When I first started out to interview Matt Brown, I figured it would be a nice change of pace from my usual traditional Irish fiddling interviews, a way to feature someone local to me (in Pennsylvania), and a way to help an up-and-coming young fiddler.
I was wrong on all counts! As for a change of pace, every striving, growing musician has common themes in their development –– in environment, relationships, teachers, and gigs, etc. As for featuring someone local to me, not anymore; Matt is almost always on the go –– touring weeks or months at a time, teaching and playing as he goes from place to place. And, as for, “an up-and-coming fiddler,” he’s not one any more! Once you are asked to perform at the Kennedy Center as part of the “Millennium Stage Artist Series,” you can no longer be considered “up and coming” in any way. (You can watch Matt’s performance at the Kennedy Center online by following the link at the end of this interview.)
There’s no way I can match the excellent writing done by the folks at the Kennedy Center, who called Matt “an innovative fiddler, an intricate banjo player, a propulsive guitar player, and a powerful singer.” I mean, that’s a bunch of great adjectives! So let me just say, “here’s this young guy, who sings, plays guitar, banjo, fiddle, and is an expert on American roots music. And if you go see him you’ll learn something. And, oh yeah, he’s a really nice guy.” Ladies and gentlemen, here is Matt Brown.
Tell us about your beginnings. When did you begin playing music? Was there music in your household, or other environments, such as school, church, or neighborhood?
I began taking Suzuki violin lessons on September 8th, 1988, four years and one minute after I was born. My father bought his first banjo way back in1972, and by the time I was a reality, decided he wanted to raise a fiddler.
So I started with the Suzuki method, learning classical violin both aurally and by reading music, but I was surrounded by old time square dance tunes at home. We were at a square dance the night before I was born, and from my father’s band rehearsals to the fiddlers’ conventions we visited in the summer, traditional American music was part of my environment. I will admit that for those first couple of years music was compulsory. I was a decent classical violinist, sang in a local men and boys choir, and dutifully learned “Cripple Creek,” “Old Joe Clark,” and a number of other fiddle tunes. As I entered my teenage years, though, I had a revelation. Classical music was obviously a serious pursuit that required discipline, isolation, and severe self-criticism, while old time music was inevitably accompanied by delicious food, dirty jokes, and good company. I know that the social aspect of old time music ensnared me.
Once I was hooked on being around it and participating, I began to realize how remarkably beautiful the tunes are. Even in my early teens, I had all the technical training to play a fiddle tune convincingly, whereas I still had hundreds of hours to go in classical music to reach a similar proficiency. I liked the approachable nature of the fiddle tune melodies, how the tunes are just the right length to be complete and developed, but short enough to be hum-ably satisfying. And they cover such a wide emotional spectrum. Some are so clearly exuberant, while others (like the “lonesome Kentucky tunes” that capivate some old time fiddlers) seem to embody melancholy and grief.
Who in your life has nurtured your talents? Teachers? Other fiddlers? Heroes? Or just plain drove you to where the music was?
First of all, my parents… Now that I think of it, I really had about the best possible parents. At least twice, my parents gave me a fiddle lesson with a master musician as a birthday present. One year it was Rafe Stefanini (by far the best Italian old time musician of all time. Also one of the few, but he is phenomenal). And I think the very next year, my parents flew Bruce Greene up from North Carolina to teach me some of those lonesome Kentucky fiddle tunes and give a concert. My dad also put on a one-time festival in Wilmington, Delaware, called the American Roots Festival. I don’t recall it being all that well attended, but it had an amazing lineup: Mike Seeger, Paul Brown, Dirk Powell, Tim O’Brien et al. If I recall correctly, I played an opening set one of the nights, then Paul was kind enough to include me on some of his songs along with Mike.
I even was precocious enough to put on a full-length concert at my high school in tenth grade, and once again, my parents were instrumental (pun intended). They brought John Herrmann up from North Carolina to be my primary accompanist for the old time portion of the show. I played classical music to start the program, then my jazz teacher played an interlude while I got changed, then the second half was all old time with John and a few of our great local musicians (Rusty Neithammer, Nancy Neithammer, Paul Sidlick, and my dad, Tim Brown).
But that event, like a lot of the formative events in my life, would not have been possible without such supportive and enthusiastic parents. I cannot thank them enough, and they still help me in countless ways. My dad and I have a record company together called 5-String Productions, and 5-String has put out each one of my albums in addition to a bunch of others. There’s no way I could afford to put out a CD on my own, and Dad’s financial and time investment in my recordings and my career has been essential. Without his entrepreneurial spirit and my mom’s tireless support and encouragement, I would not be able to do this for a living.
I have been graced with many extraordinary mentors. Linda Litwin, of Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, was my Suzuki violin teacher from my fourth birthday into my teenage years. I then studied violin with Rich Amoroso of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Palmer Loux was my first fiddle teacher, and is one of the stalwarts of the Philadelphia-area old time scene. Others in the scene, Sue Shumaker, Paul Sidlick, and my father, Tim Brown, were my first band mates. There is an incredible group of local musicians who play old time music. They play dances, weddings, and other such events, but the focus for most is really just to jam. Rusty and Nancy Neithammer spent lots of time with Tommy Jarrell, for example, and most everyone in the scene can name the source of each tune they play. They can all learn new tunes up to speed in jam sessions. Some have studied music and can read from a page, but a lot of folks have just been drawn specifically to old time music, and have learned it organically, without any formalized training. They listen to the old commercial string band recordings or the variety of field recordings and really soak in the music that way.
As a teenager, I started attending two of the week-long intensive camps that specialize in promoting traditional music: Old Time Week at The Swannanoa Gathering in Swannanoa, North Carolina, and Southern Week at Ashokan, in the Catskills of New York. At those two camps, I got to meet, learn from, and jam with Brad Leftwich, Rafe Stefanini, John Herrmann, Tom Sauber, Alice Gerrard, Carl Jones, Bruce Molsky, Dirk Powell, Bruce Greene, Paul Brown, Rayna Gellert... the list is huge, and includes most of the best musicians of my parents’ generation, as well as a few of the younger titans. I’ve had a few visits with some of the venerable senior musicians, including Red Wilson, Benton Flippen, Lester McCumbers, and Violet Hensley, but those visits have been too few for my liking.
[For the rest of this interview, and Matt's transcription of "Fire on the Mountain," purchase the spring 2010 issue of Fiddler Magazine.]
• 5-String Productions: www.5-string.com
• Matt’s performance at the Kennedy Center:
[Tim McCarrick works as a music editor for J.W. Pepper. He has written about fiddle playing for Fiddler Magazine and Mel Bay’s Fiddle Sessions website. He has nearly 20 arrangements published for school orchestras from Mozart and Beethoven, to Gershwin and Led Zeppelin, and he is also working on a string method book, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is why he never updates the Irish Fiddle website! He lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with one wife, two daughters, two dogs, and lots of stringed instruments.]
Above photo by Tim Brown, 5-String Productions