The world of fiddling has seen tremendous growth over the last decade, not only in numbers, but also from a technical and creative standpoint. Tristan Clarridge and Brittany Haas are at the forefront of this vibrant scene and are increasingly leaving their mark on the rapidly evolving world of neo-stringband music. Both originally from California, they are now members of Boston-based Crooked Still, an incredibly talented quintet that has blazed new trails with their explorations of mostly traditional American roots music put to a freshly woven string groove.
Tristan Clarridge began his fiddling on the contest scene, and along with his older sister Tashina, was a dominant force in the major contests of the West, especially the prestigious Grand National Championship held in Weiser, Idaho, which Tristan has won four times. He also developed an interest in cello along the way, and as fate would have it, it was this that opened up his current opportunity with Crooked Still when his cello mentor, Rushad Eggleston, a founding member, left the band in 2007. Proving himself an incredibly quick study, Tristan stepped into Rashad’s formidable shoes, where the cello serves as the driving rhythmic force, a distinguishing sound that gives the band much of its identity.
Brittany Haas captured national attention as a teenage fiddler with the release of her solo CD and as a member of Darol Anger’s Republic of Strings. An inventive interpreter of southern old time fiddle tunes, she’s a versatile fiddler who can play bluegrass, Celtic, swing, and more modern fiddle styles. A 2009 graduate of Princeton University, she’s been a full-time musician for barely more than a year. As a college student, she managed to find time to perform with banjo player Tony Trischka, comedian and banjo player Steve Martin, her old time fiddle mentor, Bruce Molsky, and of course, her current band, Crooked Still.
On the heels of Crooked Still releasing their highly regarded fourth album, I met up with Brittany and Tristan in the San Francisco Bay Area in June, 2010.
What are the hard parts of playing in a band like Crooked Still –– what challenges you?
Brittany: I think the soloing aspects of it, because I’ve always considered myself better at playing old time than bluegrass, maybe just because I like that vibe better, where everybody’s all playing together at the same time. But being opposite people like Greg and Tristan, who are really great at taking crazy solos –– not necessarily showy things, but things that really express what they’re trying to do but in this really fast kind of way. In a super fast song, just being able to get something out, like a meaningful solo... I find that pretty tricky.
Tristan: Me, too.
Do you try to work them out ahead of time pretty much?
Brittany: Sometimes. I generally improvise a bunch. I guess I don’t really ever completely work things out, even though sometimes I think I should. It’s sort of one of my inner monologue things, where I’m thinking, “Should I go the route of deciding what I’m going to do, or should I try to stick to my gut feeling, which is like, if you’re improvising, you should do it on the spot and incorporate whatever you happen to be feeling, even though that can go horribly wrong if your brain isn’t as quick as your fingers…
Tristan, what’s the most challenging part of the cello role in the band?
Tristan: I guess I would say a lot of the same –– soloing is definitely a hard element, and having grown up as a fiddle player, I think a lot as a fiddle player, but then everything is so much larger and harder to get to on the cello. So technically, to play the same thing that I would think of as a fiddle player ends up not really being something that I can use or pull off on the cello. So I generally feel like my fingers are a bit behind what I’m trying to get out, so I work on that a lot, especially for soloing. I don’t ever really work out a solo, but sometimes I’ll sort of have a structure of a solo in mind –– a way that I can try to put a solo in context of the song. Sometimes it helps to just have an idea of, “Well, maybe I’ll start high and work my way down, or maybe I’ll start low” –– there will be little pieces, but I’ll improvise how I get between them. I tend to find that if I work out a solo and then I try to play it over and over again, it starts to feel, and probably sound, very stale.
Brittany: I think another Crooked Still-specific challenge is how Aoife approaches singing –– she’s not just a singer, it’s more like another musician in that she’s always switching things up and changing melodies here and there. You can’t be like, “Oh, she’s going to do a phrase that’s this length, and I’m going to do a little fill,” it’s more interactive than that, which is pretty cool. And sometimes I think that I maybe go a little bit overboard with filling, since we’re sort of a bluegrass band but not really. There’s not a mandolin player, and sometimes Greg plays fills, but that’s not really his style –– he plays so rhythmically most of the time that I sometimes step over that space that’s in there. I’ll be like, “nobody else is taking the fill, so I’ll do it.” But I enjoy that, sort of having that voice that’s in the same range as the vocals.
Talk about your perception of what’s happening in the world of fiddling.
Tristan: It seems like a particularly vibrant time for the fiddle scene right now.
And you guys are in the middle of it…
Tristan: Boston right now in a lot of ways is really a center for it…
Brittany: And there’s a really cool overlap of styles that I guess has been happening for awhile, but it’s more apparent in kids who have grown up not really doing any one style in particular.
Yeah. When I was getting into fiddle music, people played their style –– they didn’t even really listen outside. If you played Texas fiddle, then that’s all you really knew, and bluegrass was walled off. And now we’re definitely seeing the totally opposite thing.
Brittany: I think I felt that a little bit. Like “Oh, I’m taking bluegrass lessons,” and then “Oh, I’m going to Scottish camp,” but then at a certain point there are so many things all trying to combine themselves in your brain, it’s like, why compartmentalize?
Tristan: That’s when they just become your sound, just how you play.
Brittany: Yeah, you can have a bluegrass jam one second and then play an old time tune. It’s no big deal –– it’s all music.
Tristan: It’s interesting because a lot of these musical traditions have developed partially because of that kind of isolation –– people only knowing what they knew that was right around them. I guess that’s kind of true of any traditional music that develops, certainly the old time stuff. And it’s interesting because that isolation just isn’t there now at all –– with the internet, and buying music off i-Tunes… So you get all these young players that, for better or worse, don’t really identify with a certain way of playing or a certain kind of jam –– they just get together and just play whatever it is that comes to mind. So I’m really curious to see what that will lead to and what the differences are.
[For the full text of this interview, purchase the winter 2010/11 issue!]
Crooked Still: www.crookedstill.com
Tristan’s other band, the Bee Eaters: http://beeeaters.com
[Jack Tuttle is the music editor of Fiddler Magazine and the author of twelve instruction books. He teaches bluegrass banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and guitar and old time and Celtic fiddle in Palo Alto, California. Please see his website at www.jacktuttle.com for more information.]