If you were to try to typify bluegrass as being about any one singular thing, that one thing might be family. Not just biological family, but musical family, chosen family, and the way the music survives generation to generation, passed down as a folkway and aural tradition. Often, though not always, this music is a family tradition, passed along family trees like an heirloom or like more typical family businesses.
John Cloyd Miller and Natalya Zoe Weinstein, bluegrass duo and band leaders of Zoe & Cloyd, have made a brand new album that, on the surface, might just seem like a standard bluegrass album paying homage to the folks who came before them, their forefathers. But Songs of Our Grandfathers is so much more complicated and nuanced, wrinkling a format that’s as old as these genres themselves: the tribute album.
On the new record, released in May on Organic Records, John and Natalya pull songs from the catalogs of their musician grandfathers. Miller’s grandpa, Jim Shumate, was a renowned Western North Carolina fiddler who played a stint in Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys and can be accurately credited with helping get Earl Scruggs the banjo gig that made him famous. Natalya’s grandfather, David Weinstein, was a working klezmer musician who fled unrest in Russia, moving to the U.S.
The artful way this pair of musicians and life partners combine the styles of their families, of their youths, and of their present lives together, as touring, professional musicians, feels expansive, rich, and bold, like newgrass that’s never been newgrassed before. But, there’s a timelessness here, a patina, that speaks to the greater tradition this record can lay claim to perpetuating. (Thank goodness.)
Songs of Our Grandfathers isn’t just nostalgia, heritage, lineage, legacy- and canon-building. It’s not just carrying on tradition for tradition’s sake. It’s effortlessly and wholly bluegrass because it innovates, it complicates, and it challenges its listeners to think outside of preconceived notions of what bluegrass, string band, and old-time music are. Because that’s exactly what bluegrass’s grandfathers, grandmothers, and grandparents were doing as they invented this music.
We began our phone chat about the new album discussing each of their grandparents and their musical idiosyncrasies.
Can we start by talking about Jim Shumate? His presence is throughout the record and he’s influenced you both, can you tell us a bit about him and his music making?
John Cloyd Miller: He was born in 1921 in Wilkes County, North Carolina, on a mountain called Chestnut Mountain. He started playing fiddle as a young boy, as a teenager. His older brother Mac, who was 10 years older – the same age as Bill Monroe – got him his first fiddle, which is a fiddle he kept his entire life and we actually have, now. It’s an old Sears & Roebuck Strad copy, but he played some tone into it! His Uncle Erby played fiddle so he heard him a lot growing up and then he got into Arthur Smith and all that kind of stuff. He moved to Hickory when he got older, when he was a young man, and was playing on the radio down there when Bill Monroe heard him and asked him to be in the Blue Grass Boys. That was the time that Stringbean was in the band and Sally Ann Forrester, too.
When Stringbean decided to leave the band and go off with Lew Childre, Bill needed a banjo player and it’s now a pretty well known story that Jim knew a banjo player – he knew Earl Scruggs – and really pushed, begged him really, to audition for Bill. Earl was pretty reluctant to do it, but he did, and the rest is history. Later on, when Flatt & Scruggs broke off [from the Blue Grass Boys], Jim was their first fiddler, as you know. He recorded on their Mercury sessions. But he didn’t like touring, he wasn’t a touring kinda guy at all. He had four kids at home – three at the time, when he was younger, and one later.
Natalya Zoe Weinstein: He liked Mama’s cookin’.
JCM: He did! He liked his own bed and grandma’s cooking, for sure. He liked to go up on the mountain. He worked in the furniture industry pretty much his whole life, but he also had his hand in the music. He ran a place called “Cat Square,” kind of a small town sort of Hickory Opry, a music show. He was always playing. I have photos of him through the late ‘40s and through the ‘50s with all sorts of people, Don Reno – all those guys. He made records and he had his own band called Sons of the Carolinas, which had George Shuffler in it and some other guys. He was always playing. He played with Dwight Barker and the Melody Boys; he did some sides with Don Walker, who he played with before he met Bill Monroe. He was always making music.
