Emon Hassan

Interview with Vance Henry & Ricky Rogers of Iron Horse

Emon Hassan

Check out part one: Interview with Vance Henry.  

Iron Horse: [About] [Tour] [Albums] [Song Samples] [Booking] [MySpace]

V = Vance Henry: Guitar, lead, and tenor vocals.  R = Ricky Rogers: Bass, baritone, and lead vocals.

G: How did the idea of doing covers of metal and rock songs come up?

Ricky:  We always had an interest in doing material that did not originate in the bluegrass genre.

Vance: CMH Records in Los Angeles, CA contacted us with the idea of doing some bluegrass covers of  Metallica songs for a compilation CD. We did a couple cuts and sent it to them and they liked what they heard and ask us to do the complete project.

G: How did you decide which bands would be covered?

R: Before CMH brought the concept of entire album covers of particular groups to IH, group covers weren't considered, just individual songs that translated well to bluegrass, e.g., America's "Don't Cross the River", CCR's "Lookin' Out My Back Door", Marshall Tucker's "Fire On the Mountain", etc.

V: If we thought we could do something with the music in the bluegrass style, we gave it a try.

G: How do you approach arranging rock songs into Bluegrass?

R: By taking the song down to the basic structure of melody and lyrics with a single instrument, we can re-create the song in a format that more closely resembles bluegrass, while keeping a signature riff from the original version for recognition.

G: Do you feel Bluegrass, in some way, has an added advantage over other genres when it comes to those songs?

R: Bluegrass is perceived by many to be a simple, easy-to-play music because it is easy to listen to. Many times, playing the lead instruments of banjo, mandolin, guitar, fiddle and resonator guitar is as difficult or more difficult than with the original lead instrument.  For example, a long sustain is very easily accomplished with electric instruments and electronic processors, however, with acoustic instruments, the songs must be arranged to account for that difference.  To the original question, bluegrass has an advantage over many genres because quality lyrics can be more easily heard without all the loud instrumentation getting in the way.

V: Yes. Although there are exceptions, Bluegrass seems to take a lot of physical effort. To play at a fast tempo for four minutes is to some extent like running a marathon musically. Most Bluegrass musicians play fast tempo songs at one point in every jam sessions and as a result they have a natural advantage, and are able to run the gamut of tempos more naturally. In my opinion, the listener’s ear desires to hear fast and slow metered songs and if you play all fast or all slow you run amuck and lose the attention of the audience.

G: When arranging and recording both Fade to Bluegrass albums, how did you decide what elements would make it to the record from the originals?

R: If it fit well into our version, then we left it in and obviously if not, then we left it out."

V: We had to make it recognizable to the original, so we tried to keep the vocal melodies intact as well as some of the signature riffs. If you listen to the original version to much, it will be hard to get away from it and you end up with just an acoustic version of the original which was not the goal. We changed tempos and timings. We tried some songs in ¾ time, if it worked, we would use it (e.g. Whole Lotta Love).

G: Who were those two albums geared towards?

R: I'd say that neither album was geared toward any particular listening group.  Our philosophy has always been to trust our own tastes, and if we like the arrangement, then the majority of our listeners will appreciate the effort as well.

G: Who do you find is your core fan base?

R: With no statistical information, I can only suppose to know an answer here...but by far, I think our albums have sold the most primarily to the fans of the groups we cover.  That being said, lots of traditional bluegrass listeners buy our CD's because the original music translates to bluegrass almost seamlessly in most cases.

V: I think it is people who have an open mind and listen to different styles of music.

G: What makes Bluegrass, Bluegrass?

R: Perhaps to some, bluegrass is defined by the instruments used. I watched a Bill Gaither gospel bluegrass special that featured artists who started in bluegrass, e.g., Marty Stuart, but Marty and his group, the Fabulous Superlatives, used only electric instruments and drums, so it appears that Bill Gaither's concept of bluegrass is different than many, but I'm not sure that I'd say his definition is incorrect.  Many traditional listeners call what IH does 'old rock music', so I guess bluegrass is in the ear of the beholder.

G: What are some of the misconceptions people have about this musical style?

R: Lots of folks think that bluegrass is hick' music.  Quite often, ignorant listeners will kick into a dance jig when a banjo begins to play, in what I see as an effort to ridicule and minimize the music."

V: That it is a simple and easy music style. I know it’s not the hardest genre of music out there to play, but it is quite a challenge for me.

G: What has surprised you most about your music and your playing over the years?

