Eggleston fiddles around with bluegrass on cello
July 18, 2005
Though he had studied classical music from the age of 3, and cello from the time he was 9, Rushad Eggleston wasn’t married to either. During Eggleston’s teens, the cello would spend months at a time in its case, its owner preferring to rock out on electric guitar, playing AC/DC and Nirvana. When it came time to leave his native Carmel, Calif., Eggleston headed to Boston’s Berklee School of Music, a center of jazz, progressive rock, acoustic music – and where “nobody goes to study classical music,” according to Eggleston.
Still, Eggleston wasn’t quite divorced from classical music. After a semester at Berklee, Eggleston came to Aspen for the summer of 1999, as a student at the Aspen Music Festival and School. In Aspen, however, Eggleston fell in with the local bluegrass crowd: Aspen products Todd and David McCloskey, and the Flying Dog Bluegrass Band and its lead dog, Sandy Munro. As Munro turned him onto Alison Krauss and Béla Fleck, Eggleston found his attention drifting – away from Mozart toward Bill Monroe, away from competitions and auditions and in the direction of free-flowing street jams.One day things snapped.”I just quit the Music Festival stuff,” said Eggleston, now 25 and a Brooklyn resident. “I went into the practice room and instead of practicing what I was supposed to – the fourth Bach suite, which happens to be one of my favorite pieces – I tried playing Alison Krauss’ fiddle parts on cello. I thought, I’m never going to practice a scale again. I’m never going to do the classical stuff because it’s stuffy and hard. Playing this other kind of cello seemed so much more in tune with what was going on.”Eggleston was serious. Instead of playing in the old Bayer-Benedict Music Tent, he played on the mall for change. He slept under a friend’s truck. He drove to the Rockygrass festival in Lyons, where he carried his cello, without a case, through mud puddles. “That was a new experience,” he said.The idea of cello in the middle of a bluegrass combo struck most of the pickers as something novel. “He drew a lot of attention in the campground,” said Flying Dog banjoist (and Aspen Times copy editor) Steve Johnson. “He was the buzz: ‘Have you seen that cello player jamming?’ Wherever he played was where the biggest crowds were.”When Eggleston returned to Berklee, it was with a purpose. He wanted to play fiddle music on cello. Unfortunately, there were no models. No one else at Berklee took cello as seriously as Eggleston. And in all his searching, he could find only two brief recorded examples of what he had in mind: Darol Anger switching from his usual fiddle to cello on a track from a David Grisman Quintet album, and Michael James Kott, who played with the Plank Road String Band in the ’70s. So for three years at Berklee, he focused on inventing a new way of playing. He dropped the vibrato technique so common to classical strings and so inappropriate in folk and bluegrass. He listened to fiddlers Krauss and Mark O’Connor, and developed a love for the playing of Stuart Duncan. And when Anger called him to do a gig with his Fiddle Congress – which, almost incomprehensibly, included Duncan – Eggleston kicked his practice into a higher gear. Then when the time for the gig came up, he dropped out of school.
The toughest part of the transition from classical to bluegrass was finding the sense of rhythm. “I had horrible rhythm,” said Eggleston. “I’d lose the beat all the time. I had to really work on that, figuring out how to get the boogie going.”Eggleston seems to have overcome that hurdle. Where he once was focused on playing the melodic parts on cello, he is now in the position of being the rhythmic center of much of the music he plays. In November, Eggleston appeared at the Wheeler Opera House with Anger’s American Fiddle Ensemble (also known as the Republic of Strings). With no bassist, Eggleston was in the role of the main rhythm maker. He has a similar job in Fiddlers 4, a group which includes fiddlers Anger, Bruce Molsky and Michael Doucet.In Crooked Still, however, which performs on top of Aspen Mountain Sunday, July 31, Eggleston gets to flex his melodic muscle. The group includes a bassist, Corey DiMario, and singer Aoife O’Donovan, both of whom studied at the New England Conservatory of Music, as well as banjoist Gregory Liszt, an early bluegrass accomplice of Eggleston’s. With DiMario holding down the low end, Eggleston gets to expand his cello adventures.”I suppose I’ve gotten myself locked into a more rhythmical role,” said Eggleston, by phone from a hotel room in Greensboro, N.C. “As a person, I’m more interested in melody. I focus on the notes a person plays. But in my main four bands, I’m usually the rhythm person. I have a melodic self that’s not coming out a whole lot, sometimes.”
Crooked Still’s repertoire consists largely of traditional folk tunes and songs written in the folk style. Their debut CD, last year’s “Hop High,” includes such well-worn tunes as “Shady Grove” and “Rank Stranger,” plus Robert Johnson’s “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” and Gillian Welch’s “Orphan Girl.” But the songs are rendered in anything but traditional fashion, fulfilling the band’s tag line: “Redefining traditional music.””These four people being who they are, playing the instruments we do, the way we do – we play the only way we can play these songs,” explained Eggleston. “We couldn’t play these songs in a traditional style. We have a dude who plays four-finger banjo, a chick singer and a cello. So we could never do it straight up. Whatever we do, it could never be normal.”Normal doesn’t seem to be part of Eggleston’s makeup. During the American Fiddle Ensemble concert, sitting on a riser, he engaged the audience with an array of overtly expressive facial contortions and bodily movements. He did a poetry rap. Eggleston is in the habit of inventing his own language. He concludes e-mail messages with the phrase “with bounkwinees.” And he says that, when he gave up classical music, he “realized he was a ‘thnark.'” (For a full survey of his poetry and other Egglestonia, go to http://www.rushadeggleston.com.)”I didn’t care whether it was imaginary or not,” he said of his thnarkiness. “Trying to disprove it was like measuring an apple’s spiritual energy relative to Bach. But it liberated me from being just a bluegrass cellist.”The concept of thnark is as much an Eggleston invention as the word. Being a thnark means more than not just having to play intensely difficult, constrained classical music. It means being able to be a bluegrass cellist – and not having to stop there, either. While he is making a name for himself – and his instrument – in string-band music, Eggleston has visions of amplified rock, his cello played through a string of effects pedals. He is leaning slightly toward such ideas in his own group, the Wild Band of Snee, which includes drums and piano (and O’Donovan on vocals). But he is looking toward the time when the notion goes full-tilt.”The day I do that I’m sure it will blow my mind,” he said. “Every time I do the cello through some effects pedals, I love it. I’m sure that’s in my future, because I wouldn’t want to deny myself that pleasure. Sometimes I feel pretty vicious and take my aggression out on the cello, that rock-oriented energy. Not to the point of injuring myself, but it gets pretty gnarly sometimes.”
It’s been just five years since he renounced classical music. But already, Eggleston has left a cello revolution in his wake. At the music camps where he teaches, there are always cellists interested in following him away from the orchestra.”They’re always trying to do something different on the cello,” he said. “Which makes me feel good, because if I leave the fiddle world to do some rock thing, there will be someone covering for me.”While he occasionally pulls out a Bach suite, Eggleston doesn’t see himself leaving fiddle music for symphonies and concertos. Being a thnark doesn’t include reading notes off a page written 200 years ago.”Classical music makes you do a lot of unnatural things,” said Eggleston. “The composers aren’t considering what you should do on a cello. They’re interested in the music they want to write.”Fiddle music comes out of this really natural thing, what you’d want to do out on the front porch.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org