The High Lonesome: WWU's Andy Bunn talks about Bluegrass, performing, and family roots

by John Thompson, Office of Communications and Marketing
  • Andy Bunn on stage with the High Mountain String Band
    Andy Bunn on stage with the High Mountain String Band

When WWU Professor of Environmental Sciences Andy Bunn isn't doing field work into his research in carbon cycling, in the classroom with his students at Western, or home with his wife, WWU Associate Professor of Environmental Sciences Rebecca Bunn and their family, odds are you will find him sitting down with friends, his guitar in his lap, picking on a few bluegrass tunes or performing locally in one of two bluegrass bands. 

Drawn to this quintessentially American form of music because of both its ties to his family's roots in Appalachia and the technical ease of most of the tunes - they are easy to learn but difficult to master - we chatted with Bunn about his passion for music, how Bluegrass connects him to his past, and how performing on stage and teaching in the classroom are so similar.

 

When did you start performing music?

I played a terrible rock-and-roll guitar in high school (I graduated in the early '90s). The band was decent by high-school standards but I’m glad the recordings didn’t make it off of cassette and into the digital world. After realizing early on in college that I’d never make a living from music, I put the guitar away and didn’t play much until I picked it up again in earnest a few years ago.

 

How many bands have you been in, and what was your first?

So my very first band was in high school, was named "Derek's Private Library,' and was formed explicitly for purposes of meeting girls. This is why a lot of weird adolescent boys start playing music, in my experience. Can’t say it ever worked very well, though. But playing music is a good way of hanging out with friends and goofing off. 

 

Do you play anything besides guitar?

I play a few other instruments badly – but I really only have time to be mediocre at one.

 

You’re in the High Mountain String Band now, and still play now and then with your old band, the Rainy Day Ramblers. Both are bluegrass/American Roots focused. What draws you to this kind of music?

My mom’s family is from Appalachia (Southwest Virginia) – the place where a lot of this music originated – and I had an uncle who used to play and sing old songs (everything from English and Scottish ballads to Outlaw Country). I guess I just imprinted on it. Bill Monroe called bluegrass the high lonesome sound. And there is an ethereal, haunting quality to the music that I love.

But in terms of playing it? There are a few things that I love about playing bluegrass.

The first part is the social aspect. There is a common language among pickers. You can be anywhere and find a jam and find a shared repertoire and you get people from all walks of life. Sometimes it’s people who are new music and just learning to play and sometimes you meet folks that completely tear it up. They all play the same songs because the roots of the tunes are often very simple. Which kind of brings me to the second part of why I love bluegrass, especially.

While it’s simple structurally (simple chords, straight time), as you progress in skill level you start to hear the incredible virtuosity that good bluegrass musicians bring to a simple genre. Bluegrass has a low floor and a high ceiling. Finally, playing music is a great way of getting out your bubble – I’ve got folks I pick with from all over the political spectrum and get exposed to ways of thinking that I might not encounter otherwise. It’s really a big tent with conservatives and progressives sitting around a jam together. 

 

Was there an artist or single song that got you into Bluegrass, that really got you hooked?

When I was a kid my mom took me to hear Doc Watson – the legendary blind flatpicking guitarist from North Carolina – telling me that we should go see Doc because he might not be around much longer. He lived 30 more years after that and played up until the end, so she was jumping the gun a little. But I remember hearing  Doc play "Walk On Boy" and being blow away. Take a listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2HWaFnFefTc

 

“Oh Brother, Where Art Thou” has been credited with introducing legions of new listeners to American Roots music. How important is it to keep these old songs alive, and how passionate are you about musical history?

I love the old stuff for sure. I like knowing something of where it came from and I like the bridges that music can make to people’s stories. But I’m also not a maniac about being a traditionalist. Bluegrass is essentially pop music from the 40s. It’s based on older stuff but it’s not like we are talking about ancient music. It’s meant to be played and adapted and to evolve. People get really tribal about what bluegrass is and isn’t. The band I play with now calls itself a “progressive” bluegrass band which allows us to play all kinds of music. The new generation of pickers is often formally trained in music school and taking this traditional music in new directions. Check out Molly Tuttle and cast of other amazing women taking the traditional tune "Cold Rain and Snow" to really out there places: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cjKsMO-BQW4

 

What do you like most about performing? If you could relive one show you were a part of, which would it be, and why?

Performing is a mixed bag for me. I like getting energy from a crowd and making people smile. Hearing live music can be a transcendent experience. I’m new enough to it and aware of my own limitations, and that can be frustrating.  Getting a crowd up in its feet and dancing though? That’s a blast.

 

Desert island: You’ve got three albums of any kind of music to take with you. What three do you choose and why?

Oh man. This is way too hard. I’d have Miles Davis’ "Kind of Blue" but after that I’d have 100 records tied for second. The first bluegrass record would probably be Tony Rice’s "Manzinita": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HfMGaqu6Z1M

 

Music documentaries are super popular right now. Do you have a favorite?

“Gimme Shelter” is a favorite (about so much more than Altamont!) but I just saw “Scratch,” which covers how the turntable is used as an instrument in hiphop. Totally fascinating film that one is going to stick with me for awhile.

 

Last question: What are the similarities to getting up onto a stage and performing and getting in front of a class and teaching?

Both involve technical skills, passion, and the ability to sell what you are offering to a crowd. And in both cases you have a paying audience that has expectations! They are eerily similar.

 

Note: Check out Bunn and the High Mountain String Band at next Thursday's free concert in Elizabeth Park; details here.

 

 

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Thursday, August 9, 2018 - 10:40am

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