From Contest Stage to Recording Studio: Man About a Horse Cuts Song in Nashville
Man About a Horse poses for a photo with Alison Brown after winning the FreshGrass Band Award last September.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The author’s band, Man About a Horse, was the winner of the 2018 FreshGrass band award and, as part of their prize, won a recording session at Compass Sound Studio. This is the story of their visit there. The application window for the 2019 FreshGrass awards, including the band award and the No Depression Singer-Songwriter Award, is open now through May 15. Application and info here.
“That was Willie’s smoking porch over there,” Adam said, gesturing off to his left.
When you’re in a recording studio in Nashville and an engineer says that to you, you don’t exactly ask, “Willie who?” This was hallowed ground.
My band, Man About a Horse, and I were being given a tour of Compass Sound Studio by in-house engineer Adam Taylor, and the history of the place was starting to sink in. Next, we noticed a framed copy of John Hartford’s Aereo-Plain on the wall. John, Vassar, and the rest of the fellas cut Aereo-Plain in that very room, with David Bromberg running the show from the other side of the glass.
Before it was Compass, the studio was known as “Hillbilly Central” — or at least it had been dubbed that by the press. The Music Row studio created by the Glaser Brothers can be said to have birthed the Outlaw Country movement, turning out albums by Waylon Jennings, Billy Joe Shaver, and so many more. Not to mention other Nashville outsiders like Hartford and Shel Silverstein. (By the way, if you want an entertaining glimpse of life at Hillbilly Central, Season One of Mike Judge’s animated Tales from the Tour Bus series is unmatched.)
Man About a Horse was at Compass Sound Studio to record a song with Alison Brown, a Grammy- and IBMA-winning banjo player and bandleader and the co-owner of Compass Records Group along with her husband, Garry West. Alison has also earned a reputation as one of bluegrass music’s top producers. Knowing this, we brought a song that was very much a work-in-progress, hoping that Alison would put her stamp on it.
After the studio tour, we all sat around the coffee table with Alison, who asked us to play our tune so that she could write out a chart, which she did, by ear, in one shot. Yeah — she’s good. She dove in, looking for places where we could add interest to the arrangement and trying out some new chord changes here and there. Then, with the ink still drying on our photocopied charts, we headed to our respective booths to make some sounds.
Over the course of the day, we were so inspired to be working with a producer with so much vision and enthusiasm. To help us get in the zone, she had us picture ourselves performing at our “dream festival” — one that we haven’t yet played. We all decided that the main stage Saturday night at Telluride would be an appropriate destination. (Hint, hint, Planet Bluegrass!)
Her visualization trick brought great energy to the recording, and, along with Alison and Adam’s many other talents in the control room, produced a finished track, “Listen For That Good,” that we’re so happy with, and are thrilled to share here on No Depression.
So how did a band from Philadelphia end up recording in Nashville? The story starts even farther north, at the FreshGrass Festival in North Adams, Massachusetts. Last year Man About a Horse was selected as a finalist in the FreshGrass Band Awards, and so on the second weekend of September 2018 we headed north.
It was my first time attending FreshGrass, but I expected to love it. I’m originally a New Englander who grew up hiking the Appalachian Trail in Connecticut and Massachusetts, and it’s nearly impossible for me to pass the Stockbridge exit on the Mass Pike without whistling a little bit of “Sweet Baby James.” Put it this way: Driving from Philadelphia to FreshGrass felt like going home.
There are hundreds (thousands?) of bluegrass band competitions in the world. Since Man About a Horse has done a bunch of them, I can tell you that FreshGrass does it right. For starters, FreshGrass gives all finalists a performance grant to appear at the festival. That makes the decision to take part so much easier for bands, which often must make tough choices about which gigs to take. And, frankly, we had zero expectation of winning, given the quality of the other finalists: Ghost of Paul Revere, Kitchen Dwellers, and Masontown.
Being in a bluegrass contest is a strange experience. You get to stand on stage, which is fun, to be judged on something that you put your heart and soul into, which is not so fun. My strategy is to convince myself that I am there to enjoy the festival, and just happen to be playing in the contest while I’m there. It’s a way to take the pressure off and put things in perspective. Let’s be honest, in the grand ranking of First World Problems, getting a free ticket to a music festival in a beautiful setting with some of the best musicians on the planet is near the bottom of the list.
Long story short, we won first prize and I’ll never forget the feeling of standing there with my bandmates after the surreal moment when they announced our name and called us up on stage. Our prize was the day of recording at Compass, as well as a second grant from the FreshGrass Foundation, which we used to pay for our trip to Nashville, the video you see above, and to release the song as a single. Oh, and to buy Waverly tuners for the mandolin.
For the recording session I wrote a song about trying to find the positives in things — even when your day’s not going as well as ours did that day — or when there’s an idea, a person, or a belief that you find challenging. Maybe it’s a lesson I’ve taken from all the good days — and a few of the not so good days — traveling with the band on the road.
I can’t wait to play “Listen For That Good” with Man About a Horse on the main stage at the 2019 FreshGrass Festival, and I hope to see you there.
Matt Royles is a writer, communicator, and musician. He is a co-founder of the award-winning bluegrass quintet Man About a Horse and founder of Philly Bluegrass™, a network of more than 1,000 bluegrass fans and musicians in Philadelphia. Matt’s music career is integrated with his 15 years of experience in the nonprofit finance sector, where he has held marketing, fundraising, and management positions. Matt studied creative writing and music performance at Bates College in Maine and earned an MBA from Temple University in Philadelphia.