Interview with Zack Hickman of Barnstar!, a Badass Bluegrass Band from Boston
When last we saw the boys of Barnstar!, they were dressed as a band of pirates riding the high seas of Boston Harbor and performing to a rowdy crowd aboard a cruise ship. While the pirate get-up was purely inspired by their surroundings that day, playing to rowdy crowds is standard fare as both band and fans are spurred on by the oft-shouted “C’MON!”
Barnstar! is a Boston-area supergroup made up of some the area’s best musicians and songwriters – Zack Hickman on bass, Mark Erelli on guitar, Charlie Rose on banjo, Jake Armerding on fiddle and mandolin, and Taylor “Old Train” Armerding on mandolin.
By instrumentation, they’re a bluegrass band, but Hickman says it doesn’t define – or confine – them. Barnstar!, he says, is more about the songs than soloing. “We’re singing songs that have a narrative or a story to them, and then we make them our own – in our own style,” he says.
We spoke to Hickman, the mustachioed leader and producer of Barnstar!’s new album, Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out! (due Feb. 3 on Signature Sounds), late last year by phone from Mobile, AL, as he was finishing up a stint as the musical director for Ray LaMontagne’s touring band:
Modern Acoustic: How would you describe Barnstar!?
Zack Hickman: It’s clearly not a traditional, by-the-books bluegrass band, but we have the normal bluegrass band instruments and we do some of that music. But I guess at this point, the band has really evolved into something that’s more – it’s acoustic music with bluegrass instruments.
Each of the band members is pretty busy with their individual projects. How were you able to free up time and get everyone together?
It took a little bit of doing [laughs]. We had a couple of days in January  before I went out on tour [with LaMontagne], and then in April we had to squeeze a couple of days in right around the David Letterman performance that I did with Ray. We finished recording the album at one in the morning and then I hopped in a car and Dietrich [Strause, a local musician] drove me through the night right to Rockefeller Plaza for the taping, which was wild. We wound up with four days total, so that’s how many days we had to make the record.
What would you say the difference was in making this album as opposed to the band’s first album C’mon?
Well, the process wasn’t very different. We’re always going to make live records, because we’re never going to have time to do anything else. For me, the bigger difference was the material. Barnstar!, as an idea, has been around for a long time, but I would mostly just hire people for an occasional Cantab [Lounge in Cambridge, MA] gig. And it wasn’t until I got Mark to do some playing in the band that I realized that this particular makeup was a special one. When we made C’mon, we all kind of came to the table with whatever songs we’d already played with other bands. Taylor, he recorded a lot of those songs way back in the day with Northern Lights and, we just sort of compiled our resources. And then we made C’mon and sort of became an actual band. Get Up! is the first record where we gathered material on our own, not from previous projects.
So were you looking for something different this time as opposed to what was on C’mon, or what that album was like?
I wanted this record to be a little more thoughtful and a little less show-bandy.
Mark said the band seems less like a novelty now. It now feels like a real band…
Yeah, I think we’ve all come to that conclusion, sort of independently. Ultimately that first record was successful for us and a lot of people liked it, but then we got a chance to play more music together, travel together, and actually do the sort of things real bands do. And in the process we became way more serious of a project.
How were the songs chosen for the new album?
Some songs we had been playing live for a while and some songs we had never performed thus far. Collecting the material for this record was a lot of fun because there were a lot more suggestions back and forth and people suggesting songs for another person to sing, and not just showing up doing what they already knew what to do. For example, Harold and Maude is one of my favorite movies and that song “Trouble” by Cat Stevens is from that movie…
I had never heard that song before, and I actually went back to listen to the original… that song on the record is amazing. I didn’t even know it was Taylor singing. It took me a while to figure it out.
Yeah, I think that’s a special and powerful song … Taylor has a great voice, not just a high, powerful voice. That was a suggestion of a song that I thought would be amazing and I brought to the table. He said “OK,” and that’s what came out of him.
There are a couple of songs on the album that are related to death. Was that on purpose?
Those happened kind of organically. We had a gig at the Cantab a few nights after John Lincoln Wright died. He was a pretty famous honky-tonk singer from Massachusetts in his day. He had been at the Cantab at the bar most weeks for a long, long time. Mark wrote “Country John” very quickly as just like a tribute to him; we were the first band to play at the Cantab after he’d passed. And the very first song on the record, “Six Foot Pine Box,” is by a band called Rust Farm that featured Chris Moore and John McGann. John McGann was a buddy of mine who died in 2012, pretty unexpectedly. I had never heard that song. … Mark had that idea, and he put it on the speakers at my house and blew me away.
So there wasn’t a determination, necessarily, to make a themed album…
We didn’t decide to make a record of songs about death and then go out and find them, but we did want to feature some songs that reflected the region and the community we’re from. Like, Neil Cleary doesn’t live in Boston, but he did for a number of years and he is a buddy of ours and it’s great to have one of his songs, “She Loves the Bands,” on the album. And Josh Ritter (“Darling”) obviously, as well. A lot of the material is connected to the Boston music scene in some way. And then songs like “Stay With Me,” well, I really just wanted to hear Mark sing it.
Mark said at one point there was a suggestion that Taylor sing it?
[Laughs] That was my original hope and dream because I just love the idea that this patriarchal, 60-year-old, conservative Christian man singing about picking up girls on the dance floor. But having Mark sing it is equally as funny because it’s a lecherous song and Mark is really the least lecherous person I’ve ever met.
There are a good number of rock songs on the album. I mean, Patty Griffin’s “Flaming Red,” it’s hard to believe you could make that into a bluegrass song. And I hadn’t heard the original “Sequestered in Memphis” (by The Hold Steady) so I went back and listened to it and that one too. And, The Faces’ “Stay With Me” – those are pretty heavy rock songs that you turn into bluegrass tunes.
The thing that binds those three songs together is that they all have a real interesting narrative, there are stories there. And I like stories.
So was it the stories over trying to make rock songs into something else?
Yeah, I’m sort of over the novelty of [turning rock songs into bluegrass tunes]. These just happen to be really cool songs that have a powerful narrative to them, and we’re not a traditional bluegrass band so we don’t sing a ton of traditional bluegrass songs. I just like to sing good songs and I think all of these are good ones.
You mentioned Josh’s song “Darling” … that’s a real good one. I was telling Mark – and I hate to say this – I think Mark sings it better than Josh does.
Josh thinks Mark sings it way better than he does. He’s the first to say it. When I played Josh the song – I didn’t tell him that we were recording that song – when I played him the demo, he was pretty touched. He was, like, that’s how the song is supposed to sound. I think he’s on the list of those who like our version better.
Finally, there are a bunch of original songs by band members Jake’s “Delta Rose,” Charlie’s “Cumberland Blue Line” and two from Mark, “Country John” and “Barnstable County.” If I’m not mistaken, there was only one original on C’mon.
That’s another product of us taking ourselves a little more seriously as a band: We can occasionally rehearse, and we can get together and figure out what we’re missing and see how to fill it. Charlie’s song “Cumberland Blue Line,” that’s about the closest we have to a traditional bluegrass scenario, and I think the song’s great. That song is also on Charlie’s solo album, Stowaways, that just came out [Sept. 2014], and it’s completely different. It’s not a bluegrass song at all. So it’s cool that there are two very distinct versions of that same song.