What makes a great teacher great?

What should parents be looking for in educators?

by Glen Herbert

Beth Alexander, a primary and elementary instructor at The Linden School, is a teacher that a lot of people think is great, including the prime minister. In 2017, she received the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence, and this year she was the first Canadian educator to earn a Lowell Milken Centre Fellowship. Beth is a STEM teacher extraordinaire, which is likely why she came to the attention of the Lowell Milken Centre. She built the school’s makerspace herself out of salvaged materials; she constructed a life-size model that allows students to climb inside a computer; she created a lab to explore the chemistry of candy; there wasn’t a K-8 computer studies curriculum, so she wrote one. But all of it, she feels, is in service to a set of relationships: those between her and her students, and those they share each other. For her, learning begins with those relationships. And when it comes to great teaching, she knows what she’s talking about. We asked her about what she likes to see in educators, and what she hopes her students will see in her. 

GH: What teacher did you have that really stood out? Who was your great teacher?  

Beth Alexander: I had two high school teachers that I thought were great. One of them was really strict. He had unbelievably high standards and gave so much work that we thought we would die. But he obviously really cared about the kids, so that combination of firm boundaries and a lot of love was really motivating and helped his students really grow. And then the other was the most loosey goosey. He let me take two weeks to research whether Paul McCartney really was dead and then give a presentation. Like, I gave this multimedia presentation about whether or not Paul McCartney was dead, which probably wasn’t in the curriculum! [laughs] But I learned so much from it. I don’t know why I cared about that topic, but I did, and he honoured what I was interested in; he didn’t impose his ideas on me; and he gave me a lot of freedom and encouragement.

Those two teachers were very different from each other, though I think kids benefit from a lot of different teaching styles. As long as you’re passionate about what you’re doing and really care about the kids, I think the particular style of teaching matters a little less. And it’s good for kids to see a bunch of different folks, because that’s the world.  They’re going to work with a lot of different people who have different kinds of expectations.

But both of those teachers really cared about me and they were both open to who I really was. That’s key. I distrust those teachers who say “here are my lesson plans for the entire year and I will not be deviating from them.” Well, what about the actual kids? Are you going to listen to what they want? Are you going to respond to what their needs are? Because you need to be flexible enough to do that.

In twenty years’ time, when students think back on the time they spent with you in the classroom, what do you hope they will remember?

Sometimes students will come back and tell me things that they remember, and it always surprises me. Often, it isn’t the things that I worked really hard on planning. Often it will be spontaneous things. So I think having a sense of humour is important.

But when I taught a core class and I had the same students all day long, I would send them anonymous surveys pretty frequently, just getting their feedback on how things were going. And one of the questions that I would always ask was “do you genuinely believe that Beth cares about you?” And if I got a single “no,” I would be really worried about that, and I would figure out what was going on. Because young people need to know that the grownups in charge of them care. That they’re seen and valued for who they are. I would hope that my students felt that that was really obvious from my relationships with them. I would also hope that they found the things I taught were interesting and useful, but that’s secondary. A really caring person who has a great relationship with students could probably teach the history of dirt and the kids would care. 

You’ve been described as an innovative teacher. What does it mean to be innovative?

When I was growing up, science class was: read three pages in a book and answer five questions. You wrote down the questions in your lined notebook, and you wrote the answers, and your teacher judged you 50% on the quality of the facts in your answer, and 50% on the neatness of your handwriting. That was how you earned grades. And if you were quiet while you did it, you got an A.

So, things have changed, but I think good innovators are people who don’t just change for the sake of change. That sort of innovation gets a bad rap, and I feel dismayed when some demand comes down from the ministry saying “you have to change this” when the old way was just fine. You know, reading a book aloud to a class, what can be a more old idea than that? Yet, in all my years of teaching, when I think about those moments when the kids were riveted, I was reading from a book.

But I think that the true spirit of innovation is when you’re constantly seeking to improve by being thoughtful about what is happening. I started a program here that combined a makerspace with a more academic idea of a makerspace, where you’re really using pretty high-level engineering skills to get kids to learn by doing. The fun in it is coming up with the new ideas, but the rigour in it is in genuinely assessing how well those ideas are working, and throwing out what doesn’t work and bringing in something new. And that involves consulting with a lot of people—I’m on Twitter a lot, grabbing ideas from other people, I’m reading the paper—and thinking about things that could be brought into the class. That’s innovation that isn’t necessarily about using a new machine, but thinking of a new connection. And that’s one of my favourite aspects of the job. Coming up with new connections, and rethinking things. Is there a way to take something hard and not necessarily make it less hard, but to find ways to motivate kids to push through the hard parts of it? The more multi-sensory something can be, the better. If you can touch something, if you can move it around, if you can taste it maybe—those are always better ways of teaching than just listening or reading. I’m not teaching in ways that I was taught in school, but instead trying to figure out about how kids learn better.

What are the moments in which you think “this is what it’s all about, this is why I’m here on this earth”?

The thing that I feel is worth as much as my paycheck are those moments when a student has discovered something new. I have a student who is in junior kindergarten, and every day is a brand new day for her. She comes into the lab, and she’ll get to use a tool for the first time. She used a pair of pliers one day. Another day she was using a handsaw—so she had on work gloves on and was given that opportunity to use an adult tool—and the joy on her face was unbelievable. The privilege of being able to introduce those things to her, that’s one of those moments where you’re like, “Ah, this is so fun!” That is worth a million dollars right there. They light up, you can see the adrenaline in their body and the excitement. When a kid says “I get it!” that’s catnip to me. That’s the sound that every teacher wants to hear.

Checking in with Alternadad: A conversation with Neal Pollack

In 2007, Neal Pollack wrote a book that would become a touchstone for parents who were determined to raise children—as the marketing copy for the book suggested—without growing up too much themselves. They wanted to be cool, and they wanted their kid to be cool, complete with a solid appreciation of the Ramones.

In the book Pollack gave a voice to some of the thoughts that so much of us have had, but perhaps didn’t think we could say out loud. He talks about taking Elijah to a mall and, while it wasn’t the best experience, at least at the end of it he was an hour closer to bedtime. Saying things like that, he made countless parents feel just that slight bit less alone.

When the book came out Elijah was four. He’s 12 now, teetering on the cusp of the teen years. He’s grown up quite a bit. And his dad? I reached him at his home in Austin, Texas, to find out.

In the book you wrote that “birth is just the beginning of a more complicated story.” Does it continue to be more complicated?

I wouldn’t say it’s more complicated. He’s more complicated. He’s a person now, as opposed to a plant or a toddler. But I wouldn’t say that being a parent is more complicated. In some ways I feel like I am better suited to being a parent of a kid this age because I can remember what it was like to be a tween and to be a teenager and I’m more or less familiar with the challenges that that age brings. Whereas being the parent of a three year old, you don’t have a lot of control over the situation. You have to deal with a lot of other people—with other parents, a lot of other animalistic toddlers. But when your kid is this age, well, there’s fewer characters really, is what it comes down to. It’s more his life and you’re just trying to drive him around to it.

I mean, he doesn’t bite people anymore, as far as I know. He’s still the same person in a lot of ways, he still has the same temperament, but he’s just better able to control himself, express himself, you know, and go to the bathroom by himself, dress himself. He can occasionally feed himself.

