Fiddler, Record Company boss, Producer; Tim Carbone
Railroad earth fiddle player, record producer, session musician and part owner of Lo Hi records based in Greensbro, North Carolina Tim Carbone shares what it’s like to be involved in so many project, plus the influences in music to direct him there.
What a brave thing it is to be part of setting up a new record label.
Or what some people would say, foolish chuckles Carbone.
I believe you have been around the business long enough for that not to be the case.
I feel comfortable with the people I am working with. I known we have a limit to what we can do, so we are working within our means and abilities, and are doing quite well so far.
There is a multitude of layers within the business, and for you to get the best out of someone, better than they would have otherwise. On achieving this alone you have accomplished something.
Yes, exactly. We are providing a home, enthusiasm, and giving them money for promotion, and we cross all the t’s and dotting the i’s. Having been a musician for many years, to have someone who believes in what you do and willing to do that stuff makes life so much easier.
It will help them keep focussed on the music, and with you there ensure their time is spent wisely.
I have no illusions I can only do so much. My role is as an advisor and someone who opens any doors in front of me. I will grab the handle and open it right up, and keep my eyes open for any opportunity at all for the artists we are working with. When we need the other parts we hire them. People with enthusiasm and we feel comfortable working. For certain things, it is sweat equity on our part. You have to pay for like of the publicists. Bring in people that believe in what you are doing, and not just somebody looking for a paycheque, and we are moving forward with some pretty cool things.
How did Asheville, North Carolina band Town Mountain become the first act you signed, and put a record out by?
There is a fellow, Jim Brooks who is essentially our entrepreneur who put up the money. He is a big fan of the band. My band, Railroad Earth did a 4 - 6 week tour with Town Mountain here in the States. I would not say we are not a big fish, but more a medium-sized fish in a fairly large-sized pond. We kind of took them under our wing, and did what we could for them. We got to know them well and thought, man these guys are really good! These guys are the real deal. We want to try to associate our selves with artists who are the real deal. Our next artist is another artist that we feel good about. I will tell you Town Mountain are tearing it up right now; people are reacting positively to the record (Southern Crescent).
Yes, some of the tracks on the album once that banjo drops anchor and a groove builds they are off and running.
They all can really play. The fiddle player (Bobby Britt) is crushing it, and playing within the band. Every song is brilliantly served, the instrumentation on the song that they are singing.
They are from Asheville, North Carolina. A hot bed for roots recordings the last few years.
It certainly has. That whole area is wonderful, and Asheville itself is a really cool town. It is artist friendly, there are places to play, good restaurants and places to rent. It is not like if you to go to San Francisco or New York City; or in Brooklyn anymore you can hardly afford to live there. In Asheville you can still rent a place for 6 or 7 hundred dollars a month and not necessarily have to survive on beans and rice.
Railroad Earth is currently doing really well, and the last album you had out was Last Of The Outlaws was a wonderful visionary recording.
Thank you. Yeah, collectively we thought it was the best record we have ever put out. We were lucky in that the local studio we recorded in we were able to camp out in. The fellow that owned built it as kind of a home studio but it was a separate building. He did not charge us a whole ton of money. He made it so we could afford it, and not have the record label breathing down our backs and take full control of what we are doing.
I notice you are quite a studio man and have worked with a diverse set of artists. Everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Janis Ian and Pete Seeger
That whole thing has done really well. I have laid tracks for all those people and worked with a bunch of people, and done hundreds of sessions of people you probably have never heard of. I’ve done a ton since about 1986. Last year was a good year for me when I produced six records. This year has been quiet so far, but I have just finished my 57th laughs Carbone. I love being in the studio, it’s a place where I feel very comfortable.
But for the Town Mountain record you called on Dirk Powell to produce it.
Dirk Powell killed it too. He did such a great job. I love all their records but there is a difference to this one.
What role does Todd Snider do on LoHi Records?
It’s similar to mine. He found Rory Carroll, our second artist and he has worked with her. His does an advisory role, and opens any door he can, and he’s already opened a number. He is revered, especially as a songwriter. He is able to open doors, and when he says something some one will listen. I am probably more active on a day-to-day basis. I am in touch with Chuck and Chad pretty much twice a week. I follow what Erin’s (Scholze) doing. She updates me every day. I am following along as its going, and make comments when necessary. It is something I have always wanted to be part of. So it is really cool the way it’s unfurled. Todd feels pretty much the same way, I know he has his own thing and puts his own records out. I think he is enjoying being involved and not having to be the guy.