After Flatt & Scruggs it was largely regionally, because he wasn’t out touring, but he said people would always come by. Any time guys like Lester and them were in town they would always drive the bus and park it right in the yard. He was always in the music, but his influence was not felt as widely later on, I think because he wasn’t out [touring]. He did come back to recording in the ‘90s and made five cassettes for Heritage Records and those got disseminated kind of regionally. Michael Cleveland cut one of the songs that was on one of those tapes a year or so ago. People know his music, but we enjoy getting his legacy out there a bit more. He’s got such a unique style and certainly was influential.
He was a great songwriter, too! He was my main musical influence. I heard him play a ton growing up. He was so bluesy and slidey, he was a real master of syncopation, which is something that got ingrained in me. People always forget about his songwriting, but the way I grew up, I always thought that being a musician meant that you sing stuff, you write songs. You pick, too, but you do all of it. It was just part of being musical and I think that came from him as well.
It makes me think of, well, I talk a lot about how the most “bluegrass” someone can be is being innovative and being themselves, whether that comes across as “traditional bluegrass,” genre-wise or not.
JCM: That’s really insightful and it’s so true, when you look at those early players – everybody always looks at the first generation and, that’s good, that can be very grounding, but those guys were all unique! They were all unique artists, they had their own styles – sure, they were listening to one another, but Lester Flatt doesn’t sound like Bill Monroe who doesn’t sound like Carter Stanley. They don’t sound like each other!
Natalya, I wanted to ask you about your grandfather, too. If you could tell us a bit about the musical influences that represent him on this record, as well.
NZW: He passed away when I was fairly young, my dad had me when he was fifty-one, so my grandfather was quite older than me – I think I was eleven when he passed away. [My father and he] had an interesting relationship; he wasn’t always a well-liked man. He escaped a lot of violence and poverty in Russia, so he wasn’t a very kind man and my dad didn’t have a very close relationship with him. I don’t have any audio recordings of his music, I have a couple of audio interviews that my dad and uncle did with him, but I don’t have any recordings of his music.
My dad was moving a few years back and found all these old music notebooks from my grandfather. He asked me, “Do you want these old, handwritten, junky notebooks?” And I was like, “Yes!! Please give those to me!” [Laughs] That was the source, for me, for my grandfather’s music. I didn’t have one-on-one experiences with him, I didn’t have recordings of him, so these notebooks are really the only link to his music that I have. We have about five or six notebooks that have songs in them – they’re pretty hard to decipher, they’re forty or fifty years old. They have all different kinds of material in them, from klezmer to mambos and tangos even to “Tennessee Waltz,” which shows up in one of them as a jazz standard. He also played some classical music, he didn’t do just one singular thing. Klezmer players were like the wedding band musician of their time, where they had to play a bunch of different styles based on who their audience was.
JCM: We definitely got a little bit of a sense of who he was from these audio interviews that her uncle and dad had made with him. We got to hear his voice, you know he didn’t speak English very well so it’s mostly in Russian and Yiddish. You get a sense of some of the stuff he saw, in these interviews. You can tell it hardened him.
NZW: He had a tough life for sure, he struggled a lot and music was really the only thing [he did]. He wasn’t really educated. He talked about how when he came here [to the U.S.] he tried to be a plumber and he tried to be an electrician, but he kept making mistakes. He said, “I couldn’t do anything except play music.” He felt almost like he was stuck with it. He loved it and he was passionate about it, but I got the sense that it was his only option.
There’s a similar energy from both grandfathers around being musicians, but not just in a traditional touring, “road dog,” sort of lifestyle.
NZW: You’re right, and they were both kind of skeptical of the past.
JCM: They both came from very humble beginnings. My grandfather didn’t have any education, either. Natalya’s grandfather, apparently, escaped the Bolshevik revolution on a hay wagon. He was a teenager and they were trying to conscript him into the army to fight – it’s crazy stuff!
Bluegrass is always considering lineage and tradition and how those things are passed along. One of the things that I think is really interesting about it is there aren’t a lot of marginalized identities represented in the historical record of bluegrass, but there are Jewish identities represented. There’s not a whole lot of representation as you go back through the years, but it’s there. How do you connect the music you’re making, that’s infused with Jewish influences and has that cultural identity, to past Jewish music makers in bluegrass and string bands? You’re clearly thinking about lineage and family with this record, and that’s so bluegrass, but through a different lens with your Jewish identity and the other cultural music styles on the album, too.