Twelve is the age we’re legally allowed to leave him home, so we go out for food, or a party, go get drinks, or whatever. We can do whatever we want, and he’s fine. He can text us if he’s hungry and we’ll tell him, you know, go make yourself some food. [Laughs] It’s really much better. I’m sure I’m going to pay for saying that.

Part of the idea of Alterndad was a desire to continue to be person that you are, even as a parent, and not to become whatever it is expected that a father should be. You mention a bit about your father going to rotary and eating hot dogs. Was part of the Alternadad idea a desire not to be him?

I think it was less about my own parents than it was the parenting culture that I saw springing up around me—the societal expectations of what a dad should be, what a dad should look like, and how a dad should act. It’s that you should become this generic parent-person once you have a kid.

And do you find that there’s a grittiness that comes into things, as you move further into the marriage, further into the experience of being a parent. That it’s not all roses.

I guess what it comes down to is [as parents] that you have these kids, and you have these hopes that somehow everything is going to be different this time. But life just kind of does its thing to you, and kids don’t make everything perfect. At all. At all! It’s the same old dramas playing themselves out over and over again.

There was a popular tumbler that went around with pictures of dads from the seventies. And you look at all these photos of bearded, longhaired dudes, you know, drinking beer, hanging out, smoking weed. Playing with their kids, skateboarding, whatever. And I’m like, “Oh, it’s the same as it is now.” If anything, people were more laid back then, and cooler. Less sort of generic, I guess.

It’s almost like parents then didn’t know what they were supposed to worry about. I remember running free in the neighbourhood at 5, which would raise gasps if we saw that today.

Yeah, and especially around this free-range parenting thing, there is a lot of debate about what we should be letting our kids do and how free we should let them be. But, really, I don’t think all that much has really changed between parents and kids. Same crap, different decade.

In the book you write about ordering the Silver Surfer [a vaporizer to use to consume marijuana] and that when you first got it, you waited until Elijah was asleep before trying it out.

Yes. I still have it actually!

Are you still hiding things like that from him?

No, I don’t hide anything from him. I mean, um, I don’t share. [Laughs] But you have to think about it. When it comes to marijuana, this is a very different time we’re living in than when that book was written. [Now] marijuana is legal in four American states and Washington DC. They had a debate about legalizing marijuana in Elijah’s school because it’s being debated in the Texas house. It’s being seriously debated as something that could happen, and probably will in the next four or five years. So, the reality of marijuana, when it comes to kids, is that you’re going to have to talk about it differently, like you talk about alcohol. Because it’s going to be legal almost everywhere.

So, yeah, he knows I get high. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s not something I’m neurotic about, or my wife. She’s not a stoner, but she’s not neurotic about it. And the line you take with him is: if you’re 21, and you live in a place where it’s legal, do it if you want, and don’t get into a car with a stoned driver. You’ve just got to treat it the same as alcohol. You’re a hypocrite, I think, if you have any other take on marijuana. Unless you’re a complete teetotaler across the board, when it comes to alcohol as well, then you can go ahead and say [as a parent to a child] “in our house this does not happen.”

But there’s no reason to hide it. There are levels of appropriateness, but we can’t pretend that drinking and sex and drugs and profanity don’t exist. My take is not to encourage my son to do anything, but I also don’t to present these forbidden fruits.

Do you swear in front of your son?

Yeah. Of course.

Is there any word you wouldn’t say in front of him?

No, not really. Well, he’s 12. It was different when he was six or eight, or something. But we also don’t put a lot of limits on what he watches or consumes, media-wise, so he hears it anyway. I just feel—especially when your kids get to be a certain age—treating him as a person [living] outside of reality doesn’t make any sense. You know? Like, “hello, you’re going to be 13: no cursing, no sex, no alcohol, and no drugs in the world.” And when they go out into the world, all those things are around all the time. [Better is to admit that] yes, they’re there. Use good judgment.

I don’t really worry. What does he do in his free time? He runs on track team and he plays Magic: The Gathering. He’s not out getting high behind the portables.

How do you handle discussions about sex?

It’s an ongoing process. We let him know that if he has any questions, we’re here for him. But I won’t sit him down, and he won’t sit down for a talk. He’s not interested.

The public schools here teach an absurd, abstinence-only thing. But he seems to have a pretty good grasp on it. We just let him know that if he has any questions, ask. And the phrase “wear a condom” has been uttered more than once. You know, it’s “If you’re gonna do it” — well, he’s too young at this point, but in a few years he won’t be – “use birth control and be respectful to your partner. Don’t be a jerk.”

And sexuality online, what’s your approach to that?

It hasn’t really come up yet. He’s playing Minecraft, League of Legends and that kind of thing.

We’ve talked a bit about how to behave online. Don’t be a racist, don’t be flinging around anti-gay slurs. But that’s not his thing. His main activity outside of playing games online is he likes to go Tea Party Instagram sites and leave trolling political comments. He shows me some of them. He’s more liberal than I am, politically.

There’s a moment in the book where you’re watching him and you realize, at that moment, that you knew “he’d never be a stranger to me.” Which is interesting in that it sounds like a reaction to something, perhaps the worry that he might someday become a stranger to you.

Yeah, I think my mother said, when he was born, that he’s going to be a republican engineer. And I’m thinking, “Why? Because I’m a liberal writer?” Is it automatic that your son is going to be the opposite of you? But he’s certainly not a republican, and if he becomes and engineer, then our bridges are in trouble.

He makes me laugh, and he says interesting things, but I can’t say that anything he says and does surprises me.

You say in the book that we all judge other parents, and that never changes. What kinds of things are you judging of other parents?

Mostly how their kids behave in public. Sometimes the judging comes out of envy, say if they have more money than you do. But what I don’t judge other parents about is losing their temper, or dealing with a difficult kid. There are certain things we shouldn’t judge about but, well, we do anyway.

But that changes. When you have a toddler, you’re parenting in public. When you have a teenager, most of those things happen behind closed doors. You’re also not at parties, hanging out with other parents—you’re not in the same proximity, and I like that because, honestly, that was the worst part about having a kid. The parent child classes, and the preschool potlucks, the second grade plays where you all have to say hi to each other—even when we were at schools where we liked the other parents, that shit drove me crazy.

Now you see other parents in passing, like once a month in the halls or something. There just isn’t the same proximity.

You mention in the book that your wife, Regina, felt a certain level of mommy-guilt, which is a very real emotion for many, many women. Does she still feel that guilt?

No. Again, the older the kid gets, the more that crap just kind of fades away. When you first have a kid you’re trying to come to terms with the fact that you’re not young anymore. But at a certain point, at least for me, something just kind of opened up and I thought, Oh, I’m myself again. That “dad” does not define me in any way. I’ve integrated it into my identity.

My wife might have a slightly different opinion about that, but I know that she is not defined by “mom.” She is a mom. She is a great mom. But she doesn’t define herself by motherhood. Absolutely not. Because why should we define ourselves that way. You know, “Hooray, we’ve reproduced just like everyone else.” That shouldn’t have to define us.

So, I worry about my kid, but I don’t worry about the kind of stuff that I used to worry about.

So, all in all, as a dad, are you hitting it out of the park?

I’m doing OK. My son does well in school, except for math. He can have a intelligent conversation with a grownup. He exercises. He eats his vegetables. He’s got pretty good taste in movies and TV and books.

Most importantly, he thinks for himself. And that’s all that I’ve ever really cared about, that he’s his own person: that he thinks for himself and that he has an independent spirit about him. And he’s got that! If nothing else, I gave him that, and I gave him a little bit of irony. Which is important to me. Those are my biggest expectations for him. Everything else is just a lot of variables that I can’t control.

