Re: [Harp-L] My review of Grant Dermody's new album [long]

I'm very pleased to share my recent review of Grant Dermody's new album, "Sun Might Sine On Me."

Sun Might Shine On Me, a new CD by Grant Dermody*

A review/interview by Michelle LeFree, Montrose Colorado

Grant Dermody, a Seattle native, is a singer, songwriter, harmonica virtuoso and teacher who has toured internationally with the amazing Eric Bibb and he has performed with a laundry list of blues legends such as Leon Bib, Honeyboy Edwards, Robert Lowery, Big Joe Duskin, John Dee Holeman, and Cephas & Wiggins. A lover of acoustic blues and old-timey music, and steeped in blues music from an early age, he is also an acolyte of harmonica master Mark Graham and as such is accomplished at playing fiddle tunes on his harmonicas. In fact his first album, The Improbabillies, had strong components of old-timey, fiddle tunes and bluegrass. Not the usual fare for harmonica players!

On his new CD, Sun Might Shine On Me, the title, content and mood lend insights into how much his life has changed since his previous album, Lay Down My Burden. In the span of a few short months not long before Burden, Grant endured a series of back-to-back personal losses that no one should have to face. True to his musical roots he headed to the studio to assuage his sorrow. That last album reflected his understandably somber mood. Listening to his powerful and celebratory new album makes it abundantly clear that he has indeed “laid down his burden!”

Grant's current album is cut from a bit of a different cloth than his previous offerings, an expression of his maturity as as a singer and songwriter. Where his previous albums contained only three original songs each, this one contains eight! The maturity of his lyrics and the deftness with which he weaves word and music is indicative of a songwriter who has come into his own. I call it an album with purpose, as I think it is more than a mere collection of songs. It has an arc to it; a beginning, a middle and an end. Beyond that, one of the most exciting aspects of his new work is the power and confidence with which he delivers his vocals. Previously Grant always had a tender and soothing voice, but now he embraces vocal techniques previously unexplored. He reaches deep into his bass range, soars to his higher registers, includes moody growls, and in general sings with new-found luster and power. Grant is truly singing “without fear.” This new-found confidence in his singing and songwriting adds measurably to his work.

I recently sat down with Grant via Skype for a question and answer session. True to form the first things Grant wanted to talk about are the terrific musicians that helped him make this album. First, Grant couldn't speak highly enough of Dirk Powell, a multi-instrumentalist who he first recorded with on an Eric Bibb project. Dirk contributed bass, banjo, fiddle, piano, guitar, percussion, and vocals. Oh, and it was at Dirk's Parks, Louisiana studio that the tunes were recorded and mixed, with Dirk also doing the engineering and production. Amazing fellow indeed! Then, Grant was quick to call out his “long-time musical brother” Orville Johnson, also a Seattle stalwart, who contributed guitar, dobro, mandolin and harmony vocals. Cedrick Watson came in from Lafayette to play fiddle and sing harmonies. Long time friend and fellow music camp instructor Rich DelGrosso added his always delicious mandolin stylings. Finally, a special guest, Jockey Etienne, in his late 70s to early 80s, who played with many East Texas blues all-stars such as the venerable Lazy Lester and Slim Harpo, added his unique drumming. Quite a wondrous mix of musicians!

Artistically speaking, Grant and Dirk felt they'd struck upon just the right combination of acoustic blues and old-timey feel to their new music. I remember the first time I heard the album, before I'd had a chance to check out the liner notes. I wondered, “where did he find all these old tunes?” I'd never heard of many of them. Turned out there was a good reason for that—Grant wrote most of them! While the album does contain a few traditional blues songs, like “Boll Weevil” and “Baby Please Don't Go,” and one by Nehemiah “Skip” James, the preponderance of the songs are quite new and all of them are given a fresh new sound. Grant describes them as falling into a somewhat gray territory between acoustic blues and old-timey in sound and feel. “New songs from an old place,” as Dirk described one of his previous originals, “Waterbound.” And that description fits this album as well. Grant stresses that the musicians came together “to make a deep, honest roots record and dove underneath eachtune to give it all of what it needed” with a pact that dictated that they all adjust their egos, instrumentation and vocals accordingly. And that certainly shows!

