Charlie Treat Digs Deep Into His Roots With New Bluegrass Album, Into The Wild Mystic Mountain
We talked to Charlie Treat in Liner Notes last year about his sophomore album, The Comet, full of diverse roots music sounds including gospel harmonies, southern rock ‘n roll boogie, funky swampy sounds, and some country too. He returns with a more defined sound on his new release, leaning into the raw roots traditions of some of his heroes like Woody Guthrie, Hank Sr., Bill Monroe and Flat & Scruggs. Inspiration for the album also came from the year he spent alongside fellow roots artist, Sierra Ferrell. Ferrell was just named the Emerging Act of the Year at the 2022 Americana Honors and Awards at the Ryman in September. Visionary storytelling layered with bluegrass textures makes for an engrossing journey with this recording, Into the Wild Mystic Mountain is out today.
AnaLee: This album is as much a joy to listen to as your other releases, but in a different way. I enjoyed the sonic twists and turns on The Comet, as much as the old-time acoustic sounds you focused on throughout Into the Wild Mystic Mountain. In keeping with the traditions of this type of music, you recorded this in a short period of time with some of the genre’s top players. Tell us about everyone that helped this recording come to be and you accomplished this with just one rehearsal!
Charlie: Truthfully, only 2 players on this album were able to rehearse at all and yes, it was one rehearsal. The banjo player I hired got sick, so I had to call Frank one day before. And we were originally going to overdub fiddle after, but we decided the morning-of that we wanted to track fiddle live. Nate wasn't available Day 1 so Julian got the call around 10am and was there by 10:30, tracked 3 songs that day (Hole I'm In, Squirrel Song, Carrier Pigeon) having never heard the material before and went on his way; not sure he said more than 3 words. Nate came in for the other days, also having never heard the material. Bluegrass and old-time music runs in these guys' veins. I never questioned our ability to pull this off. And that doesn't come from a place of cockiness - hearing the band speak about the arrangements was like hearing 4 carpenters talk about a staircase design, it was over before it started. To boot, all of these guys are friends and have played on shows, records and jams together. The rapport and familiarity were already there. Tip of the hat to Oliver Craven for connecting me with the players and editing lyrics with me. Tip of the hat to Geoff Saunders for bringing such decisiveness and poise to the table. It was a democratic production, but Geoff had the most to say and stepped up as leader within minutes of the rehearsal. He blew in and out of my house like there was a place waiting for him; maybe his day was packed morning to night and he had only a few hours to exist. He thrives under pressure and is good at riding that wave. And it's good for him. What it did for us was added this element of urgency and efficiency. He didn't have all day, so he produced the rehearsal, shot from the hip, made a lot of arrangement calls, jotted down tempos, was the first to leave. There's a lesson in there. I swear artists thrive with less time and less options. Some just don't know it. They were my songs, but I knew to take a back seat and just sing, to let the bluegrass band produce the record, not the singer from the Northeast. That's how you make a roots record in a few days.
Geoff Saunders - Upright Bass, Oliver Bates Craven – Mandolin, Nate Leath – Fiddle, Julian Pinelli – Fiddle, Frank Evans - Banjo, Charlie Treat - Rhythm Guitar, Vocals
(Everyone took turns singing harmonies). Ben Sanders was the Tracking Engineer and Jesse Thompson the Mix Engineer.
AnaLee: You mentioned in our last interview that you listened to a lot of traditional music growing up on a farm in New England. I’m guessing the songs are somewhat autobiographical, although I’m not sure about “The Squirrel Song”, but you never know... tell us about your songwriting inspiration for this album and how your time spent with Sierra Ferrell also influenced the project. Including the video for the song, “Mama Hen”.
Charlie: I grew up on a farm. Dad used to throw big pig roasts, the whole town would show up and the local bluegrass band with Dennis Sheridan would come and play all night. The workers on the farm flew in from Puerto Rico each summer and sang in the fields as they worked. There were records laying around the house: Otis Redding, Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan, country, bluegrass. My childhood was surrounded by various forms of folk music and farm life. The kids in high school used to make fun of me for listening to Woody Guthrie and Hank Sr. We did in 4 days something that's been stirring in me for 20 years. With that said Sierra very much reopened that tent, in a dark field, with an all-night bluegrass band playing in it. Great singers and pickers were constantly stopping by the house and jamming with us, players on the road would drop in for just a few hours to pick something; I got to sing harmonies with Ralph Stanley's son in her living room, we would fall asleep to old time jams on the front porch. My life was suddenly colored by bluegrass, old time and country music in a way it never had been before, and at the center of it all was arguably the greatest living singer of that fold. And of course, the emotional turbulence of dating someone so quirky and lively -a survivor, a storied past, a self-proclaimed 'ghost' - naturally created an open window to write from. It was the greatest highs and lows I've ever experienced. I think acts of nature might be the only thing that could rival her there. Mama Hen has nothing to do with her. I wrote that song 4 years ago, long before we ever met. I mean, maybe she's, for me, the manifestation of that song, if I could credit a song to have that power, and I'm not sure I can. The video was made by Brendan Pike, a friend from home I hadn't seen in 25 years. He had an idea that didn't fit the song for me. So I took a few minutes and scribbled down my wildest, most cartoonish dreams for the video, he flew down and was able to pull it off in an afternoon. And yes, the Squirrel Song IS autobiographical. I daydream at bars all the time.