Birds, books and fatherhood: An interview with Jane Yolen

Jane Yolen isn’t perhaps a name that is as familiar to us as some other children’s authors, though her books certainly are. Owl Moon is as powerful as it is unique, the story of a father taking his daughter owling one cold winter night. “It is gentle yet adventurous,” says Yolen, “quiet yet full of sound.” The father in that book is remarkable for being unlike so many of the fathers we find in children’s books. He’s strong, kind, knowledgeable, respected for all the right reasons. He spends time with this daughter, making a bit of magic by introducing her to aspects of the natural world. More recently Yolen wrote My Father Knows the Names of Things, again with a father character who is someone we would like to be ourselves. In her own life, though, fatherhood has been as complicated as it is in anyones. Her father largely ignored her, which perhaps is one of the reasons that she found, in her husband David Stemple, someone who was in nearly all ways the exact opposite: caring, kind, approachable, strong, helpful, supportive. When we read those strong male characters in her books, it’s David that we’re seeing represented there. I reached Yolen her at her home in Massachusetts.

1988_Owl_MoonYou have said that the character of Pa in Owl Moon is based on your husband. I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about your husband and the kind of father he was. Did he really go owling and talk with owls? Jane Yolen: David was born and brought up in the West Virginia mountains and knew woods and woodcraft from a young boy. Birds became a special favorite of his. He moved to NY after college to work for IBM where we met. He taught me everything I know about the woods and then he taught our children. They are all good birders and Heidi — our daughter who is the child in the book — now leads Audubon Christmas owl counts. As a college professor with much discreet time in-between classes and research, David was a hands-on father from the beginning and we had a wonderful 44 year marriage till his (much too early) death at age 69.

Have you ever made a conscious decision to cast the fathers in these books and others in a different way than we see elsewhere? Or is it more that you are drawing on, and reflecting, on your own experience of your father and your husband and the things that you felt they did well? (Or something else entirely … )

JY: My own father was a distant, difficult man, whose outward face was life-of-the-party but who rarely interacted with me except to criticize. He played baseball with my brother (four years younger) but thought I should be mentored only by my mother, and so I was. Luckily she was the smarter, more educated, and more compassionate of the two of them. Unluckily, she died at age 59 of cancer. If you could say one thing to all young fathers, one piece of advice when just starting out, what might it be?

“Value the talents they all have, the work they do. AND TELL THEM THAT.”

JY: Love your babies, toddlers, school age kids, teens (though that is harder) and don’t be afraid to tell them so.Value the talents they all have, the work they do, AND TELL THEM THAT. Be hands on, show them things you like that they might like, take a child to work to see what it is you do when you are away from them. Be involved with your children. And for goodness sakes, read to them.

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Being there: Norman Blake on a new recording and a long career

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(published in Penguin Eggs magazine, issue #65) “It’s kind of a downer if you listen to the words,” says Norman Blake about his new album, titled Wood, Wire and Words. He’s having a bit of fun—he laughed as he said that—and when pressed he admits that it’s just that, throughout his career, he’s been less interested in artifice and more interested in telling stories, in shining a light on a more intimate history of American life. He writes about the small struggles, joys, and doubts, and troubles that, while they may not have affected the life of the nation, have nevertheless shaped the context of his life. In “The Incident at Condra Switch” Blake tells a story of a murder along the railroad.

“I came to that through a railroad history type book. That happened close to home, about 35 miles from here, though it’s not common knowledge. I hardly found anyone who knows anything about it. It was written down in some railroad history.” But, of all the stories he could tell, why that one? “It’s close to home.”

Certainly “home” is the thing that has attracted his attention throughout his life and has informed his writing throughout his career. Home, of course, is Sulphur Springs, Georgia, a rural community near Chattanooga where Blake has lived his entire life. Calling him there is a bit like calling Garrison Keillor in Lake Wobegon, or John Updike in Brewer, Pennsylvania, the exception being that Blake writes about himself and he writes about a real place. His first album was titled Home in Sulphur Springs, a concept he reprised in 2006 with Back Home in Sulphur Springs. This latest recording takes up the same theme, again turning our attention to the small, intimate details of life in small town America.

The irony, perhaps, is that it is from the close intimacy of Sulphur Springs that he set out to participate, if reluctantly, in some of the moments that have defined and redefined roots and Americana music. He was there at the recording of Will the Circle Be Unbroken. He played on Nashville Skyline, that great outlier in the Bob Dylan catalogue. He played on John Hartford’s positively seismic recording, Aereoplane, which created the space and the inspiration for what we now think of as newgrass. He was a fixture on Johnny Cash’s television show, one that renewed interest in the music of the Carter family, and unabashedly provided a venue for a number of musicians who, at the time, were all but banned from prime time television. In 2000 he recorded for the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack; in 2007 he took part in Robert Plant and Allison Krauss’ recording, Raising Sand. The only moment he missed, seemingly, was the Bristol sessions, though had he been alive in 1927, he would have been there, too.

If all of that is impressive—and certainly it is—any sense of awe is entirely lost on Blake himself. “I don’t think about any of that,” he says. “You know, I was really not trying to be on [the Circle recording]. I wasn’t feeling good—I was ill after a road trip with [John] Hartford, and I kinda got roped into that and I ended up being on it. I’m glad at this point that I was, but, you know, it was not something I was trying to do. I was trying to get out of doing it.”

“And I almost didn’t do O Brother,” again by trying to get out of it. “I’ve never been able to see these things; hindsight is twenty-twenty or whatever they say. But the album with John, Aereoplane, you know, we were just trying to make a living at that point, but I guess I was just in the right place at the right time on some of these things.”

In speaking with him, it becomes obvious that he’d much rather talk about trains, or murder ballads, or hoop cheese, which he mentions in “Grady Forester’s Store.” The store is real, and a photograph of it is included in the liner notes of Wood, Wire, and Words. “I was going there when I was a little boy to get the mail and stuff. That picture was made in ’43, and I was born in ’38, so I was going down there then. There was no electricity or nothing down there along the railroad.”

“In the old days cheese came in wooden hoops” in his accent it rhymes with ‘hook’, “like a banjo ring. It was about four inches thick usually. You had this wooden ring, and the cheese was in that. A circle of cheese. And you’d go to a store, like that song’s about, and they would cut you some and sell it to you. But it laid around unrefrigerated for quite a time.”

In the song there are cats sleeping on the flour sacks, the crackers are stale, and by the third verse the dog, Prince, is run over and killed by the ice truck. “That’s all true! There is some humour there. It’s tainted I guess. But all of that really happened just like in the song. … You know, this particular place had its drawbacks. We were living in a very rural part of the country, down on the dirt road so to speak. It was the good old days, but it was pretty rough shod as well.”

His guitar playing has been rightly celebrated for decades, and it remains as strong, comfortable, and honest as ever, seen best in the instrumentals included on the new album, a standout perhaps being “Blake’s Rag.” He’s not out to impress us with licks, but to capture a feeling. “I don’t care for a lot of hype about things, especially when it’s concerned with something that I do … It’s whatever comes out. I try to more than just accompany a song. Every tune has a particular individuality, and you can find something that fits with it.”

He’s retired now, or at least retired from the road, and he realizes that the songs on this album are not of a kind that will attract the attention of radio DJs. He made it because he wants to tell us about hoop cheese, the railroad, and the lights on the river. He’s always maintained that his music has never been just his job, it’s also part of his life. Thankfully, he’s allowed it to be part of ours as well.

