Interview: Paula Boggs on reclaiming the black banjo heritage with Soulgrass

Credit: Tom Reese

How living in the Pacific North West helped rewrite the bluegrass story from a black perspective.

Paula Boggs is a fairly unique artist. While music has always been an important part of her life, her career as a professional musician came after a career that spanned the military, legal, education, and business sectors. If that wasn’t different enough, she and her band forged their own music which is a mix of bluegrass, jazz, blues, and folk that emphasises the black antecedents of all those separate genres, and lyrics that reflect the challenges of the modern world, which, following a chance conversation with someone in marketing, Boggs called Soulgrass. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up over Zoom with Paula Boggs in her Pacific North West home to discuss why she wants to help reclaim the banjo for black artists, how her music is influenced by the Church music she heard in her childhood, and artists from the ‘60s folk revival. She also explains how she managed to get ex-Carolina Chocolate Drop Dom Flemons to play banjo on her fourth album, ‘Janus’. Before anyone starts thinking ‘Janus’ is some dusty folk record with noble sentiments Paula Boggs explains how she recorded it with Grammy-nominated producer Tucker Martine to help give the music the most appropriate modern sound, and she confirms she thinks it is the best representation of her music to date.  Interestingly, she also credits the culture and environmental characteristics of the Pacific North West with helping her bring a new understanding and perspective to an older form of music, bluegrass.

I’m not sure how to start this interview so I think if you could summarise why you felt the need to become a working musician 15 years ago,  after your varied career in the military, legal, education, and business sectors?

Part of my story is more similar to a more traditional music career than people may think. I started with music very young in life, I was introduced to disparate kinds of music, but I found the harmony, and this was through Church and religion because my dad was Roman Catholic, and so I was exposed to that music which tended to be a mix of baroque classical music. There was also the emerging folk music scene, the music of Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Peter, Paul and Mary, and all of those folks. That music was coming into the liturgy of the Catholic Church, and I was really little and all of that was first exploding, but my mom was African Methodist Episcopal and so the music of the spirituals and that vibe, I was getting every other week as well. I think even in the music I write today, some of those earliest influences still show up, including the social justice aspects of some of that music I was exposed to very early in life. But yes, it was there and then it wasn’t, and I did other stuff, and then I came back to it and I now understand it never really left, it hibernated for a long time and I thought it was gone but it wasn’t really gone.

With the other careers you’ve had there is a certain level of job satisfaction, is the challenge you get from music the same or is it different? Is there something you get out of music that you maybe didn’t get out of your more formal careers?

There are many things in music that are things that have always inspired me, and I have found these things in whatever I do. Those are things like teamwork, I love being part of a team that is making things happen, and the collective effort is bigger than the sum of any part. That was true whether we were talking in the military, my legal business career, or in music. I love and I am really elevated, and my music is elevated, by the effort of the Paula Boggs Band. When I think back to even my childhood, I played sports and I was part of other team efforts and those always gave me tremendous satisfaction.

There is the creative process of music, and if you look at my life one of the running themes and my brother has spoken about this, and he said, “One thing you have to understand about Paula is that no matter how hard you try, you can’t force her in any box because she will be ingenious in wriggling her way out of it.”. The same is true with the music and of my career in general, but with music, I think it is particularly true because we run into issues with it sometimes because it is hard to categorise, and just like a lot of aspects of my life journey, people want to box you in something and it doesn’t quite fit in that box. They say well you are using bluegrass instruments, but what are these jazz chords you are using in this music, haha. It is just music, right? Music is either good or bad and that is it, you know.

Soulgrass has been used to try and describe your music, where did that term come from?

This is a good story, I had a little help with that. I was taking a trip from Seattle to Washington DC, and I was literally in this shuttle thing that takes you from one terminal to another. I was on this thing and I just struck up a conversation with this woman, I think I probably had my ukulele with me, and people often ask me is that a violin, what is it, and what have you. Are you a musician, yes I am, what kind of music do you play, and I started down this road and I was like it has got folk elements, it has jazz elements, yadda, yadda, haha. The woman looks at me and she says, “That sounds like Soulgrass.”, and I looked at her and asked her if she was in marketing and she was. And there you have it, haha.

You mentioned bluegrass, is it bluegrass or just folk music in general?

