The vitality of folk music has always depended on two kinds of musicians –– those devoted to preserving it as it was played in the past and those determined to push its boundaries while respecting its roots. When it comes to old time and bluegrass fiddling, twenty-nine year old Casey Driessen has already established himself as one of the most innovative players of his generation. He is a pioneer of the use of the five-stringed violin and a guru of advanced “chop” techniques which allow the fiddle to double as a percussion instrument. His recently released 3D CD, his first feature recording on Sugar Hill Records, is a wild ride through some of the new musical territory that Casey has been carving up with his bow. With its lush overdubbing of multiple fiddle tracks and artful arrangements that run the gamut from dreamy airs to rocking blues, this album may well be the “Sgt. Pepper” of fiddle music.
I ran into him at one of his old haunts, the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, where he was appearing with the Sparrow Quartet, a “next-generation” string band fresh back from a cultural ambassadorship in China. Between his Sparrow show and his solo workshop entitled “The Fiddler with Red Shoes,” we somehow managed to find a quiet spot on the hill to get a sunburn while discussing Casey’s evolution into one of the fiddle’s most respected boundary-pushers.
Casey: I started with Suzuki back when I was five and a half or six years old. My dad played banjo, pedal steel, some guitar. I didn’t necessarily choose fiddle like some people choose instruments. My dad played the heavy instruments like pedal steel and banjo and didn’t want me to have to carry that stuff around. He also thought it would be good to have a fiddle to play some tunes together. So I got into music through my folks. This was up in Minnesota. For a couple of years I was doing classes with Suzuki and did a couple of books that they had. But at the same time, my dad was also teaching me some fiddle tunes –– “Boil them Cabbage,” “Old Joe Clark” –– easy things to start out with. I’m told that the kids in the Suzuki class that I was in wanted to learn the tunes my dad was teaching me. So it wasn’t working out after a little bit and I just continued to take lessons with him.
Did he play fiddle?
No, but he knew music and could figure out enough to be able to teach me. He translated a bunch of tunes from music to tab fingerings. I did read some music and I still do, but I read this tab for a long time. That works fine for fiddle tunes but as I started to get into more complex material it didn’t serve the purposes any more. That was how I started out. It was all home taught. One of the funny stories about it is that I was bribed with baseball cards. We had a list of things and I had to practice a certain amount and I would earn something for it. I remember if I practiced three days in a row, I would get a pack of baseball cards.
So you got plenty of positive reinforcement for practicing.
I’m sure there were times I didn’t like practicing but there was a card I needed for my collection, so I’d practice a little bit. There was one time when if I practiced ninety days in a row, then I got a full set! After a while I saw improvement from practicing and then I didn’t need the incentive of baseball cards. I was probably around twelve at that point. I was going to some [fiddle] camps on my own and I would meet up with my folks at a festival nearby.
Did you learn theory mostly on your own?
Quite a bit. I went to Jamey Aebersold’s jazz camp for a couple of years. I would come from these things with stuff that I would work on for a year. Rather than taking consistent lessons, it was more about collecting information and then trying to apply it until I needed some more.
What did you do for your bowing hand?
I didn’t do as much active stuff for my right hand. Kreutzer’s got a book with forty-two studies for classical violin and there’s one exercise with twenty-five different bowings that you do with the same notes. That frees up your hand quite a bit. If you’re in a predicament, there’s some way that you’ll be able to get out. I think jamming actually had a lot to do with bowing for me. On the spot improvising –– you’ve got to make it work somehow! I’m always playing with a metronome when I practice, too, which I think probably helped the bowing. But I was always horrible in orchestra –– I was the guy with the bow going in the other direction. It was difficult for me to read bowings. Reading the notes was enough!
I notice you hold your bow with the thumb under the frog.
Yeah, I started out that way from Suzuki. As a fiddler I ended up continuing with it. Then when I got into orchestra in fourth grade, the orchestra director told me I had to switch. So reluctantly I did switch for about a year, maybe two, but I wasn’t very happy with it. I went to a fiddle workshop at Winfield, Kansas, and Mark O’Connor was at that workshop and the question was, “How does everybody hold their bow?” He said, “I hold mine like this” [thumb underneath the frog] and I saw that and thought if he can make all that stuff happen with all the control that he has doing that, then I see no reason why I can’t switch back to this because it feels better to me. There’s also this exercise I learned at Berklee College of Music. The metronome is at 80 and you take three octaves with two notes per bow, then three notes, and so on, keeping the bow the same. You really get to know a scale and separate what you are doing here [left hand] from what you are doing here [right arm]. You’re also changing strings in odd places. I still use that when I’m learning new scales. I guess I’m pretty methodical about working on stuff.
When did you start developing your own take on music? Your fiddling has a lot of characteristics that are pretty unique.
I’ve always been interested in different music, any sort of music. In high school, if there was a song writer, I was going down and plugging my fiddle in and trying to play along. Guys writing tunes and playing blues and rock stuff. Jazz tunes. I wanted to figure out how to make the fiddle work in anything. But this first band that I had, Minor Bluegrass, we didn’t have a mandolin player. So I started playing rhythm in that band, doing the chop for the mandolin in the middle of the bow. Then it turned into sort of bouncing the bow on the 16th and 8th notes in between, keeping the emphasis. I was excited about this rhythm thing going on on the fiddle. I thought, hey, this is pretty cool! And then somebody said, “Hey, you should check out the Turtle Island String Quartet.” So then I listened to that and I met Darol Anger a summer or two later and here I find that he’s been doing this for years and years and already has this technique down. I learned what he was doing and borrowed some of that. Then I’d go back to Berklee and I’m playing with a bunch of funk musicians and playing R&B music, and I’m listening to slap bass players and drummers with different grooves. My stuff develops as a result of the music I’m listening to, so it’s going to have its own flavor to it.
In general, when you’re playing, you stay pretty close to the frog, which is not that typical among fiddle players. Did you just get used to playing there from your rhythm playing or have you always done that?
I’ve always tried to use a full bow and holding the thumb down here, you’ve got a little more bow that you can use. At some festival, somebody told me I had a stiff wrist and I needed to work on that. The way I did it was I practiced just playing in one part of the bow. Just trying to use my wrist or use my fingers. It’s not as pretty a sound and it makes things difficult having the weight, but that was one way I started to try and loosen these elements up. Just play tunes there [at the bottom of the bow] for a little bit. But then with the chop things, when you try to play little lines in between, you’re already here [at the frog], so you’ve got to keep playing there so you can be right there for the rhythm. I think as a result of that I feel pretty comfortable [there]. There’s a certain sound that you get. It’s more punctuating. It’s a good way to give more energy or emphasis on certain notes. You get a crunch there. I notice I bend my pinky back when I’m doing the chop things so that I have something to push against. Otherwise it feels like my hand is going to slip off.
[For the rest of this interview, and Casey’s arrangement of “Gaptooth,” purchase the Spring 2008 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
For more information, including sound and video samples, visit Casey’s web site at www.caseydriessen.com. Thanks to Molly Nagel of Sugar Hill Records and Ellen Giurleo of Full House Promotions for their assistance in arranging this interview.
[Peter Anick, co-author of Mel Bay’s “Old Time Fiddling Across America,” plays fiddle with the Massachusetts bluegrass band Wide Open Spaces (www.wideospaces.com).]
Photo: Laura Crosta