UPDATE: Due to coronavirus concerns, this event has been postponed. New date TBA.
Storytime with Woody Pines
When I spoke to Woody Pines, the roots-Americana musician headlining Toledo’s Bluegrass & Green Acres, he was in the Dominican Republic gathering inspiration for an album influenced by that country’s rich musical traditions. It’s typical of Pines to soak in the culture and peculiarities of a place, lovingly incorporating the treasures he finds into his own original work. After leaving his home in northern New Hampshire to join a jug band in the Pacific Northwest, Pines found himself busking in the New Orleans French Quarter, followed by the mountains of Asheville and, since, he has settled in Nashville.
We spoke with Pines about how he has managed to create modern juke joint music that is entirely his own.
How did your experience as a busker help your music develop over time? It influences your music because instantly you get feedback. You’re always trying to find out what the magic combination is. I started going to this festival— the Oregon Country Fair. My buddy played the guitar and I played the cheese grater. We just opened our hat, like we saw in the movies. I think we made $300 and it just blew my mind. The Kitchen Syncopators was the name of the band.
What was it like busking in the French Quarter? New Orleans was pure magic for me. To get the good spot, which was the difference between making $5 and $100, you had to be the first one there. So we would take shifts and wait in the French Quarter, waking up at 3am. The rule is you have to have one instrument to prove that you’re a musician, and the police leave you alone. They close the street at 11, so from 3 in the morning until 11, we’re standing on this corner and people are streaming off Bourbon Street, looking for their car and throwing up and having sex… all kinds of things. They were like zombies rolling off of Bourbon Street. You’d see the people start sweeping up the bottles. I remember the smell of the lye, the soap that it seemed like every bar and restaurant used. It was a beautiful way to see it.
How do you strike a balance between paying homage to musical pioneers and maintaining your own sound? I guess it depends on the type of song. If it clearly borrows already from traditional, like songs that are written by hundreds of people across generations and came over from England, then I feel like you can continue the path of the song and borrow the melody. Doc Watson said he was a “tamperer.” You put your own verse in, or sing what you know.
What’s one of your favorite stories that you like to tell between songs? There’s this song “Counting Alligators” which I actually wrote near Athens, Ohio after coming up from Louisiana. In the middle of the song, I tell this long story about [traveling] down through Mississippi and visiting graves and also hotels that used to be juke joints. So I retell that story in the middle of the song while the band just holds that one cord.
You don’t want to talk too much, and people are there for the music. But I’ve gotten great responses playing in England and Scotland where they tell me, “Ah, you took me to America! We were there man.”