On The String: Fiddle Voyager Casey Driessen Chronicles Music Making in 'Otherlands'
Starting about 2000, a new generation of American bluegrass and traditional string musicians came of age and launched careers. They were raised at fiddle camps and educated at conservatories, especially Boston’s Berklee College of Music. With eclectic influences and advanced skills they began to write a new chapter in the story of acoustic roots music. Among the most impactful is five-string fiddler and educator Casey Driessen.
I first met Casey, probably at the Station Inn, when he was recently graduated from Berklee and getting his footing in Nashville as a sideman and recording artist. He had a point of view and a voice on the fiddle that could range through or combine classic bluegrass, country jazz and traditions from around the world. He was an early expert practitioner of the rhythmic fiddle “chop” technique that brings drum-like qualities to the instrument. And he found outlets in performance with Tim O’Brien, Darrell Scott, Jerry Douglas, Jim Lauderdale and others. He launched a funky instrumental trio with his friend Matt Mangano, bass player for the Zac Brown Band. He started making utterly unique solo albums and developed a one-man show using electronic effects and looping pedals called The Singularity.
In other words, Driessen is energetic, risk-taking and perpetually busy. I worked with him in the 2010s documenting on video a series of studio encounters with drummers and percussionists to further develop the rhythmic potential of the violin called Fiddle/Sticks. And lurking behind all of this was a desire to travel overseas to improvise with native musicians from other traditions, which he did first with Abigail Washburn, Bela Fleck and their Sparrow Quartet in China and Tibet.
All this was preparation for Casey’s latest project, a set of 13 recordings made across six countries over nine months in 2019-20. After a four-year stint as a teacher and administrator at the Berklee music program in Valencia, Spain, Driessen and his family hit the road for an epic adventure and experiment testing the old proposition that music is a transcendent, culture-bridging language. The album and multi-media release Otherlands:Onesuggests it’s at least partly true.
The concept had been in his mind for many years, and he tells me in Episode 167 of The String. During a career assessment exercise in the early 2010s, he defined his values and priorities around family, world travel and collaborative, cross-cultural music making. “I started to think well, what is something that could tie all these things together? And well, it could be traveling the world somehow, with my family, making music with people, which is basically what we ended up doing this last year. I just didn't know how it was going to happen. And I would say that getting the job opportunity to move to Spain seemed like a step in that direction.”
After his job wrapped up, the Driessens (wife Molly and daughter Emmette) ventured to other parts of Spain, then to Ireland, Scotland, India, Japan and Finland. He looked up musicians he’d once known, asked for references for new musicians to seek out and generally made plans as he moved forward. He carried audio and video recording gear to memorialize each encounter, working up at least one tune per session and recording in all kinds of locations, usually homes.
“This whole project is not about being in a studio,” he says. “I think that's a little bit different mental space. And our mental space is really sharing music together and sitting down face to face and you know, showing each other things and learning and just trying things out to see what happens when two folks that haven't really played together from different traditions come together.”
The results are varied and enchanting. At a time when the world seems full of conflict and illness, Otherlands is a refresher in the healing power of art and cooperation.