The universe in stone: An interview with Mark Wilson

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(for Patriarch)

This is how professor Mark Wilson describes the specimen pictured above: “The platform is the wavy outer layer of a bivalve shell. Attached to it are encrusting organisms (sclerobionts). The long, gorgeous tube is a rugose coral. At its base is a ribbed athyrid brachiopod. Also in this vignette are bryozoans, additional corals and some really tiny productid brachiopods. Beautiful.”

He is, of course, talking about something that can risk seeming a bit dull: fossils. But for Wilson, they aren’t just fossils, or rocks. They are something more, something vastly important. He believes that, given the right introduction, we can learn to see in these rocks exactly what he does: beauty, intrigue, and an endless source of inspiration.

Wilson is a professor of geology and Lewis M. and Marian Senter Nixon Professor of Natural Sciences at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio. He teaches “History of Life,” Semimentology and Stratigraphy” and a first year seminar in “Nonsense (and why it’s so popular).” I reached him at is office.

PM: What was it that inspired in you a fascination with geology?

I grew up in the Mojave Desert and had an idyllic childhood of nature activities in the dry wilderness around my hometown. My parents were remarkably tolerant and allowed me to have all sorts of adventures with like-minded friends. In high school I was part of an innovative federally-funded program on desert research for high school students, which gave me a scientific framework for what I was seeing and experiencing in the countryside. I considered myself a junior biologist, being fascinated with desert animals and their evolution.

It was in college that I first met geology. I took an introductory course from an energetic and enthusiastic professor named Fred Cropp. Until I then I hardly thought of the rocky bones of the Earth I’d been exploring in the desert, nor had I considered the implications of the fossil horse bones and teeth we used to collect. Immediately I found what I wanted to be: a geologist with a speciality in paleontology. I could thereby study rocks, fossil life and evolution as an integrated, historical narrative. What could be better?

PM: Why should people be interested in rocks? Maybe “should” is too strong a word, but it seems clear that you feel that rocks are worthy of our attention, and not just because, say, we’re looking for fossil fuels or precious gems or metals.

“Should” is a good word here! Besides the practical value of Earth materials (as the saying goes, if it isn’t grown, it’s mined) there is a philosophical reason to find rocks endlessly fascinating. They show us that the Earth has a history — a long, long history. They are immediate reminders that humans have been around for a brief instant compared to the immensity of geological time. Our planet was formed billions of years ago. Continents grew and broke apart, moving like puzzle pieces across the globe. Oceans came and went. Life blossomed from bacteria to us in completely unpredictable ways. There were catastrophes and mass killings, extraordinary times of evolutionary innovation, and landscapes we can scarcely imagine. All of this is recorded in the rocks beneath us. On top of this, the human story of how we recover information from these stony books is in itself inspiring.

PM: When you describe various specimens you use, really wonderfully I should say, the language of art: gorgeous, vignette, beautiful. Is it purely an aesthetic judgement, or does a perception of beauty come from what the specimen means to you, such as the moment in geologic history that it describes, or what it says about our biological heritage?

It is difficult to sort out emotions from rationality with such a topic. In part I feel a strong sense of natural order and consequence with fossils. Maybe a good word for this is “elegance” in the way a physicist describes a particularly fertile equation. Each fossil shows exquisite adaptations over countless generations, showing what extended time and biology can create. Yet no organism is perfectly adapted. Every type of life is trying to catch up with changing circumstances, staying just ahead of extinction. These fossils thus represent survivors of immense struggles in their circumscribed worlds. It is the beauty of the weathered tree still standing on the windswept hill from which so many others were removed. And on the other hand, as you suggest, the fossils simply ARE beautiful regardless of their historical implications. The symmetry of a coral, the repeated patterns of a bryozoan, the smiling commissure of a brachiopod. It is a joy to surround myself with these objects of natural art.

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PM: Are there any moments in your working life when you think, “this is exactly what I was meant to be doing!”

My moments of exhilaration are so frequent in this job that I can no longer list them.
I’m a geologist who is a teacher. I can’t imagine being anything else. Not only can I indulge my enthusiasms in the field and lab, I’m actually required to talk about them! And as we all know, teaching something is the best way to learn it, or at least to continually add to my understanding (and subtract, I hope, my misunderstandings.) My moments of exhilaration are so frequent in this job that I can no longer list them. They go from watching a student’s face light up with an idea in class to seeing a student accomplish a complicated procedure in the field with pride and satisfaction. There is nothing better than to meet my former students having their own such intellectual joys. I don’t take credit for their accomplishments, of course, but I’m proud to have been on the team that nurtured their growth. When I need to imagine a “happy place” (like when I’m deep in an endless committee meeting), I can literally feel the crunch of gravel under my boots as I hike up some desert wash looking for something new as the rocks unfold beside me.

PM: You offer a course in Nonsense. What’s that about?

My Nonsense course is a First-Year Seminar at Wooster. These are courses, required of all incoming students, that emphasize critical thinking and writing for students beginning their college careers. The faculty members can choose how they wish to frame their courses. I teach a course on critical thinking by exploring ideas beyond the fringe of rationality. It thus reveals modes of inquiry by outlining the boundaries between sense and nonsense. Why is it that some people persist in beliefs about ghosts, UFOs, astrology, numerology and the like in spite of so much evidence against them? We first outline what the issues are (and there are always new issues to choose) and then study the social patterns and arguments used in their discussion. The central question in the end is what motivates people to believe in the face of such scientific skepticism. The answers are complex, of course, and involve traditions, social stigmas, faulty educations, and so on. The course grew from my experiences teaching evolution and seeing so much resistance to it that went far beyond the science itself.

spines-032515-585

PM: If you could tell everyone, anyone, one thing about geology, what would it be?

It is that geology shows us the Earth has a history. Once we take full account of that history and our place in it, our actions and philosophies change. We become characters in a long play that started without us and will not have us at the end. Our actions towards ourselves and nature then have profound effects on our short existence. Stewardship of resources becomes an obvious priority when we see how quickly circumstances can change on Earth. Organizing ourselves as a species with strong social ties and concern for each other is critical to our survival in a place that doesn’t owe us any favors.

For the post mentioned above, see: http://woostergeologists.scotblogs.wooster.edu/2012/10/21/woosters-fossils-of-the-week-silicified-sclerobionts-middle-permian-of-southwestern-texas/

Interview with Sarah Jarosz

(KDHX) When she was 16, Sarah Jarosz came into the acoustic-music scene seemingly fully formed. She has continued to demand and hold our attention ever since. On her latest album, “Build Me Up from Bones,” Jarosz’s material is less guarded, and therefore more adult, though her writing and her delivery have always been astonishing, and not only because she was — and at 23, still is — very young. 

If there is an upside to getting older, though, it means that that there is less noise in her life. When I spoke to her she had just completed her first year of touring full time, the year since she graduated college. When she got her first Grammy nomination, she was in her dorm at the New England Conservatory. The first person she told was her roommate, then she called her parents, and then she got back to a homework assignment that was due the following day.

Then, and for most of her life as a professional musician, there has been a lot to juggle. What hasn’t changed despite the time on the road, which can be grueling, is her dedication to her work and her knowledge that this, above all, is exactly what she was meant to be doing.

Glen Herbert: In a recent interview you described this past summer as a whirlwind. Describe that for me. 

