Pirate Canoe LUMINARIES- Andy Bing

As anyone who frequents the HVBA jams at Pirate Canoe Club in Poughkeepsie knows, HVBA jams are frequented by some of the most talented and interesting people around. So that we can get to know more about our P.C. Luminaries – not that everyone who joins the jams is not a luminary! – we decided to post occasional interviews with frequent jammers so that you can get to know them better.

Our first interview features Andy Bing. Andy is an original member of the HVBA, an important attorney in New York State, and a tremendously talented and generous musician who has been kind enough to share his story with us. Thanks, Andy!

Q: Tell us a little about yourself – where you grew up, where you live, your work, your interests, family – anything you’d like to share with us.

A: I grew up in Wynantskill, New York, which is near Troy. In those days, Wynantskill was the last town before the country started, and there were farms very nearby. It was a great place to be a boy in. Kids had a lot more unstructured, unsupervised play then, and I remember endless summer days sitting under shady trees when it was too hot to play ball. There were fields for baseball playing, streams and ponds for fishing, and lots of quiet paths for bike riding.

For the past 24 years, I’ve lived in Saugerties in Ulster County, near the Hudson and in the shadow of the Catkills. Later this summer, I’ll be moving to Castleton-on-Hudson, which is on the east side of the river about eight miles south of Albany. My wife Kathy loves bluegrass and I recently gave her a guitar for her birthday, and we are looking forward to playing music together. I have two daughters, both of whom enjoy music, and as of this fall, both will be in college (where does the time go?). My day job keeps me pretty busy: I work in Albany as a lawyer for the State.

Q: Have you always been a musical guy? When did you start playing an instrument, and what instrument was it?
A: I’ve always loved music, but I didn’t begin playing an instrument until I was a high school senior. I was inspired by Bob Dylan to learn the harmonica. Back in those days, instructional material was pretty scarce, so I spent a lot of hours in front of the stereo trying to figure out what Dylan was doing. One of the first harmonica solos I learned from a record was Neil Young’s on “Heart of Gold.”

Q: Was bluegrass a first love? What’s been your musical journey?
A: Bluegrass, and especially the sound of the five-string banjo, have been favorites of mine for as long as I can remember. When I was a boy, my parents listened almost exclusively to classical music. However, my mother had some Broadway show tune albums and one Irish folk album with a lot of banjo and guitar played by an Englishman named John Hasted who sounded like a Pete Seeger disciple. That record and the My Fair Lady album were my two favorites as a pre-schooler. My parents noticed my interest in folk music and bought me more folk albums, including two of the Hootenanny anthologies on Decca that had a lot of bluegrass, such as Bill Monroe and the Osborne Brothers. The oldest record I still have is a Pete Seeger Folkways album my parents bought me for my seventh birthday. For a while after that, folk music took a back seat to more typical boyish pursuits, including baseball, but I always had an ear on the current pop music scene. Near the end of high school, I took up the harmonica, as I mentioned, and then I asked my parents for a guitar as a graduation present. By then I was listening to a lot of rock, and I began to play in a rock band with some friends. That was my first experience performing music, and I enjoyed it a lot. The rock influence was taking hold. It wasn’t long before I had a Telecaster, then a Strat. The New Wave was cresting then, and I was deeply influenced by Elvis Costello, Talking Heads and Television. These musicians were my age (more or less) and I felt a great kinship with their words and music. But I hadn’t lost touch with my folk roots. The first mandolin player I ever saw live was Jimmy Page, when Led Zeppelin played Madison Square Garden in June 1977. The band did a long acoustic set, and Page played mandolin on “Battle of Evermore” and some other tunes. I liked the sound and, once again, my parents came through, this time buying me a $50 Kay mandolin for Christmas. I began trying to decode mandolin music, from fiddle tunes to Mozart. Then, around 1980, I met Mike Graven, a folk player who re-introduced me to folk music, particularly Irish folk music, and the banjo. He was playing Scruggs-style banjo on Irish tunes, and it sounded great. He also listened to bluegrass, and turned me on to Bill Keith’s “Something Auld, Something Newgrass” LP, which really opened my mind to banjo possibilities. I traded my Strat for a Guild flattop, and never looked back. Mike and I still play togther every St. Patrick’s Day in the Owego, NY area.

