After the Gibson Brothers’ show in Poughkeepsie last May, more than a few audience members - impressed as they were with the show in general - were inspired to ask specifically about the (relatively) new recruit playing the mandolin. “Who is this guy?” seemed to be the question of the night. Well, now we know. ‘This Guy’ is Joe Walsh and, though known among mandolin devotees for some time now, his inclusion in the current Gibson Brothers line-up has brought his tasteful, melodic and dynamic playing style to a much broader group of music lovers. Always impressive yet never flashy, his thoughtful approach to both rhythm and lead playing makes him a valued member of this - and any - band.
As the very first Mandolin Performance graduate from Berklee College of Music in 2008 and a busy teacher of both guitar and mandolin, Joe brings substantial musical insight to his playing. It’s no surprise then, that he is garnering increasing acclaim for both his work with the Gibsons, and as a capable band- leader in his own right. His 2009 release ‘Saturday Night Waltz’ showcases his wide-ranging musical palette. His most recent record ‘Sweet Loam’ is a real feast for the ears and underscores his continuing growth as an arranger and performer of the highest caliber.
In addition to being a talented musician, Joe is a very personable guy who took time out from his busy day to answer a few questions about his burgeoning career, playing with the Gibsons and the music that inspires him.
How did you get your start in music? Was the mandolin your first instrument?
Mandolin was a latecomer to my hands. I started on the piano at about 5 or 6 years old. We had one in the house and I gravitated towards that. Not a great way to wake my parents up! Then I was nudged towards the trombone but like a lot of kids, being nudged towards an instrument, I didn’t quite take to it as well. When I finally chose the guitar, and subsequently the mandolin, I was lot more fired-up about it. That was late high school when I started making music of my own volition.
Who are your biggest influences? Mandolin players and musicians generally?
As far as mandolin players go, I listen to Dan Tyminski. I really like his playing. I hear he doesn’t like his own mandolin playing so much but I do! There’s a young guy called Dominic Leslie, who is as good a mandolin player as there has ever been and I like Mike Marshall a lot too.
What gets the most plays on your iPod right now?
I’m on a piano kick right now, to be honest. I love bluegrass and it’s a big part of my life but I listen to a lot more at home. I just listen to the music I like. The main player, for me, these days is a guy called Brad Mehldau. He’s a very cool jazz piano player. Jazz can be overly intellectualized but he plays in a very engaging way, which gives you something to grab on to.
How did your experience at Berklee College of Music shape the kind of player you are today?
As a musician, you always want to have as many tools as possible at your disposal and going to Berklee certainly gave me a lot more. You don’t need to go to school to study bluegrass, or any style of music. (They wouldn’t like me saying that – but it’s true.) For me, it set me up with skills that made approaching any music after that a lot easier. Specifically, I had ear training, so now I can write down melodies after just listening to them. What was especially cool was learning how things work; how to take things apart and put them back together to understand how each note or each chord is functioning. That’s not the best way for everyone to learn but it works for me. I like to think about these things a lot.
Are there other Mandolin Performance students there now - following in your pioneering footsteps?
I believe there are somewhere in the region of 20-25 mandolin students. It’s a really fertile place right now. I’m in Boston every other month or so and there are always 4 or 5 kids I’ve never met before who are just flat-out amazing.
When the Gibson Brothers asked you to play Mandolin with them, what was it about their music that made you take the job?
I was always told to get yourself in a situation where you’re playing with people better than you; these are people who are at the top of the game and who do what they do really, really well. I was psyched to be asked to play with them and to grow with and learn from them.
How is your role with the Gibson Brothers different from your playing with Scott Nygaard and Crow Molly or other bands you’ve played with?
I guess whomever I’m playing with, I’m always trying to match the song or play whatever is appropriate for that group. When you’re playing with someone else who sings differently or brings different ideas to the table, the way I’ll play is going to reflect that.
Apart from shows with the Gibson Brothers, what’s keeping you busy these days?
Well, I teach quite a lot. I teach 3 days a week up here in Portland. We must have 300 or 400 students at this little folk music school. And the bluegrass standards are as well known among these kids as Britney Spears or whatever. It’s really inspiring.
After your last show here, a lot of people were talking about the incredible tone you get from your mandolin. How did you come to hear about Lloyd LaPlant and to own such a great sounding instrument?
I feel very lucky. My folks live about an hour and a half down the road from him and he was always revered and spoken about in hushed tones! At one point I made a pilgrimage up to visit him and he couldn’t have been more welcoming. It was an eye-opening day because he has an amazing collection of instruments that rivals any I’ve seen. He asked me if I’d ever played a Lloyd Loar - or this or that great instrument. I stayed there for hours playing all his mandolins. He had one of his available and was generous with me about trying to make it work. The one I have now is the second one of his I’ve owned. I don’t picture ever parting with it.
What are your goals for the future? What’s on your musical ‘to do’ list?
There are a lot of things I’m giving myself to practice to better match what the Gibsons do. That’s a large part of my list of assignments. I just put out a new record, too. I’ll be sending some of those out soon.
I know you teach guitar. Do you get to play it much?
That’s one of the things I want to work on. I just bought an old semi-electric archtop. That’s a huge part of what I’m doing right now. A lot of times when I come home, I’m just working on guitar; trying to get better at that. I’m working on simple jazz and western swing-type stuff. The more I learn about the guitar, the more I’m likely to be inspired to bring something similar back to the mandolin. It spurs growth in both areas.
What takes up most of your time: writing, practicing, teaching or performing?
Probably all of them! I always lament that I don’t have more time. Writing and practicing more is a huge goal but I’d like to do everything more… and I’d like to do it all better!
What does a typical practice session look like?
I try and practice specific things. These days, I’m trying to work on my right hand; trying to develop fluidity at higher speeds. So, I’ll just work on open strings, with the metronome, for as long as I can stand it! I like to try and do an hour a day. That’s my goal. Whatever I’m trying to work on, I like to try and find a way to isolate those elements without getting distracted by other stuff.
What advice do you have for aspiring mandolin players?
When I’m teaching, I like to make it contingent on whatever the student is interested in. You have to really want to play. If it’s a tune they don’t like so much, they may never touch it again. A lot of fiddle tunes are really good for working on right and left-hand problems but if I had to boil it down, my advice would be: it’s a marathon, not a sprint. The only things I’m good at now, musically, are the things I gave myself permission to sound bad at as I was learning them. You can’t give yourself a test after the first week!