The details behind the first BMLB mini tour!Read More
The details behind the first BMLB mini tour!Read More
World-class mandolinist, songwriter, and singer Chris Thile refers to the kind of music he plays as “acoustic music.” I’m a fan of this description, as it moves away from the “Americana” and “folk” genre labels, which can often be more restricting than helpful. While Chris often plays alongside drums, electric bass, and even electric guitar, "acoustic music” still applies. In my opinion, acoustic music has more to do with a band’s approach to the songs and pieces they perform than the exact tools that they use to perform them.
Since the Brown Mountain Lightning Bugs’ inception, we’ve struggled to find an accurate genre description for what we do. Like many bands, we have a wide range of influences and like to use the flavor of all these influences in the music we make.
Sometimes, though, we run into situations where there’s a misunderstanding of what we do for different reasons. Sometimes people assume we’re a bluegrass band based on our name or the fact that we use traditional instruments like banjo and mandolin. While elements of bluegrass make an appearance in some of what we do, I think the term “acoustic music” fits better.
Complicating matters is the fact that we’ve shifted to using an electric banjo and mandolin for our live shows for a whole host of technical and logistical reasons. In my years of playing music, I’ve learned that many people have a VERY strong opinion and preconceived notion of what a banjo sounds like and how it should be used in music. No other instrument I know of is looked at this way. When you start using an electric banjo, it can be confusing, intriguing, or even insulting for some folks, especially when you’re not playing bluegrass with it.
So what is “acoustic music?” I think acoustic music is music that has a very direct focus on songcraft, simplicity in production, and is often lyric-focused rather than instrument-focused. Melody tends to be more prominent than rhythm. It is less performance-driven than a rock band, for example, but still comes to life in a live setting. All of the compositional elements tend to occupy their own easily-audible space, whereas a lot of electric and pop music uses more of a “wall of sound” approach to dynamics. Acoustic music can be played on acoustic instruments, unplugged, without losing anything vital to the sound.
As an example of this last point consider “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot and “Back in Black” by AC/DC. Both feature electric guitar, but the emphasis in the songwriting and composition is entirely different. The first song is entirely about the story being told and the accompanying vocal melody, while the second is about being up in your face with a huge electric guitar riff straight away. Sure, you could totally play “Back in Black” in an unplugged setting, but you’d be losing something important about the song, while “Edmund Fitzgerald” would come out more or less the same.
Acoustic music can mean pop songs, rock songs, country songs, hip hop songs, bluegrass songs, flamenco songs, Irish songs, folk songs, or even avante-garde songs. The unifying factor is that the focus and composition of what’s being played tends to match what I mentioned above. None of these are hard and fast rules, of course, just tendencies.
So yeah, I think The Brown Mountain Lightning Bugs play “acoustic music” even though we use amplifiers and electric instruments as we do it. That said, tomorrow we might end up writing something that matches none of the above and I’ll have to write a new blog to explain ourselves all over again. Should be fun!
On being a singer/songwriter/driver/accountant/booking agent…Read More
Zack wrote this one long before I ever came onto the scene, but he pulled it out of the Rolodex last year to see if it might work in our live show. He invited me to tweak the melody and lyrics, and after playing it live, rewriting it, playing it live some more, and doing some last minute studio rewrites we arrived at the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” we have today.
Ryan came in and added his harmony to the banjo riff that we hear under the refrain, along with some acoustic guitar and glockenspiel played by Wayne, elements that I think make the piece into the airy musical wonderland that it is. When we were listening back after tracking it and it hit the outro with Wayne’s acoustic lead riff I knew it would be the track to wrap up the album. Something about this song just exudes both finality and possibility and I can’t think of a better way to end our debut album.
Most of the songs I write are written under the concept of having a lot of parts and layers built on top of them. Isolated, the banjo riff in this song would be boring and repetitive, but with the parts that every else adds, it sounds great. I’m particularly fond of the harmonies Ryan wrote for the refrain lick. He’s got a knack for harmony that I lack, and I’m always impressed with it. Trevor actually apologized to me for his solo at the end, but I think it’s fantastic!
I also write songs sometimes that I have absolutely no business singing. This is one of those. When I sing “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” it’s a disaster, but Kendra altered it just enough and sang it beautifully.
This is the oldest song on the album by at least a couple of years, but like Kendra said above, we knew it would be the perfect ending track.
This song was written in response to a song that was written in response to a song by Les Claypool (more on that below). Zack was in the Philippines visiting family at the time, and I missed him quite a bit. His birthday was going to be happening while he was gone, so I decided to write a song and video it for him as a present. He loved it and proposed not long after getting back from his trip, so it must have been a good song!
I started with a spare, a capella opening and then let the song grow more and more chaotic in tempo throughout (like a stormy sea). This makes the song fun to play live, but we had a heck of a time recording it. Getting the timing right between tracks was super challenging, but listening back to it, it’s clear that all the hard work and brainstorming paid off!
