Music Interviews
3:40 am
Sun September 16, 2012

The Coal Porters: Pulling Bluegrass Up By The Roots

Originally published on Sun September 16, 2012 5:27 pm

Sid Griffin is an "alt" kind of guy: In the 1980s, he got in on the ground floor of the alt-country music scene in Los Angeles with his band the Long Ryders.

Griffin is an eighth-generation Kentuckian who now lives in England. In addition to playing the mandolin, harmonica and autoharp, Griffin writes documentary radio scripts for the BBC and has authored several books, including a couple about Bob Dylan. He and his band the Coal Porters have just released their fifth album, Find the One. Here, he speaks with NPR's Linda Wertheimer about the new record and adding an "alt" to bluegrass music.


Interview Highlights

On what exactly he means by 'alt-bluegrass'

"I love bluegrass in it's purest, most distinct form. The problem is, particularly with young people or folks that are into rock 'n' roll, they think there's going to be a number of songs about "dear old mother" and "the old village bridge." And we don't sing that kind of music. The one thing that's in old bluegrass that we've carried on with is, of course, death, which is just a universal. But a lot of the bluegrass themes, we've had to jettison."

On covering The Rolling Stones' 'Paint It Black'

"It's lovely because it allows people that are new to the Coal Porters show to grasp something — something they've heard before if they come out of rock 'n' roll or pop music. I must say, at the end, even if they've not had a beer and certainly if they have had a beer, everyone likes going, 'Na na na na na na na.' The audience all sings along like Pete Seeger at some folk concert."

On working with Richard Thompson in the song 'Hush U Babe'

"I thought, 'Who could we have playing this record?' If there's ever a human being whose musicianship is not just stellar, but broke down barriers and crossed musical borders and brought people together, it has to be Richard Thompson. It was easy to get Richard on the record. I should say it was hard and 'his people met my people' — but no people met any people. We just made one phone call and he was in."

On the rewards of reaching beyond the band's target crowd

"There's no question, we go over a little better when there's an element of a nontraditional audience there. We just played a traditional bluegrass festival, and I could tell they thought we were sort of a curiosity. I particularly like it when The Coal Porters play an indie-rock festival and they think, 'Who are these guys?' And at the end of a 40-, 45-minute set, at some big festival stage, we've got them dancing in the aisles."

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Sid Griffin is an alt kind of guy. In the 1980s, he was in on the ground floor of the alt country music scene with his band, The Long Ryders, in Los Angeles. More recently, he helped add an alt and a hyphen to bluegrass music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

THE COAL PORTERS: (Singing) If you love some man, you leave him. If you love him, but not for long. If you soon see love in shadows, you'll gonna miss her when she's gone.

WERTHEIMER: Sid Griffin is an eighth generation Kentuckian - maybe you can hear that. But now he lives in England, and in addition to playing the mandolin, the harmonica and the autoharp, Mr. Griffin writes documentary radio scripts for the BBC. He's written several books, including a couple about Bob Dylan. He and his band, The Coal Porters - that's C-O-A-L, have just released their fifth album. It's called "Find the One." And Mr. Griffin joins us now from the studios of the BBC in London. Welcome.

SID GRIFFIN: Thank you very much. It's lovely to be here.

WERTHEIMER: First off, maybe you could just tell us what you think alt-bluegrass is.

GRIFFIN: The Coal Porters wanted to differentiate between normal bluegrass. I mean, I love bluegrass in its purest, most distinct form. But the problem is particularly young people or folks who are into rock and roll, they think there's going to be a number of songs about dear old mother and the old village bridge. And we don't sing that kind of music. And the one theme that's in old bluegrass that we've carried on with is, of course, death, which is just a universal. But a lot of the bluegrass themes you had to jettison. And then the other thing is we sort of souped up the musicianship a little in that we play bluegrass and make it alt-bluegrass also by playing it with the sort of rock and roll chip-on-shoulder attitude.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: Well, I would like to play something that we think is probably as alt as you can get in the bluegrass department. It is the last cut on the new CD. This is your signature encore song, The Rolling Stones' "Paint It Black."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAINT IT BLACK")

PORTERS: (Singing) I see a red door and I want it painted black. No colors anymore, I want them to turn black. I see the girls go by dressed in their summer clothes. I have to turn my head until my darkness goes...

WERTHEIMER: I would not have believed it. But I must say that you did turn this tune into bluegrass music.

GRIFFIN: It's lovely because it also, it allows people who are new to the Coal Porters show to grasp something, something they've heard before, they've come out of rock and roll and pop music. And also I must say at the end, even if they've not had a beer, and certainly if they have had a beer, everyone likes going na na na na na na na. So, the audience all sings along like Pete Seeger at some folk concert.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: I wonder has living in England, has it changed the bluegrass sound for you, even your notions of alt-bluegrass?