Looking in and not being the main figure can be a nice change, like when you are captain of the team everything runs through you and you don’t get the opportunity to step back and view from a distance.
Yeah, it’s good being part of a team but it’s also good to be captain too. I think there will be times when each of us will be switching out roles. We have a band called, Great American Taxi that we hope to be releasing in the fall. It’s one that I produced, and I am close to what they do so I will probably play a more active role with that release. As this progress we will probably trade roles on a regular basis.
You’ve worked produced them before?
Yes, I did a record of theirs four or five years ago, but since have had a line-up change. I believe they have two of the best Telecaster players in the United States in Jimmy Lewin and Arthur Lee Land. Land is quite a character he adds. He is like a genetic cross between WC. Fields and James Burton (my mind boggles)….he is this jovial guy with, imitates a scratchy WC Fields-like voice. It is like he has a bunch of cards in one hand, and a few in his other and you’re never sure which hand the real ones are in, or the hand he is going to deal next. He’s a wonderful character.
You mention Rory, where is she from?
Rory Carroll is a really brilliant songwriter, she is from Nashville, and has done a tour with Todd. He brought her to us. So he will take a bigger role with her like I will with Great American Taxi when their record comes out. This summer he plans to have Rory play on a number of the dates the Hard Working Americans perform. Like I said before, whatever doors are available he can open, especially for Rory he will. She is great, when I heard the record I thought, man she is awesome!
What kind of music does she do?
It’s somewhere in between Americana and mainstream Nashville, but it is not slick. Best way to describe it would be like what mainstream Nashville would sound like filtered through a Tom Waits’ sensibility, because there are these clunky noises. Her voice is fantastic, very earthy and unusual in places and it is most accessible. Sometimes you have all of this in the same song.
How do you fit in your studio work with your commitments with Railroad Earth, tours and lots of festivals this summer?
First of all I have a most understanding wife, and don’t have any children so I don’t have to worry about that. She is onboard about my career. I try to be mindful that the time we have together is quality time, on a personal level it’s mostly about paying attention. Working hard when you have to work hard, knowing what you doing. The whole thing about making records is essentially, about creating a great space to work in as far as the environment and the vibe in concerned. Knowing how to do it, where to begin, and what’s the beginning and what’s the end. A lot of it is a matter of experience. I have done it so many times, and know the process and also when to tell the artist you are done and are going to move on to the next recording. Know how to sell it to them, that they will buy it and believe me when them I tell them I am done.
I imagine refining things to where you avoid doing something twice, or more times than needed will keep the artist sharp in the studio.
There is a fine line in the studio. When I am a session musician I listen for the direction of the producer and the artist, and to also maintain the quiet vibe about it. It isn’t always easy to obtain, because you are under a microscope as a player, and at the other end as a producer you are putting people under the microscope. It can be uncomfortable for those who do not have the experience especially, my job on both ends are to ensure everything feels natural.
When you were growing up who were your fiddle-playing heroes?
On the fiddle, I first fell in love with playing outside classical music was when I Don ‘Sugarcane’ Harris that made me aware I could play other than classical on the violin. He played with John Mayall. I went into a record store aged 14 and picked up this solo record by him, and said what the hell is that. I picked up the cover and I could hardly make out what it was because only the fiddle this black dude was in focus. It was then I first thought you could play blues on a violin! Holy smoke. Of course I bought the record, took it home and stole all his licks he laughs. I also play harmonica and had jammed with a high school blues band playing harmonica, and the next thing you know I showed up with a little pick-up, and my brother’s amplifiers and electric violin and the guys say what the hell. Basically, I stole all the guy’s licks. Learned them off that record and started playing. As for bluegrass I got into it, kind of backwards, mostly through the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Flying Burrito Brothers. Obviously, I was exposed to Vassar Clements (bluegrass, jazz fiddle player) through the NGDB and Byron Berline through the Flying Burrito Brothers. I became immersed in bluegrass when I was 16 or 17, and started going to festivals and one time hitched to the Galax Fiddler’s Convention and tried to absorb everything I possibly could.