In terms of the recording techniques, most of the songs are recorded live, with little to no overdubbing. The overdubbing that did take place was done so that a musician could lay in a second instrument or to overdub harmony vocals. In a typical session, with Grant on harp, Dirk on banjo and Orville on guitar, the track would be recorded live, including the vocals. Then the musicians would sit down at their mics and overdub another instrument or harmony part, as they deemed appropriate to the song. For instance, on “Boll Weevil,” Dirk played banjo and percussion. On “When You Left,” Dirk played banjo and bass. This was all by design. Grant explains that he wanted to be able to play his music live on tour in support of his new CD, and having fewer musicians on the album makes this possible.

Grant exclusively uses Hohner Marine Band harmonicas, many customized by long-time friend, fellow acoustic harmonica aficionado and famed harmonica customizer Joe Filisko. He carries these in an ancient, tattered clarinet case lovingly converted to hold a host of harps via hardwood inserts by his woodworker father. Grant favors the tongue-block embouchure almost exclusively but will switch to lip-pursing when really precise bends are needed. He likes to “dirty-up” certain notes (as Phil Wiggins likes to say) by allowing some adjacent holes to sound. He's famous for his amazing tone and for dropping what Filisko affectionately calls “Dermody Tone Bombs,” a difficult to perfect coordination of oral, diaphragmatic and hand effects. Using his tongue blocking he liberally applies slaps, pulls, splits and chords. He has a superb vibrato that he applies judiciously here and there to good taste. This time he's added a little surprise. After visiting and studying with Cajun harmonica player extraordinaire Jerry DeVillier at his home in Eunice, Louisiana, Grant added some Cajun harmonica playing skills to his bag of tricks! (See the song titled, “J'ai Passe.”)

One area of my interview that I found particularly interesting to harmonica players was when I questioned Grant about how he, in practical terms, puts an album like this together – issues like key and position choices as well as practicalities associated with working with other world-class musicians. If it's a song with vocals, other issues are subordinate to the singer's preference. If it's an instrumental, there is much more latitude left to the musicians. Whether or not the lead instrument is a harmonica, when Grant writes a song he starts with the mood or feel he is shooting for. In most instances that determines whether the song will have a major or minor scale underlying it. That will usually determine the playing position that best fits that desired feel (but not always; see comments on “Just A Little While,” below). Then it is a matter of choosing the pitch he wants the song to be in. If the lead instrument is a harmonica, Grant is free to select a pitch and scale that he feels best fits the song. If vocals drive a tune it needs to lay out right vocally;it's from there that harmonica choices are made.

“It's all about how the tune lays out for the sound you want.” When queried, Grant says that he typically tries the tune in several positions on several different key harps and picks the one that has the greatest appeal. Then it is a matter of sitting down and trying his ideas on his fellow musicians. Sometimes the best layout for a harp isn't the best for other instruments. In that case, a friendly “negotiation” results in a selection that everyone feels most comfortable with.

Once those basic choices have been made, Grant employs two modes of thinking in terms of his playing—“practice thinking,” and “performance/recording thinking.” When he arrived at the studio practicing with his fellow musicians and began practicing and working up the songs, he was “fully prepared but open.” He knew what he wanted to do but was open to whatever ideas the others had. He explains that he is fortunate to play with great musicians and was wise enough to listen to what they brought to the table. When this new input merits mid-course correction(s), he is able to do that. In this way, as they practice they have a sort of retrospective approach to analyzing their progress and charting a final course. They know when they've hit upon a course that works or when it doesn't. It's when, after due practice, he has finalized those defining decisions about a song that he switches to “performance thinking,” where he listens intently and responds totally in the moment, not allowing thinking to encumber the flow of his playing.

As to the songs themselves, I wasn't content to know the usual suspects of song key, harp key, playing position, etc. I wanted to know about the genesis of the songs, why he chose particular ones, and to gain insights into Grant's decision-making process about why he chose those parameters. Here is what I discovered, song by song.

“Boll Weevil”
Key of Song: C
Harmonica used: Low F, 2nd position
Techniques: Granted wanted to sound as “big, fat and nasty as possible” so he plays all tongue blocking replete with octaves when possible and making sure to play chords in between the melody notes. He explains that this is what drives the tune.
Comments: It was when Dirk and Grant first began experimenting with what would become the first song on the album that the tone of the rest of the entire album would be set. It was with this song that they began to tap into their unique style of “new songs from an old place” and became firmly committed to getting “underneath” each and every tune.

“When You Left”
Key of Song: G
Harmonica used: C, 2nd position
Comments: Straight ahead 12-bar blues. Grant shares that “When You Left” is a tribute to his departed friend, bluesman John Jackson, even though it sounds nothing like Jackson's rendition. Instead of Jackson's unique rhythmic structure, once they got into the studio, the song “kept telling them it wanted to be played as a twelve bar blues.” Grant says that he doesn't think he's ever heard a twelve bar blues played with banjo, mandolin and harmonica.