Q: What’s your relationship with music in general, bluegrass in particular?
A: I enjoy music as a performer with several bands, a casual player (”the last to leave the jam,” Anson Olds once said), a fan and a listener. I’ve also tried teaching, and that has given me a very high regard for those who do it well, some of whom I’ll mention below. Listening is essential–I spend a lot of time in the car, so I listen a lot, and I’m convinced that you can’t play this music well unless you listen attentively. My bluegrass musical focus has lasted for over 25 years and long ago became a very important part of my life. I’ve kept my focus there mostly because I would rather know bluegrass in depth than have only a nodding acquaintance with a lot of different styles. I’m also a voting member of the IBMA, which means I have a (very small) say in who gets the “Bluegrass Grammies.”

Q: Your instruments are mandolin and dobro. How did you arrive to choose them? Which do you consider your main instrument?
A: I mentioned above that Jimmy Page inspired my first attempts to learn the mandolin 30 years ago. But it wasn’t until I got deeper into bluegrass, and in particular the music of Bill Monroe, that the mandolin really began to speak to me musically. Bill’s style was so emotionally powerful that I was initially a little overwhelmed. I remember listening to his 1940’s-era recording of “Blue Grass Breakdown” (with Lester, Earl and Chubby Wise) over and over. In 1982, I moved to Washington, D.C., then a hotbed of bluegrass, and in 1983, I saw Bill Monroe at the Birchmere. Kenny Baker fiddled “Jerusalem Ridge” that night, the first time I’d ever heard that tune, and I was completely captivated. I bought all the Monroe music I could find, and renewed my efforts to learn. In 1991, I had the good fortune of attending a Bill Monroe mandolin workshop at the Peaceful Valley Festival, and when the workshop ended, Bill shook my hand and said, “Take good care of that mandolin now.” I’ve heard it said that what Bill Monroe said to you, you remembered. I remember his soft, melodious voice and very courtly manners. In 1989, I began studying mandolin in Albany with Monroe disciple Lou Martin, who introduced me to the nuances of Bill’s music and thought. Lou is a great teacher who became a great friend and he helped me learn rapidly. My mandolin journey has also been considerably helped by the generosity of a number of other gifted mandolinists, especially Robert Fraker, Dick Staber, and Frank Wakefield.

My interest in dobro also began in earnest at the Birchmere. In 1981, I finally bought a banjo and began trying to learn to play. Someone turned me on to the Seldom Scene, in particular, the “Live at the Cellar Door” LP, and when I moved to Washington the next year, I soon found myself at the Birchmere for the Scene’s weekly Thursday night gig. I loved Ben Eldridge’s banjo playing (still do), but I was entranced by the dobro sounds coming from the other end of the stage, where Mike Auldridge held forth. Mike had a very smooth, vocal quality to his playing, and like Bill, his playing had (and has) a great deal of emotional resonance. He could pack a lot of feeling into a few well-placed notes. I bought a dobro and began trying to play it, at first with little luck. It was very different from the banjo and the mandolin. A friend suggested that I ask Mike Auldridge for lessons. I didn’t think that Mike would teach a rank beginner, but I was wrong. I met him by chance at a music store in Maryland one Saturday afternoon (I was there asking what dobro strings to buy and the clerk said, “Why don’t you ask him?” I turned around to see that Mike had come in and was standing next to me) and was soon taking lessons at Mike’s house in Silver Spring. Nearly everything I’ve done with the instrument I owe to him. He was very friendly and low key but he radiated a musical power that was palpable. I still remember driving home from a lesson feeling giddy with exhileration. And he was a gifted teacher. He had studied music theory in college, and had perfected an approach to teaching dobro that concisely conveyed a lot of information. He was my first music theory teacher, telling me that in the same time it took to teach me one tune he could explain the theory and technique that would enable me to play a thousand tunes. And he did me another big favor as well, putting me in touch with master luthier Dick DeNeve, whose guitars I’ve played since 1984. Having a quality intstrument early was a big part of my learning to play. (Recently I’ve also been playing a guitar by Gregg McKenna, another fine builder.)

I should also mention the banjo, since it was the first bluegrass instrument to capture my imagination. In Washington, I had lessons with my friend Joe Haney, whose brother Dave was then singing lead with Joe Val. Joe helped me unravel the mysteries of the Scruggs style and later, showed me clawhammer technique also. And more recently, I had lessons with Bill Keith, who helped me continue my theory explorations and started me down melodic pathways. Despite all this high-level banjo help, I don’t perform much with the banjo, although I love to play it. The dobro and the mandolin remain my primary instruments, and I don’t consider either of them as more my “main” instrument than the other.

