The Grass is Blue: The Interview, Part I

For Part II of the interview click here.

Q. Are you at a point in your career where you feel like you have a lot more freedom and can follow your own path creatively?

A. I think that having the freedom now. See, I don't have, am not on a record label, um, I mean I'm not tied up to a record label. I don't have to do anything, and that has given me so much freedom to be more creative, to write more. I don't have to try to be commercial. I'm not really having to write to please a record label. I'm not having to write to please a disc jockey. I'm not having to write to please anybody but myself. And I have, since I have got older and not being played on the radio and not having kind of hits and not having a label; which I could find a label, but I don't want to.

It's like when I did this bluegrass record. Now I can do project-by-project. Just like I said to Steve, "If you want to do a bluegrass record, we'll put it on Sugar Hill." I mean I just did it, that thing. I don't have a contract with them except for this, for this particular thing. And the same with I have a record coming out with Boy George from Culture Club. It's a spectacular song! And I have the freedom. I don't have to ask a label. I don't have to ask managers.

I'm managing myself with no label, and I'm doing the best work I've ever done; running my own production companies. It's like, "Yes! This is freedom!" I've lived long enough to earn it and, I guess, deserve it. I'm going to claim it whether I deserve it or not. And I'm going to make the most of it, but you're right. It's like such a freedom. It's a freedom for me, and I'm just loving my life.

Q. Do you remember seeing your first bluegrass band as a child?

A. As a child, I, I was always around music. And all of my people played fiddles, mandolins, banjos, guitars, and like I said, we pretty much defined our music as just mountain country music or just mountain music. But when I started singing on radio and television, uh, in Knoxville on "The Cas Walker Show" and "The Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round" and different shows that I would do, they really had self-contained bluegrass people like Jim and Jessie and like, uh, The Brewster Brothers, where they really had like, and they sang that bluegrass high lonesome harmonies, and they were really considered bluegrass people. So, like I say, and then what I was doing would just be playing my own little Martin guitar which was, it was really just a mix of just, of the country and the mountains and the bluegrass.

So but, yes, I, I was always around it and I always knew the difference in that, you know, there was always a, a definite, uh, thing in the groups that considered themselves bluegrass as opposed to just the country bands. But it was a purity. There was a purity, and they would not, they did not like any electric instruments. Even when the guitars and the, and the electric basses and stuff. They were, they were just not going to have that. And so that was really what defined the bluegrass, I think, and made it stay pure, is the purity of it. And I think that the, their harmonies. Bluegrass harmonies are so definite. It's different than country harmonies unless, I say, you do grow up where you are influenced by both.

Like my, like when I did this bluegrass album. There's so much of Dolly in it. Dolly's way of singing, just the way that I phrase and all, but yet when I would sing these songs, that part in my high lonesome soul would remember how the bluegrass people would sing that, so it would just naturally come out that way. So, uh, I just think that, uh, like I say, I've always admired, respected and been around true bluegrass musicians and groups and singers, and so this was such a natural thing for me to do.

Q. What is your definition of bluegrass "high lonesome sound," and being a mountain girl, how can you relate to that?

A. I think that high lonesome sound is just that mourning of the soul that I think people feel into the depths of their soul. It's almost like being part of the wind that lonesome; it's like that high lonesome wind. It's like part of, it's just like going deep into the soul of something. And it's a way of expressing, you know, how you have the mournful sounds of like sometimes when you do sigh or when you scream or holler when pain is so great like you've seen people. And I think that it's just a way of having, being able to condense that or, or contain it somehow into how it can come out and make it musical. But there's just the mournfulness of it. So I just think it's just the way of expressing it. I just think it's just country depth and soul. Mountain, mountain depth and soul.

Q. One of your first hits was a bluegrass tune, "Mule Skinner Blues." Can you tell us a bit about the story of that?

A. One of my first big country records; it was considered country, but it was a bluegrass song. And, uh, Bill Monroe had had a big record on "Mule Skinner Blues." And, uh, one, once when we were in the studio, uh, I was working with Porter, and we had a whole group in. And Buck Trent, I think, said, uh, "Well, why don't you do 'Mule Skinner Blues?'" And Porter said, "Yeah, that's a great idea." So we, we started. You know, we were just foolin' around, playin' in the recording studio before you record. You know, how musicians get together and they start jammin', and that one just, somebody just started playing that, and I just started singing it, and, and Porter thought it was a great idea. And then he started puttin' whips and, we just had such fun in the studio. He even sent out on the lunch break and got a, had somebody pick up a whip, you know, so we could get that crackin' whip sound like the, and, and we were whistling. And so it, it just was really kind of a fun thing that we did, and we didn't really know what we had.

We weren't really planning it for a single or anything, but after it was done, everybody said, "Man, that is fantastic! You should do that!" 'Cause I was yodelin', and I was doing my, my best Bill Monroe. Of course, nobody can be Bill Monroe, but I was doing, you know, my version of it. But it turned out to be a huge record, and you know, I still get requests for that song.

And I even pondered doin', redoin' that for this bluegrass album. But I thought, "Naw, it's uh, it's kind of what it is." It was a little standard of its own at that time, so no point in rehashing it. But I even did some the bluegrass yodels in a lot of the songs of this album. I purposely tried to do the, you know, the "Mule Skinner Blues" yodel on the "Train, Train." And, uh, I tried to slip it in everywhere I could to get a, you know, a little bit of yodeling!

For Part II of the interview click here.