Sarah Jarosz: I’ve just been on the road full time because it’s the first time that I’ve been able to tour full time, and not having the commitment of school. So, it has been a whirlwind. I’ve been travelling all over the world pretty much. This summer we did a lot of festivals. We also did the Cambridge Folk Festival—we were over in the UK and Ireland for about a month, touring there. Which was a blast. I had never been to Ireland before, and we had some really great shows there. We did a bunch of shows opening up for Nickel Creek. It’s just been one thing after the next.

GH: Does it ever seem like a dream? It’s happened so quickly for you, and it seems that you just hit the ground running at pretty much full tilt. 

SJ: Yeah, I definitely have to pinch myself sometimes, especially with things like opening for Nickel Creek. Ten to twelve years ago was I was first starting to play the mandolin, and at that time I was so inspired by Nickel Creek. And now, to be on stage opening up their show, it’s a total dream come true. Because I am still so young, it does sort of seem like it’s all happened so quickly, and it has. But at the same time, I really have been working at this since I was really little.

GH: Were you always the driver? Did you ask for piano lessons, or did your parents tell you “you’re going to take piano lessons now”? 

SJ: My parents said “you’re going to take piano lessons now.” [Laughs] Yeah, I’d been singing basically my whole life, and that was just something that I naturally just loved to do. But with piano, I was always [saying] “I don’t want to practice piano.” I started taking piano lessons when I was six, and it wasn’t until I picked up the mandolin that I became very self driven and motivated to keep practicing.

GH: Do you have a sense of where that kind of motivation comes from? 

SJ: Initially, just because I was such a little girl, I think it just came from my first interactions musically in the central-Texas music community. Those interactions were just fun. Of course, at that time, I wasn’t thinking that this was going to be my career. It was more that it was just a fun hobby as a young girl. And I think that’s initially why I fell in love with it so much. I just loved it. Obviously, from there it grew into the realization that this is what I want to do with my life. So, having that realization, it became more of a self-driven thing to want to work really hard to become as good as I could.

It is funny with the piano. It’s not like I hadn’t been interested in music before that. But I think [with the mandolin] it was about wrapping my arms around an instrument that seemed unique—one that not a lot of people were playing—it just seemed like this fresh thing that I could get excited about.

GH: So, you get the mandolin when you are nine. Seven years later your first album comes out and you’ve got everybody playing on it. Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Tim O’Brien … the list goes on and on. Darrell Scott is there, and he also co-wrote one of the songs. And you absolutely owned it, both in the recording and in performance. Where does that confidence come from? That incredible confidence, even then, though it’s of course remained to this day. 

SJ: It’s a good question! No one has asked me that before. I’m not sure. I guess, for as long as I can remember, I’ve just loved performing and singing and being on the stage. And it just made sense; it felt like the truest representation of my being to be performing and to be putting out this other part of me that was able to come out in songs.

But early on I think it had a lot to do with those heroes of mine that are on my records. I think it’s very telling of the acoustic music community for those people to even be willing to lend their talents and their time to a project of this, you know, this little girl basically. [Chuckles] I had really been able to become friends with a lot of those people just through the festival scene, the camps that I went to growing up, and just learning from them. I think that says a lot, and their willingness to be so open really added to my confidence. And [with “Song Up in her Head”] being my first time in the studio recording, to have the chance to be able watch those people in the studio doing their thing was the best learning experience one could ever ask for. I think that all just contributed to me becoming the person that I am, to have those incredible people to look up to.

As well, I’m an only child, so a lot of my life I was with older people a lot of the time. My parents would opt out of the baby sitter and take me with them to shows. I guess that’s maybe a part of it, too, actually: just always being around such positive, awesome mentors.

GH: The New York Times had a note in a capsule review that with this latest album you’ve kind of grown up, in a sense, and that you have moved “past precocity toward the full bloom of artistry: the singing is more deeply self-assured, and the songs are grounded in truer emotional terrain.” I think an example is in the song “Gone Too Soon” you sing: “You and I and this bottle of red/Getting lost under the moon/When the morning comes/I’ll be gone too soon.” Is it awkward knowing that your parents are going to listen to this? 

SJ: [Laughs] You might guess that it would be! But it isn’t. I guess that one of the reasons that I’m able and willing to be so honest in those songs is because I have awesome parents. I remember playing them that song and they loved it, and actually the thought of it being awkward wouldn’t have even crossed my mind. That’s just how open we are. And for as long as I can remember they were my first audience for the songs that I would write. I would finish a song in my room after working on it for a couple weeks, and the first thing I would do would be to go out into the living room and say “Okay, can I play you guys this song I just finished?”

So, they were the first ones to listen to the songs and often offer critiques and try to help me out. My mom has been a songwriter all her life, just as a hobby, never as a job. But to have those ears is something that I feel may be rare. And, anyway, the thought of it being awkward never have crossed my mind because they’re so supportive.

GH: How much of songwriting is art and how much of it is craft? Or is it indeed both art and craft?

SJ: I think it’s definitely both, mostly because I’ve had both experiences. I’ve had maybe two or three songs, in all the songs that I’ve written, happen very quickly, as in over the course of thirty minutes. That’s extremely rare. It’s happened, and it’s very special when it does happen, but more often than not it’s a lot of collecting of ideas over a long period of time.

I’m a very slow writer and I have a hard time writing when I’m on tour because the mindset of being on tour is very different than the mindset of being creative and crafting songs. At the Americana Music Awards a couple nights ago and Jackson Brown …  was saying [while accepting an award] that the hardest thing for a songwriter to do was to find a space in the world where they think no one can hear them. That really hit home with me, to hear him say that. Which is why I feel I can’t write when I’m on tour, because there are always people around.

So most of the time I’m just collecting words and phrases, lyric ideas, melodic ideas, making little recordings. Then when I do have time to sit down and be in my own space I sift back through those things seeing what might work and ultimately crafting a song.

GH: You’ve also covered other peoples’ songs, both on stage and in your recordings. What is it that you see in a song that makes you choose to record it? 

SJ: I think there are lot of factors that go into it. I have to love the song; I have to love to sing it and also feel that I can bring something to the song that is different and original. I certainly feel that there are songs out there that I love more than anything, but that I wouldn’t even dare touch. Song that you think, “well, that’s perfect!”

And that’s not to say that I don’t feel that way about some of the songs that I’ve chosen to cover, but if they bring something different to the table than my own songs, then I’ll consider doing them. With the Joanna Newsome song for example I don’t feel that I write songs like her. Her lyrics are very quirky, and it brings a different aesthetic to the table, which I like. I like bringing in another writer’s voice in order to have something a little different in the mix.

Other songs bring other things. With the Bob Dylan song, “Simple Twist of Fate” for instance, I wanted to record that one because it brought something different sonically to the table. Having just voice and cello it has a different texture from what was already included on the record.

GH: I once heard an interviewer ask Roni Stoneman what advice she would give to a young musician just starting in music. And  Stoneman said something like “You’ve got to love it honey. You’ve got to enjoy your music, because most of the time, that’s all you’re ever going to get out of it.” I don’t mean to put words in your mouth, but if you could give advice to the 14-year-old Sarah Jarosz, what would you say? 

