Mandolin Cafe – The mandolin in modern music. Who needs rock?

Photo credit: Steve Levine

In 1969, the mandolin seemed poised to become a staple of rock ‘n roll and popular music. Over the next three years, no fewer lights than the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Band, the Grateful Dead and Rod Stewart would produce one or more songs featuring the instrument. Each of the albums went platinum. And Stewart’s classic “Maggie May” simultaneously topped the pop charts in the US, UK, Canada and Australia.

The instrument’s future in popular music looked bright. Until suddenly it is no longer the case.

In the seven decades since, the mandolin has retained its beloved place in folk, country and bluegrass, even classical and occasionally jazz. Generally, however, the instrument that Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead likened to “the ringing of a bell” has been absent from rock and pop, with bands like REM, Wilco, the White Stripes and others who have released some unique mandolin songs.

To find out why, the Mandolin Cafe spoke to successful and highly respected mandolin players from three very different schools of music: Ronnie McCoury, John Skehan and Sierra Hull at the 2022 Old Settler’s Music Festival.

About the Author: Steve Levine is a photojournalist and communications consultant based in Austin, Texas. Find his best words and pictures at

Their collective response: So what? The mandolin makes amazing music these days wherever it is played. It always has been – although some people have only heard it on these rock songs.

“When I was a young boy in the ’80s, my friends from Pennsylvania were like, ‘Oh, you play mandolin? Oh, what like Led Zeppelin or Grateful Dead?'” McCoury said. “And I was like, ‘Well, I don’t know what you’re talking about.'”

Ronnie McCoury

Photo credit: Steve Levine

It didn’t take long for him to understand. “I was in love with David Grisman’s music,” he said. “So I found out the guy playing the mandolin on the Grateful Dead stuff was David Grisman.” As he grew older, he met Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, who performed the mandolin parts with guitarist Jimmy Page on that 1970 album and on tour.

Skehan was also captivated by Grisman. “Somewhere someone gave me a tape of this debut Grisman Quintet album,” he said.

“It just blew my mind as to what you could do with the mandolin, the fact that Dawg had created his own signature form of music that was such a melting pot of other styles.”

His mandolin ear continued to grow.

John Skehan

Photo credit: Steve Levine

“For me, the big epiphanic discovery was the amount of mandolin music that exists without even getting into popular music,” Skehan said. “He has such a vast reach and influence on American music.”

McCoury tells a story that his father, Del McCoury, former Blue Grass Boys, tells. He credits a song by Bill Monroe on the mandolin as the inspiration for the creators of rock.

“There’s a tune Monroe sang called ‘Rocky Road Blues,’ it was like 1943 or 4, before Earl Scruggs came along and the bluegrass gelled,” the young McCoury said. “And he had that beat, and Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee [Lewis] and Elvis and all these guys were hearing that. And Carl Perkins said, ‘All we were doing was putting rhythm and blues and bluegrass together.'”

Chuck Berry, adds McCoury, “loved listening to Bill Monroe” because his mandolin stroke matched Berry’s distinctive guitar sound.

Fast forward around 70 years, and Hull finds the instrument still at home in any genre.

Sierra Hull

Photo credit: Steve Levine

“It’s such a diverse instrument,” said Hull, whose multitude of musical experiences belies his young age. “One of the things I like about him is that he can find his way into anything that’s missing in the context, regardless of the setup or the instrumentation.”

Skehan says he hears the influence of the mandolin in popular music that’s definitely not bluegrass, especially in the sounds of one of his favorite bands – the Grateful Dead.

“There’s this thing about the Grateful Dead that’s not really country music, but it’s not quite rock and roll and there’s this free-wheeling jazz element counterpoint, everything the world is improvising something,” he said. “But that weird, weird tone, what Bill Monroe called the old tones, the modal quality, and the fiddle music, it’s so present in the writing of the Grateful Dead songs and their approach, that out-of-left-field stuff. “

All three learned to play the mandolin in the Monroe tradition, where it acts as a percussion instrument in groups without drums.

Sierra Hull

Photo credit: Steve Levine

“I’d rather be playing rhythm all night than playing a lead, because it’s so much fun when you’re grooving and being part of that pocket,” said Hull, who – of course – is getting rave reviews. for his solo blisters. “At the same time, it’s fun to step away from that context a bit and then explore what else the instrument can do.”

After starting “a real bluegrass player”, Skehan has been playing alongside a drummer for decades in the jamgrass band Railroad Earth.

“I can work as a snare drum but in tandem with the snare drum, where the way I would sound the chords in a lower register when doing a bluegrass chop is a way of giving the snare drum the pitch and relevance of the changes okay,” he said. “But the snare also gives my backbeat that extra pop and punch.”

“I kind of got into this thing of doing backwards rakes against chords and then with a little delay it’s an arpeggiated piano chord or something,” Skehan added. “Just hitting a long chord and letting it ring out in that raked arpeggiated way and then starting to join the chop but being able to pull away again became something I do.”

John Skehan

Photo credit: Steve Levine

All three have played mandolin with rock bands and love the sound it brings to these performances. “It will continue to pop up unexpectedly in some recordings,” McCoury explains.

“All the good producer has to do is hear it in their head and want to produce it,” he said. “I guess they don’t find it useful on every song, and me as a mandolin player, yes.”

Just weeks after that interview, McCoury found himself playing mandolin at Nashville’s iconic Ryman Auditorium with an incredibly diverse group of artists, including Dead & Co’s Bob Weir, guitarist extraordinaire Billy Strings, the avant-garde bassist Les Claypool and Marty Stuart.

A few months earlier and less than a mile from the venerable Ryman, at the brand new Brooklyn Bowl Nashville, Hull had taken the stage with a very different ensemble. That night was part of a 21-date tour with Cory Wong and the Wongnotes. How does a mandolin find a voice with a funk band that includes a six-piece horn section?

Sierra Hull

“In the right context with the right musicians playing, with respect, kindness and drive, it can really be amazing in a lot of different musical situations,” Hull replied.

To translate these words into a musical experience, listen to “Over the Mountain” on Wong’s recently released album Power plant album. It opens with Hull playing a simple acoustic melody. She’s quickly joined by Wong’s guitar, and just as quickly the song turns into a soaring tour de force with Hull and Wong trading solos over and around the funky, driving bass lines of Sonny T (who played and recorded with Prince’s band The New Power Generation in the 1990s).

After discussing her tour with Wong during a backstage interview with Old Settler’s, Hull stopped and listened to the sounds of Peter Rowan and His Free Mexican Airforce filtering from the stage.

“The thing I will say about the mandolin,” she said with a smile, “it shines brightest when you can really hear the instrument and the woodwind on a microphone.”

Skehan remembers hearing acoustic music played on acoustic instruments at his first Winter Hawk or Gray Fox festival.

“The Del McCoury Band went to two microphones and produced this amazing sound,” he said, almost wistfully. “The mandolin is just plain cool. They’re icons of cool because they wield such an unlikely instrument in such a powerful way.”

Drew Emmitt and Ronnie McCoury

Photo credit: Steve Levine. Drew Emmitt with Ronnie McCoury

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Photo credit: Steve Levine

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