We might know what you’re thinking: Fiddle album. Sugar Hill Records. Bluegrass resume. "Orange Blossom Special" and "Turkey in the Straw," right?
Wrong. Wrong like a bow in your eye.
While he is indeed one of the fastest-rising sidemen on the bluegrass circuit, Casey Driessen is a restless explorer, a bold boundary crosser who listens for inspiration from Tennessee to Tibet. There’s no solace in safety for this remarkable 29-year-old, and with his debut album 3D, a worldly instrumentalist and composer is able to show off a little, not merely as a fast and inventive fiddler, but as a visionary who translates his passion for tradition and improvisation into important new American music. This impressive vision was recognized in 2007 with a nomination for the Grammy award for Best Country Instrumental Performance.
In case you’ve not seen his wild red hair, thrift store chic and signature red shoes on a stage somewhere in the world, allow us to introduce Casey. Chicago born, he was raised on violin and fiddle simultaneously. The Suzuki method complimented his ear training, guided by his father, a top-flight banjo and pedal steel player. He showed Casey the campsite jam culture, where he learned to think with his bow and listen to others. Prodigious talent showed itself at fiddle camps and in encounters with innovators like Matt Glaser (The Wayfaring Strangers) and Darol Anger (Turtle Island String Quartet). Perhaps the only surprise when he got accepted to Berklee College of Music was that he majored in engineering and production, working on bringing others’ music to fruition rather than his own.
That changed with his senior project, a self-produced fiddle recording that in some ways launched the journey toward 3D.
“I decided to try out some things,” Driessen says with understatement. “One tune was a banjo and fiddle duo on “Old Joe Clark.” Another was “Working on a Building.” I had a drummer and an electric bass on that. And I had this idea to layer different tracks on “Jerusalem Ridge.” That was kind of the beginning.”
While the repertoire was straight out of the bluegrass and old-time canon, Casey’s take on tradition was saturated with a jazz ethic, with aggressive doubling and quadrupling of his fiddles. Meanwhile, his funky syncopated chop of bow on strings, built on rhythmic innovations by Darol Anger, became Driessen’s most recognizable and infectious contribution to his instrument. He likes playing with drummers, but as some of his colleagues have said, with Casey in the band, you don’t really need one.
Even before he graduated with honors from Berklee, offers came in from the top tiers of Americana music. Heavy-duty songwriter Steve Earle made 20-year-old Casey the fiddle player in his Bluegrass Dukes band. Tim O’Brien, one of the true stars of the bluegrass circuit, began calling regularly. So with degree in hand and a reputation for mixing innovation with tradition, the only logical thing to do was to move to Nashville.
He toured with acoustic stars and starlets Chris Jones, Judith Edelman and Darrell Scott. He landed session dates that fiddlers years his senior would envy. He visited China with exotic folk singer Abigail Washburn. But no gig on his impressive resume would match the way he spent much of 2005: as one of a trio hand picked by Bela Fleck that was rounded out by guitar marvel Bryan Sutton. Mathematically complex, intricately arranged, daringly improvised, it was one of the most distinguished – and exposed – jobs that an acoustic musician could be asked to do.
“I don’t get nervous for gigs,” says Driessen, generally speaking. “But the idea of it being such a naked trio…there’s no hiding. Not that you think about hiding, but there’s a certain comfort in being surrounded in the music. So yeah, I got nervous for gigs. Especially coming up to the Ryman, it was the hometown gig. I know I’m the new guy and the young guy. Bryan’s established. Bela’s definitely established. So it was my introduction to a lot of people. I was aware of that but trying not to dwell on that.”
Preproduction of 3D took place amid that tour and the intense preparation it required. So no surprise that some of the tunes on the album revise or react to pieces performed by the Fleck/Sutton/Driessen group.
"The timing for that couldn't have been better,” he says. “It put me at the top of my game for playing and writing and inspiration, and it came right before my record."
The idea of doing a solo album had gestated in Driessen’s head since college. With Sugar Hill on board as a label and Nashville acoustic magician Jason Lehning producing, Casey was able to focus on preparing for a three week recording session in January of 2006.
It was important to Casey that the rhythm section unify the project, and in asking Viktor Krauss to play bass and Jamey Haddad of Cleveland to play drums/percussion, he could have done no better. Driessen – and Lehning too – had studied under Haddad at Berklee and loved the world-aware sense of support he gives to his many jazz projects as well as Paul Simon’s band. “He changed my timing world,” says Casey.
By now Driessen could ask almost anyone in the newgrass universe to guest on his disc, but he was selective. Regular employers Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott naturally participated. Admirer Jerry Douglas brought Dobro to the album-leading “Sally In The Garden” and the original “2 A.M.” and electric lap steel to Casey’s smoldering “Lady Bowmore.”
Most of the tunes have origins in bluegrass and old-time music, but all insist on saying something new. Driessen reinvents Bill Monroe’s “Jerusalem Ridge” yet again, building on the version he arranged at college, with as many as four separate fiddle parts all tracked by himself, often on contrasting fiddles and with complimentary techniques. Indeed every track has something to say about the fiddle and something new from the fiddle nested inside it, from the warbling tremolo of an exotic mute to an uncanny dialog with a Staffordshire Terrier (you’ll see). He reinvents “Cumberland Gap” so completely that it merits a new title: “Gaptooth.” And he riffs on the age-old tradition of the fiddle-and-banjo duet by offering the medley “Snowflake Reel/Done Gone/Cheyenne” as a one-on-one with drummer Haddad, forcing us to remember that a banjo always was and always will be a drum played with picks instead of sticks.
Several tunes borrow directly from the overarching influence of Tim O’Brien. “Footsteps So Near” began its life as a Hot Rize tune and it was one of Driessen’s first stabs at singing while fiddling, a weapon he picked up from Tim, a key member of that important quartet. “Fearless,” is how O’Brien summed up Driessen’s fiddling in a feature story in Bluegrass Now magazine. “He’s just a sponge.”
Watch for the sponge on a stage near you, or on the other side of the Earth. He may be in the band, or he may be leading the band. He’s eager to go that route.
“I want to continue to travel and perform globally and experience new cultures. Through music, friendships are formed, traditions are shared and I am inspired on so many levels."
At a time when nearly all the corners of the earth have been mapped and cataloged, Driessen is a reminder that when it comes to music, there’s plenty of uncharted territory left to explore.
released May 12, 2006
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