The challenges of reimagining rock songs as bluegrass staples with the help of newgrass legends.
The jamband scene in America has always been bluegrass friendly because of the rhythm inherent in the music and the instrumental ability required to play the music well. The Big Wu at their peak were a mainstay of the jamband scene, and are still popular whenever they decide to play the odd live show. Big Wu’s guitarist and songwriter Chris Castino has had a lifelong love of bluegrass and has just released a solo album ‘Fresh Pickles’ where he plays Big Wu songs in a bluegrass style backed by Milwaukee bluegrass band the Chicken Wire Empire. More than this, he has managed to get the likes of folk and bluegrass legends Peter Rowan, Tim O’Brien, Andy Hall, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Nick Forster, Vince Herman, and Keller Williams to join him. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Chris Castino over Zoom to discuss how you can become exposed to bluegrass while living in Minnesota, and the difference between playing bluegrass and the rock music of jamband Big Wu. He also shares his embarrassment when Sam Bush was opening for the Big Wu. For any guitarist reading this interview, Chris Castino also explains some of the challenges of playing bluegrass guitar as opposed to blues guitar. It also becomes clear that ‘Fresh Pickles’ while Castino’s first foray into bluegrass, it will not be his last.
How are things?
Fine, I live up North in Minnesota and it is the middle of winter, and it has been very cold. Today has been warmer, it is just above freezing, and I was out in nature today, and it was lovely. I have some work to do but I did need to get out of doors. I also love the UK and half of my family are British so we have been over twice to visit, and I can’t wait to bring my children over someday.
What is the current status of Big Wu at the moment?
I must swallow my pride and say it has been thirty years since I first met the guys in the band, I was 18 years old, so for most of my adult life I have played with those guys and while there have been some changes in the line-up, there are three of my brothers in that band and we still get together and play. We have continued to play music more regionally in cities close to us, Chicago isn’t far from us, Milwaukee, St Louis, these are places we go to. We also do the mountain bit, the Colorado area, but I’m taking time away from the Big Wu, though we will play some shows this year, but I want to take time and do something I’m really passionate about, which is bluegrass music. I always have been, and it is just such a thrill to be playing the music legitimately and it feels so comfortable to me, though I will say the idiom is very challenging for a guitarist. I fancy myself to be a decent blues guitar player with some country licks in there as well, but bluegrass guitar is a wonderful challenge and I have to go back to school to improve my skills right now. I love it, it is wonderful.
What is your approach to rhythm when you play bluegrass guitar, what is your style as a bluegrass guitarist?
To not mess it up, haha. There are a lot of intricacies in the rhythm guitar playing beside the tempos being so quick. There is a thing called the mash, which is a loud hit on the one, and the bass player of the band signals the mash, so you have to keep your ears open for it. Otherwise, there are intricacies in how you play rhythm behind different soloists. The fiddle can have a more open and airy sound so I can concentrate more on really hitting the beat, really playing hard and rhythmically, while the mandolin and banjo solos are playing a lot of notes so then I will back off and strum a little bit more, play a few runs and then strum a little more openly. These are minutiae of bluegrass guitar that I probably hadn’t noticed until I started to do it, you know, haha.
As you said, you are a Minnesota lad, so where did your love of bluegrass come from?
I’m sure you know bluegrass music originated in the South-eastern parts of the United States in the Appalachian region, and even today there are some musicians that have the genealogy and grew up in a house where their mother or father played this music and they learnt it from them, a very old fashioned way to learn. There was a bit of a diaspora in the ‘60s during the folk revival, old blue musicians and bluegrass players like Flatt and Scruggs got a new wider audience, and that planted bluegrass seeds in other parts of the country. A fellow who just passed away here called Al Jesperson was part of the folk revolution and learned to play bluegrass music in Minnesota, and he was instrumental in cultivating a scene. He had a pizzeria, and it is also the longest-running bluegrass venue for a while but it is now closed. Part of that Minnesota scene was him, his restaurant and there was a program on the radio, on a community-supported radio station for the twin cities which are Minneapolis and St Paul. It was a very long-running bluegrass program and my father, who is a singer and did a lot of jazz and pop standards and loved Frank Sinatra. He was an incredible singer, a far better singer than I will ever be, and he loved bluegrass music because of that high lonesome sound, which is like just straight pitches, there is no vibrato to the singing, it is just this straight thing. He thought that was basic, and he taught me that the harmony you can sing when everyone is just locked into their pitch like that is a powerful thing.