Primus has a song called “Tragedy’s A Comin’” on their 2011 album Green Naugahyde. The song is about seeing tragedy on the horizon, but being completely unable to do anything about it. With my own health problems and my family’s illness over the years, I could relate to that feeling. It’s a terrifying, helpless feeling to know that some terrible thing is bearing down on you in the near future and there’s no way to get around it. I wrote a song called “Seawall” that followed a similar perspective with the added notion that I would succumb to the tragedy if I had to face it alone. Finally, Kendra wrote “I am the Waves” in response to “Seawall,” letting me know that I wouldn’t have to face tragedy alone ever again, because she would be there with me.
This is a haunting tune, and the recording captures both the harrowing nature of looming tragedy as well as the loving embrace of standing together in the face of such a challenge. I think this is my favorite banjo part on the album.
“Seawall” almost made the cut for this album, but not quiet. I hope to release it in some form in the future, because we have a really nice recording of it.
This was another one that was mostly done when we started recording the album. Zack, Wayne, and Trevor had begun the process previously for another project and we decided to pull it into what we were doing.
It has such a big, open sound that captures the essence of what the song is about: how love is one big adventure. Getting to write some harmonies to add into this was a ton of fun, and has continued to be a fun thing to do during our live shows. I couldn’t be happier with how this one turned out.
I wrote this one on the campus of UNCSA in Winston Salem. Kendra and I had just gotten engaged, and I was waiting for her to get out of class. I got the mandolin out of my car, sat a folding chair on the grass and wrote. People walked by and gave me a lot of funny looks, but I got a fantastic song out of it.
I had went dirt biking in the Pisgah National Forest the weekend before, and that inspired some of the lyrics. I literally scared a black bear out of my way, and accidentally ran over a MONSTER of a rattle snake on that trip. I once crossed a flooding river on the way to Big Bradly Falls in Saluda North Carolina. I dirt biked through the jungles of Cambodia, climbed up to the peaks of the Appalachia, and have seen 10,000+ sunsets in my lifetime. None of these were as powerful as the love I felt for Kendra.
I was deeply in love when I wrote this tune, and it shows. Still am, too.
This is another one of those obscure literary reference songs of mine. Zack wrote the main guitar lick, and invited me to come up with some lyrics. I had been reading the second book in Jeanne DuPrau’s Books of Ember series, had just wrapped up playing Supergiant Games’ Bastion, and had wanted to write something based on C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew. So I decided to write lyrics that referenced all three, and thus “Ember” was born.
I think this was the first song Zack and I cowrote that lent itself really nicely to being a jam song, and I think we captured that really nicely in the recording. This one is always gets me pumped up during a gig and I think it does the same thing as we approach the end of the album.
Musically, this song is heavily inspired by Neil Young’s jam songs like “Down By the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand.” The progression is dead simple, giving plenty of room for the lead guitar to do it’s thing. Ember really cooks when there’s two lead guitar players weaving around each other through the song. Kendra’s vocal is fantastic on this one, and I think Wayne’s production hit exactly what we were looking for: it’s straight to the point, rocking, and punchy.
The last third of my solo sounds like a thunderstorm to me.
This one is a staple in our live show, and always gets a good response. I love the pairing of the bouncy, upbeat, down-home feel of the main banjo riff with the carefree attitude of the lyrics. And our little stacked harmony always makes me smile. This feel-good song makes me appreciate the beauty of simplicity, both in music and in life. I think that the vibe of this song was what Thoreau was going for in writing Walden. Except maybe less pretentious.
This song is one of the first songs I wrote when I started a solo project called “Skeeter Hawk.” I made a bedroom recording of it that was pretty good, but this kicks the pants off of it. I’ve played this tune with every group I’ve played with since it was written, including the one-off show with the band “Molehill Mountain.” It’s always a solid, reliable part of our set, and the vocal harmonies are fun. We’ve played the song in one of two ways, either really fast and bluegrass-ish in style or more funky and slow like it is on this recording. You never know which version you’ll get when we play it live, which is part of the fun!
This song. This song is probably the best thing I’ve ever been a part of. Not because I got to play melodica on it, but because I got to play a love song for a dog. This one speaks for itself (featuring some special BGVs from the Joni in question). I have nothing else to say, but here’s a picture of the muse herself.
I always introduce this as "the best love song I've ever written, and it's written for a dog!" Our black lab Joni holds a special place in my heart, as she has bonded with me closer than any other dog I've ever had, and I've had dogs my entire life. She loves to hike, and whenever you mention the word, she'll start yipping and jumping in excitement. I knew that'd be the perfect intro and outro to this song.
The main riff and melody is about as dogish as they come, and quite the earworm as well. People seem to like this song a lot, and it's always a fun part of our set. Plus, I get to see Kendra play melodica!
