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Fiddler Casey Driessen talks about the tradition of breaking traditions 

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  • Casey Driessen

My first attempt to reach fiddler Casey Driessen at his Nashville home failed. It wasn't that Driessen didn't answer. It's that, over the cries of his 10-month-old daughter, I couldn't hear him.

By the time Driessen called back, I was still wondering how he fit time into his schedule to be a father. Just over 30 years old, Driessen—known for a career as eclectic as it is prolific—has been playing like a madman for the past 25. The red-haired, red-shoed fiddler's career really took off after he moved to Nashville upon graduating from Berklee College of Music in 2000 on the heels of the previous summer's gig with Steve Earle and Tim O'Brien in the Bluegrass Dukes. Since then, he's recorded or toured with bluegrass heavyweights new and old—Jerry Douglas, Jim Lauderdale, Chris Thile and Bela Fleck—as well as jam outfits (Yonder Mountain String Band), pop princes (John Mayer) and country starlets (Lee Ann Womack).

Returning my call a half hour later after putting his daughter down for a nap, Driessen offered a simple apology: "She trumps." Though he'd soon be hitting the road again, Driessen was generous enough to offer us some reflections on his bluegrass background and his insatiable desire to dabble in that genre and everything else.

HARTFORD

I've always thought of John Hartford as a renaissance man. I didn't know him very well, but I got to play with him a little bit at some fiddle camps. He was a wealth of tunes, but he was so much more than just a fiddle player. I have tons of respect for his writing and his experimentation. He pushed boundaries.

Fast-forward to my first record, and I find these fun goggles at a flea market in China and wore them on the album cover. After the whole record's done, someone asked me if I had ever seen Aereo-Plain. I'd heard the record but never seen the cover, believe it or not, and thought, "Wow, that's pretty much the same thing I did." It's almost the same goggles and with the wild hair, too. Maybe we updated it a bit with full color instead of sepia.

TECHNOLOGY

I went to Berklee College of Music from 1997 to 2000, and my major was music production and engineering, so it was the technological side of music. I've always had an interest in sciences and math and electronics, so that's one of the reasons why I chose that major, and also because I'd been playing and gigging since I was 6. I didn't think a performance degree would really help my career. So I thought I would learn something about an area that I would be around all the time and knew nothing about, and as a result it's helped me to communicate ideas with engineers and in the studio. I know what's reasonable to ask for and what's not reasonable to achieve in a studio setting. I overdub at my house and use pedals and computers to practice. I like to use technology to my advantage to explore music and to experiment.

There are a couple tracks on each CD where I overdub my fiddle. There might be three fiddles. Obviously, I'm not able to play three fiddles live, but I'm able to use certain aspects of pedals—delays and looping—to get elements of that and achieve a similar vibe.

TRADITION

I consider myself a bluegrass fiddle player, and some people might not think that when they hear some of the music from my solo project, but [bluegrass] is the tradition that I come out of. My dad was a banjo and pedal steel player. Certainly, pedal steel with the western swing was part of my upbringing, as well as the banjo and going to bluegrass festivals. My family would go to these festivals not so much for the actual concerts that were happening but for the parking lot picking—those jam sessions that happened around the campfire. [We would] end up playing all night long. My folks would let me stay out as long as I wanted when I was a kid as long as I was playing tunes, so I would often try to be the last man standing and make it to sunrise, if at all possible.

Certainly, there are many other traditions around the world and here in the States. I might not come from them, but they aren't necessarily all that strange to me. I find fascination in other traditions, and I like to explore them.

CYNICS

The first thing that comes to mind is traditionalists—people that say bluegrass is this way, or jazz is this way. That actually helps keep those traditions alive in one sense. It helps preserve what defined it in the beginning. So, in one sense, I say "Yay" for cynics and traditionalists. I'm not necessarily one. I love experimenting and playing with new sounds and seeing what combinations can happen, but it's totally out of respect for the music. The traditionalists help keep the music alive in its early form, but I would say I help keep it alive as well, perhaps by bringing different folks back to traditional bluegrass.

Take a guy like Jerry Garcia: People who were into The Grateful Dead found out that Garcia played the banjo and that he played with David Grisman, who played with Peter Rowan, who played with Bill Monroe. All of a sudden, they've worked their way back to the real traditional, straight-ahead bluegrass through these people that are pushing the music in different directions.

BOUNDARIES

I tend to push boundaries and buttons, but it's not without respect for what has come before it, but with excitement for taking the things I've learned from bluegrass or jazz or rock and putting my own spin on it. I play all sorts of different gigs with lots of different people.

I've always tried to involve myself in any music that I found exciting or enjoyable, which wasn't just limited to bluegrass. In college, I was in world music ensembles and fusion ensembles, playing Stéphane Grappelli stuff and Charlie Parker stuff and finding exciting new territory on the violin as a result of playing all these different genres. The music that I end up composing brings in all those elements—maybe not necessarily consciously—and they end up flowing into whatever I'm trying to do myself.

Some of my friends had an R&B thing, and they had a recording session going on. I thought I was going to be involved because we played together and the music was fun, but I remember my buddy saying, "Man, it's not going to work out for this one. The fiddle can't be in everything." I'm still trying to make it be in everything.

Casey Driessen & The Colorfools play Berkeley Cafe Friday, Jan. 22. The Kickin Grass Band opens at 9 p.m, and tickets are $10.

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