Why Make a Fiddle Album?
From left, George Jackson, Eli Broxham, and Frank Evans of George Jackson's Local Trio. (Photo by Libby Danforth)
EDITOR’S NOTE: George Jackson is a New Zealand-born fiddle player now living in Nashville. His new album of original fiddle tunes, George Jackson’s Local Trio, comes out Friday on Adhyâropa Records.
With release week breathing down my neck, I start wondering if I’ve really put in enough work for this release cycle, hoping to do my new album and the money I’ve spent on it justice. I find myself fantasizing about starting to make a new album and getting back to the creative end of things. I also have the involuntary thought, “Maybe the music isn’t that good anyway, I recorded it way back in November last year and I’m already trying to move on from some of the musical thoughts I had back then. Why am I doing this?”
These are a few lines of inner dialogue that most musicians will likely be familiar with, staring down the final stages of proverbially jumping up and down online to get attention amongst the din of thirst traps, politics, news, and other releases. These thoughts especially come in this day and age of the do-it-yourself, fund-it-yourself, and release-it-yourself music business model. It’s hard to stay the course.
So why? Releasing music is really not that fun when it gets to the business end, and the pay is meager and takes a long time to come in if it comes in at all, so what’s in it for an artist? Especially one like me, a fiddler with a new collection of weird instrumental tunes that don’t fit squarely or marketably into a clear genre? Why do I spend all the money I make on tour in the studio, like an addict who comes home to get his fix, spending my road-worn cash on recording, mixing, mastering, paying musicians, and ordering CDs or vinyl?
I’ll tell you why I do it. I love it. Recording new music is the culmination of everything I work on day in and day out as a musician: hours of practice, writing, performing, articulating, and arranging. It inspires me to become a better player and it gives me a focus and goal to work toward. Recording is one the purest forms of creating for a musician like me. Like the painter sitting at a blank canvas or the writer sitting down at a page, the studio is where a musician’s ideas come together into something that’s tangible and lasts. It’s exhilarating to exercise that creative muscle, to create something that lasts and can be revisited, perhaps in contrast to the way live music is fleeting. It’s also a stake in the ground that you can see from afar once you’ve moved well past it, something tangible with which to judge your progress or your evolution.
And that’s another reason I do this, why I release a new album or some sort of project (sometimes more than one) each year. As a teenager, I idolized fiddlers and other musicians who put out a lot of music. In those formative years, I lived for the new albums that came out from my favorites once a year, or every other year. In the early 2000s, the waning years of a music industry that was still buoyed by the large-scale sale of CDs at live shows or online, album sales was still the cornerstone of the business model for most musicians, including fiddlers. During the golden age of the recording industry, in the ’80s and ’90s, it was even lucrative for record labels to have fiddlers like Vassar Clements or Kenny Baker, some of my heroes, make fiddle albums regularly. Some of those albums are absolute gold, and some are really weird. Some of my favorites kind of sound a bit like the players got to the studio and hadn’t thought about what to record that day until they got there. There was a “make whatever you want” kind of attitude that could only come with a vastness of resources that doesn’t exist around recording today, and I love that era for its creative spirit. I just want to be like Vassar Clements, with a career you can track through a list of solo releases through which he’s really being experimental, with such a wandering musical spirit.
These days, a lot of the greatest fiddlers I know of don’t have albums coming out all the time. They certainly don’t have labels breathing down their neck asking for another one soon. Some of my favorites barely have any recorded evidence at all in the form of a solo album, and if you’re lucky enough to catch them live you might wonder why they don’t have a few albums at the merch table or on Spotify. I think this is because making an album of instrumentals today is a self-directed pursuit for the most part. You have to fund your own fiddle records, believe you have something to offer, and have the motivation to follow through with it. But even if no one’s asking, I think I’ll keep making records just like my idols did so that in years to come there’s a catalog of interesting music to listen back to. All my ideas — some of the good ones and some of the not-so-great ones. I hope that they’re there for some future fiddlers or family to hear what some of my thoughts were about music at this time, just as I’m so fascinated by what was going on in the studio in Vassar’s day on one of his countless fiddle LPs.
The current recording industry model is difficult for people releasing vocal music, too, but to some extent there is a demand for songs with lyrics in bluegrass and Americana. There’s much less for purely instrumental music, particularly when it’s boundary pushing. But if you ask most bluegrass musicians or fans what their favorite recordings are, there’s often an instrumental album by one of their musical heroes right at the top. Because the incentives are less apparent, the goal of making a fully instrumental album is often to make something for your peers and fans that pushes the limits. But at its core it’s art for the artist, music for the musician, deep cuts for the appreciator. And that’s music at its most thrilling and risky and rewarding.
I really am excited for my newest album, George Jackson’s Local Trio, to be released this week. It’s an experimental album that fully embodies the ethos of creating art, creating something new, and I have the perfect collaborators in that spirit with Frank Evans on banjo, Eli Broxham on bass, and John Mailander as producer. It’s not meant to be a marketable album. It’s not bluegrass and it’s not old-time music. It’s a bit of both and other. But it’s in the spirit of those heroes of mine who were given the run of the studio with labels that wanted fiddle albums in the ’80s and ’90s, who did what they wanted and experimented, reached for something, and created some magic music. I just need to get through this release week and then I can start thinking about the next one.