I’ve been drawn to bluegrass music as a listener of late, as a consumer of that music when I’m in the car driving or whatnot, and there are certain things about that genre that are incredibly appealing to me. I see some of those elements in our music, and I want to more consciously incorporate others that I haven’t in the past. What are those others? Well with bluegrass music, you are able to, and it doesn’t matter whether the song was written in the 19th Century, or it is something Bela Fleck is doing today, the instrumentation is very important in that genre, and with most of it, you can be quite discerning with specificity, what instruments are being used and when they are being used. I have been very struck by that and attracted to that, and we are a band whose brand, if you will, is in part dependent on people being able to do that with our music. I’m inspired by what I’ve been listening to on SiriusXM’s Bluegrass Channel because that definitely is the case. It is also the case that you can, for the most part, if there are lyrics you can hear them. You know what the artist is saying, and often though not always, it is the story and at the end of the day I’m a storyteller. I’ve been inspired by that, most of the instruments I hear on bluegrass songs are instruments in our band. There is a lot to applaud, and we call ourselves Soulgrass, and at least here in the United States, most Americans associate bluegrass with white people, that just happens, and some people don’t even realise they are doing that, but that is the end result. When you say there is a “black person” who is also doing “bluegrass”, there is a cognitive dissonance thing going on, at least here in the United States.

Black people aren’t even aware sometimes of that and say that is not possible, and that is what is going on in their heads. Part of what I do is subversive in the sense that I’m very much a disciple of the notion there is no American music without the African American story, it doesn’t exist, and it doesn’t matter what genre you’re talking about. It doesn’t matter whether it is bluegrass or metal, it is informed by the story of people wrested from their homeland against their will and treated like property here. What the music was for my ancestors, was a way to remind themselves that they were human in a society where every other aspect of their life was telling them they were not.

Bluegrass was a musical construct defined by Bill Monroe, but Bill Monroe took a lot from black music though he maybe didn’t admit it all at the time. You’ve said you want to be subversive, and I suspect you will be subversive in whatever you do, and the question is did you pick bluegrass because of the extra subversive opportunity it gave you or is it simply a matter that you enjoy the music?

That is a great question, and I think for me it started with folk music, and much of the music I wrote as a 10 or 11-year-old, as a teen into my ‘20s, was deeply rooted in folk music, in the folk tradition, and as I said to a group of folk music people recently, and we were talking about consciously aiding folk music to be more inclusive racially, ethnically, gender expression, and I said the American brand of folk music, because there is folk music all over the world, in this country folk music has often been tied to social movements and change, whether it is worker’s rights, or civil rights, or women’s rights, or whatever. It seems to me that as a genre we have a responsibility to lead, given that pedigree. At the end of the day, if you were to ask me if you have to pick one genre that your music is most rooted in, I think I would have to say it is folk music.

However, folk music for me without exploration is too confining, and it is certainly the case that as a teenager I was exposed, really for the first time, to jazz and it forever reconfigured how I think about music both sonically and emotionally. I think what bluegrass does for me is like sometimes you hear a banjo in folk music, but often you don’t, but in our music, almost every song has a banjo. Sonically it helps define our sound, but it is also subversive because it opens the door to the conversation that the banjo came from Africa, most people, including black people, don’t know that and so it invites a conversation and a way to look at music through a perhaps slightly different prism. Also, some of the other instruments we use are instruments you might find in folk or bluegrass, but others you typically don’t. Take for example the fact that for all 15 years, Tor Dietrichson our percussionist, has been a central part of this band and he plays everything from bongos to congas, the list is long because if it is percussion he plays it. What that does is it signals well, if it is bluegrass there are some funky rhythms going on in this music that takes it out of at least what most people think of as bluegrass.

Who do you think, or hope, your audience is?

The audience we have seen over the past 15 years tends to skew towards people who in the United States are called the MPR crowd, haha. Our music tends to speak disproportionately to the readers, the coffee drinkers, the indie movie folks, you know what I mean, haha. The same people who are showing up at book readings are also showing up at our stuff, and if we have done our job what happens is at least one person comes up to us and says our music has opened their eyes, or our music has given them more hope or our music has done whatever it is. It is a feeling thing, that we have made a connection with someone, and we are a very emotive band. People are often kind of blown away by the energy we exude on the stage, and we are very kinetic, and we are engaging with the audience, our best shows don’t matter whether there are two or three people in the audience or a thousand or more. It is that engagement, that connection, the electricity that takes us to our best game, and hopefully, the audience is feeling the same thing. People use that word about us a lot, energy, there is an energy. People look at me and go how do you do that, haha, and it is like this wattage playing going on, and the truth of the matter is that I’m fired by the moment, I’m totally in it. The performance takes me to new places, but yeah, MPR, coffee house, the Starbucks crowd, those are the kind of people coming to our shows.

How much of the Pacific North West is there in your music?

