Auditioning for Ricky Skaggs’ Rolling Thunder in front of a live audience of a thousand people.
According to some accounts, Andy Leftwich is one of the most recorded musicians of the 21St Century as a member of Ricky Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder, and his numerous sessions. As well as his work supporting other musicians, he has just released a new instrumental record, appropriately called ‘The American Fiddler’ on a set of largely self-composed tunes that celebrate the rich history of American fiddle music. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Andy Leftwich at his Nashville home over Zoom to discuss his influences and his new record on which he is joined by the cream of bluegrass musicians including his boss, Ricky Skaggs, mandolin star Sierra Hull, guitar picker extraordinaire Bryan Sutton, bluegrass and jazz and bluegrass bassist Byron House. He explains that he was only six years old when he started learning to play the fiddle and how important his father’s encouragement and support were during his formative years. While he is certainly an American fiddler, Andy Leftwich acknowledges the European influences, including Irish and Scottish tunes and French gypsy jazz, and classical music on American fiddle music. There can be no doubt about the influence of gospel music on all strains of American music, including country, bluegrass, blues, soul, rock’n’roll, and jazz, and Andy Leftwich also shares how his Christian beliefs have also informed his own music. While religious belief is a very personal thing, there can be no doubt that gospel music that is played with sincerity can be uplifting to listeners, whatever their own personal beliefs.
On your new record ‘The American Fiddler’ you explore various styles of American fiddle playing – why did you feel the time was right to make such a record?
As anyone gets going with their career, you get busy playing on other people’s records, and all that is wonderful and I’ve very grateful for it, your own music and your own creativity tend to take a back seat. There were a few records I’d kind of gotten past, I’d help some friends out, and I just thought it was the right time to concentrate on my own music, and some of these songs I have written and composed over the last ten or twelve years, so I just felt I had to get the ball rolling on getting this music out. In fact, if I am honest with you, I felt the timing was a little overdue, so I’m glad to finally get it done and get it out, and I’m excited about the future and these songs, and I just hope folks will enjoy them.
Apart from a handful of covers, you wrote all the tunes on the record. How did you go about composing the tracks to ensure the ebb and flow of the final record?
That’s a great question because you never go into a record knowing those things, you sort of have to let them develop, At the end of the project we had these songs, and one of the biggest challenges you will find making a project is the sequencing of the songs so that you have a good flow from top to bottom. I’m learning as I go, and as I’ve said I’ve composed these songs over the last ten or twelve years of my life, going into this project I didn’t know how they would line up and how they would flow into the next song. It was a big struggle for me to figure out how things would come together, and there were songs I recorded that I didn’t keep for this record, but I’m keeping for the next record. it is not an easy thing to think about, and I definitely wanted some tunes on this record, and the title ‘The American Fiddler’ didn’t hit me until maybe a year and a half ago, and I was thinking what could I possibly call this project. As the songs developed I kind of realised that this was nothing more than my history of growing up with bluegrass fiddle music, sort of cultivating all the different styles and elements I was playing. My past is what inspired these songs and melodies and the musicians I met along the way, and it just culminated in this American style of fiddling that you hear a lot in the southern region of the United States. A perfect blend of Scottish and Irish music, and jazz with some classical, and it is this melting pot of instrumentals that flowed out from all that.
You cover Bill Monroe, gypsy jazz, and Ricky Skaggs’ Boone Creek on ‘American Fiddler’, all iconic examples of key influences on bluegrass, how did you choose what tracks to cover, and what do they mean to you?
I was so honoured to have Sierra Hull in the studio with me, and I’ve known Sierra since she was twelve years old, and she blew me away when she was twelve and she is a once in a generation type player. I had her come in to play mandolin on a few of the cuts, and I thought it would be great to have put a great bluegrass jamming song on this record so we cut ‘Big Mon’, and I asked Sierra at the last minute if she wanted to hang around and do some duo mandolin things with me on ‘Big Mon’ and she obliged me and I was so grateful we could do that right there on the spot. What you hear on this project is a hundred percent live, there is no punching in, it is all just sitting around in a circle, jamming, and having a great time. I’m so grateful that we were able to capture that on Bill Monroe’s famous instrumental ‘Big Mon’. The cut of ‘Sally Gooden’ was something I never thought I would do, we were having such fun playing that song on the road with Kentucky Thunder, and it felt better and better each night. We always recorded our shows, and that night we were playing one of our favourite venues, and I knew the crowd would be great and it would be a packed house, so I asked Ricky if he would possibly mind if we cut ‘Sally Gooden’ live and use it for a project later down the road, and he was kind enough to do that and all the boys were on board for it. And, man, it is absolutely live, there are no fixes, and there are definitely some mistakes that you can hear if you listen closely, but the older I get and the more into my career I get the more I realise it is about the energy, the spirit, and the overall feel of the music than it is about the execution. I am a perfectionist, I love to play something perfectly, and execute it flawlessly, with spirit behind it but you can execute something flawlessly with no heart. That is what I love about playing with Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, there is so much heart and so much spirit behind the music, and I think we captured that on the cut ‘Sally Gooden’.