NZW: David Grisman was one of my biggest musical influences early on, he was a big bridge, for me, between my dad – who plays jazz – and the bluegrass connection as well as the Jewish connection. We talk about how this album was inspired by Songs of Our Fathers, the 1995 album by David Grisman and Andy Statman. Andy Statman, who played on the record, is another one – one of the first shows that John and I went to see when we met in Asheville in 2005 or 2006 was to see Andy Statman at the Black Mountain Center for the Arts, which is this tiny little listening room. It was an incredible show, I remember just being blown away. I remember thinking, “Wow! What a cool fusion.”
JCM: That was the first time we heard that fusion with klezmer music. He was also playing clarinet, he was playing mandolin. He is the bridge between these kinds of music. David doesn’t do as much klezmer, but those two guys together for sure.
NZW: John and I both came into bluegrass through the Grisman/Garcia connection then I kind of worked my way back from there. Someone gave me a burned CD of Bill Monroe and I was like, “Oh my God, what is this!?” [Laughs]
JCM: So many people have stories like that. That Old & In The Way album was such an influential record, it was like the number one selling bluegrass record for a long time.
NZW: Yeah, the way I got into bluegrass, I was out in Tacoma, Washington, for an anthropology conference in college and somebody at my hotel was like, “I’ve got an extra ticket for Wintergrass, which is happening right next door.” I said, “Okay, cool!” So we go and I saw Old & In The Gray there [Peter Rowan, Vassar Clements, Grisman], it was an incredible experience. I didn’t really know what I was seeing at the time, because I was so new to bluegrass, but that was my “Ah ha!” moment. Someone handed me a fiddle and I dunno, I played “Angeline the Baker” and that was it! [Laughs]
JCM: When I first heard Grisman play mandolin, his tone and everything, that was like sinking a hook into me. That’s why I even wanted to play mandolin. I wanted to work on getting tone like that! He was a huge influence on so many of us.
Going back home one time, when I had been living out West or whatever, I was listening to Old & In the Way or something and I asked, “Grandpa, do you know this stuff, like ‘Pig in a Pen,’ and all this?” And he was like, “Oh yeah! I know everything on this record!” And he would play them, and that was so cool to me. I hadn’t quite made the connection before. He asked me, “Who’s playing fiddle on that record?” And I said, “Vassar Clements!” He says, “Oh yeah, that’s a good friend of mine!” I was like, “WHAT!?”
JCM: I was just this stupid, deadhead college kid – I mean, I’m still a deadhead – but it really clicked. This is a bridge between grandpa’s world, which had always seemed like something in the past, to my world as a young, coming-of-age musician, realizing, “Oh, it’s all the same stuff!”
To an uninitiated listener, they might hear your record and they might hear the influences that aren’t “traditional bluegrass” as modern cross-pollinations, as something that’s coming from you both and your generation and your own creativity. But, I really wanted to unpack the lineage of the music, because I can sense even in the playing on this album that colors “outside the lines,” it’s clearly part of this bigger tradition in bluegrass of being a bridge between these kinds of disparate parts. Even this “nontraditional” album you’ve made is based on so much tradition – familial tradition, cultural tradition, musical tradition.
NZW: I think we wanted to honor those traditions and where these songs came from, but we also wanted to put our own spin on it. We hope our grandfathers would have liked that!
JCM: [Jim Shumate] was very much a traditional musician, but he was always innovative at the same time. Some of the things he did in the ‘50s were very jazzy, with electric guitars playing with him. And he always loved Natalya’s playing. You know, Natalya came from a classical background and anytime she would play something classical for him–
NZW: Or a waltz.
JCM: He just loved to hear her play. They didn’t sound like each other, they had very different styles, but he was always very open and he loved everything.
NZW: I think he would like [the album]. John’s mom texted us yesterday as she was listening to it and said, “I think grandpa would’ve enjoyed that!” So hopefully our grandparents aren’t rolling over in their graves.
Photo Credit: Sarah Johnston