So he turned me onto bluegrass through that radio station, and I started to hear things I had never heard. The musicians I was hearing were like Sam Bush, Tim O’Brien, Peter Rowan, Bela Fleck, Tony Rice, and these were all of that generation of newgrass-style players. They had some roots in traditional bluegrass but I started with the newgrass of the ‘70s and ‘80s, and I then had to go back and research the roots. I had heard of Flatt and Scruggs, I had heard of some of the other guys like Bill Monroe, but that isn’t what turned me on to bluegrass music. It is great to go back and learn the traditional music because it is essential to learning how to play the music, the fiddle tunes, and the traditional styles.
When you wrote the songs on ‘Fresh Pickles’ for Big Wu did you realise they were bluegrass friendly, and how did you select the tunes to recut as bluegrass tunes?
I was thinking today that had someone come to me and said “Hey Chris, do you want to make a bluegrass record?” I would have set off to write some songs in the bluegrass style, and I’m pretty good at that, I can write music within certain idioms if I want to do it. However, the beauty of doing it this way is that these songs existed beforehand with the Big Wu who are a jamming rock band, and so what happened is that we had to adapt the music slightly, we rearranged the songs to meld together the styles. I think it is lovely, but what you hear seems new in some senses. You will automatically recognise that this is a bluegrass band, you will hear the banjo, you will hear it all, but the songs are a little bit different. These never would have been songs I would have written if someone had asked me to make a bluegrass record, so there is something unique to it, there is a different sound that has to do with the structure of the songs and the chord changes which are not traditional.
I called it ‘Fresh Pickles’ because these pickles are my songs, the pickles are in the jar. Pickles have been just hanging out, and I pulled them out and it made an impression by following this process of rearranging and adding in the bluegrass. I love the recipe of what this is and I didn’t know what was going to happen, which makes the recipe tastier. I think it has opened the door for me to do more bluegrass without any serious limitations on what it should sound like. People like this but it is not traditional, god forbid I would ever call this bluegrass in certain company because they would bite my head off, haha. But especially for people in the North here, they would consider this bluegrass because they are not bound to the traditions, and I would love to do more of it because the recipe was quite tasty.
Is ‘Fresh Pickles’ a pandemic album, how did you record it?
I fully embraced the pandemic and its quarantines in the hope that I would write and write, and when my children’s school shut down and they were home all day long I found I couldn’t write at all, haha, I didn’t have the time, energy or space. That put a damper on things, haha, but I was determined to do something and as I surveyed the landscape I noticed no one was really playing music. Everybody wanted something to do, and the band I play with on this record, Chicken Wire Empire, are from the neighbouring state of Wisconsin and we had done things together in the not too distant past and it was wonderful. That was the first group that I thought I would call, and two members of that band were teenagers when Big Wu was really touring a lot at the peak of our popularity, and so they were big fans of that music. So when I called them and proposed that we do this for me it was just like let’s get the conversation started, how about we take some of my Big Wu songs and turn them into bluegrass songs. Now it’s your turn, we are playing tennis here give me your idea, but they immediately said to me that’s great let’s do it. So it didn’t take long to get it going, and as I said to you some of my most favourite most talented people in this local scene like Trampled by Turtles, who are also from Minnesota, who are friends of mine and their fiddler Ryan Young is also a great recording engineer. So I called Ryan and he was just tickled to be able to do something so we had a place to record. The guys in Chicken Wire Empire started to chip away at my songs, we had a list of Big Wu songs and we slowly refined the list based on any number of projections of how it may turn out.
We had the songs and a place to play, and we did a live recording session so we are just playing these parts live. During the process of making the record, I had the idea of getting guests on the record, and initially, my idea was I would have some of my favourite musicians I have come across over the years sing the lead of the songs I had written. I’ve sung these songs so many times I thought it would be more fun to have other people sing them. That is a bigger ask for somebody than to say, “Hey, will you play a solo on this song?.”. To ask them to take the lead and sing that lead role in a song is a lot of work, and as I started to reach out to some of these big shots in bluegrass they were very kind and very open and responsive to varying degrees, some were a bit hard to pin down but I did, haha. I learnt something interesting as well, these guys are very professional, you tell them exactly what you want them to do and they will do it, but the more ambiguous you are about the concept the harder it is for them. They specifically need to be told exactly what you want from them, rather than say something like I have these three songs which one would you like to play on, which did not work, haha. So, I learnt that right away, and I was able to focus in with here’s the song, here’s the solo it is after the second chorus, you take that part and maybe do something in the second part with some licks and they would just do it. It was wonderful, all these guys have recording studios in their homes or just down the street because they live in Nashville, so there are plenty of recording studios and people they have been working with for years. The gear was outstanding, the sounds and tones were incredible, and we just dropped solos in there, we just popped it right in place.