I think the North West is woven into everything I write, and everything we play. The reason I say that is we are a big country, and we are a diverse country, Seattle geographically is closer to Vancouver BC than we are to Portland, Oregon. People think of us as Seattle Portland, Portland Seattle, and that is true we are close, but Vancouver is even closer and pre-COVID it was just sort of a seamless thing for Americans to cross the border, and vice versa. In our region, there is a sense of regionality that sometimes overcomes national differences, there is a sense that British Columbia and our region on the US side of it, are all part of this thing where we are surrounded by mountains and water everywhere we look, the indigenous communities, on both sides of the border, are the same people. To them who have been here for thousands of years, this arbitrary border is no more than that. They have relatives on both sides of this border, and our temperatures for the most part, whether you are talking Vancouver, Portland, or Seattle are pretty temperate, the hots are not too hot, and the lows are not too low. What I sometimes say is that Seattle in particular, is a magnet for people who draw outside the lines, and it doesn’t really matter whether you are talking about the arts, or science, or technology, photographers come here because the skies and the light here is just amazing. The most innovative things in dance, there is a reason Jacob Lawrence spent his last years here in Seattle. It is not by accident that companies like Amazon and Microsoft, and Starbucks, were formed here by people who, in the most part, came here because they didn’t quite fit in where they were, and then they came here and then they were able to do something. There is an ethos here that I think helps fuel the music I write, nature is all around me.

You’ve called yourself a storyteller, and in terms of your songs how do you write them? Are you a disciplined writer or is it more a case of when the muse comes?

I’m not a very disciplined writer, I’m very much a songwriter inspired by an event or a moment, or a feeling, and the by-product of that shows upfront and centre on our new album, ‘Janus’. An example of that is one of the songs is called ‘Gigging For The Angels’, and it tells the story in a veiled way of how I met the protagonist, Tristan, of that song. We were doing a show in a coffee house and this young man came to the show with his dad, he was a musician and I liked him, and he liked the music, he was visiting his family in Seattle but he was living in New York, and we struck up this friendship over social media after that. We only met that once face-to-face, but in a year of our meeting he died of brain cancer, and I was so struck by that, and moved by the journey that I wrote ‘Gigging For The Angels’.

It tends to be stuff like that, there is another song, and they are not all downers by the way, haha, that is sort of a downer but ends on a hopeful note which is ‘Shadow Of Old Glory’, and the impetus for that was the Synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that happened at the beginning of a week and then in that same week, a couple of black people were slaughtered in Kentucky by another white supremacist. These things happened in the same week, and one was an attack on the Jewish community, and one was an attack on the black community, and they were in different parts of the country at a time when too often black people and Jewish people are at each other’s throats. They were both victims in the same week of these heinous acts, perpetrated by the same animus, so that inspired me to write ‘Shadow Of Old Glory’, we are not that different, haha, let’s get over ourselves and do better. On the plus side, there is a song called ‘Thirty More Years And A Day’ and we performed it a couple of weeks ago in Seattle and a lot of people said it was their favourite song. It is a homage to my partner and wife, we have been together almost 33 years, and I can’t help it, I sing it with such joy and exuberance and it is infectious I think. People were saying we’ve been together that long and you are singing our song, or it was we hope we are able to find a love that is like that, and what is better than that? So there is that as well on the album, and it is all informed, I think, by the petri dish in which I wrote this music because COVID forced isolation, and in me introspection, and that led to thoughts that I don’t typically take the time to delve into as deeply, such as ancestry and these memory sparks. Living in the cauldron of these pandemics of public health, race, and politics here, and really thinking about my place in all of that, and so the album really is an outgrowth of all of that.

How did you record ‘Janus’ and what were the dynamics between the other band members?

The album was produced, mixed, and engineered by Tucker Martine who has multiple Grammy nominations under his belt. I really wanted to work with Tucker, and as it happened, one of our band members, Paul Matthew Moore our keyboardist and accordion player, knows Tucker and Tucker has worked with a couple of the other band members before, so it worked out. The reason I wanted to work with him was because I had studied some of his earlier work, and it seemed to me he was the kind of producer who had a point of view. I thought this body of work would benefit greatly from someone who could harmonise it with a point of view, a musical point of view. Tucker was indispensable in so many ways, he even played on a number of the tracks because he is a musician himself, but he has a very nice way of leading, if you will, haha. He is not obnoxious, he is very clear, and so even things like the choice of instruments on particular songs on the album. We had started with a point of view around these songs, but many of them went through a metamorphosis as we worked on them in the studio. As a songwriter I deleted verses from some songs, I changed lyrics to make them work better, and at one point Tucker said when you sing this it sounds like you are saying this, which was not what I wanted to say, haha. I had to approach this in a low ego way, and the whole process of deciding where a guest artist could add value, except for the Dom Flemons thing which was all me, but beyond Dom, figuring out which songs and who was a Tucker thing. The album is much better because of that.