You mentioned Ricky Skaggs, and Kentucky Thunder has a legendary reputation that goes beyond bluegrass and country music, how did you manage to get that particular gig?
It is a great and long story, and I will try and keep it as short as possible, haha. I knew his guitar player at the time, Clay Hess, and I heard that he was looking for a new fiddle player, so I would never have thought in a million years I could get that gig with Ricky, so I jokingly asked Clay if he was looking for a new fiddle player, and he looked at me and told me he was and that I would be perfect for him. I told Clay I was only kidding, but he said he was going to give Ricky my name and number. Two weeks later they invited me to Lexington, Kentucky, and Ricky was playing a concert that evening. He invited me on the tour bus to travel with them up there and get to know everybody and to bring my fiddle and play a few songs at sound check, meet everybody and try out a little bit, but not promising anything. I knew it was just going to be a fun trip, and at the end of soundcheck, Ricky asked if I wanted to play the show that night. I was like, absolutely, and we had a great show and at the end of the night we got called back for an encore, and Ricky always played that famous song ‘Get Up John’ and as he is playing his mandolin he looks over to me and asks me what am I doing for the next few years, and the crowd starts clapping, and Ricky sticks out his hand to shake hands and says he would love me to join the band. So he hired me on stage in front of at least a thousand people. I will never forget that night, brother, that was a really great moment. I had to confirm it, so when we got on the bus later that night I asked Ricky if he was serious and if it wasn’t something just to get a rise out of the audience, and he said the greatest thing to me, he told me he had been praying for me, and I was taken aback by that because Ricky is a man of faith, and I thought it was The Lord orchestrating that. Those few years turned into fifteen years on the road with him, and it has been a great journey and Ricky wasn’t only a great boss, he is my wife’s uncle, and more than that, he is my brother in Christ and he is my great friend. I really love Ricky for what he has done for my life, and those fifteen years were really a lot of fun.
What did playing with Kentucky Thunder do for your musical chops?
Oh Man, every time you would play with that band I would feel two things, either I felt confident or extremely defeated, haha, and there was kind of no middle ground because it was such a high intensity demanding gig. The tempos were played really fast, and you had to be practiced up, so there is a lot of that, but I tell you more so than the road gigs, the days in the studio with Ricky were the most challenging ones, and every time I came out of the studio with Ricky I was a better player. The studio experience picks up your every flaw, it is like a microscope, your pitch has to be on and your execution has to be flawless when you are in the studio. You can get away with a few mistakes when you are playing live but not in the studio, and those are the days I left feeling I was a better player and better for spending the day in the studio with Ricky. He is a very picky producer, they don’t call him Picky Ricky for nothing, haha.
You have a who’s who of bluegrass musicians on ‘American Fiddler’, how did you decide who would be on each track, how structured were you?
It was easy in the sense that I knew who I wanted to play on what, and some of these tunes were inspired by the musicians who played on them, the hard part was the scheduling, just getting the guys scheduled up, but once we landed on a few days in the studio we were able to make it happen. Cody Kilby and I grew up together and we used to compete together on the contest circuit, and I often joke with folks that the last contest Cody and I entered we tied for first place, and then we had this big playoff and he ended up beating me and I still haven’t gotten over it, haha. Cody and I go way back, and he was in Ricky’s band with me for most of those fifteen years, and Cody is one of those musicians I just feel comfortable playing music with and I knew I wanted him on this record. Each individual song has its own inspiration and why I called those individual musicians in, Mark Schatz is a legendary bass player and he is an incredible clawhammer banjo player and he has been around bluegrass for decades and he is a legend in our music and I just appreciate Mark playing on a few cuts. Byron House, I first met him when he was playing with Nickel Creek, and I was blown away by his ability and the great tone he pulled, Scott Vestal on banjo, and Scott is a great melodic style banjo player along with Matt Menefee, who is an incredible banjo player who plays banjo on ‘Made In France’. Obviously, there is my friend Rob Ickes on dobro, and we used Rob on ‘Over Cincinnati’ and on a few other cuts that ended up not making the record. I didn’t realise until I heard the record that Rob Ickes is only on one cut on my instrumental record and I thought that’s not right, haha, and I don’t know how that happened. Anyway, Rob is a great friend and an incredible musician and I just enjoyed my time in the studio with those guys.