AnaLee: The other song featured below is “Swimming in November”, can you talk a little about that song?
Charlie: November 7, 2020, shortly after Sierra and I met, was an unseasonably warm day. I convinced her to take a motorcycle ride with me out to the country to a swimming hole I knew of. We made quite a few stops on the way. And the smoke emanating from our trip wasn't from my bike. It's Japanese. So when we got there the first glimpses of night were already coming down. It wasn't sunny anymore. It wasn't even warm anymore. But we had come all that way. So we changed quickly, chugged a beer, I put her over my shoulder and we jumped in. We only swam for a minute, changed back into our clothes and left. I remember the ride back, somehow, was not cold at all. This took place at Wartrace Creek Park on the Cordell Hull Lake, Gainesboro, TN. I've only been there twice but I could paint it in every detail. I could take the backroads there for the rest of my life with no directions. Some things just engrave themselves in you. Months later she admitted to me that she didn't want to go, she certainly didn't want to swim: "this crazy guy wanted to go for a motorcycle ride in November! and go swimming! Hell no! But I thought it was a test to see if I was wild enough and I wanted to prove I was." She said something like that. With all that said the song is much less about swimming and more about who she is and who I am, how different we are, and the power of courting. Danger, discomfort, taking chances, the enormity of love - it’s all in there, fused together by the ancient alchemy of hot and cold, dark and light, north and south. It just so happens that the metaphor is true too.
AnaLee: With such diverse parts of your musical make up, what are your live shows like, and do you have any coming up locally? And will you hit the road too?
Charlie: It's all over the place right now. Sometimes I play 2-3 piece acoustic shows, plenty of solo acoustic shows. When I play full band shows I still use their holiness Justin Turner (drums) and Q White (keys, bass), they've been with me since I started here, and we supplement with whoever, from our roster over the years, is in town. Mind you, this is the gospel/soul/rock/funk band, much like the sounds of The Comet, but we've been putting my new original bluegrass songs into that machine. I've been rearranging Bill Monroe songs, Stanley Brothers' songs, Jimmy Martin songs, turning them into soul and gospel songs and playing them with the big electric band as well, along with other new songs that are unreleased. So, we have a bluegrass set, but it's our way. It's remarkable how close the bluegrass/country train is to the gospel train. Even the traditional songs of the two genres overlap. We take the gospel boys out to the hills and hollers and they get singing along with the hillbillies. They both know a lot of the same traditional songs and church songs. This brought me to tears the first time it happened. What started out as an experiment, a joke, is real now, has shown me new sides of life, new truths, and I'm sure the boys are reluctant to it to some degree ('What's Charlie gone and done now?') but it's fresh and different and a means to present these old songs and this old tradition in a new light, a contemporary/pop light even. I can't sit still for long, musically. Experiments, new songs, new ideas, drastic change, fresh air - that's how I keep it interesting for myself. I play piano live now. If it's not new to you, how can you expect half-depressed people at a bar to feel it's original?
I have out of town shows for the rest of the year. We're doing a release show at Dee's January 7 with the studio band. In the works is a tour that same week.
AnaLee: I love seeing young artists drawn to music that’s been around for so long and honoring those traditions while bringing a modern element to it. Now that you have a few albums under your belt, do you know if you’ll keep creating acoustic roots music in this style or continue to experiment with other sounds? Or maybe a bit of both?
Charlie: At the top of the new year, I told myself I'm going to make the rootsiest thing I can make and follow it with the most pop/contemporary thing I can make. See what takes. The Wild Mystic Mountain record is done. I'm proud of it: live band, live vocals, honest/autobiographical songs, we made a record in 4 days like my heroes did. It was a personal test as much as it was an artistic statement. I visited Lester Flatts' grave, read his story, wept in the grass, wrote a little poem for him and wife and placed it under the flowers. I hope to make many more records like that one, hopefully with that same crew, frankly. But I've got 40-50 new songs I'm whittling away at, destined for synth, maybe even sampled drums, and whatever 2023 means to me and the band. I've been in touch with Anthony DeCosta, Ross McReynolds and Will Honaker. They've started a studio together and double as a house band. Anthony produces. I love bluegrass as much as the next guy but I don't think I'll be headlining Telluride anytime soon. I've been listening to Wu-Tang lately.
Charlie Treat “Mama Hen”
Charlie Treat, “Swimming in November”