Dom and I got to know each other through the Recording Academy, I had just got elected as a governor of the Pacific North West Chapter, and Dom was serving as a governor on the DC Chapter. I have been a big fan of his work for years, I think his Grammy Nominated ‘Black Cowboys’ is just brilliant, and as I was learning about King Brewster the person, the ancestor, I didn’t even know King Brewster existed until the pandemic hit, haha. As I was learning more about my ancestor I am also learning more about Dom’s work with Smithsonian Folkways, and other efforts to cover and celebrate black roots music from its earliest forms. I went down that rabbit hole, and I just reached out to him and I was like, Dom we don’t know each other, been a big fan, but this part of what you are doing is very intriguing to me, and then I gave him the whole spiel about all music being black music, haha, and that was music to his ears, and he was like I’ve got to talk more to this woman, haha.

We were having these animated conversations, and I had made this playlist of what I called black chick americana and I shared it with Dom, and he was like this is an excellent playlist and you have really researched this music. He suggested other black female artists I should add to the playlist, and then came ‘King Brewster’, and I said, “Dom, I just hear you on this song, I really hear you on this song.”, and I shared the lyrics with him and he came back immediately and said, “Paula, you have written poetry in every line, I would love to somehow be a part of this.”. That began the conversation on him not only co-lead singing on the song, but playing banjo, bones, and jug. I had a banjo in mind when I first approached him because the banjo is one of his big things, but he came up with the bones and the jug, and now when I listen to the song I can’t imagine what it would sound like without the bones and the jug. Particularly at the beginning of the song, the bones are kind of on this and it is like what story are these bones about to tell, you just hear this rattling thing, haha. It is just woven into the fabric of that song now.

This is your fourth record in 15 years which is a steady output, do you think this is the one to take you to the next level?

I know I’m never going to be Beyonce, haha, so let’s right size what we are talking about here, but if the question is, is this the album that showcases best the songwriting, musicianship, and a sound that is unique to this band, then yes, it most definitely is. My spouse who is an artist, said on my earlier albums I was very experimental so there would be a blues song, a folk song and this and that, but in this, while the songs are not identical, they each have a personality, and it is a hard balance for me to write a body of work where each song has its own personality and a listener will not be confused or think is that a song I heard three tracks ago. To defeat that while also not creating something that causes whiplash in people with where did that come from is hard, and I think this album has done that. I don’t think anybody is going to listen to ‘Ponies’, which is the opening song, and listen to the last song, ‘Don’t Let The Clowns (Break You Down)’, and say oh that is the same song, no, I don’t think anybody is going to do that. If the question presented is, is this a harmonious body of work that is telling collectively a story, yes, we have done that better as a band, I’ve done that better here than ever before.

You sound pretty pleased with ‘Janus’.

I am because it doesn’t really matter writing a song, producing an album, running a race, because I was a competitive runner, the bottom line is have you given it your all and left it all on the field and you are in a place where you have mitigated the woulda, coulda, shoulda, and in this case that is what I feel we have done. It is just like when someone called me many years ago after I had written a song and a listener had had a certain reaction to it, I was kind of taken aback by the reaction. I mean, it was wholly off what I had intended in writing a song, haha, and it was a friend of mine who reminded me that I don’t get to decide that. Once it is there it is no longer yours, it is whoever receives this music, and it was important for me to hear that, and I‘ve believed that ever since. You say is this going to be a successful album, it is successful to the degree I can make it successful because I have given my all, and I know every band member did, Tucker did, Dom did, everybody brought their A-game to this. How it’s received, it is going to be received how it is received.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers?

Yes, I do, we are so thrilled our music is crossing the pond, as it were, and getting into the ears and hearts of listeners in the UK and across Europe. I’ve often been told that we have potentially a greater fanbase in the UK and in Europe than in perhaps the United States. I’ve never been able to test that because our music wasn’t really getting to the UK, but I actually hope that is true. I hope our music is consumed widely in the UK, and our aspiration is certainly to someday be able to play live.

Paul Boggs Band’s ‘Janus’ is out now and is an independent release.

About Martin Johnson 406 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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Thanks for this excellent interview, Martin. I love Paula’s approach to music and the whole concept of ‘soulgrass’.

Paula Boggs

Thank you Martin for interviewing me!

Paula Boggs

Many thanks for your comment!