“Tree Of Life”
Key of Song: G
Harmonica: C, 2nd position
Comments: “Tree of Life” is an instrumental, the first fiddle tune Grant has ever written. It came to him on a walk through the woods. He always carries a G harp with him and he was just playing along as he walked. He really didn't know if it would work with a fiddle, though, until they actually got into the studio. Orville played guitar and when Dirk overdubbed bass and fiddle the song really came together. When I wondered whether the the song's title was inspired by a particular tree, Grant explained that the tree of life comes from the Nordic tradition and that all sacred trees, perhaps all trees, are connected to the tree of life.

“Just A Little While”
Key of Song: D “kinda minory”
Harmonicas: G, 2nd position. Also overdubbed using a C chromatic played in 3rd position
Techniques: 2nd position but avoiding 3 draw. When asked why not just play a C harp in 3rd position, Grant replied that “it laid better in cross harp than in 3rd position,” plus he liked the lower pitched harp. Comments: Dirk's favorite song of the album.

“Sail Away Ladies”
Key of Song: Cm
Harmonica: Ab, 5th position
Comments: This to me is where the album really picks up the pace. Grant tells me that this and the next two songs were intended to form the “peak” of the album, with the preceding songs building up and the remainder of the album sort of “tapering off” from these. Thus the arc I spoke of earlier.

“So Sorry To Leave You”
Key of Song: F
Harmonica used: Bb, 2nd position
Comments: Straight ahead 12-bar blues. This is the first song on one of his own albums in which Grant has ever recorded “electric.” Here he play through an amplifier and an Astatic JT-30 microphone.

“Easy Down”
Key of Song: G
Harmonica: C, 2nd position
Comments: A terrific funky tune with a shuffle beat, unusual in the sense that it's played acoustically.

“Baby Please Don't Go”
Key of Song: F
Harmonica: Bb, 2nd position
Comments: A really unusual all-acoustic version of this blues classic. Slow tempo leaves lots of space, puncuated with incredible harmonica tone and fine singing.

“Sun Might Shine”
Key of Song: Eb
Harmonica: Ab, 2nd position
Comments: This, my favorite song of the album, demonstrates Grant's maturity as a songwriter. I love the way he deftly weaves his lyrics through his infectious melody and groovy beat. His singing is also spot-on and in full keeping with the feel and meaning of the song.

“Illinois Blues”
Key of Song: E
Harmonica: A, 2nd position
Comments: This is Grant's tribute to his friend and mentor, John Cephas, the Piedmont Blues singer/songwriter and guitarist extraordinaire. It's done closer to John's style but the guitar part is all Orville rather than that of it's author, Nehemiah “Skip” James.

“J'ai Passe”
Key of Song: C
Harmonica: C, 1st position
Special Instrument: Hohner Autovalve Octave harmonica customized for Grant by Rick Epping. “Not sure what all Rick did to it.”
Comments: While in Louisiana on an earlier visit to Dirk's studio, Grant visited renowned
Cajun harmonica player, Jerry Devillier, and received pointers on technique and learned, among others, this tune, one of the most played songs in the Cajun repertory.

“Reuben's Train”
Key of Song: G
Harmonica: C, 2nd position
Comments: Originally learned from Mark Graham, Grant relates that this song has undergone a number of changes since, including versions by previous rock bands and with the “Improbabillies,” a fiddle tune/old-timey band from his not too distant past.

“Ain't Goin' Back”
Key of Song: E
Harmonica: A, 2nd position
Comments: Sonny Terry flavored except with Grant's signature tongue blocking style. Realistic hill country feel. Grant says that it's based on a train lick. It’s a terrific mix of harmonica, flailing style banjo, fiddle and dobro!

“Long Gone”
Key of Song: C
Harmonica: Low F, 2nd position
Comments: A slow, plaintive song, the first of a two-part tribute to a lost loved one.

“Crossing Over”
Key of Song: D
Harmonica: G, 2nd position
Comments: I take this final, beautiful instrumental to be sort of Grant's coda to his last album, which was entitled, “Lay Down My Burden.”

Just to finish up, Grant tells me that his near-future plans include touring the US and possibly Europe in support of his new album. I think we'll all wish him the best of luck with that but I will selfishly and anxiously be awaiting his next new album!

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