INTERIVEW with Chris Shouse

Rick Stowe

This year the Mountain Heritage Literary Festival will be entertained with several talented musical acts. One is the 23 String Band from the Cumberland Valley of Kentucky. I had the opportunity to discuss some of the unique characteristics of their music and their process with Chris Shouse of the band.

Emancipator: What is the band’s inspiration.

Shouse:I think our sound comes from a melting pot of different genres that each member of band has experienced in some capacity.The balance between all the genres, gives us a satisfaction of knowing that we are expressing ourselves together through a common genre.The inspiration evolves from playing the style of music that we love. Inspiration is easy when you are surrounded by great people, great musicians, and great music

E: You strike an excellent balance between the traditional Appalachianmusic, and modernizing the sound. How do you achieve this?

S: It’s weird really because we don’t attempt to create a sound, it just happens.We want to stay true to our culture and recreate songs in a way that has never been expressed.Songs like “Cluck Ol’ Hen” and “Hesitation Blues” have been around for years, so when we decide to cover them, we tried to incorporate our own style with a mixture of the song’s basic composition.We really enjoy putting a twist on traditional songs… them a subjective face lift.

E: Your songs seem to not be overpowered by either the lyrics or the music. So when you develop your tracks do you start with the music or the lyrics first?

Photograph by Rick Stowe

S: The writing process varies for each song.Some tunes are written completely by Curtis or myself and others are more of a collaborative effort.I recently came across the original version of “Ramblin’ Around” on my computer and laughed at the way the song changed so much from the initial rough draft..On that particular song, I came up with a melody and basic chord structure, emailed that to Curtis and he finished writing the lyrical part of the song.The night before the recording of the song, the band arranged it the way it sounds today.This is a great example of how all the members of the band come together in the creative process. As far as the music or lyrics first, it really depends on the song.When writing I try to find a unique or catchy phrase either musically or lyrically and work around that by sharing it with another musician. To us, the music is just as important as the lyrics.

E: Even though it doesn’t usually get the same attention as other forms of literature song writing tells stories and has just as interesting characters. What is your process in developing these stories?

S:Curtis brought a song to me around a month ago with an interesting story about a homeless man he spoke with in Louisville.He actually had his girlfriend take notes about the conversation so he could later write a song.Sometimes a simple conversation could stir some creativity.During the process of choosing songs for our album, “Love Songs and Other Rants”, we chose songs that pertained to that subject.Curtis is an excellent lyricist that is meticulous about making sure his songs make sense and tells a story.I feel that he accomplished that great in “Valentine’s Love Bouquet”.

E:staying with the traditional sound of the region you are doing an excellent job of preserving the unique culture of the area in a way that appeals to a broad spectrum of listeners. Who do you find is in your listening audience?

S: We hope that everyone likes our music.We decided a long time ago that we would play the music that we love regardless of who likes or dislikes it.At our shows, I always smile at the diversity of the audience members. I read an article not long ago about the correlation between punk rockers are coming to the old-time string genre.In this case, I think punk music and old-time really have a lot in common because they both express a point of view.So hopefully everyone would at least appreciate our unique genre as an expression.

E: Going back to the way that your group modernizes the traditional sound, how do go about this as to not sound just like every other old-time group?

S: When we first started the band, we decided to go a different path in terms of the creativity that would make our sound unique.Just thinking of all the old-time bands out there, makes us want to be different, but by taking a chance like that, one is subject to criticism among the public.As far as the “modernizing” goes, I think that the melting pot of different genres each of us has experienced in the past, gives a fresh perspective on the arrangement and direction of the songs.

E: Your unique style and versatility make it hard to describe the group with a particular genre title. How do you view yourselves?

S: Throughout a normal set, we try to pull off a couple different genres including old-time, jazz, and bluegrass, but if we had to put label on one genre, that would be roots or hillbilly music.I feel fortunate to be in a band with musicians that have the ability to play just about any type of music imaginable.Curtis plays claw hammer banjo and melodic three fingered style, Scott has classical training on fiddle, and Owen is an accomplished jazz bass player, so with a line up like that, I think we have the ability to fulfill any desire of music possible.

: With the success of artists such as Old Crow and Iron and Wine and Jon Foreman it seems like more and more acoustic folk music is gaining popularity. Do you think this shift in the genre away from the low key fan base that it is usually associated with is a good thing or a bad thing? Why so?

S: I think the shift is associated with a good thing because it is introducing people to different types of music. The success of the Cohen brothers film “O Brother Where Art Thou” really brought a lot of this music to the attention of the general public. It has certainly revived the career of Ralph Stanley. Back in the 50’s when Elvis came out and started to rock and roll it put a hurting on a lot of country/roots music artist. So those artist adapted by covering rock and roll tunes in their way to try and stay current. The Osborne Brothers was one of the first bands to bring a drum kit to a bluegrass festival and plug in. This was considered blasphemy in those days and still is amongst certain circles. Let us not forget that tunes like Stephen Foster’s “Angelina Baker” was considered pop music in his day. I think the entire band is music fans.We just hope that someone becomes a fan of our cultural music whether from us or another great band.People should realize that music is an expression and hopefully our impression is somewhere in the scheme of things.–e-