My mom is a really big fan of Robert Frost’s poetry, so I grew up reading his work, and while “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” isn’t my all-time favorite of his works (that award goes to “Love and a Question”), I think it’s a beautifully evocative piece of writing. I’ve had it memorized almost as far back as I can remember, and I had thought when I first started composing that it would be a fun one to set for choir. Then I realized Eric Whitacre had tried and failed to get the rights to do that, and if he couldn’t convince Frost’s estate to let him so I was out of luck.
But, like all good musicians, I found a loophole. And thus “White Winter Blankets” was born. Zack started the banjo riff for this one on the front porch of my parents’ house when we were dating. It was fall and there was a chill in the air, and I started thinking about this poem that’s as much in my DNA as playing music is and the lyrics and melody spilled out.
I’m so proud of how this track turned out. The recording captures perfectly everything I had hoped to communicate through this song. And I got to be a total hipster-indie-musician-chick and play a middle-school glockenspiel on it!
This recording is one my proudest achievements as a musician. When Kendra and I wrote this, I thought the chords were neat, the lyrics were beautiful, and we played it well, but it continued to evolve and grow as we played it live. We developed this ever-growing dynamic in the song, culminating in a big vocal crescendo at the last chorus, and I think it's as powerful a musical statement as anything I've ever done. I was listening to this song in my car recently, and I had chills when the crescendo hit. Very few pieces of music have ever done that for me, but White Winter Blankets is the only original recording of mine to ever come close.
There's a lot going on in this track, and a lot of players. I want to thank Adrian Brinkley, Trevor Walker, and Ryan Packett for creating an electric guitar symphony that took a lot of thinking and effort to find the right notes at the right time. Wayne's production is top notch on this, too, giving it just the right amount of subtlety and dynamic build. Kendra's vocal is stunning, and makes me feel humble that she's willing to play music with me every time I hear it. This will be a hard one to ever top, artistically.
The way Zack and I co-write songs has evolved over the years. With “Rebel” we wrote our portions separately and put them back together later and I think the finished product ended up being really cool. The chord progression in the chorus has this almost anthemic feel that contrasts really beautifully with the sombre and tension-filled verses. I also love the switch between meters in the verses, contributing to the out-of-kilterness of the lyrical content.
Kendra and I played this one live at a songwriter’s night one time, and it was absolutely shredded to bits. They didn’t like the lyrics, they didn’t like the composition, they didn’t like the message, and they really, really didn’t like that off-kilter rhythm on the verse riff that sits somewhere between a 6/8 and a 3/4. I actually followed that group’s advice for a while, playing the song in a straight 6/8 and it completely neutered the tune. I’m glad I stuck with the original rhythm for this recording, as I think it’s vital to the composition. The way Wayne and Trevor orchestrated their playing around that rhythm is beautiful to me.
This seems to be a favorite among many who’ve heard the album. We knew it’d be the first single as soon as it started coming together in the studio. Also, Trevor’s solo after the first chorus is my favorite thing on the album. That some peak Pudding right there.
“Swim” holds a lot of special meaning for me personally, and I'm glad to get to share this version of it with you guys! This is another co-write, and draws a lot of inspiration from a really dark time, though you might not guess that from the upbeat vibe of the music. For me, this song is about facing challenges, and persevering through them even when that seems impossible. This song is a testament to the power we have to overcome.
This is a great example of a song that I’d have never written on my own. I love Kendra’s melodic vocal choices, and the way the song is built around a major 7 chord. Ryan’s modal backing licks are killer and completely unlike what I’d have come up with. The punchy bass line is provided by our good buddy Trevor Walker, and it’s rhythm propels the track in a way that the solo acoustic version never achieves. Everyone made this track better by doing things that I’d have never thought of, and I’m thankful for that.
This song was originally recorded as part of an unreleased project that Zack did with Wayne Redden and Trevor Walker, so most of the legwork had been done on it going into production. This is one of Zack's solo songs, and I've always loved it and the energy it brings to a live set. It was so neat to get to include it in this project because my hands had been off of it for most of its life (except for playing it live). I get to enjoy this one both as a contributing artist AND a fan.
This song has been a staple of mine since I first wrote it. I really like the way it straddles the line between being a rock song and a folk song, and I dig the lyrics. One time, I recorded this onto a 45 in Jack White’s record booth at Third Man records—the very same one that Neil Young recorded “A Letter Home” in. This recording is MUCH better than that one…
This is one of our older cowrites, so recording it was an opportunity to breathe some new life into it. It's a song all about having a love for adventure, but also a need for a place to call home. I'm thrilled with the production on this one, and love how it builds instrumentally into the more fully-orchestrated pieces in the middle of the album.