Were you intimidated by some of the guys you had on the album?
Haha, yeah. I’m older now, and there was a time when I had played a show in the ‘00s and the Big Wu were pretty big, and we had a New Year’s Eve show and we hired Sam Bush’s band to open for us. I was almost ashamed of it because he’s so incredibly talented to think he would open the show for us was just mad, haha. I remember feeling so hesitant and nervous around him because he is such an icon in bluegrass, and music in general, and I was like, “I don’t want to bother him at all.”. As I got older I’ve accepted we are all doing the same thing, we are all in this industry together, we all have similar experiences, and I will say these guys are really sweet individuals, very nice people.
What surprises did you get during the recording sessions?
There was a musician named Andy Hall who is in the Infamous Stringdusters, an incredibly talented band, and I didn’t know Andy at all but my producer, Adam Greuel, did know Andy and he really suggested we get Andy to play. When Andy recorded his tracks and sent them over we dropped them into the song and he played the most incredible dobro solo that I have heard in a very long time. This kid, Andy Hall, he wins the award for the best solo on the entire record and beyond that, one thing I thought was interesting was that Peter Rowan, who is another famous name in the folk scene and he started out as one of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys and later played with Jerry Garcia and David Grisman in Old and In The Way and still performs today, over the time of the pandemic had really sequestered himself and I really had to rattle his cage. In fact, it got to the point where I had to find a recording studio North of San Francisco and call them to set up a recording session for Peter, and then ask him to go to it. He is a wonderful guy, I love him so much, and he is a Buddhist and I practice Buddhism as well, and I rely on him sometimes for advice. He is quite a force and it was a bit of a dance to get him to record, he played on ‘The Ballad of Dan Toe’ which is a song I wrote with him in mind, it is a song I wrote in the style of Peter Rowan many, many years ago. How cool is that, haha?
Is ‘Fresh Pickles’ a bit of a vanity project, something you just had to do, or are you really going to promote it to get it to as many people as possible?
It definitely started out as a bit of a lark and then it gained momentum. It really started to have a life of its own and I started to hang on to the project rather than drive the car. For quite a long time I have definitely sought out and hired professionals to help get interviews with the likes of Americana UK, haha, and other places I respect very much because I thought this is a very good record. I don’t know at this point in time what it will bring, and I tend to shy away from expectations other than that I have a very, very simple goal in life and that is to get my music out to as many people as I can. I would love to travel, I would love to come to the UK as we discussed earlier. Right now I am putting a lot of effort into this record, and now it is released it feels very good and we can take a breather now, but we are going to be playing shows throughout the summer and fall of 2022 to promote the record, and it is yet to be determined what will become of it.
There are a lot of real quality bluegrass and folk festivals in the US, even near me, so I hope we get invited to some of those and I think we ought to, particularly with some of these guests. Of course, for me, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival is the ultimate event and Sam Bush basically started that with a couple of other people. It would be quite a thrill to play at Telluride with this, and it probably is not going to happen this year because they have their whole line-up, but I would like to continue promoting this record as I write more tunes for my next bluegrass record, my next exploration. I talked about my recipe earlier, and I’m going to make another dish with this recipe because I really like it, and we will see what happens.
So ‘Pickles 2’ is being planned over the next couple of years?
Yeah, or I might call it ‘Jams’ after fruit preserves, haha. Mind you I love pickles and I think they are fairly ubiquitous around the world though these seem to have really come from Eastern Europe, haha. You open a jar and they taste different from when the fruit and vegetables were first grown, just like these Big Wu songs from years ago, haha.
What do the Big Wu guys think of ‘Fresh Pickles’?
They love the record, and they have been very supportive. Sometimes they are not the most effusive human beings, haha, but they were quite honestly really supportive and enthusiastic about it. I think it puts a little bit more energy back into the Big Wu as well, and I really think it is of the utmost importance to bring music to new ears. If I have to do that by crossing over to different genres that I love, and not as a gimmick at all, with a true love then it should be quite nice for the Big Wu. People are listening to these songs again, and we have a core fan base in our region and they have heard these songs a lot, which is great, and I’ve written so many of these songs which have endured with our fans. But some fans from the past have said I heard your new bluegrass record and I haven’t heard these songs in so long, how wonderful. It is nice, it does put the Big Wu back on the radar as well, which is great, but like I said, the Big Wu won’t be performing all that much this year, and maybe not too much next year. For the Big Wu, it is quality over quantity. For the bluegrass project, it is both, we want to play as often as we can, and it is exciting because I don’t know how all this works with algorithms, and playlists, the way that music filters through the universe to different people. It is a bit of a mystery to me, but I’m talking to you so something is working, haha. It is exciting to think about what might transpire through this new kind of media world. I think it is good.
