Come on Nancy get your best dress on – The Vaudevillian World of The Corn Potato String Band

So I’m standing in the Cumberland Arms in Newcastle and The Corn Potato String Band have taken to the stage. The three of them, Aaron Jonah Lewis, Lindsay McCaw and stand in Third Potato for the tour, Luke Richardson stand around a single condenser microphone. The audience, myself included stand eager to do a spot of time travel and look into the past. In some ways we do.

By the end of the night we have been treated to a selection of twin fiddle tunes, one triple fiddle tune, a speedy Mexican Polka, and a collection of songs that include a religious warning about flying saucers being the fore bearers of a coming Armageddon, and a cautionary tale of how if your date has an appetite larger than your ability to pay then the restaurant owner will give you a black eye or two.

Before the gig I had chance to chat with the bands big chief, Aaron, briefly and he described the music as participatory. He wanted us to get involved the performance people needed to move, to dance even call out or sing along. He said with full conviction that he wasn’t the owner of this music that his only investment in it was the performance and therefore participation by the audience was validation. After all our forefathers had considered this music dance music, music to drink to, carouse, romance to, all around enjoy yourself to. And I can see his point.

It is all too easy to be stuffy about roots music, to take an academic view, to talk about things like folk traditions and keeping music alive. All these things are valid, without song collectors, archivists or field recorders a lot of the folk tradition that we have here would have been lost, its all worthy, worthwhile work. However I can’t recall anyone saying it couldn’t be fun.

So an hour later it is no surprise to find myself in a ring of four people twirling to the left and then to the right, being encouraged to “dive for the oysters and dig for the clams” as Aaron leads us all in an improvised square dance. It had already in fact been a night for drinking and dancing. The band before The Corn Potato String Band were a local eight piece jazz outfit called “The House of the Black Gardenia” who had encouraged a gaggle of frenzied jitterbug dancers to entertain us all. It was their debut gig and they were already performing like seasoned professionals, it seems the North East takes its fun very seriously indeed.

By the time the Corn Potatos hit the stage there is something vaudevillian, almost quintessentially music hall about the show. The Cumberland Arms itself is of a spectacular vintage but it is more in the vein of traditional English boozer than New York hippodrome. However if you close your eyes took a deep breath and imagined a turn of the last century flea pit theatre you could transport yourself there easily. Aaron and Lindsay perform with all the confidence of any old time board treader, with a countless number of in jokes, eyebrow raises, faces turned to the audience mugging wildly as they spin out punchlines and reel people in. As the Corn Potatos launch themselves into a spirited version of the tune “Chesapeake Bay”, it is easy to imagine yourself boarding one of the great paddle steamers for a day of fun and frolics on one of them great American rivers. Let’s just hope it’s not the “General Slocum”. (NB: The General Slocum sank on New York’s East river in 1904 with the loss of over a thousand souls. Some burned to death, most drowned. It was the captain’s fault.)

The Corn Potato String Band have been in existence since 2012, they are usually made up of Aaron, Lindsey and Ben Belcher (Banjo, Fiddle, Guitar). In their own words “They may play with the traditional lineup of fiddle, banjo and guitar, or two fiddles and banjo, two banjos and guitar, or other combinations”. Aaron has won numerous awards, including first place for his performance in a neo-traditional band in 2008 at the Clifftop Appalachian String Band Festival, Lindsay is a two-time winner of the Minneapolis Jug Band Contest and four-time Grand Prize winner of the Sheffield Field Days fiddle contest, whilst Ben has first place for neo-traditional band at the Appalachian String Band Festival and a Herald Angel award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival under his belt. They are no Johnny-come-latelies to this Old Time string thing.

I took the time to catch up with Aaron and have a chat about The Corn Potatos new Album, touring and all things old time..

Can you describe your lives as Travelling Musicians? Do you need an anchor anywhere? Or is the thought of reaching the next show in the next town enough?