I tend to play guitar with a pick more often than not, but find that my playing can be wildly different when using my fingers alone. Miles will make me is a good example of that. I like the neat little melody I’ve got going on in this song, but I like the slapping and popping I do even more. It’s a chance to take some rhythms I have from my bass playing experience and apply them to a folksy acoustic sound, and I dig it. I really enjoy playing this one live, and I’m glad it made the cut.
Also, Trevor’s bass solo, though. I mean, come on. A BASS SOLO on an folky acoustic track. I love it.
I started writing this on the campus of UNCSA as Kendra and I were waiting to play music with Ryan for the first time. I think that's pretty fitting, as Ryan ended up being a great fit for our band and a great friend. It seems like fate that our self-titled song for our self-titled album was written on the first day that the official members of the band jammed together. Musically, this song seems to go over really well live, and I always look forward to playing. The moments of silence before I first say "I see..." in the beginning is always like a calm before the storm.
This is one disagreement I can fully admit I was wrong on. When Zack first said that he wanted to use our band name in a song, I cringed a little inside. It sounded like it would come off corny. But Zack forged ahead anyway, despite my protestations. He played "Brown Mountain Lightning Bugs" for me after he finished writing it and I loved it. We started playing it out, and it grew on me more as time went on. When it came time to record this album, I knew it had to be our opening track. It's a folky-as-heck tribute to the long drive that founded our friendship, romance, marriage, and band. And I'm so glad Zack had the good sense to ignore me on this one. ;)
Have a listen here: https://soundcloud.com/kendrabraggmusic/sets/brown-mountain-lightning-bugs
Grab the album here: www.brownmountainlightningbugs.com/new-products
When I started writing this blog I wanted to go into all the masterful, technical, musiciany things that I love about "Regina." I could write a whole blog post about how Becca treats the ukulele as the serious instrument it is (something we don't see enough of) and harnesses the full power of its distinctive timbre to create a somber melodic motif. I could go on for days about her incredible voice and the lush vocal harmonies.
But I'm not going to. I'm going to get real with y'all about my obsession with this song.
Once in a while you get a piece of music that's a lifeline. You're floating in the water, trying to keep yourself from going under and suddenly there's something for you to grab onto to carry you through. This was one of those songs for me. This time last year I was wrapping up my master's degree, had no clue what direction my life was going to go in, and was battling massive anxiety and depression (those ugly things we often prefer to sweep under the rug). Frankly, I was in a terrible spot, and most of the deep-seated, horrendous things I was feeling were rooted in one word: unworthiness.
I have so many thoughts on that word and how it was and still is branded onto young women at an astonishingly early age. Some examples of exactly how I was feeling unworthy when this song soared into my life? I was about to get my master's in music! Yay, right? But I felt I didn't deserve it. I felt that I had faked my way though undergrad and grad school and people would see that degree and whisper behind my back, "How on earth did SHE get a master's degree? Guess they're just giving them away these days." I was in school and had two jobs, but in my mind I wasn't working enough hours. I was mooching off of my husband and all of his hard work. I was making good grades, but it was because the professors just wanted me to pass so they didn't have to deal with me again. The list goes on and on, and went on and on until I was in a tailspin, losing altitude and heading for a fiery crash.
Even on the day of the workshop with Becca and with Michelle Williams I was feeling deeply unworthy. Spots were given on a first-come, first-served basis. If skill had been a factor, I thought, I wouldn't have made the cut.
Then Becca played this song, and talked about how the whole album speaks to the idea that women are born as queens and let the world rob us of that over time.
Oh, did that hit home. It was like someone had turned on a thousand lightbulbs. That was me for most of my life. Constantly hiding behind accomplishments and waiting for the other shoe to drop and reveal that I had showed up to the party uninvited and underdressed.
That feeling of unworthiness had prompted me to jump on the hamster wheel and do all the right things as a person and musician in the hopes that I could hide my unworthiness just enough to get by. Write this kind of song, compose for this ensemble, attend this workshop, make that connection, play this event, say this thing, do that thing. I was doing so many things in my life that were just red herrings to throw people off of who I really was deep down.
This song catalyzed a change in me. I realized that all of those feelings were false, and I decided to start saying what I really meant, doing what I really wanted to do, and writing the kind of songs I thought I'd forgotten how to write. It's been a lot of work over the last year. I had to go out and find my lost queen and pull her out of the mire and bring her home. Some days I still have to do that. I probably always will, but I'm miles ahead of where I was.
I know I'm not alone in this. I see it all over social media and hear it in conversation. Women have been hiding for a long time behind a lot of walls. I don't know what your wall might be. I don't know how long you've been behind it, but let this song be your invitation to not just come out from behind the wall, but start demolishing it. You'll probably have to take it apart brick-by-brick but with each brick you break you'll get a little lighter. You'll start to see the true you in the mirror, and you'll take back your crown.
"To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne." -Revelation 3:21