You mentioned you cut the record live, with so much talent in the room were there any musical surprises during the sessions?
It did all go according to plan, but the biggest surprise was when we were in the middle of tracking ‘Pikes Peak Breakdown’ and in the studio when you are cutting a song you typically run through it once, then you run through it again and you iron out all the things you want to play, so by the third take you are almost there. I look at it like climbing a mountain, when you are recording a song you are going up the mountain and eventually you will reach the peak of that thing and start going back down again, and one of the biggest mistakes you can make in the studio is over recording, playing something too many times because at some point you will start going back down the mountain. So, it is important to reach that peak and know where that peak is and that is the magic cut, and we were into the third cut of the song and it was feeling great and we are killing it, and then Bryan Sutton gets a call from his wife, a very frantic call, saying there is a snake in their bathroom and you had better come home right now and kill this snake. So in the middle of cutting ‘Pikes Peak Breakdown’ Bryan puts down his guitar and tells me he will be back in fifteen minutes, haha. Luckily he just lives down the street from the studio so he goes home, takes care of the snake, and comes back to the studio and finished recording that song. That was a big surprise and one I don’t wish on anybody, but musically though we had some really great moments that were off the cuff and were not according to plan, but for the most part, I’m pretty detailed in my planning, and on who’s going to be doing what. As far as the solos go, I never try to tell somebody what to play and just let them do their thing and bring their own interpretation to the song. Some arrangements were a little different from what I had imagined, and that is just the magic of the studio, getting in there and getting everybody together. I always say you never want to figure it all out, you always want to leave room for spontaneity.
The fiddle isn’t the easiest instrument to play, what drew you to it in the first place?
You are right there, brother, haha, and I don’t want to discourage anybody but the fiddle and the violin is definitely one of the tougher instruments to try and tackle. I was fortunate that my father played music, he played guitar and banjo and he loved bluegrass, and he bought a fiddle at a pawnshop and brought it home when I was six years old and he stuck it in my hands and said, “Here, Andy, play this” and he showed me this old tune, ‘Boil Them Cabbage Down’, and he showed me how to do the shuffle on the bow arm, so I played that. I picked it up pretty quick, so dad started playing guitar and I just immediately fell in love with playing music with dad. From that night on, and I remember it was in December, I never remember a day without playing the fiddle. So dad got me into music, and I didn’t really grow to love learning it until I started going to contests. Dad started taking me to contests and when I saw kids my own age that were better than me and knew something I didn’t know, that inspired me to learn. I tell parents all the time if they have a kid who wants to play music take them to a competition and let them see other kids that are better than them, and maybe that will inspire them to get better. That is what happened to me.
Coming up to date, how do you maintain your skills, do you play enough sessions and live gigs that you don’t have to practice?
That’s a great point. You spend your whole life growing up practicing, all the scales, the double-stops, and the exercises, and by the time you are doing it for a living, you don’t have the time to practice such a lot. So yes, there is an element of enough live gigs and studio work there is an element of me not putting in the practice time I did when I was younger. However, I do feel that if I don’t put in at least an hour a day just working on certain things my playing goes backwards, but if I can put in the time, an hour and preferably two hours, just working on things, I feel like I’m improving each day. The goal I set for myself during COVID in 2020 when things had pretty much shut down for everybody, and you are at home not doing much, was that I’m going to learn something new every day I’m at home. So a song, or a piece of music, or maybe it is just one lick from another player, but something new, and Man, that did wonders for my playing, I felt I was really growing and that was only two years ago. So I encourage anybody who is trying to learn an instrument, to make sure you learn something new every day, and that will do a lot for your playing.
I find it frightening that the great progressive bluegrass albums of the ‘70s, including Boone Creek which we’ve mentioned, are now nearly 50 years old, are you seeing enough young musicians coming through who understand the various styles of bluegrass to not only keep the traditions going, but also develop the genre?
