Interview: Miles Gannett on “Meridian,” Healers, and Maryland bluegrass

Interviews

Americana Highways had an chance to interview Miles Gannett on his new release, Meridian, produced by Frank Marchand and due out on April 16.  Meridian was born in tornadoes and Southern storms. We’ve got his song, the title track, just beneath the interview.  Have fun with our conversation and then give the song a listen too.

Americana Highways: This record is textbook Americana: the merging of genres and the rootsiness of the songwriting. What does “Americana” mean to you?

MG: I think it’s an understanding that all the traditional forms of American music are connected by the same roots: the African influence, which is the main thing, where the backbeat, blues tonality, and expressiveness that’s in all our music comes from; Irish, Scottish, and British folksong traditions; Native American influences; etc. I think it’s also important to acknowledge that many of the genre divisions that were imposed on American music in the Jim Crow era had more to do with the skin color of the performers than anything musical; for example, blues and country were originally basically the same music. So, I guess the way I see what I’m trying to do is to draw from my love of all these traditions within the American music continuum and play with them in a psychedelic way. The songs are rooted in traditions but not really traditionalist.

AH:  You were born in Louisiana and are now based in Maryland. Both states have a strong musical tradition. What do you love about both places? What did you learn in Louisiana that you brought with you to Maryland?

MG: I love Louisiana culture, food, and especially the music. Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, Irma Thomas, Clifton Chenier, Rusty and Doug Kershaw. I love all of it. My family left Louisiana when I was five, but I remember experiencing at least one Mardi Gras. I got into the music later, but it really felt like home to me when I heard it. Maryland is where I spent most of my life. My friends and I mostly listened to electronic music and psychedelic rock when I was a teenager. It wasn’t until much later, when I got into progressive bluegrass, that I really felt connected to the region musically, because there’s a really strong bluegrass tradition here. If there’s anything I learned from Louisiana that I brought here, it’s a laidback disposition and a love of gravy and swampy music.

AH: Frank Marchand is a legend. What was it like working with him? And what made you pick him? Was it a specific sound you were chasing?

MG: Frank is also based in Maryland. I started hearing recordings of other Baltimore bands that he recorded, and it was the best sounding stuff I’d heard locally. I just wanted to sound that good! We worked together on my band Fractal Cat’s third album, The Tower, and we hit it off based on our mutual love of all kinds of music. I thought we worked really well together, so I asked him to work with me on Meridian. I played him The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark and told him that was the kind of record I wanted to make. We were also listening to Brandi Carlile, Willie Nelson, and Townes Van Zandt.

AH: In your bio, you cite Townes Van Zandt and John Prine as great storytellers. What are your favorite songs from both artists? And why?

MG: I have so many favorites from both of them! I really like “To Live Is to Fly,” “Silver Ships of Andilar,” and “Tower Song” from Townes—he had such a range from funny, to psychedelic, to philosophical, and devastatingly sad, and the lyrics are always so well crafted. With Prine, of course the whole first album is amazing, and I also love “Souvenirs”—that one gets me every time—and “Summer’s End” off his last album, which I thought was really cool because, to me, it feels almost like an old ‘50s R&B song musically, and the lyrics are more impressionistic than most of his more story-oriented songs.

AH: “Maria Sabina” has to have a good backstory. Can you share it with our readers?

MG: Maria Sabina was a Mazatec woman from Oaxaca, Mexico. She was a healer who used psilocybin mushrooms in her Veladas, or mushroom healing ceremonies. She would take mushrooms, which she called saint children, and they would speak through her. She channeled the words of the mushroom spirits, improvised poem-songs, and sang them in the sessions. In 1955, she was visited by R. Gordon Wasson, an American banker and amateur ethnomycologist from New York, who had heard rumors of the sacred mushrooms of Mexico. Wasson—whose research was unbeknownst to him funded by the CIA for their MK Ultra mind-control project—and his party became the first Westerners to participate in the Mexican mushroom tradition, and he subsequently wrote about his experience in Life Magazine. Wasson disguised Sabina’s identity and location in the article, but later leaked the information in a book. Once word of “magic” mushrooms got out in the beatnik and hippy communities, Sabina’s town was flooded by white people looking to take a trip, some of whom were very disrespectful of cultural traditions surrounding the use of the mushrooms. At first, Sabina was welcoming to the Westerners, but as the hippies became more and more of an imposing nuisance, Sabina’s community became resentful of her and ostracized her. She was arrested based on false allegations of drug dealing, her belongings were confiscated, her house was burned down, and eventually her son was murdered. I wanted to pay tribute to her in a song because she paid such a terrible price for introducing the Western world to psychedelic mushrooms. I think it’s an important story to tell, especially as psychedelics are starting to get mainstreamed. Anyway, I think I told it better in the song!

AH: You tapped members of Seldom Scene for this record. In line with our question about Frank, what sound were you chasing when you hired them to add their magic to Meridian?

MG: Seldom Scene was the first bluegrass band I ever really loved. I heard Live at the Cellar Door, and I was hooked. I knew Frank had worked with them at some point, so I asked him if he thought there was any chance he could get me in touch. It really blew my mind that they wanted to play on my album! It still blows my mind that they’re on there. I think it’s Mike Auldridge’s Dobro playing that I love the most about the early Scene, so I really wanted that sound, and Fred Travers, their current Dobroist and Auldridge’s protege, totally nailed it. And the Scene’s Ron Stewart played some great banjo and mandolin on a few tracks. I love all the progressive bluegrass of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and I love that they lent some of that sound to the record.

AH: Talk to us about the album title and the title track, the first single you’re releasing. Why the name Meridian?

MG: The title track was the last song I wrote and recorded for the album; it’s about my experience passing through Meridian, Mississippi. My wife Arielle and I were driving up to Nashville after visiting New Orleans and Lafayette. We had to get off the road to wait out a storm, so we ended up spending a day in Meridian. We were kind of enchanted by the place, and when I got home I started reading about its history—that’s why it has those details about the railroads and Queen Kelly Mitchell, “Queen of the Gypsy Nation,” who has a famous grave there. I named the album after the song because I liked the idea of the word meridian meaning “midday” and, by extension, “the high point of a civilization.” I also liked the idea that the title might reference or invoke Jimmie Rodgers, who was from Meridian, in a subtle way.

AH: What’s next for you after releasing Meridian? Touring plans post-Covid?

MG: As of now, I’m pretty far along writing my next album. I’m revamping my home studio and plan to start recording my new songs here until I can get into the studio with Frank again, and I’m recording some guitar for Eric Selby’s (the drummer on Meridian) next solo album. I’m hoping I can tour in some form post-Covid. I’d love to tour with a band again if and when it’s feasible!

Take a listen to “Meridian,” and find more ordering information here: https://music.amazon.com/artists/B08V3NGMQG/miles-gannett?

 

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