(A note from Joe: What a pleasure to be interviewed by Matthew Bailey for his blog. He asks mighty good questions, and you get to find out who some of my favorite non-traditional musicians are. Hint, the list includes Grant Llewellyn, Branford Marsalis, James Taylor, and Nikki Sixx. Click here to go to Matthew’s site, where you can read the interview, hear sound clips, and look at photos.)
Old Story New Ways: An Interview with Joe Newberry
by Matthew Bailey May 10, 2017
I was only made aware of Joe Newberry recently. When I saw him and April Verch perform at a small winery in Stokesdale, NC.
I thought two things were inherently wrong.
One: Not nearly enough people were witnessing this fantastic performance. It was purposefully an intimate gig, inside a wonderful venue and the crowd was enthusiastic. It is just, when you discover new artists that seem special, part of you thinks they should be filling Wembley Stadium. The other part of you is glad they do not. (Kudos to Stonefield Cellars Winery for the level of talent they book) The look on every listener’s face during that show was one and the same. We were being let in on a sort of secret. If only everyone else knew what they were missing.
And as Newberry said to us, quoting his preacher grandfather, “We preach the sermon to one or one hundred. The sermon is the same.”
Two: How had I never heard of this guy before? I made sure to rectify this at once.
My research led me to devour Newberry and Verch’s debut album as a duo, Going Home. It is a work any fan of traditional/folk music will cherish. An album that feels fresh and new while of course harkening the best of the “old time string bands.” It sounds like a duo that has been together a long time. A con well played.
Joe explains how he came to play with the talented Ms. Verch…
April and I have known of each other for years, and had made noises in the past about trying to play some music, but it never came to be. In fact, a presenter friend of ours named Janet Kenworthy kept telling us both separately that we should meet. Then, last year, we both had some time open up in our schedules. We put together some material, and actually booked some shows before we had ever met. Luckily that first meeting went well, and we clicked musically and personally. After a few months of playing, we decided that we needed to have something to sell at shows, so we carved out three days and recorded a CD in Chapel Hill, N.C., with the great FJ Ventre.
Three days? What is it about this combination that makes it work so well in your opinion?
Hmm, in short… The music is always fresh. Her fiddling syncs perfectly with my banjo playing. She is fun to sing with. She is a great businesswoman. She knows where to find the best coffee at all times on the road. She writes beautiful tunes and songs. She and I both like people.
Verch, who has been described by NPR as Canada’s Alison Krauss, is an accomplished fiddle player and songwriter that fills in as Buddy Rich by way of her step dancing on various songs.
She was kind enough to speak to me, of what it means to write and perform with Newberry.
Our voices blended well. I loved learning to dance to his style of banjo playing, the melodies on fiddle and banjo were complementary, his rhythm guitar playing on Canadian tunes is solid and driving. It was like a great musical conversation from the very beginning. Joe knows when to take the lead, and when to listen. And when we started performing together, one of the things I learned quickly and absolutely adore about Joe, is that I know he has my back. If I say or play the wrong thing, there is no snicker or glare, there is just complete support and helping each other through, and that is a marvelous feeling.
As Americana music is apt to do, interpretations of the pioneers is almost not just encouraged but nearly a requirement. “I Can’t Sit Down” being an example of a song well titled when Newberry/Verch play their version of the Wade Mainer classic.
Newberry introduces the uninitiated to others; Doc Watson, Woody Guthrie, while proving his own catalogue deserves some similar treatment.
“Baby I’m Blue” is such a lovely song; one of those that feels it was always written, but someone had to be the one to pluck it out of the ether.
I immediately went to look up who wrote it. Turns out it was the guy performing it right in front of me.
Other notable Newberry compositions:
“I Know Whose Tears” off his 2006 album Two Hands is a beautiful tribute to his mother. His “Singing As We Rise,” was recorded by The Gibson Brothers, with Ricky Skaggs providing vocals. The song won the 2012 IBMA “Gospel Recorded Performance” award. The very next year he won the IBMA Song of the Year with Eric Gibson for “They Called It Music.”
“Resurrection Day,” off Two Hands, feels like a more optimistic kindred spirit to Ralph Stanley’s version of “O Death.”
A surprising fact I learned was that Newberry has not been a full-time musician until fairly recently.
Serving as Communications Director for the North Carolina Symphony might be a more difficult job to leave than say Dog Kennel Cleaner (Cyndi Lauper) or Car Horn Tuner (Ozzy Osbourne). Even so, if music calls.
I asked him what made him finally jump in fully.
I was having dinner with an old friend after a show a few years ago, and he asked the question, “Do you want to play music all the time?” I replied, “I think I do.” He then said, “Well, you should do it now; you have a great future behind you.” I knew exactly what he meant. The sun still shone on me, but it was closer to the horizon than it was for someone in their 20s. I had always kept music in my life, and did many years of flying out on a Thursday evening and flying back as late as I could on Sunday evening and still be able to get to work on Monday. But, in late 2015, I received an email out of the blue from Jerry Douglas and the folks at the Transatlantic Sessions, inviting me to be one of the featured singers on their 2016 tour of the U.K. It was too good an opportunity to pass on, so with good support at home, I booked a bunch more work, and made the leap. I am lucky in that I play with some mighty powerful musicians. I play in a duo with mandolin master Mike Compton, sit in the banjo chair with Red Clay Ramblers founders Bill Hicks, Jim Watson, and Mike Craver, and also perform with the astounding April Verch.