SJ: Well, actually, I think Roni Stoneman nailed it on the head! That’s so true, and I think that goes back to what I was saying to you earlier about being such a young girl getting into all this music. The reason I was inspired to keep going was because I just loved it. It made sense to me and I enjoyed working at it. And, obviously, when you’re a young person you’re trying a lot of different stuff. You’re seeing what interests you and so it’s good to have your foot in a lot of different doors. But whatever you end up thinking is the right thing for you you have to love it. Even outside of music, I think that’s the way anything is.

Because, you know, this business is crazy and even this last year has been a real learning experience for me, to be on the road full time. That’s not something you can mentally prepare for ahead of time. You just have to do it in order to realize what it is. And it’s really hard. It’s really hard to not be home. So this last year has been the first time when it really has been “you have to love it.” Because that’s the only thing that’s going to get you through the really difficult times, is to be able come back to that feeling of “well, at least I’m getting to do this in the first place.”

Interview with Andrew Collins

As a solo artist and founding member of some of Canada’s most celebrated string bands, Andrew Collins is at the centre of a burgeoning Canadian acoustic music scene. His latest recording is A Play on Words.

What was it like playing bluegrass in Toronto when you were just starting out? You didn’t have any recordings, the career was all ahead of you, etc.

I didn’t know if one could make a living doing it, but I was so compelled in doing something that I loved. And I couldn’t imagine investing all of myself the way I did—and do—in music with anything else. So, it was fun and exciting without any forethought on how to make any of it work. It was just so focused on the playing, and getting better, and improving the level of music, and being surrounded by people that shared that drive. That was just exciting.

Now this is going to sound unfair, and it is unfair, but there is this understanding that it’s not Appalachia, and you didn’t grow up in the mountains, or sitting next to the old guys. And this is what I would have thought at the time: It’s great, but it’s not real. It’s Toronto. I wonder if you ever had those thoughts as well. That you’re outside the thing itself.

Hmmm. Interesting. [long pause] Well, I’ve got mixed feelings about that. Yes, I would have had those feelings, but over the years travelling around playing this music and meeting people all over the US, interestingly enough, Toronto has a bigger community than most places in the states, even though this music is American, just by virtue of the population itself. And the Toronto bluegrass scene actually has a good reputation for producing high-level players in a way that I never would have thought when I first started playing.

In some ways Toronto’s audience may not have been a bluegrass audience, but how does any bluegrass audience begin? It begins by hearing bluegrass music locally and then seeking it out. So Toronto today kind of does—amongst many other things, such as the Cuban community and so on—have a great bluegrass community and old-time community.

But back in the early 00s, sometimes I’d be the only person in the audience at the Tranzac on bluegrass night, and maybe Chris Quinn, or Chris Coole, or Dan Whitely would come in. Perhaps they’d sit and listen, or sit in with the band. And when you think about it, all of you guys have won awards now. I was sitting in a room with what, today, would be the band that you would hand pick for the All-Star team. You’ve got to admit, even though the community was small then, the hit rate was pretty good. Considering it was bluegrass night at the Tranzac Club.

[Laughs] I think community informs itself so I think the infectiousness of how drive we all were—we fed off each other. If you’re surrounded by people who are limiting themselves by not being focused. It’s one thing if it’s just up to you to create that inspiration for yourself … but that’s why I moved back to Toronto, to surround myself by people who were really determined and that attracts other people that are determined and tenacious. When you’re surrounded by people that are tenacious like that, you just see what’s required. So I think that’s just an infectious thing and everyone sees what’s possible because they’re surrounded by people who are pushing their own sense of what’s possible. It makes you just assume that it’s possible to get to that level that you strive for.

Is there a renegade quality to doing this in Toronto? And you really have to be tenacious, if only because you are doing something that most people around you don’t understand.

In retrospect, the nice thing was that there was no void waiting for us to fill. You have to go out there and make people know that you exist and perform and get your music out there some how. Even though we were in a vacuum of this kind of music, that was in some ways an advantage because we were also educating people [who might] discover that they really like bluegrass music, but we were the access point so in some ways it elevates us in stature because, for those people we were their starting point. Whereas, now it might even be harder for a young band doing this sort of music, because there are so many people doing it now.

But, yes, it’s a double-edged sword: if you are playing this music—and particularly at the time that we were, in the early 2000s—the only way we could have an audience was to educate the audience that this music even exists. And the only way to do it is to get out there and play it and surprise people that they can actually like acoustic instruments and that it’s not just quaint compared to electric music, it does have power and require serious technical accomplishment.

I’m sad to say this, but even given how good you were even then, because it was in Toronto, there is something that just didn’t seem like it was the real deal. Then when you started touring with Emory Lester I thought, “oh, I guess they are real.”

Yeah, and I’m sure we felt that in some ways too. There is definitely validation from having your influences and people who grew up playing with your influences also appreciate your music. There is definitely some validation there. We’ve experienced that quite a bit over the years when we meet some of our favourite bands, or are teaching at camps with some of our favourite bands, and jam with them and the love jamming with us and that sort of thing. There is some validation there.

And this music really is an oral tradition. And we’ve done our research, we’ve listened to the albums that they’ve listened to, and the albums that they’ve made, and we’ve learned the vocabulary from the source, even though we were up here. You even find that travelling—the Foggy Hogtown Boys did a tour in Germany last year where we were in the Czech Republic, and there is a big bluegrass community in the Czech Republic, and we know the same repertoire. We have our own repertoire as well, but there are all these standards and we do share the same repertoire and have listened to the exact same recordings of some of the same songs.

I guess it’s different now. It’s a job now too. Does that make it better?

Well it definitely makes it better than working a job that I don’t love. But definitely you realize that once you’ve been doing it for 20 years that there’s no avoiding work in life. There is a lot of work required to make a living doing what you love. I don’t want to sound corny, but the truth is the end is the means. It’s not just making money. There is no avoiding the fact that I have to make money, and once I got past the naive immature stage … when I realized that I am in business for myself so I have to treat it like that. So, there’s a lot of work involved that I don’t like. I don’t like booking gigs. I don’t like doing PR. Touring is not a vacation anymore. I like creating music. That’s fun. The work that comes along with it isn’t fun but it affords me the ability to continue doing something that I really love.

Interview with Eric Gibson of the Gibson Brothers

I reached Eric by phone while he was on the road travelling south for a few dates in Florida. I asked him about his (relatively) new Henderson guitar, brother duets, and life on the road. Always gracious, Eric is as delightful off stage as he is on it.

GH: How did you get turned on to bluegrass? Was it from your father?

EG: Yeah, my dad listened to it on the radio. Had a few bluegrass records, not a lot of them. I think the reason we ended up in bluegrass was because I just started playing the banjo, and Leigh started playing the guitar. I got turned onto Flatt and Scruggs, and then he did. And I think just the fact that we were playing bluegrass instruments lead us into the field. We liked classic country just as much, but Leigh once said that, you know, the banjo is what drove us into bluegrass. I never really thought of it like that. But, anyway, we got hooked on it early—in our teens or pre-teens—and we listened to a lot of different first generation bluegrass artists and then got into the more progressives styles as well. But cutting our teeth on the traditional stuff has informed our music more than anything.

Some people want to take the music further, and others want to stay closer to the tradition. It seems that your latest release is consciously sticking a bit closer to the roots than the branches.

Well, I honestly don’t feel that there was any kind of design when we made that record. We weren’t making a statement about tradition or anything, but on the spectrum we probably lean more to the traditional end of things. I find myself listening to all kinds of music and I think there is room for it al. But, my favorite bluegrass has moss on it. The older stuff is what I like the most. I don’t think there is anything out there today that does it for me like that sound.