That is a great question. I can say this, I grew up with the newer generation of players like Mark O’Connor and Stuart Duncan as heroes, and those guys were my first introduction to professional fiddle playing, but it was after I met Ricky that I sort of realised I had neglected that first generation of players who basically wrote the vocabulary for bluegrass fiddle, you know, Chubby Wise, Bennie Martin. I had overlooked them because my ear just went to the newer sound, but when I got a hold of those guys and I started learning the first sort of solos and the first licks and phrases those guys had come up with, it really opened my mind to how fiddle music has evolved, and where we get those things from and why we get inspired to play in the first place. I would encourage any players coming up through the ranks, don’t neglect those early recordings of Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, and the Stanley Brothers and making sure you are learning those licks. Now Bobby Hicks, I always knew of Bobby Hicks but when I joined Ricky’s band and met Bobby for the first time I thought I don’t know anything about the fiddle, I mean Bobby is a dictionary about the fiddle and I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves. I really treasure those times I was backstage with Bobby, learning songs from Bobby and learning different licks, and trying to play like Bobby. It is tough, you know, learning the new stuff without knowing the old stuff makes your playing shallow, you need to have depth in your playing so you need to listen to those old guys, and Bobby was a great blessing to learn from on the road over the years.
I don’t know if even you know how many people you’ve played with over the years, but is there anybody you haven’t worked with yet who you want to?
Two years ago I got a call from Bela Fleck to play on his new record, ‘My Bluegrass Heart’, and that was such an honour to get to play with Bela and get that call. I’ve been so fortunate to play with all my heroes in Bluegrass, and up to that point, Bela was really the only one I hadn’t been able to play with. So at one point, I have played with all my heroes in bluegrass, as far as different genres there are people I’ve played with who weren’t even on my radar, and yeah, I’ve played with a lot of folks and I think someone asked me that a couple of years ago in an interview, but one guy I’ve always wanted to meet, and especially my wife, is Paul McCartney. He may not be a bluegrass musician but he is a musician’s musician, and I’ve always thought it would be cool to meet that guy sometime, but which musician wouldn’t say that, haha?
At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?
Have you listened to Chris Thile’s record on Bach where he did all those sonnets? Man, that is so incredible and I’ve tried to do some of that, and it has been very challenging and very frustrating. That has been one thing I’ve tried to dive into a little bit. There are a handful of CDs I go to when I’m listening on the road, and there is a company called Our Daily Bread, and there is a musician called David Huntsinger and he is a piano player and a brilliant arranger and he did these things called ‘Celtic Hymns’ and ‘Appalachian Hymns’ and he used Stuart Duncan and Bryan Sutton, I think Byron House is on them, my friend Jeff Taylor is on accordion, and my friend John Mock is on pennywhistle, mandolin, and concertina, and it is just beautiful, beautiful music and the tones on those records are just great. They are the sort of recordings you’d find on the roadside in a gift store, or an arts and crafts store, but Man, I’ve got so much out of those CDs with those incredible tones and I really enjoy listening to that stuff. Stuart Duncan is one of my favourite players hands down, and on those records he played on he just went for it. He is not trying to impress anybody, he is just having fun and he has played this incredible stuff that nobody knows about. I listen to a lot of live recordings, there is a lot of fun with swing and jazz recordings. But for the most part Man, I’m so busy doing my stuff I don’t get a lot of chances to listen to stuff, it is a great question I need to start asking other folks, haha.
Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers, and are you coming over any time soon?
I love the UK, and my first trip over there was with Ricky, and I was blown away by the beauty, the people, and the culture. I think folks in the UK appreciate music more than Americans. I don’t know whether we are just used to it here, Americans do love our music and our musicians, but when you go to the UK I love the freshness about the spirit of the music, and I’ve always enjoyed the crowds, and I love the history of the Scottish and Irish music. All that great history from that part of the world inspires me greatly. You asked me about CDs, and I will go back to a CD I bought some years ago from the group Lunasa which I so enjoyed, and it inspired me to want to dive into Irish music a lot more. So, the UK is a wonderful place for music, and I enjoy getting over there any chance I can.
I just want to say thank you for having me, and I sure hope the folks enjoy the music, and like I said earlier, I’m a man of faith, and I’m a Christian and my faith is in Jesus Christ and him alone, and if I can inspire somebody to pick up an instrument and play for enjoyment, and more importantly if my life can point others to Jesus that is where my heart is, and I hope this music brings a spirit of joy and a spirit of excitement. I have no ability, apart from the grace of God, and I firmly believe that, and I don’t think I could get out of bed if it wasn’t for the grace of God. That is always my heart and testimony in everything I say and do.