Mike Compton is the acclaimed mandolin player (and Soggy Bottom Boy) many regard as the best since Bill Monroe. Together, Compton and Newberry recorded the album Live, a highly regarded set recorded from a show in Newark, DE that Scott Tichenor of Mandolin cafe described as:
“Two musicians, two instruments and two voices — captures the essence of how great music can be. Doc and Merle Watson at the Walnut Valley Festival, that first listen to Norman Blake’s Live at McCabes, a brand new David Grisman Quintet in concert at Liberty Hall in Lawrence, Kansas in the late 70s, and the Stephane Grappelli quartet outdoors on an impossibly hot summer evening in Kansas City. That’s the feeling I get from this recording, that precise moment when you know you’re hearing a really special musical combination for the first time.”
In 2016, Newberry released a sometimes whimsical and other times weighty album with bluesman Jon Shain. Crow the Dawn has the two duetting back and forth on “Last Time I Saw Laszlo.” A song that feels like what Johnny Cash and Thurl Ravenscroft would have come up with. On the other end of the spectrum is Newberry’s “Lonesome Dove,” which might even more effectively than The Purple One, convey what it sounds like when doves cry.
Despite playing, recording and traveling with so many renowned musicians, it seems safe to say one fan in particular has given Newberry his biggest audience.
In 2011 Garrison Keillor was signing autographed copies of his book to a crowd in Raleigh, NC. Newberry and his band, Big Medicine, were hired to play in the background and keep spirits up as people waited in line.
Keillor noticed them as more than background, and even walked over and began singing with them. Later, he invited them on his show. A proposition Newberry took as polite but nothing more. Keillor’s invite was legit and Newberry appeared numerous times on A Prairie Home Companion. Having a champion for you is good. Having a champion with four million listeners is better. As he told “Our State” in 2014, “For a traditional musician to be invited as a solo performer, it must be the same feeling a comedian got when Johnny Carson invited them to the couch.”
Do you prefer to write songs alone or with a partner?
I have no preference, although I have written more on my own. I tend to write while driving in the car. A phrase, or sometimes a whole line will drop in my head. In the days before smart phones and recording apps, I would call my answering machine at home and sing into it. That said, I have had good luck with the co-writing I have done with folks like Eric Gibson, Jon Shain, and Si Kahn.
Favorite song to play live right now?
Favorite traditional song to perform right now is the “Cherry River Line,” which comes from West Virginia. Favorite song of mine right now to perform is “I’m Going Home,” co-written with Si Kahn. It is also the title track of my CD with April.
Joe Newberry’s influences are probably not terribly difficult to see. Literally bowing at the mention of John Hartford during his show is understandable. But Joe is not confined to being a fan of only one kind of music. He gives nods to Prince and Eddie Van Halen in conversation. Not what you expect to hear when you have “The Carter Family” already pencilled into your notebook. Or, the most unexpected musician I heard him praise the night of my first Newberry show; Nikki Sixx, the bass player for 80’s hair band Motley Crue.
I gladly remembered to bring that up for this interview.
I find tremendous heart in his playing, and that is what I look for in any music. Also, he plays full out, with a very fat sense of the beat.
Who are some other non-traditional musicians you are inspired by, or a fan of?
Frank Sinatra for his phrasing. Branford Marsalis for his musicality. The Mills Brothers for their blend. Eminem for his way with a lyric. Leon Russell for his ability to pull from so many sources, and always sound like himself. Conductor Grant Llewellyn for his way with a chorus. James Taylor for his guitar playing. And his songwriting. And his singing.
Newberry recently got to play and sing on the Transatlantic Sessions at Merlefest. Here he is playing with, among others, an up and comer named James Taylor.
What is the best album ever made in your opinion?
Well, the smartass in me would say Two Hands, by Joe Newberry. But, really, I think I would have to say Frank Sinatra’s 1965 September of My Years. Simply iconic songs. And he was singing at the top of his game. However, the album that may have had the strongest impact on my future music was the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1972 album, Will The Circle Be Unbroken. Of course, it featured legendary country musicians like Doc Watson, Roy Acuff, Merle Travis, and Jimmy Martin playing with the Dirt Band, but what is more, it had snippets of studio talk and a glimpse behind the curtain of what went in to making a recording.
The greatest song ever written?
I don’t know if I can opine about the greatest song ever written. To me, though, just about the best-crafted song ever was John Hartford’s “Gentle On My Mind.”
Best concert you ever saw?
The best concert I ever saw, was also my first… Leon Russell in 1971 in Memphis, Tenn. Such energy.
Proudest moment as a musician?
I have been lucky to win awards for my songs, and have played on some nice stages over the years. But, probably my proudest moments come when folks write me to tell me that they play my songs at bedsides and at funerals. That is the highest honor.
What is new on the horizon? I remember mention of a Christmas album and you already have a few Christmas songs you have released. What draws you to those songs?
I plan to continue touring with Mike, and we are talking about a new CD project. He is such a wonderful player and singer, and I love working with him. I will also continue my work with April, and we have indeed begun plans for a Christmas album to support touring at the holidays. I like writing Christmas songs because I enjoy telling an old story in new ways.
My last question for Joe was one I did not intend to include in this article. It was one I was told to ask by my brother. But I decided to include it, as I see in Mr. Newberry; the same thing he sees in a certain wild and crazy guy.
Is Steve Martin good for bluegrass music? Is he a solid musician or simply popular because of his name?
I think that Steve Martin is great for bluegrass music. He helps put the genre in front of people who might not otherwise be exposed to it. And, he is a very good player. I love to watch him play, because you can see how much he loves it.
As I re-read that answer, I also looked at various pictures of Joe Newberry playing in front of an audience. In so many of them you see the same thing. You “see how much he loves it.” His joy in what he is doing is infectious.
If you get the chance, I highly recommend you seek out where Joe Newberry is playing closest to you. Whether he is in front of thousands or a handful, you will find that he is performing straight to you.