On The String: In Hawktail, Four Acoustic Masters Negotiate The ‘In Between Zone’
Instrumental music faces headwinds in the music business, but hawks rise fast and high on headwinds, so Hawktail has a decent chance of soaring. The Nashville-based quartet recently packed out the capacious Harpeth Brewing Company for its release show of the new album Formations. They debuted on the Grand Ole Opry that same weekend. And they’ve just announced some high profile festival slots alongside their more vocally oriented colleagues, including Telluride Bluegrass and Newport Folk.
A few factors seem to be playing into the surge. For one thing, Hawktail has been through an album cycle, having released the debut Unless in 2018. More in the Americana booking world have now heard them play live, where their chops and inventiveness are undeniable. Moreover, each of the musicians is a big deal in roots music, with a distinguished past and present.
Bassist Paul Kowert is a Punch Brother and a core member of the Live From Here house band on NPR. Brittany Haas, the fiddler, also plays that radio show and has toured with Darol Anger and the Dave Rawlings Machine. She’s also been named Instrumentalist of the Year by the Americana Music Association. Guitarist Jordan Tice has been a sideman, but he’s better known as a folk singer/songwriter who plays impressive lead as a flatpicker and fingerpicker.
Those three formed the precursor to Hawktail in the early-mid 2010s under the name Hass Kowert Tice. Dominick Leslie during those years was a newgrass wunderkind, generating much buzz with his mandolin in such visionary bands as the Deadly Gentlemen and Missy Raines and the New Hip. He says in Episode 119 of The String that he was a serious fan of the HKT trio before he was brought in.
“I used to listen to their record all the time,” he says. “And I have to say, I had thoughts that man it would be cool to make music like that because it’s definitely right in line with the music that originally got me super excited in general and made me really want to be a musician.”
The music he’s talking about is the small but influential thread of acoustic folk and bluegrass that’s been called new acoustic and sometimes chamber-grass. The approach took string band instruments into realms of virtuoso playing and intricate composing associated with classical music. Some of the earlier concepts came from David Grisman’s gypsy jazz groups. Grisman proteges like mandolinist Mike Marshall and fiddler Darol Anger carried it deeper. And in 1989, the super-group Strength In Numbers with Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Edger Meyer and Mark O’Connor released The Telluride Sessions. It was just one album, but it rocked a lot of younger players’ worlds.
Kowert says Hawktail exists in large part because of Strength In Numbers and artists of that ilk. “All of us really love instrumental music,” he says. “Safe to say our lives have been changed by certain instrumental records and shows that we’ve heard since we were young. Bands like (Swedish folk trio) Väsen and Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer. This is music that has really influenced who we’ve become.”
Tice says the Strength In Numbers album found its way into his world because it was one of the first three CDs his dad owned, and he played it on repeat. “That music is particularly profound,” he says. “Just every little piece is so well utilized. And people are having fun too.”
And for Haas, the process of composing and refining as a group offers four strong musicians a voice, even in the absence of actual vocals. She says, “This band is really great about taking people's individual strengths and not just being like, ‘You play mandolin so you'll do this’ but being like, ‘You are Dominic Leslie and you play mandolin and you'll do this because that is what you do that’s special about you.’”
When lyrics aren’t on the musical table, roots music tends to be organized around an instrumental theme followed by improvising over chord changes, much in the manner of classic jazz. Hawktail doesn’t write down much on staff paper, but their pieces come out as mostly structured and composed parts with passages and a lot of thoughtful, pre-arranged dialogue among the instruments. They figure they leave about 30 percent of the musical space for improvisations. That said, Kowert notes that “a fair amount of the music on the new record was derived from improvisations, so you have this situation where it's written out, but it sounds improvisatory. It's kind of an in between zone.”
So let’s say they’re in between the cracks, in between the genres, in between the expectations of bluegrass old timers and dancing jamgrass fans. I’d call that a sweet spot.