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From Bach to bluegrass, Hayden to Hickory

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Like everyone else in her Pittsburgh family, Sue Cunningham was raised playing classical music. But Cunningham, who was trained on violin and played in orchestras from the age of 12, began to see the confines of symphonic music as a straitjacket. String quartets were a better outlet; at least the quartet format provided relief from the anonymity of being part of a huge string section. But Cunningham craved freedom from the exact notes and precise coordination of classical music.

“There was something missing with classical music,” she said. “I’d played in orchestras since I was 12. And in the violin section, you’re one of 25 people doing the exact same thing. There was no individual expression possible. I did like string quartet playing, but there was still no creativity.”

So Cunningham followed her brother, a guitar player entrenched in the local folk scene, away from the classical world. Cunningham was introduced to the music of jazz violinist Stephane Grapelli and of bluegrass fiddler Vassar Clements. She was turned on to the traditional bluegrass sounds of Hot Rize and the adventuresome acoustic music of New Grass Revival.

All that music convinced Cunningham to ditch her violin in favor of the fiddle, Beethoven and Bach for the music of Bill Monroe. And she finds she’s much more satisfied this way.

“In bluegrass, I saw room for expression, creativity, writing your own music,” said Cunningham, who comes to the area this week with the central Pennsylvania-based acoustic quintet Hickory Project. “And it’s a lot of fun.”

The group will perform at Steve’s Guitars in Carbondale tonight, June 6, at 8:30 p.m. They’ll also appear this Saturday and Sunday at the Weekend of Bluegrass festival at Crystal Meadows Resort near the Paonia Reservoir.

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Making the transition from violinist to fiddler wasn’t quite as simple as deciding to do so. Cunningham found she had to learn new licks, acquaint herself with a different style of music, and rethink her entire approach to playing. “One of the toughest things for classical musicians to do is to improvise,” she said. “And that’s what bluegrass playing is – breaks and solos and improvising and jamming. It took a long time to figure out how to do that – a lot of playing with people, playing with records. It’s not an easy and quick transition.”

By the time she was 20, Cunningham was ready to perform away from the classical arena. She formed a duet with her brother, and worked her way into Pennsylvania’s folk music community. (To round out her resume, Cunningham also studied jet engine design; she currently splits her time between playing with the Hickory Project and designing, marketing and project-managing jet engine projects for Florida Turbine Technologies.)

Eventually, Cunningham made the leap to accomplished bluegrass fiddler. After moving to Florida, where she spent 12 years in North Palm Beach, she became a four-time Florida Bluegrass Fiddle Champion and was part of two very traditional bluegrass bands, the South Ocean String Band and the White Sands Panhandle Band.

Relocated to Pennsylvania, Cunningham hooked up with some old friends from the folk-music scene. She started playing with Anthony Hannigan, the 1999 national mandolin champion, whom she had met at a 1989 picking session. Hannigan brought in guitarist Danny Shipe, with whom he had played since they were teens. Danny introduced them to English-born drummer-turned-bassist Steve Belcher, a friend from Pennsylvania’s Mansfield University. In 1999, the Hickory Project was launched; the addition of banjoist David Cavage completed the quintet.

From the beginning, the pickers intended the Hickory Project to be a step removed from the traditional bluegrass sound. Over four CDs – including “Big Darby,” released last week – the band has ventured into Celtic rhythms, gypsy-style fiddle tunes, and songwriting that breaks from standard bluegrass.

“Each of us has a certain, different background,” said Cunningham. “But we have a common vision musically, and that draws us together. We try to blend old and new, traditional and progressive. You hear that on the new CD a lot. People say it’s traditional in the vocals, but very progressive instrumentally, that we bring in different chord progressions. We have a goal to extend ourselves in the musical realm.”

Cunningham says the times are good for a bluegrass band. The “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack, she thinks, gave the music a broader appeal. “It exposed a lot of people, and it’s a different kind of music than that mass appeal like `The Beverly Hillbillies,'” she said.

Most satisfying of all to Cunningham is how young people are taking to bluegrass. “There seems to be a lot of young people playing,” she said. “It’s amazing to see 12-year-olds who are really capable. And that’s what the music needs to have a future.”

Especially pleasing is the number of young woman being drawn to the fiddle, for which Cunningham gives credit to Alison Krauss. “Alison Krauss has done an amazing job opening up doors for women,” said Cunningham. “I’ve seen a lot of young women playing fiddle, that seems to be the instrument of choice, and I love seeing that. There was a mandolin explosion after Sam Bush came along, and I think there’s been a similar response to Alison Krauss.”

The times seem to be very good to the Hickory Project. The group has performed from Florida to Colorado. They spent an entire month last year in Australia; they toured Ireland last August and plan to return there this summer. They have the second edition of their own festival, Music in the Mountains: Hickory Fest 2, in Stony Fork, Pa., in mid-August. The band has been featured in Relix magazine, and in 2001 was selected to perform at the International Bluegrass Music Association World of Bluegrass.

“I think every time’s a good time to be a bluegrass player,” said Cunningham. “But now is good because of the reception it’s getting.”


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