There are performers and writers that seem to feel that that there is only value in doing things that haven’t been done before.

I’d like to think that, with our writing, we’re doing things that haven’t been done before. Maybe not groundbreaking in some people’s view, but I’d like to think that we’re adding to it in our own way. I’d like to think that. [Laughs] I don’t know if it’s true or not, but we take pride in our songwriting and in finding strong material. And I think doing that is helping us carve out our niche in the music.

But I also think that we have our own sound, and we have a band that we’re really proud of. All the guys really trying to serve the song, and no egos. There’s not a lot of look at me stuff, it’s look at the song stuff. I like that.

You’re harmonies are fantastic. What is it about brothers singing harmony? There seems to be something special there.

Leigh and I have talked a lot about that quite a bit. You learn to talk at close to the same time, from the same people. Perhaps it’s just they way you pronounce things, or the timbre of your voices. It’s hard for people who aren’t siblings to get that close a blend. Some people do, but being siblings gives you a leg up.

Certainly, it seems to, as with the Louvins, the Everlys, the Carters …

I love the Louvins. They’re my favorite duet, and I think Leigh would say the same thing. We’re actually working real hard right now at that stuff, going through material from all kind of brother duets because we want to do a tribute record where we go back to songs by the Louvins, Everlys, Delmores, the Monroes—all kinds of different brothers throughout country and bluegrass history. I think it would be a fun record to make, and every time we mention it, people seem excited about it. It would be a bit of a departure for us to devote a whole album to that kind of thing. We hope to record it this spring and then it would be out in early 2015. It’s something we’ve been kicking around for ten years or more, and now just seems to be the right time to do it.

Of the covers you’ve been doing from the stage these days, which are the ones that are really working well?

We’ve been doing “Childish Love” by the Louvin Brothers. I think that’s beautiful. And, you know, “Bye, Bye Love” by the Everlys—it’s instantly recognizable and people just love it. We’ve been doing “Long Time Gone” by the York Brothers. The Everlys recorded it too, but the York Brothers wrote it. “You’re Running Wild” is going over very well. We’ve added some songs to the show just recently, but we’ve got a bunch of others that we’re just getting ready to work up.

But we agonize over these decisions [around song choice]. I don’t know if people realize that, but we really do. We want every song to have its own space, and on a record I don’t want two songs that are similar. I want them all to have their own little spot.

You’re playing a Henderson guitar. How long have you had that?

I’ve had it for about two years. Leigh’s playing one as well and they’re a matched pair, made out of the same batch of wood. It’ll be two years this summer since we got them, and they’re just getting better all the time. And they were great to begin with.  We’re very fortunate to have that.

Did you have to visit Wayne Henderson all the time, and take him donuts and stuff.

[Laughs] You know all about that, huh? Yeah, we made some visits. We had a friend that just went through that. He had to find out what pie he liked. But Wayne’s so cool. I’ve never seen a more humble or more talented guy. He’s just so humble! But it would be good to be Wayne, you know? We played his festival, and just to see how much people respect him when he walks into a crowd. He just has a way about him. I feel really lucky to know him. He’s a joyful guy. Happy to be alive, and to have found what he’s really great at. And he really is.

You guys are on the road a lot, for a lot of years, and I just wonder if it gets tiresome? There’s that Claire Lynch song, “Hills of Alabam” where she sings “tomorrow brings another town/and we’ll be on our way/we’ll hit the road and have a song/and then we’ll have nothing to say/for hours on end.” Have you ever gotten to that point? Do you ever run out of things to say?

Oh, yeah, sometimes. But most times we marvel at the fact that we still have things to say. Lots of times we’ll drop Leigh off in the Albany area and then Mike and I have got three more hours until we’re home. That’s usually how our trip ends. And we still find things to talk about. Some of them are pretty foolish. [Laughs] But there are times when there’s nothing to say, but that’s when you read, or listen to music, or think. But that is a great song. [Lynch] recorded that one at least twice, and I love both of them.

 

Interview with James Alan Shelton

Update: When this piece was posted, Shelton emailed saying “I just wanted to say thank you so much for the wonderful story. It was one of the best I’ve ever had done about me and my music. I could tell from the interview that you were familiar with my guitar playing and I certainly appreciate that. It was truly a fine piece of work.” Not long after that he very sadly passed away after a battle with cancer. He was a wonderful musician, and a wonderful person.

(for KDHX) James Alan Shelton has been playing, touring and recording with Ralph Stanley for twenty years, longer than any guitar player Stanley has ever worked with. I reached him by phone to talk about what it’s like to have your dream job.

Continue reading Interview with James Alan Shelton

Interview with Greg Cahill

(HVBA)

Greg Cahill - BanjoGreg Cahill is, in so many ways, the embodiment of bluegrass music: honest, friendly, and in it not because he wants to be, necessarily, but because he has to be. I was fortunate to reach him at his home on a day that he was, as he says, unpacking his suitcase, doing the laundry, and packing it all in again in order to head back out on the road. Through it all, he tries to be an ambassador for the music and, frankly, you couldn’t find a better one.

Continue reading Interview with Greg Cahill

Interview with Chris Eldridge

(KDHX)
I reached guitarist Chris Eldridge at his home in Brooklyn, N.Y., during a break from a tour that will eventually bring Punch Brothers to St. Louis and the Sheldon Concert Hall on January 25.

Eldridge noted that it was nice to have a break from the road, to see friends and to sleep in his own bed, so I began by asking if being the son of a very successful musician — Ben Eldridge of the Seldom Scene — had prepared him for what life would be like as a professional musician.

Chris Eldridge: Despite being very successful at what [the Seldom Scene] did, they were never a band that toured. They were always guys who had regular, white-collar jobs that went to work from 9 to 5, and then they played, basically, on the weekends, or they’d take a couple days off work and they got to be successful despite that.

So, I think I had a bit of a wacky view of what it was to be a musician. And the thing is, I love doing what I do and feel extremely grateful. There aren’t a lot of people who get to do what they love and make a living at it. Despite some of the craziness that goes along with not being at home for months on end, I feel very lucky.

Glen Herbert: Perhaps despite the craziness of the road, nevertheless, whenever you are on stage or on TV, it seems that the five of you [in the Punch Brothers] are having an absolute ball. Is it really as fun as you make it look?

Yes! I think it is. Especially when we get to actually be on stage. We all like each other, we get along really well. And I don’t mean that it’s some great relief to get on stage, but it really is the best part of the day, when we actually get to play and to be there with the people who come to the shows and are ready to have an experience with us and we’re ready to have an experience with them. It’s a joy to get to do that.

There was a video I saw that you did, and you were playing in a trailer, an Airstream trailer of some sort, and it looked like any one of you was about to laugh at any point. It seemed that it was a joy that was coming directly from the music you were making.

Yeah, that was an on-air streaming thing. Yes, we love playing music and we like each other and we’re very lucky. It can be easy to take it for granted and to get dark about being on the road all the time or being away from home, but there’s definitely a flip side to that.

It seems that you play to a pretty unique audience. Do you get a sense that that’s true? How would you characterize the people that come out to see the shows?

Our audience is really great. We’ve been around for a while now, and we’ve kind of built our audience slowly, and as a result it’s a pretty varied audience in terms of stages and backgrounds. I don’t really know — it would be funny for me to try and identify what the common thread is — but the development of our audience wasn’t a flash in the pan.