My life as a traveling musician has evolved over the years. I spent a year and a half as a real nomad, homeless and just traveling and playing gigs to support myself, but most of the time I’ve had a flat somewhere. Last year I bought a house and I’m spending all my free time fixing it up. At this point in my career I get to look forward to seeing old friends I’ve made over the years when I go on the road. I feel really welcome in a lot of great places. At the same time I look forward to exploring new places and new venues, and always making new friends. It’s such a small, special little multigenerational scene of people who care about this music, it’s almost a guarantee that you’ll get along with anyone you meet along the way. And as far as what’s enough, well, we’re clearly not in it for the money. It’s just great to be able to share our music and good times with interested people in so many different places, visit with old friends and make new ones along the way. That’s certainly enough for me, and if I never had to make or spend any money doing it I would keep doing it all just for those reasons.

In today’s world, your lives (on the road, living off the skills of your performance) seem unconventional; however the traveling musician/minstrel is present in every culture. Do you feel this link to the past? Or do you think what you do is as modern and relevant today as it always has been.

Absolutely, I get a thrill and a chill knowing that I’m part of an ancient tradition that takes shape in different ways in every culture. It’s like Highlander or something! Sure, I won’t live forever, but as long as people have souls there will be a need for what I do. I do prefer to think of myself and my role in society as modern and relevant and I resist labeling myself or presenting myself as some relic from the past that should be respected because of my unique and endangered status. I hope to think that I’m not all that special, that there are great numbers of uncounted performers doing the same thing I’m doing. What sets me apart is not what I’m doing but how I do it, i.e., my choices, my taste, my sense of humor, my background and past experience.

So.. The Vaudevillian nature of The Corn Potatos is very close to the surface of what you do. How do you select material? And where do you find it? Do you work on the gags with Lindsey or are they all just natural?

You think we have gags we work on?? That is so funny because we talk about working on some comedy material sometimes but we’ve never gotten around to it. I guess it’s all natural. We’ve been playing this traditional acoustic kind of music for long enough now that we’re pretty steeped in it, so it’s hard to say just where each song is coming from. But the process for actually selecting a song and arranging it is, well, different every time. I guess we have an aesthetic that we agree on but haven’t really laid out explicitly? In general we go for old songs and tunes that have something special about them and that we haven’t heard too much from other bands. We want to impress the other musicians out there as much as we want to impress the rest of the public, you know. Searching for buried treasures. But we also play plenty of numbers that are real standards, either because we’ve always loved them and still do, or we just tried it out at a square dance recently and it turned out great so we kept playing it.

How do you feel about not writing the material you play? Do you ever feel you should write your own songs? Or do you think it’s arrogant of musicians to think everyone wants to hear what their thoughts are?

We’ve written plenty of our own songs. ‘Route 77′ and ‘Bell & Anchor Rag’ are the only two we’ve recorded, or that fit into our current repertoire. But you’re right, I don’t feel the need to write a lot of songs and give the world my take on things. I feel very fulfilled creatively by interpreting the old tunes in my own way. It’s very freeing for me. I have this restriction as a traditional fiddler, self-imposed or otherwise, to play the melody and keep it going, but within that restriction there is a lot of room for improvisation and innovation. I get a real kick out of that. I have lots of respect for people who write their own songs and can make them sound great. Pokey LaFarge or Rob Heron are two examples. I don’t think it’s arrogant to write new material, but there is certainly a danger of getting a little self-obsessed. I don’t make music to get people to care about my feelings. I want to make people laugh and dance and maybe get a little creeped out once in a while. Other people might want to make you cry or get all gushy inside with a song about their dog dying or some crap. I’ve always been more of a tune guy than a song guy, i.e., I don’t care too much for sensitive lyrics, and my guilty pleasure is wailing on the fiddle. I try to reign it in during a show and only indulge in gratuitous fiddle soloing once in a while… Our goal is to present a variety of material for everyone to enjoy.

There is a tradition of competition in American old time music and Bluegrass. You yourselves have won some prestigious awards, however this competition element is not present in British and European folk tradition. Why do you think this is so? Do you think it helps the song/tune tradition in the USA to endure? Or does it hinder it as it maybe eschews interpretation over accuracy?