Where are you actually from?
I am live in Pennsylvania but originally I am from New York.
Up in that area you have, though in many ways isolated a history of acoustic and bluegrass musicians your own scene.
Oh, yeah. There was this band I used to go to see in New England called Joe Val And His New England Boys, and I dug them. I used to travel down with some friends to see this band in Washington DC called the Seldom Scene and we really loved them. Then just out of the blue a friend said have you seen this band called Breakfast Special who played at this bar in a Holiday Inn. That was like a brilliant switch was turned on, they had a brilliant fiddle player called Kenny Kosek and an absolutely brilliant classical mandolin player called Andy Stanton. He was real nut job who also played clarinet and saxophone. Plus there was a really good banjo player called Tony Trischka. They were based, essentially, in New Jersey and to come to find they were so near home was amazing. At the same time I was listening to the Woodstock Revue with Bill Keith on banjo, that is when I realised how diverse an instrument the banjo could be. It did not have to be only the three-finger style of Ralph Stanley or the Earl Scruggs’ of the world. Although none of these other styles would have happened had it not been for them.
I really like the album cover on Town Mountain’s ‘Southern Crescent’ showing off a painting by Sarah Bronstein of the bridge at Beaux Bridge.
I think the cover art is fantastic!
It is nice to see interesting covers on cds. Unlike in the old days of vinyl they have becoming a rarity. I guess we were spoilt. Quite often the artwork sold the record.
I don’t buy cds anymore. I am back to buying just vinyl though they are ridiculously priced. I get the digital download codes. My new laptop doesn’t even have a CD player in it. I prefer to listen to my music at home. I believe albums sound better. One of the things I love about vinyl is the artwork. I just got the new Iggy Pop record, and when you open it up and you get that smell. I love that printing smell.
You mentioned the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band it was with their first Will The Circle Be Unbroken (triple lps) release that really opened the door for bluegrass music. Who needed to know who Doc Watson, Norman Blake, Jimmy Martin, Vassar Clements and the likes of Mother Maybelle (Carter) and Roy Acuff were? It was like the missing link in the chain.
I can’t tell you how many people have had the same touchstones in that kind of music, pretty much 75 to about 8o% of my age playing this music gained access through Will The Circle Be Unbroken, and to a another degree just a little further down the line Old And In The Way a couple or so years later it came out. People who liked the acoustic side of the Grateful Dead all of a sudden went what’s this! They kind of got it.
For me the Flying Burrito Brothers were a huge influence. I started playing back in the 1970s and was in a country rock band out on Long Island. I was one of only three fiddle players on the whole island, and we played every single song of the first two records plus all our original material. It is so rich. I don’t know what would have happened if it wasn’t a Nitty Gritty Dirt Band or Flying Burrito Brothers or Old And In The Way. I don’t know that we would have wound up in this same place. I don’t know how it would have gone. What was that band before Wilco and Sun Volt, Uncle Tupelo? I don’t know if there would have been an Uncle Tupelo if you hadn’t been for The NGDB or the Flying Burrito Brothers. To me that’s how influential those records were. The scene would not have been (or grown to be) the same. I think people would have come round to listening to bluegrass, acoustic music and Americana but it would not have been the same or followed the same path. I don’t know what it would exactly have looked like right now.
Both albums had such a live feel, like when Roy Acuff speaks of how every time it takes to obtain a take of a song you loose something every time. It doesn’t matter if the intro has someone adjusting a seating position or you hear a pick drop on the floor. Sometimes it can be too tight.
A good example is last year Railroad Earth did a recording with Warren Haynes. When I first talked to him on the phone I thought this sounds cool. I said to him do you want to send some demos of the songs. No, no he said. I am going to show you the songs in the studio and we’ll just go in and cut ‘em. So that is what we did, literally, he came in played guitar and the songs in the control room. We ran out simple charts and went out and cut ‘em. For me, an instrumentalist it was great. In total we cut twenty-seven songs and though they did not all make the record hopefully they will be on the next one. All of the songs on the record are all first takes by me. I did not have to go in to fix anything. It was like, oops that is fine, and when asked if he would you like me to do it again, he would say ‘No. no don’t change that!
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