As a musician and artist, excluding your bluegrass side which we’ve covered, who else are your go-to influences?
I grew up with two very talented singers, my mom and my dad. I love pop music and I always have, but when I grew up my parents would have rehearsals in the basement of our home, and I was just hanging about as they would rehearse and there was someone playing piano parts over and over, and I would just be crawling around. So that was a huge influence on me, my parents weren’t stars but they had a successful group in the area in the late ‘60s early ‘70s, but what they taught me was that there was a way to be a professional musician, and as I started my career in a rock band I saw so many musicians, talented people, who thought that being in a rock band and all the trappings that go along with it, was some kind of aberration or just a fun time to party. It can be those things, but I have to give so much credit to my parents for making me see it is hard work, it is a job, and it can be sustainable and made into a career. Another influence for me was a lad I went to school with who taught me the guitar. He would come over and show me how to play ‘Crossroads’ by Cream, how to play blues licks, and he was called Brian Keffler. Those kinds of intimate relationships with real people while learning and playing have been really big for me.
As far as the music that I love, I really do like all kinds of music, I will say I think the British blues guitar influence on American music is what really intrigues me. I love the history of music, and we can have a whole interview about how African-American roots blues had to go to England to be transformed into something that could come back. It is fascinating to me how all that works, and I was a big fan of Cream, Clapton, Pink Floyd, and Mark Knopfler. When I found the Grateful Dead that added another element to the music that I loved. The Grateful Dead are special in so many ways, and most of it has to do with the fact that Jerry Garcia himself was a student of American music and all kinds of music but especially American styles, blues, folk, and ragtime. His style of incorporating different genres of music and actually having that matriculate into a style that was his own. You will hear guitar players for example who can play jazz, play blues, and can play country, and it is compartmentalised a bit, which is fine, but Jerry melded those styles together creating something completely different. And that is what I like about my record, I feel that to some degree it brings two worlds together and creates something slightly different. I’m such a nut when it comes to music, talking about music, culture, and history I can go on and on.
When you tour later this year is it going to be with Chicken Wire Empire?
Yeah, that will be the band. Peter Rowan is always playing with different people, and so I do envision working with some other artists as well, depending on the style of the next record or what direction things go. Chicken Wire Empire is its own entity, those guys have a career of their own, and are a little bit younger than I am, and are pushing really hard to make a real go of it for themselves, and they can, and they should, and they probably will. They have been gracious enough to just pause and give me their attention and efforts for this. They will be touring on their own this summer and fall.
We like to share new music with our readers, so currently what are your top three tracks, artists or albums on your playlist?
That is difficult, I’m the guy who has 400 LPs on the shelves, I love old music. Honestly, I’ve been listening to Stephen Sondheim a lot lately, the Broadway composer and lyricist. I’ve also been listening to a lot of classical music lately as well, haha. Billy Strings has some great music out right now as well, and I’m so pleased to see how well he is doing. I think he is a great representation of kind of where I come from as well, he plays that mix of Grateful Dead and bluegrass music and expansive jam-type music. I hope to meet him someday and play some music with him, his music is really outstanding. I like a band called Watchhouse, they used to be called Mandolin Orange, and they are a group out of here and they have incredible songwriting. It is a man and a woman, they are a couple, and his voice is so iconic in a way, he has a lilt to his singing voice and style, it is very Southern United States, very peaceful and calming. His songwriting is incredible and their harmonising is incredible, her fiddle playing is incredible and I am a big fan of that as well.
Is there anything you want to say to Americana UK readers?
I love the UK and the British Isles, and I would really love to come back and spend some time, and if the people were to be so generous as to provide me with a wonderful reason to come back and play some music there, that would be even better. As we say over here I’m an anglophile, and I love it. Of all the places, other than the United States, that I might want to bring this music to, I have always thought that the UK would be the place where I would love to share this music. I’m also just glad that Americana UK is part of the media that can help bring my music to the UK.
Chris Castino & The Chicken Wire Empire’s ‘Fresh Pickles’ is out now as an independent release.