Covers of pop songs have been commonplace in bluegrass music since the late 1960s, when The Dillards, Flatt & Scruggs, The Country Gentlemen and others adapted songs by The Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Lovin’ Spoonful. For Charlottesville, VA band Love Canon, it’s a way of life, a “mission statement” according to my conversation last week with lead singer and guitarist Jesse Harper.
Harper is one of five highly schooled and skilled acoustic musicians who have been splitting the difference between nostalgic kitsch and hot acoustic pop since 2010. Banjo player Adam Larrabee studied music at Oberlin and has taught at the New England Conservatory. Dobro player Jay Starling, son of Seldom Scene singer and roots hero John Starling, studied jazz drums at Berklee. Others in the band are renowned instrumentalists Darrell Muller on bass and Andy Thacker on mandolin.
It takes that kind of experience and musical acumen to arrange synth-heavy new wave and MTV hits for a bluegrass band. “Tempted” by Squeeze. “Enjoy The Silence” by Depeche Mode. “Driver 8” by REM. They’re all given the string band treatment on Cover Story, Love Canon’s fourth album. The band has a web of relationships through the scene, which shows itself in the album’s guest artists, including vocalist Aoife O’Donovan, fiddlers Mike Barnett and Alex Hargreaves and dobro master Jerry Douglas, who specifically requested working up the 1988 hit “Kyrie Eleison” by Mr. Mister.
Bluegrass seems like it might be involved in a widespread cover up these days. Colorado quartet Twisted Pine, a searching string band with two female singers and some intricate musicianship, just released Dreams, covering the eponymous Cranberries song plus “Heart of Glass” by Blondie and other songs from the 60s to the 2000s. Several groups, including The Lonely Heartstring Band and Hot Buttered Rum covered Paul Simon’s “Graceland” before Love Canon did so on Cover Story. A couple years ago Springfield, MO band The Hillbenders recorded a full-album cover of The Who’s rock opera Tommy. And Front Country released Mixtape, an EP of covers ranging from pure 80s (“The Boys of Summer”) to contemporary indie rock (Tune-Yards’ “Bizness”).
Here’s the full Q&A with Love Canon’s Jesse Harper, edited for length and clarity.
We’ve seen string bands cover pop tunes to have fun and catch the ear of new fans, but you guys seem dedicated to this specifically.
That’s fair. It was our mission statement from the beginning. We chose the 80s tunes because that’s what we all grew up with. We were interested in the material and in how they put these songs together. And in the jazz world, and even in the classical world and anyplace you have “serious music” in quotation marks, they’re always doing other people’s material. The London Philharmonic does covers all the time! Miles Davis did covers. That’s what real musicians do. You learn other pieces. When I was a kid playing piano or cello I played the great works.
So it wasn’t a departure from what we do as musicians. It was just putting the magnifying glass on a certain era of tunes and saying is this worthy of study? And from my perspective it is, both as the cultural phenomenon of 80s hits and musically. There were just some amazing musicians and great writers who were making music in that era.
So how did this all get started?
Well Adam had been a good friend of mine for a long time and we were on a car ride from New England to Virginia. We were stuck in traffic listening to an 80s station. And he got out a mandolin and started learning the songs that we were listening to. And we were having a blast, music nerds that we are, listening for all the different things people were doing that really aren’t present in pop music today. So by the time we got to Charlottesville, we decided to call ourselves Love Canon. Immediately a friend of ours had a gig and we crashed the gig and got on stage and played an 80s tune. So it was one day we started in the car and by the time we made it to Charlottesville we were a band, or at least we had this concept together.
Jay Starling went to Berklee College of Music for drums. But he plays dobro in our band. He’s also a really great pianist. Darrell Muller was in a band with me called Old School Freight Train, and I toured for years with him. We played with David Grisman. So it was natural for me to grab him up for this project. And on mandolin we have Andy Thacker. And whenever we need somebody to come in and play an amazing solo he steps in and rips it up.
Also he’d be key to getting that synth drum attack on this kind of music right?
Absolutely. We don’t have a drummer, so as we arrange these songs we’re always thinking (about that). The drum machine became a big thing in the 80s. The other thing that’s interesting about the 80s though is when I grew up I came home from middle school and I’d turn on MTV and watch the videos. Every hair band had a virtuoso on guitar. Slash from Guns n Roses. Eddie Van Halen. So in bluegrass and acoustic music that concept is still a very important thing. Every bluegrass band has a shredder on their instrument. To me It’s a natural extension of the same thing that drove me as a kid to want to be like Slash or Joe Satriani or Kirk Hammett of Metallica. The same thing that pushed me to love that music is present in bluegrass, the celebration of virtuosity.
Tell me about choosing songs. Some of them are songs some people love to hate on. Do you stand by every one as well written, or do you choose some to be provocative?
Reception of the song is never a consideration. It’s usually do we like the song and enjoy playing it? I remember we did a Grateful Dead cover. And I didn’t have the Grateful Dead growing up as something I was aware of. But I do remember the 80s hit “Touch of Grey” which had a music video on MTV. When I brought it to the band, they said dude, that’s not one that the Dead fans really celebrate. So we picked it apart a little bit and rearranged it and reharmonized it and treated it like a jazz piece and it really worked. I dig it. I always loved the song. I think what we care about is does this stand up musically?
What were some of the hardest songs to arrange?
One of the toughest songs was “Islands In The Stream” believe it or not. Because there’s not a lot that happens instrumentally. It’s about the (vocal) duet. And the thing that really made it work was digging in to the original. The Kenny Rogers album was produced by Barry Gibb. It’s a Bee Gees song. And on deeper listening, there are horn parts in the background and Barry Gibb sings this crazy high harmony part above Dolly Parton. You usually think it’s a duet, but it’s a trio! So once I dug into it I sang above Lauren Balthrop who sings Dolly’s part. It was a challenge. And we got some great players to do some of the horn parts, and it came alive for us.
Nostalgia is a huge part of how pop music is promoted and described in the culture. What do you guys think about how nostalgia is used or misused?
You see it across all popular culture. There are remakes of old movies. And there seems like a lack of people out on the forefront creating new stuff, at least stuff that’s making it past the filters to larger audiences. I think that made the difference in the old days. Bands like Devo were presented to the whole world by the tastemakers. And now it seems like the tastemakers have awful taste (laughs)! But I think in the Americana world, there are people who are definitely stuck in, you know, 1950s. If it’s not Bill Monroe or Flatt & Scruggs, it ain’t bluegrass. And we’ve gotten that critique. Nostalgia plays a big role for me. I want to feel those feelings. So I hope we’re going to be a band that writes music (as well). We’ve all done a lot of projects as songwriters. I’d like to apply our musicianship to some of that looking forward in addition to celebrating this music that we love.