That is a really interesting question, and you can get a lot of different answers for it. I think the competitions in the US have definitely kept the music going and kept people interested over the years when it could have otherwise died out. At the same time I think the competitions did (and do) change people’s ways of playing, for better or for worse I can’t really say. I don’t know that much about the history of folk music in the British and European traditions. I don’t know who or what kept it going. In the US I think the competitions were partly motivated by commercialism and a love of spectacle, and partly from whatever instinct is in us that makes us want to come together and share ideas, talk and laugh and dance and sing together. I don’t know what that is, but when I go to a festival with a competition, I will think about the competition a bit because that’s kind of fun but the main reason I’m there is to spend time with my pickin’ pals, my special friends I only see at these events.

You take a really DIY approach to recording, was the new record done in this manner also? Tell us about it? Do you think Production can get in the way of the tune? Does working that fast make it harder to perform?

Haha, well, the new record was made in exactly the same way as the first one. We had a day and a half in our friend Sheriff Bob’s recording studio in Manhattan about a year ago, and we came up with more good stuff than would fit on a single record. Hence, Volume 1 and Volume 2… This is something we’re talking about for the next record, giving ourselves a little more time. Every record I’ve ever produced (i.e. when I’m the bandleader, choosing the tunes, the studio, arranging things, etc.) has gone this way. Rehearse, get in the studio for a day or two (or less), get out. The next time we record I think we might just take three or four days, so we have more time to fix up each song and make sure everybody’s happy with how it sounds. We might even consider multi-tracking, just to keep the vocals separate. I don’t know, it kind of hurts me to think about that, partly because it takes longer and it’s more convoluted, and partly because I really just love the sound and feel of ‘live no overdubs,’ warts and all.

I have also done some records with very intensive production methods, e.g., forty takes of an eight-bar phrase, or the singer doing even more takes of just one word…! I understand the desire for perfection, I’m a perfectionist myself but I’ve also learned that there is nothing more boring than perfection, at least with this kind of music. The recordings of our heroes, the recordings that inspire us, that we try to emulate, not one of them is perfect. We’re not doing this to get a perfect sound, we’re doing this to share a snapshot of ourselves, to capture what we’re doing now so we can look back on it later and see how far we’ve come.

How do you find the audiences differ country to country? Are people more keen to embrace American old time music for its difference to their own culture or because it’s from their own culture?

It’s easier for me to say how audiences differ from venue to venue than it is for me to say how they differ from country to country. That said, I feel that there is more enthusiasm and appreciation of American old time music in the UK per square mile than there is anywhere else I’ve been. In the US there are small pockets of great enthusiasm for old time scattered all over the country but it takes a while to find them, and outside of those pockets people tend to take live music for granted. In other countries where I’ve toured, Western and Eastern Europe and in India, people appreciate what we’re doing, they understand the idea of traditional folk culture as something special.

What does the future hold for The Corn Potatoes? More recording? More touring? India? Africa maybe?

All of the above, and more! I’m very excited and a bit overwhelmed by the prospect of doing two tours in Europe this year. I’m the tour planner and if I say yes to one festival that means I have to find at least three more in order to cover our airfares and other expenses. So I’ve said yes to one in the summer and yes to one in the fall, and now I have my work cut out for me.

You know we were in India for our very first tour and the heat nearly killed me, so I think Africa may be out of the picture unless we can go somewhere with a relatively mild climate… But India was an incredible experience for us and we made some great friends and definitely want to go back. I just did a US-government-sponsored tour in Eastern Europe with a different band, Tumbling Bones, and I’m hoping to get The Corn Potatos into the same program, and we’ll do another tour in a developing country.

We plan to record this year while we are on tour, and I already suspect we’ll have more material than will fit on one CD again, but who knows. We may just pick our favorite ten songs and record them over and over again until everybody’s happy.

And coming up soon we are doing our first serious tour in the US this March and April. Starting in Detroit, we’ll play a few shows around southern Michigan and take a few days to make a music video or two, then we make our way to eastern Maryland for a square dance weekend and tour our way back home. We’ll see a lot of old friends we haven’t seen in a long time, so I’m really looking forward to that.