While Casey Driessen is best known for playing bluegrass fiddle, his debut album shows he's at home playing in many other styles. VOA's Katherine Cole tells us more about the young musician and his CD, titled "3D."
Casey Driessen says he was inspired to write a song called "Gaptooth" after hearing the traditional tune, "Cumberland Gap", and wondering what it would sound like if were an Irish jig rather than a song about the American Civil War.
Although 3D is Casey's first solo album, you've probably heard his fiddle-playing before if you're a fan of American roots musicians like Steve Earle, Tim O'Brien and Bela Fleck or pop singer John Mayer. Those are just a few of the artists with whom the 28-year-old has performed and recorded. And, they've returned the favor by going into the studio with Casey when it was time to make his album. Tim O'Brien picks the bouzouki, or octave mandolin, on "The Confusion Before Dreams."
What made him decide it was time to go into the studio and make his own record?
"As a side musician, you play a lot of music for other folks," he said. "Ideas build up, and you feel a voice developing personally. Even if your main gig is playing for other people, you've still got a personality that can show itself, and a need to express something. I felt like there was some different stuff I wanted to try out. Some different combinations of musicians and genres of things that I wanted to put together into something that could be uniquely me. If I'm lucky!"
Raised in the midwestern state of Illinois, Casey began playing fiddle at the age of six. He was encouraged by his father, who enjoyed playing banjo and pedal steel guitar. When Casey was a bit older, the family began going to bluegrass festivals, and he learned how to play with other musicians. After graduating from high school, Casey decided to attend the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, a school known more for graduating a long line of progressive jazz musicians than bluegrass fiddlers. Casey says Berklee introduced him to a whole new world.
"One of the things I dug about it was that it was very international. Like 50 percent international [students]," he said. "You wouldn't necessarily hear English being spoken. You'd hear French, Chinese, Japanese, Greek; all sorts of different walks of musicality there. So it's not just jazz. It's people who are coming to expand their musical knowledge. It's a platform for so many different things."
Cole: "Could you do what you're doing today without having been there and experiencing all that?"
Driessen: "The music I'm making might be a little bit different. The people I'm making music with would be different, I'm sure. It really opened my eyes to a lot of different music from around the globe. I'd grown up in a pretty bluegrass [music] house … progressive bluegrass. But you know, I hadn't listened to [Motown performer] Stevie Wonder.
Cole: "Not at all?"
Driessen: "No, I really hadn't. I'd grown up playing fiddle tunes."
And one of those fiddle tunes was Bill Monroe's "Jerusalem Ridge." It sounds a bit different on Casey Driessen's CD 3D.
Cole: "So that was a very traditional song, a sort of non-traditional arrangement."
Cole: "How do you hear things like that? Is it just from playing a lot? That you just start going off in different directions?"
Driessen: "That tune was the first song that I started fooling around with and trying some new stuff. In college, I recorded four different fiddles doing it, and I was [playing] on one of the tracks, and on another track I was doing [playing differently]. Then another track is playing the melody, and then there's a harmony one that comes in there. So it's all fiddle, and they're all leading the roles of the bass, or the guitar, or drums. For the record, I still wanted to do it, but I wanted to develop it beyond what it had been for me five years ago. There's no end of things that you can try on tunes, I'm sure of that. You keep on searching."
An updated arrangement of "Jerusalem Ridge" earned Casey Driessen his first Grammy nomination earlier this year. Another highlight on 3D is an original song called "Lady Bowmore." Driessen recorded a version during a recent visit to the VOA studios in Washington, D.C.