PORTERS: Yes, it has. Coming over here, where you hear the music of the Scottish Highlands, where a lot of the fiddle music gave birth to bluegrass - it was one of the lynchpins of the sound - and the music of Galway Bay in the west of Ireland, you realize that it's not what it seems and there's a lot more - you can paint from a lot more colors in bluegrass than some people in the United States, I think, would recognize.

WERTHEIMER: You know, I think about bands like the Stones, and of course Eric Clapton and others, who really worshipped American blues music and brought it back to British audiences in the 1960s. Has bluegrass ever traveled like that?

GRIFFIN: Bluegrass has pockets where it's traveled exactly in the way that rhythm and blues traveled to the U.K. and was embraced by people like Clapton and the Stones. For instance, interestingly enough, where the American 8th Army was the army of occupation in 1945, all those places - in fact, everywhere the American soldiers were at the end of the Second World War - are bluegrass hotspots. I speak of West Berlin and places in Germany, the Munich and Bavarian area. I speak particularly of the Czech Republic, which is - the Czech Republic, of all places, Budvar and Prague have some of the greatest bluegrass musicians in the world. And then, of course, in England and Scotland and Ireland, it was easy to go back from the States because it's been so much back and forth cultural mishmash.

WERTHEIMER: Now, you actually have one of the world's great rock guitarists playing with you on this album, Richard Thompson on "Hush U Babe."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HUSH U BABE")

PORTERS: (Singing) (unintelligible) without a word...

GRIFFIN: I thought who could we have play on this record, and if there's ever a human being whose musicianship was not just stellar but broke down barriers and crossed musical borders and brought people together, it has to be Richard Thompson. And it was easy to get Richard on the record. I should say it was hard, meaning I had to go through his people, met my people but no people met any people - just made one phone call and he was in. And God bless him for it. Thank you, Richard.

WERTHEIMER: Speaking of legends, you and the Cole Porters do an acoustic version of David Bowie's "Heroes" on this CD. Now, this is a very different version, a reimagining of the song. How did you figure out what you wanted to do with that?

GRIFFIN: There's bigger David Bowie fans out there than myself, but I think "Heroes" in particular is just - Cole Porter would have been proud of it, Lennon and McCartney would have been proud of it, and Richard Rogers or Hammerstein, they'd have been proud of it. It's just a cracking song. And I was thinking we could possibly do it, more bluegrass being up-tempo and all that stuff. And the gang was saying, no, slow it down and make it a campfire ballad. And so we just really got into that vibe.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEROES")

PORTERS: (Singing) I, I can remember standing by the wall, by the wall. And the guns shot above our heads, over our heads, and we kissed like nothing before, nothing before. And...

WERTHEIMER: I wonder if you could talk about your harmony a little bit. How do you share them out with the group, and do you switch roles?

GRIFFIN: We have three lead singers, as it were, in the Coal Porters, and we always did harmonies between us as three-part. And recently we had a young man had to leave the band - he was replaced with a wonderful guy named Tali Trow. And Tali, he's a genius at doing harmonies. And he sings wonderfully. He sings like a Phil Everly or a David Crosby. He sings wonderful high parts. And another thing that makes us all bluegrass, funny enough, is that we're not singing the traditional bluegrass harmonies that you've heard on so many Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys' records, et al. We're singing harmonies that come out of country music and even some slightly sort of Manhattan Transfer, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross kind of thing. We're not singing straight bluegrass harmony all the time. No, no, no, no, no.

WERTHEIMER: Well, you know, people who care about bluegrass tend to be so very pure about it. You know, they really love the old way of doing it. Are you running into any kind of...

GRIFFIN: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

GRIFFIN: I have to say that the gang and I, there's no question, we go over a little better when there's an element of a non-traditional audience there. We just played a traditional bluegrass festival and I could tell they thought we were sort of a curiosity. I particularly like when the Coal Porters play just an indie rock festival and they think who are these guys? And at the end of a 40-, 45-minute set at some big festival stage, we've got them dancing in the aisles or whatever. I love that.

WERTHEIMER: Sid Griffin, thank you so much for speaking with us.

GRIFFIN: Thank you all.

WERTHEIMER: From London, Sid Griffin. He and his band, the Coal Porters. Their new album is called "Find the One."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ASK ME AGAIN")

PORTERS: (Singing) I get the feeling you're reeling me right in. I get the...

WERTHEIMER: You can hear a couple of cuts off that CD, including all of "Paint It Black" at nprmusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ASK ME AGAIN")

PORTERS: (Singing) ...to begin. Ask me again, please ask again.

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR's WEEKEND EDITION.

(SOUNDBITE OF LINDA WERTHEIMER READING SHOW CREDITS)

WERTHEIMER: I'm Linda Wertheimer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.