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Missy Raines & Allegheny’s ‘Highlander’ is Effortlessly Bluegrass

Feb 28, 2024

Missy Raines & Allegheny's 'Highlander' is Effortlessly Bluegrass

Missy Raines is one of the winningest musicians in the 30+ year history of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual awards. She’s a 10-time recipient of the Bass Player of the Year trophy and has taken home a couple of Collaborative Recording of the Year and Instrumental Recording of the Year awards, too. She’s been an omnipresent creative in bluegrass, in Nashville, and in American roots music as a whole for the majority of her life. Even so, many are heralding her new album, Highlander, made with her new band, Allegheny, as a “return to bluegrass.” The thing is, Raines never left.

It’s true that she spent more than a handful of years touring with an experimental, new acoustic-inflected string band, The New Hip, intentionally devoting more than a decade to highlighting her songwriting, her role as front person, and her smoky, patina-ed alto. Throughout that time, no matter how far afield the music may have explored beyond the stone walls and steel bars of bluegrass, Raines always had both feet firmly planted in the genre. While fronting and touring the New Hip, she remained a mainstay at bluegrass and acoustic camps across the country, founded and performed with several bluegrass and old-time supergroups, and “moonlit” as a bassist-for-hire for a laundry list of notable bluegrass, country, and Nashville stars.

So, however exciting it may be – and, it is truly, very exciting – that Raines and Allegheny have intentionally guided her sound back to traditional, straight ahead, mash-tastic bluegrass for her new album, Highlander, it’s important to remind Raines’ audience, the new initiates and diehards alike, that whatever music may emanate from the strings of her upright bass or from her tender and expressive voice, she has always been and will always be bluegrass. And effortlessly so. Highlander isn’t so much a return to the genre as it is a reminder that Missy Raines’ goal in music, first and foremost, is to make great bluegrass music for great bluegrass folks – her kind of folks.

This is your first album with the new band and I wanted to talk about how your creative process and how your collaboration process looks nowadays. I sense a lot of changes in how you’ve approached making music as an ensemble, but I wonder how it has felt to you, on the inside of the sonic and lineup shift from the last album to this new lineup, with Missy Raines & Allegheny?

Missy Raines: The collaboration process we have within this band, Allegheny, and for this album is the collaboration process that I’ve always dreamed of and wanted to have in a band setting. You know, I wanted to have my own band for years and years and then, after I waited a really long time, when I finally did do it in like 2009, I had in my mind that it would be like this, that it would be this collaborative thing and I’d have people who were invested. The short story is that I have that now, and that’s the beauty of it.

In the past, I did have elements of that, for sure. There were definitely folks who came into the different configurations that I had who were invested and collaborative. [That] was definitely there, but I will say, to have a moment in time when you have actually like five people sitting in the room and they’re all equally invested – that is pretty magical.

So yeah, the process for this record was very different than for Royal Traveller, because on Royal Traveller I didn’t really have a band when I started that recording. I was sort of ending the New Hip and I knew that that record wasn’t going to have the sound that the New Hip had, it was going to be very mixed, in terms of styles. There were all these different guests on every single song and there was no one solid backing band, because I actually wasn’t touring at the time. All of the main decisions and stuff were basically made by me and [producer] Alison Brown.

I think part of why this album feels so strongly like a band album is not just because of the Missy Raines & Allegheny rebrand, but also because you’ve been playing with this lineup – Ben Garnett, Eli Gilbert, Ellie Hakanson, and Tristan Scroggins – now for several years. This project feels like it was made by a band. And I think part of that feeling comes from you having worked together for as long as you did before you made the album.

I think it does. I don’t know if it also has anything to do with the fact that me, just by default– yes I’m the leader, but I’m also a bass player and my tendency and my way of thinking about any band is I come into it as a support player, because that’s what I’ve done all my life. This came up the other day online, because we’re getting lots of really great reviews from the record. Like one reviewer called my “backing” band “magnificent.” They are magnificent, but I don’t think of them as a backing band. I told them that and of course, Tristan said, “Well, that’s what we are.” And I was like, “No!” I still don’t think of [the band] that way. I don’t know if it’s just because I’m maybe still a little uncomfortable being out front, or it’s a combination of things.

It’s also just been this bass player mentality that – not that bass players can’t be out front, it’s just like, “No, we’re making this stuff together. We’re making this together.” And so I don’t see it as me standing up there doing something and they’re backing me up. I feel that if I’m not playing with them and they’re not playing with me, then we have nothing.