So the cool thing for us is that we’ve developed our fan base over a long time, and therefore we have a longer-term relationship with them. I think it’s cool that when they come to a show that they’re very willing to let us lead them someplace. Part of their expectation is that we might take them someplace they may not expect, but they’re totally prepared to be along for the ride.

What kinds of plans are you hatching for the year ahead? What can we expect from the Punch Brothers in the near future?

We’re doing a tour that carries through mid-February, and then we’re going to take some time off from touring. We’re still going to play shows here and there, but our priority is going to shift to writing the next Punch Brothers’ record, which is something that we’re all really excited about.

There have been some really interesting and exciting sparks for songs when we were on the road last year, some stuff that feels just really good and slightly different than what we’ve done in the past, but I’m really excited about it.

So there’s some writing that we’re going to do as a band, but it’s also good that we have time as individuals this year to do other things. I’ve just finished working on a score for a little independent film. I’d never done that before, so that was a cool project for me to embark on. I did a little project with Julian Lage, a great guitar player.

So those are two things I have on my immediate horizon, and I know everybody else is doing similar things in their downtime from the band — which is, I think, really important. It’s important to be able to step away from something like that and rejuvenate your creative energy; to put yourself in a different context where you really have to quick on your feet. I think doing that and having those experiences you bring them back to the band.

The “Ahoy” EP has been getting some attention, and it has some material that is a bit different, too. Is it true that those are tracks that didn’t make it onto “Who’s Feeling Young Now?”

It is. Those are all things that we cut for the record. And, actually, as individual songs, some of those tracks were some of our favorites, like “Another New World.” But they were misfits. Those songs didn’t really belong on the full album that we trying to make. They weren’t a part of that album, and they would have taken away from [the creative vision for that album]. So, it’s actually kind of fun that they still got to see the light of day. That’s the nice thing about over cutting for an record, you get to have little treats like that afterward.

88.1 KDHX welcomes Punch Brothers to the Sheldon Concert Hall on January 25.

An interview with Darrell Scott

(KDHX)

There are no easy labels for Darrell Scott. In his career he’s been a first-call session musician in Nashville, a songwriter, performer, collaborator and producer — and he recently toured with Robert Plant as part of his Band of Joy.

In Scott’s world, it’s not that he’s all over the map, but rather it’s just a very big map. In the end, as he discussed with me on the phone from his home in Nashville, whatever it is that he’s doing or wherever he is, it’s all music.

Glen Herbert: What’s the new project, and when is it coming out?

Darrell Scott: I’ve got a new record coming out in January called “Long Ride Home.”

How does it differ from the other things you’ve done?

This one in terms of style is very country. Still singer-songwriter oriented, I’ve written all the songs, but if someone were to hear it they’d probably know within the first 10 seconds that this is old-style country.

This is country music from my childhood basically. In my band for that [album] was a guy named Pig Robbins on piano. His first hit that he played on was 1961, George Jones, a song called “White Lightning.” And Pig has just been a central piano player for the next 30 years after that, I would say. And so when I wanted to make this record, sort of an old country sounding record, I simply hired some of the people who played on old country back when it was old country. Pig was one of those. And a guy named Lloyd Green on pedal steel. I used upright bass, which is the old sound of country music, as opposed to an electric bass.

I tend to make records that have a sonic kind of theme, for example on this one old country music would be the theme, or other records that have a subject matter of a theme, like “A Crooked Road,” a double CD that to me was based on the idea of how did I get here. So that becomes a subject, a theme that will try to hold the record together.

So that’s the musical theme on that one. On “A Crooked Road” it was looking at 30 years of relationships, just somehow taking off on this road of chasing love and marriage and romance and all this stuff. Thirty years of it and being a 50-year-old man. And that’s the other thing — I turned 50 while I made the record — and somehow that seems significant as it related to the subject, looking at this crooked road of me chasing love and relationships. So it just seemed like, OK, this is a record for me to play everything on it. Because it’s such a personal note and a personal view. I’ve always wanted to make a record where I played everything, anyway. And so I just went ahead and did that. And it seemed the appropriate record to go ahead and do that.

On the title track from your last album, “A Crooked Road,” you sing that you are a happy man, though it comes off like you are convincing yourself a bit. So I’ll ask you in the words of the song: Do you “have the makings to be a happy man”?

Absolutely! Part of it is not even what they are. It’s that you doubted that you even had the makings for, like, decades. If you didn’t think you ever could be happy, which is where I come from, the idea that you had the makings, not that you even had them. It’s so humble, it’s so beaten, and all that you can muster, of recognition of yourself, is just that you have the makings of it, not that you even have it. But I mean it that I have the makings, and that I’m even working at it. Because [happy] was never even a word that could ever describe me, say, years ago or beyond. That it could be or would be is a very, very recent piece of information.

You mentioned playing with others on the new project, though on “A Crooked Road” you played all the instruments yourself. Was that a more difficult process than working with a band in the studio?

It’s just another way to do it. I love playing with musicians. I love playing a solo show and it’s just me. I love being in the studio with great bluegrass players, and making another record that had more country in it, or more rock. I love it all. I didn’t sense anything that was difficult. It’s just another way to do it. And, I probably won’t do that again, probably because I don’t need to. Plus I love playing with other musicians. But it seemed appropriate to the personal subject matter.

In an interview you once noted that you like to bring something unique to the songwriting community. What do you bring to the songwriting community, or what do you hope to bring to it?

I’d like to think that I bring authenticity. I’d like to think that. [laughs] I hope that’s what I bring.

What is the skill of a songwriter?

Well, it’s a number of things, on some level. I don’t mean this as crassly as it will sound. It’s not just songwriters, but any artist, to be able to manipulate — and that sounds like a terrible word, but I don’t mean it as such — to manipulate emotional things, and kind of direct it somewhere. To direct emotions and focus them into a 3 to 4, or maybe 5 minute kind of thing so that there’s something revealed or expressed in that 3 to 5 minutes. And then it was worth taking the ride on if you were a listener. It’s like, “That was worth spending 5 minutes on.” You know? For now that’s what comes out answering that question [laughs]. Tomorrow it could be different.

Often when people introduce or interview you they begin with a list of all the many things you’ve done in your career as a musician, from the writing and performing to the collaborations, to the awards you’ve won. But if you were to introduce yourself, what is the thing that you are most proud of, perhaps that you would put out front? What is the aspect of your career that you are most proud of?

I think it’s the ability or the luxury to slip in and out of all sorts of different camps, from very personal singer-songwriter records to being in a band with Robert Plant, to having been in the studio world where I’ve helped to produce a Guy Clark record. Slipping in and having a song that goes number one out on the country charts — I like it all, I really do. And I really feel that I bring it all back to my own personal records, but I don’t know if anyone else would see it that way or agree.

But I like that freedom, because to me that is what creative freedom is — the ability and freedom to jump over here in this world a little bit, come back into my own records, jump over into that world, and come back to my own records. I like that, I’m proud of that. I’m kind of glad that you can’t easily nail down exactly what I do, because I could do something that, to me, doesn’t look like some crazy, giant leap or move.

It’s all music, is really what it amounts to. Whether it’s a number one country song that I’ve written, and being in Robert Plant’s Band of Joy, having my own records, and playing festivals that most of the music world doesn’t even know about. I like just jumping in and out of all that stuff. To me it’s fun. And I like to be a part of something that works in all of those capacities, and that I’ve not made some musical mistake or decision. I just see it all as music.