Q: Who are your musical influences, bluegrass and otherwise?
A: My main bluegrass influences instrumentally are Bill Monroe and Mike Auldridge, with Earl Scruggs and Bill Keith being my strongest banjo influences. I also love the dobro playing that “Uncle” Josh Graves did with Lester and Earl back in the 50’s and 60’s. Among the modern crop of mandolin players, I’m quite taken with David Davis and Mike Compton (anybody spotting a trend here?). I’m a huge fan of the singing of Monroe (again), Carter Stanley, Lester Flatt, John Starling, Joe Val, John Duffey and John Herald. Outside bluegrass, I spent a lot of time over the years listening to Pete Seeger, whose ballads remain among my favorite recordings (thankfully reissued on CD). More than anyone else, he and Bob Dylan probably influenced me to begin learning to play these instruments.

Q: Outside of bluegrass, what music do you listen to?
A: A lot of the non-bluegrass I listen to might be considered closely related, e.g., old time music and country music from the 30’s through the 60’s. That includes Western Swing, such as Bob Wills and Milton Brown, and people like Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Ray Price, and, a particular favorite, Ernest Tubb, right up through Buck Owens. On the old time side, I like some of the folks on the Anthology of American Folk Music (20’s and 30’s), as well as the more recent recordings of the Round Peak crowd (Tommy Jarrell, Kyle Creed, Fred Cockerham, etc.), and the revivalists, like the Fuzzy Mountain String Band, and much more recently, the Freight Hoppers, whom I saw in 2001. I enjoy old time music very much, but I have not had the time to study it to the same extent as I have studied bluegrass, so I consider myself an old time dilettante. I’ve been fortunate to attend some of the Jay Ungar/Molly Mason old time jams in Saugerties, and that’s been a great learning experience. Moving further away from bluegrass, I listen to many different kinds of music. I respond to music that has a sincere depth of feeling, so the particular kind of music is often secondary. For example, I like old jazz recordings, from Louis Armstrong and his Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, to Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti, to Django and Stephane, to the Nat King Cole Trio recordings from the 30’s and 40’s. I enjoy soul music from the 50’s and 60’s, especially Sam Cooke, Smokey Robinson and Otis Redding. I like a lot of classical music, from Bach to Mozart to Brahms. I still listen occasionally to the bands that I liked in high school and college, including the New Wave groups I mentioned above and other folks who made innovative music back then, including the Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa and Patti Smith.

Q: Outside of music, how do you like to spend your leisure time?
A: Much of my free time is devoted to spending time with my wife and family. I also enjoy reading, particularly American history and fiction. I try to keep informed about current events. I like old movies, especially noir classics from the 40’s (even the bad ones have a period charm).

Q: What cd’s are you listening to in your car today?
A: The CDs in my car today are the Rounder 25th Anniversary Bluegrass Anthology, yesterday’s were the Complete Starday Recordings of Jim Eanes (with the unbelievable string pulling banjo magic of Allen Shelton).

Q: Tell us a bit about your relationship with the HVBA.
A: I was present at the creation of the HVBA. In the fall of 1994, word went around the Hudson Valley that Jeff Anzevino was asking fellow bluegrass enthusiasts to meet at the Rhinecliff Hotel on a Sunday afternoon in late November with a view to forming an organization for the promotion of bluegrass in the Hudson Valley. At the time, I knew Jeff from the jams sessions that Dick Staber held at his home in Lanesville. Fellow dobro players were scarce, and I was pleased to make his acquaintance. I thought his idea for a bluegrass organization was wonderful, and the meeting went very well. There was a lot of music making, and meeting new friends. I joined, and have been coming to the Pirate Canoe Club jams ever since Jeff started them in 1995. All of the bluegrass fans in the Hudson Valley, myself included, owe Jeff a great debt of gratitude for getting the HVBA off the ground and for keeping it aloft all these years.

I think that the website is a great way to keep everyone in touch, and to keep us all informed about bluegrass happenings in the area. I am also very honored that you asked me to be profiled, and I hope that my answers to your questions are of interest to some of your readers.

Eugene Martinez

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