What was the process like as you sat down with this sequence of songs and were imagining who you wanted to have guest on the album? How did you navigate that with your producer, Alison Brown? This is a stout lineup of special guests appearing with you and Allegheny.

The only thing I knew in the very beginning, before I even talked to Alison about making the record, was that I wanted to do “These Ole Blues” with Danny Paisley. [Laughs] That was already in my head. I had this vision, I heard Loretta Lynn’s version of it and then I also knew that I wanted to change it a bit to make it more bluegrass. And it came out exactly the way I was hoping. I wanted to sing it with Danny Paisley. That was an easy one. Well, all of them were easy, because when we sat down we just listened, thought about the song, and thought who would be the right singer. And, who would also represent what it was that I was trying to say with this record.

Like, Dudley Connell on “Ghost Of A Love.” Of course, he’s playing with the Seldom Scene these days – he’s just so good that he can do anything. And no one loves the Seldom Scene more than me, but what I was looking for was Johnson Mountain Boys Dudley. [The Seldom Scene] was one of the big inspirations to this band, but so were the Johnson Mountain Boys and nobody captures that better than Dudley.

And I did want to say something about Laurie Lewis, too.

I wanted to ask you about “I Would Be a Blackbird,” the track that features Laurie, so yes, please, let’s definitely get into that!

So, Nathan Bell, he’s a friend, a great songwriter, and he wrote “American Crow” [from 2013’s New Frontier]. He wrote “I Would Be a Blackbird.” He’s written several songs with bird themes, but this song, he actually sent to me literally years ago and I loved it, but I couldn’t make it happen before, because it just didn’t fit whatever I was doing at the time. But it found its way to this band and it felt right.

Then again, when we thought about who I should sing with it, I thought of Laurie Lewis and it was perfect. I also really wanted Laurie to be part of this record because she was so much a part of Royal Traveller, she wrote “Swept Away” and it was like the star of that album. Laurie said to me, “You need to record ‘Swept Away,’ you should do that! It would be a great song for you.” So that felt extra special, that she thought of me for that.

When I was just starting out to play, when I was a teenager and stuff, I didn’t really know much about her music, because at that time I was such an east coaster and she was such a west coaster. I didn’t really know much about what was going on out there. But then soon after that, when I started hearing more of her music, got to meet her, and heard Love Chooses You, that was one of the first moments that I had in my mind that made me go, “Oh, you know… I would like to do something like this on my own someday.”

And then she became a really dear friend! Anyway, it was just really important to have her on this record.

I wanted to ask you about “Who Needs A Mine?” Not only because of Kathy Mattea joining you on that track, but also because of your ties to West Virginia and the very ideas behind Highlander. When I first heard you play that song probably a year and a half ago now, I think my jaw hit the floor. It’s such a perfect song and it’s so clearly in this tradition of women songwriters from West Virginia, from Central Appalachia, and the Mid-Atlantic who use folk songs and folk lyrics as a vehicle to speak truth to power. For me, it’s the focal point of the record. I think it’s one of the best socially aware and politically aware bluegrass songs that’s ever been written, in my humble opinion.

Wow. Well, your humble opinion means a lot over here. So, thank you.

I definitely thought of Kathy immediately, because of the West Virginia part, but also because she has championed this drug crisis for a long time. Her own life has been affected by it, personally, with family members. She speaks openly about that and has done a lot of really great things. That resonated with me.

One of the really extra special things that happened the day that Alison brought us together in the studio, I walked in and [Kathy] was there and she looked at me and she said, “I really, really love this song.”

I felt the sincerity in her voice. Like she said, it is really, really meaningful and powerful. I was just overwhelmed with that. Then she also said, “And it’s really nice to hear another alto singer!” [Laughs] I thought, “Well, that’s cool that you would even put me in the same breath as you.” I’ve always been drawn to singers like her, with the range of her voice and stuff. It seemed like a very natural fit for the song.

And as for me wanting to write it, I’ve been thinking about this song for probably the last five, six years or maybe a little bit more. I tried to write this song on my own, right from the beginning, but I realized that I was just way too close to it and I needed to have some perspective. I still wanted to have a bit of control over it, because I knew what I wanted from it. But I realized I also needed somebody to give me some perspective. So, I thought of who I knew that I would like to write with and who would get it and come from that same place, and I very wisely chose Randy Barrett. He was absolutely perfect to help me write that.