R: First, it is unusual for four guys to play music together for years with no personnel changes, so I guess I'm somewhat surprised that we've been able to keep this configuration intact.  That makes for a consistent sound and quality that is a signature for any group, and IH especially.  Secondly, I'm surprised that so many people have bought our products.  We've sold over 60,000 copies of all our CD’s. Many bluegrass groups who 'make their living' playing music have not been able to do that.  One thing I'm NOT surprised about is our critics, on the bluegrass side and the rock side.  Some bluegrass listeners and artists will suggest that 'Iron Horse doesn't play bluegrass.'  Rock listeners who are fans of the groups we cover will say that 'Iron Horse ruined the music of the original band.'  But criticism means that folks have heard of us and our music, and by far, the majority of listeners like what we do. So the best reward is having people let us know they enjoy our music and want us to come to their area to play.  Modest Mouse knows of our covers of their material.  The Goo Goo Dolls asked CMH Records to have Iron Horse do covers of some of their songs.  Even Metallica was playing a cut from 'Fade to Bluegrass' before some of their shows in the past.  You can't get a much greater compliment that that...

G: This is a tough and perhaps an unfair question: which album do you like best from a personal level of satisfaction, the album that makes you go, "You know what, I did good there"?

R: Each project has its own personality, but personally, I think you've got to look at 'Fade to Bluegrass (1)' as the effort that started it all.  I think all of the CD's we've done are good, but 'Fade' was such a stretch and challenge that it is the standard to which we aspire for all of our recordings.

V: I heard someone reply to a question similar to this by saying that all the songs I write or perform are like musical children and they all do something differently for you. To ask me which one I like/love the best is like asking me which one of my biological children I love the most. They are different from each other with varying qualities and each one has something about it that makes it special.”

G: What's next? When are you coming to NY?

R: We're working on a Goo Goo Dolls tribute right now.  We have a completed self-produced Christmas CD we'll release for Christmas 2009. When somebody will give us the money we need to make it happen and assure a good crowd that we can sell to.

G: What one bit of advice would you give young musicians when it comes to:

a) Practicing

R:  Practicing - to me, the best practice is a live performance. I saw a comment one time that said, 'If you don't practice perfectly, then you won't play perfectly.'  The pressure to perform as flawlessly as possible can only be realized in a live performance for me.  But, sit down with your instrument every opportunity you have, even if it's for five minutes, and learn something new, perfect something you've been working on, just play.

b) Writing

R: Writing is something that is feast or famine for me.  When I'm on a roll, I can come up with lots of lyrical and musical phrases that work very well. Other times, the well is completely dry and no matter how hard I try, I can't get anything out. That's why writing with one or more partners is advantageous – each writer feeds off the other writer(s) and a good song can result where it would otherwise remain hidden.”

V: It depends on your goal. If you are writing radio commercials or songs for a producer then you’ll have to satisfy the customer. But if it’s for you or your fans, then I say be true to yourself. Be patient. It may take years before someone takes a liking to your efforts.”

c) Arranging

R: I have to be careful arranging, because all of the songs can begin to sound alike and the structure from one song to the next can vary little.  So, look at changing the key or timing within the song, use different voices in the same verse, take a lead on an instrument that doesn't normally take a lead, etc.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.  Many times you can't and shouldn't try to improve on the original.

V: Again it depends on your goal. What do you want to do? Where do you want to go musically? You have to decide this and it may take some time for you to come to a definite conclusion. If you decide to play a certain style of music, then it will help you to some extent to arrange a song. I like the freedom to change things a little, to put my spin on something, even though I don’t always do it. Being ridged about arrangements has a place in many genres so it depends on that. If you have the freedom, then try to be true to yourself. Try different things. See what works. Ask others their opinion.”

d) Recording,

R: Get a good engineer who knows what he's doing.  In this day and time when almost everyone has or can have a home recording studio, the artist can be separated from his focus on playing the music by distractions with recording techniques and issues.  I think every artist should have some working knowledge of recording, but an engineer who specializes in his craft is a valuable commodity.  But with or without an engineer, make sure you capture your instruments and vocals as realistically as possible.

e) Performing

R: This is the highlight of my music endeavors.  I enjoy writing, recording and the overall process of creating and documenting music, but sharing it with people who appreciate and enjoy your creation is the zenith of music for me.  As I discussed earlier, I want to perform as flawlessly as I possibly can, but I can say that I think I've never performed a show perfectly start to finish, so that is my personal goal.  And every time I come closer to that accomplishment, the more I enjoy performing and the more I want to perform.

Fade to Black from 'Fade to Bluegrass'