cause we just can’t believe we’ve, you know, had that experience.
Is it terrifying, as well?
It’s less and less. You just realized a lot. …One of the main positive points in bluegrass music is…the accessibility of the musicians. It’s like I remember I met Ralph Stanley, really at one of the first festivals I went to, so the people aren’t terrifying – they’re really just normal people.
I’ve talked about this with others in the field, I guess you’d say, but bluegrass, it seems, more than other musical areas, has this really strong, close–knit community of musicians.
Yeah, it does. It’s always been that way. There’s still that impromptu jam element, people just wanting to get together and play music. And then…there’s this canon of traditional songs and folk songs that everyone knows, and so you can get together with someone you’ve never met, someone from a totally different background, different generation as you, and be able to play songs together. You know, it brings people together that otherwise would never, ever have anything to do with each other.
What do you think of collaborations like Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer touring together, that mix of classical and bluegrass?
... I think that’s healthy… you know, it’s a growing genre. I mean I haven’t heard any of that stuff, so I couldn’t speak about it, Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer, but I like both of those guys a lot [laughs] – I think it’s great they’re playing together.
Does Ted Pitney do the majority of your songwriting?
Yeah, he brings a lot of stuff to the band – I work with him. We co-write some stuff, and I’ve written a couple songs myself, but Ted usually plants a seed and then the whole band – it kind of gets filtered through the band and you know, we’ll do a lot of editing kinda stuff, so it comes out more of a group effort.
What makes a good bluegrass song, both in terms of music and in terms of lyrics?
Oh, man, that’s a hard question! [laughs] Um... I don’t know. I mean, when I think of real, soulful, traditional bluegrass, a lot of it is just about the effort that people put into it. It’s – people sing high in bluegrass, and it’s not so much the pitch that’s important, but it’s the striving, the feeling, that’s sort of the nature of the beast – it can’t be effortless, it’s gotta be you’re giving it everything you’ve got.
It’s the same thing with instrumental technique – it’s very similar. And the words – it can be any – they’re simple songs, but there’s – one of my favorite things in bluegrass is the nostalgia, and there’s so many songs about this longing for better times, you know, the old home, and childhood, and things that aren’t there anymore, sort of the golden era, and that’s good, it’s positive music, you know, it’s really starkly different from hip hop or a lot of other stuff you hear today, which has more of a negative element – realist.
There’s a strong storytelling element in bluegrass, too, I think.
Yeah, definitely, with the ballads, and you know, how a lot of the old [songs] from England, and the folk songs have gotten into the genre, and then the Carter family contributions. Yeah, stories – is real important.
I was wondering what kind of performance setting do you and the rest of the band enjoy the most?
It’s so different, like every day – we don’t even know what to expect. One day we’ll be playing a rock club, and then we’ll be at a festival somewhere, you know – Kentucky, then we’ll play the Ryman Auditorium, the Grand Old Opry, so it’s, it’s really neat, just getting to live in these different circumstances, and you don’t know what to expect...
What do you think it is about mountains, and the geography of mountains, that makes mountain music what it is?
I don’t know what it is, and why so many of the immigrants were drawn to the mountains, and then they say something about mountains being like a nest and kind of preserving a lot of the traditions within the sort of valleys. And you know, there’s less... there’s more isolation, there’s less of this sort of cross blending of things, so it really keeps it pure. I’ve heard that before. I don’t know what it is. It’s inspirational, you know, the beauty, a lot of great music that’s inspired by the mountains.
You all are working on a new project, and I wondered if you could tell me about that.
Sure. As of now, it’s not titled, and it’s probably gonna be more of an EP deal. It’s gonna be like six, five or six songs, and then it’ll bleed over into, or parts of some songs, will probably go into a full-length … we’re shooting for a fall release.
Same kind of music you’ve been playing, or will it have some new sounds?
Definitely new – definitely will have some new sounds. It’ll be the same band – you’ll definitely hear, it’s basically the same thing, but it’s from different approaches – definitely more song–oriented as opposed to instrumentals or fancy pickin’, we’re trying to do a more unique approach. It’s hard to say, I mean, there’s a lot of different influences on this new recording. We’re tryin’ to figure it ourselves, how it all sort of fits together and how it fits into the greater genre of bluegrass – but all I can say is it’s true to ourselves and we’re tryin’ to do something that’s honest and sort of the record we wanna make.
You have a new bass player – I was wondering why Drew left, and how the new bassist will impact your sound and what you’re doing?
Drew left ’cause he got married, and he didn’t wanna travel, and he was ready to settle down and he wanted to start a family, which we didn’t want him to go, but could see how it’s tough to balance our sort of lifestyle with that. The new guy who’s comin’ in is workin’ real hard – fillin’ Drew’s shoes and learning a lot of Drew’s parts and is contributing in his own right – he’s a good musician too. But yeah, we’re making the transition. It’s fine.
On last, sort of big picture question: what’s the future of bluegrass?
The future of bluegrass is – I know a lot of people think it’s uncertain or it’s gonna die out, with the sort of the older generations passin’ on and there’s no one left – but I think that’s pretty far from the truth. I think it’s really healthy, and there’s so many bands out there that I can think of, not just professional bands, but any music that is just thriving, just in basic society, just around Charlottesville alone.
Throughout the country – we’ll go out to California and it’s just people can’t get enough of gettin’ together, festivals everywhere and people playin’ and people pickin’ up more instruments every day, it seems like, a new crop of people younger than me who want to learn this music, you know. It’s hard to say where it’ll go, but it’s always gonna be around.