Of course, you know I cited Hazel, because she’s such a hero and my ties to West Virginia will be forever. I honestly don’t ever see myself living back there ever again, but on the other hand, I will always cherish all the things precious from my early life there. This issue is just so incredibly important to me and the reasons it happened – that people can Google, as to why this is such a horrific and atrocious thing. And it wasn’t just by accident, [opioid marketing] was actually targeted.

I’m glad you bring up Hazel. I think she is such an important touch point for this song. And I also think of Jean Ritchie, but there’s also this current moment happening where songwriters and roots musicians from rural places are taking up similar issues in their music. I’m thinking of Dori Freeman’s “Soup Beans Milk and Bread,” of Willi Carlisle’s “When the Pills Wear Off.” I think that there’s this really important moment of songwriters telling stories about these regions that are critical and that are seeking justice and a better future, but are also approaching it from love.

There’s something really interesting about “Who Needs A Mine?” because it feels like there’s some sarcasm and sass in it, but I still sense that the song is very, very loving – even in the way that there’s bitterness and anger in it. Do you see that too?

I love that you bring that up, because I was just sitting here thinking that I grew up listening to Hazel and hearing her songs, mostly about poverty and about mining and black lung and all of the travesties that came with the mining industry. While I knew that was part of my state’s history, it really wasn’t part of my own story, because my family weren’t miners. They were farmers and they were railroad men, but they weren’t actually miners.

The part of West Virginia where I grew up had more strip mining than it did deep coal mining. And so there was some level of understanding for me, but at the same time, I was fascinated. When I was a teenager, I used to read all the stories about the mines and unionization – and Mother Jones. I was really into that. And again, one of the reasons that I loved Hazel is because she championed all of that so much. At the same time, it wasn’t my story. When I started becoming emotionally involved with what was happening in the world today, seeing the West Virginia that I knew and the devastation when I go back home to see my family. I hear the stories about the drug infestation and all that. I see the poverty and see the children and all those things. Then I started getting angry and started getting upset about it. I realized this is my story. This is my time. This is what’s happening now. We all thought that the mines were going to be the worst thing that ever happened to us, but we at least kind of lived through that.
And in many ways, we triumphed through that. But now, this is more powerful – a pill that makes you feel like nothing, a pill that takes you out of reality is way more powerful than anything else.

I love the joke going around regarding this lineup of your band being “Mashy Raines.” I think it’s hilarious.

[Laughs] Thank you.

I think it’s interesting, because it seems like people use that joke to note how trad this band sounds, because you’ve spent a lot of time dabbling on the fringes of bluegrass. So it’s notable that you’re making bluegrass straight down the middle with this lineup. I think part of why it works so well is because you’re using this really trad aesthetic with such emotionally intelligent songs.

That is exactly what I was trying to go for, to have this hopefully artistically and intellectually interesting subject matter on top of really traditional sounds and aesthetic. That’s the most fun in the world to do, and hopefully you get some messages across without folks even knowing it.

I understand why some people might think this is new for me or something, the mashing thing, but we, of course, know that it’s not. I’ve been doing this for a long time, but it’s just that a lot of the mashy stuff or the real traditional stuff I started out with. I was doing it back then, you know, when not everything that anyone ever did was recorded and put online. There’s so much of that in my history that only the people who were there will remember. When I finally did start to make records and stuff, either on my own or with other people, yeah, it tended to be a lot more explorative, for sure. I had already played a lifetime of traditional bluegrass before I even made my first album.

The New Hip was bluegrass, but I never tried to make it be bluegrass. I just knew that I was bluegrass and I was a bluegrass bass player and I was playing this other kind of music. The entire time, I was thinking of all of it as a bluegrass bass player. In my mind, I never left bluegrass, but I do understand how it was perceived that way by some.

When Highlander started coming out, I started seeing the stuff being written and they were using this “return to bluegrass” thing. I fought it a little bit, at first. But now I’m like, “It’s okay, because you’re right.” This is unique. This band and this sound, it is unique. In that regard, it is a definite return to something that I haven’t done for a long time – with a specific sound that we have now. It’s exactly what I was looking for, but because of the people involved, it’s better than I ever imagined it could be.

Photo Credit: Natia Cinco

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Missy Raines & Allegheny's 'Highlander' is Effortlessly Bluegrass
Missy Raines & Allegheny's 'Highlander' is Effortlessly Bluegrass