Jeremy Garrett photo credit to George Trent Grogan, Mountain Trout Photography, http://www.mountaintroutphotography.com
Jeremy Garrett Follows His Heart Into The River Wild
Jeremy Garrett is known as a bluegrass fiddler, and one who explores the possibilities of the genre as a member of The Infamous Stringdusters. His solo projects have also been incredibly diverse, leading to many technology-based experiments in electronic sound and looping for multi-instrumentation, which you’ll see on the albums Circles and Wanderer’s Compass. The latter was actually written, recorded, and released during the pandemic period, but has been only one of his projects to develop during this time. Alongside contributing to a new Stringdusters album, Garrett wrote, recorded, and recently released River Wild via Organic Records, which in many ways is his most surprising project in some time.
With River Wild, Garrett reminds the world that he has been playing Bluegrass fiddle since he was three years old and goes “hardcore bluegrass” in an expression of his roots. It’s a reaffirmation of his part in the bluegrass community, but it’s also an album that balances tradition alongside a relentless pursuit of originality. For Garrett, when he’s making his own music, those two things always have to go together. We spoke with Jeremy Garrett about his incredibly productive schedule the past couple of years and how he found himself on the road back home to bluegrass with River Wild.
Americana Highways: It seems like the past two years have been pretty busy, rather than quiet for you. Have there been pockets of quiet time for you to work on River Wild?
Jeremy Garrett: I guess at the very beginning of the pandemic, when all the gigs shut down, there was a bit of time. Since I’ve always played music professionally, I definitely had to go inside myself and revamp what I was doing and decide how to deal with the situation going on, keep afloat, pay my bills, that kind of thing. I think I went into overdrive mode. As a dad to a little girl, I’m the provider, so I got busy rehearsing my instruments so I’d be ready to play as soon as things came back, and I got busy writing music. I wrote so much music that I needed a place for it all.
The Stringdusters and I did a record together, that I call “The Big Record” because it’s a big, conversational piece about what’s going on in our world. It has to do with the pandemic, racism, and all these things that we wanted to talk about. I wrote several songs that fit that, but then I wrote other songs that I needed another place for. For me, that’s always been my solo career. I actually recorded two records during the pandemic, and one was called Wanderer’s Compass, that was more of a looping record, that I finished up during the beginning of the pandemic. Then I wrote this whole new record, River Wild.
Between all that, we also did a Bill Monroe tribute record, and we were e-mailing all these tracks back and forth, and it got nominated for a Grammy! You’re right that there was a ton of music going on. I was even able to maintain playing some shows as a solo artist. I did small backyard parties and got to hone things that I wanted to work on live.
AH: When you were writing your own music during this time, were you separating out what was going to be for Wanderer’s Compass and what was going to be for River Wild, or did you just create everything and divide them by sound? They are very different stylistically.
JG: Probably a little bit of both. I knew I needed to write some bluegrass-oriented tunes. Originally, I thought Wanderer’s Compass was going to be an all-fiddle record, but I just couldn’t help it but to start bringing in vocals and lyrics. That was the beginning of the approach, writing about four different instrumental songs. Then I thought, “Maybe I should just follow the art and stop separating things out.” So I just let the songs be what they wanted to be, and followed what was in my heart.
I ended up going as bluegrass as I could with River Wild. Those are my roots, growing up as a fiddle player since I was three years old, and singing Gospel in church. Bluegrass is my main staple and I’m well known for that, though I’ve spent some time away from that doing other things. Stringdusters, even though it’s bluegrass, is a lot more progressive than where I came from. River Wild is more like going back to my roots. I went as hardcore as I could bringing bluegrass into this record.
AH: I can definitely hear that. I’ve followed the technology experiments you’ve made in recent years, so I was surprised by this development of going back to your roots.
JG: I think that’s actually the reaction of the other people who have heard me come up in bluegrass and then heard me use technology. They hear that Coldplay song, “Magic” and they don’t even know that’s me. I know that in the industry they try to pigeon-hole you into a genre, and that’s natural, but I can’t help it. They want to say, “This person is folk. This person is bluegrass. This person is Americana.”
I understand what they are doing, but growing up, I was listening to bluegrass songs right alongside listening to Slash rip the guitar in Guns ‘n’ Roses and listening to Bono sing these really heartfelt songs in U2. Depeche Mode and Deep Forest were there too, and all of these things had to have an influence on me. I’ve always prided myself in being an original artist and tried to be true to that. I let art just take me where it wants to take me. In my mind, it’s too overwhelming to try to please people. I’m so grateful for my fans who have given me a platform for what I’m doing, but I still try to let the art be what it is, while maintaining originality.
AH: I think it’s amazing the way you focus in on each album’s aesthetic and create a unity there. Do you have a sense of what led you back to a bluegrass album at this time?
JG: I think there was self-reflection time. At home, I have a studio that’s a separate building where I go every day and work like it’s an office. I do the business I need to do, and part of that is trying to create. I think going back to my roots came from thinking about where I’m heading. I understand the looping music that I’ve been doing is somewhat niche, or fringe, and I love that about it.
That’s super satisfying for me, but at the same time, bluegrass music is something that gets in your blood. It makes the hair stand up on the back of your arm. It gets in your soul. It’s super-deep music. I love technology but I don’t want to forget where I came from and I’m well-known in the bluegrass community. I want to re-establish that and let everyone know that I still care deeply for bluegrass music.
AH: River Wild is a big album, but it sounds like you had quite a few songs to pick from.
JG: I did have to go back through and pick things. There’s one I really wanted to put on here, “In the Blink of an Eye” that’s really the most non-bluegrass song on the record. These pieces just felt like they needed to be together. I wanted some more modern vibes going on, too, with something of my own. I brought in the banjo on every track except that one. I used some great banjo players, like Ryan Cavanaugh and Russ Carson, who did all the claw-hammer on the song “I Am The River Wild.” Gena Britt is also a fantastic banjo player and played some solid stuff on the record. That made for rich recordings. So I also had these musicians in mind and was thinking about who was going to play on each song. I was very specific about who I selected with each person for each song.
AH: How did you handle recording and having so many collaborating artists during such a disrupted time?
JG: I set my sights on it and knew it was going to be ambitious. I knew I had only two days to record between Stringdusters tour dates with Orchard Records, who are part of the Crossroads Music Group in Asheville, North Carolina. Scott Barnett was the engineer on this record, and is one of the best I’ve ever worked with. I brought in the nucleus of the songs, and believe it or not, I nailed all the tracks in two days. I had bass, guitar, mandolin, and fiddle. I brought people in, and we did a batch each day, though we did have to wear masks and stuff. I had done the demos and pre-arranged all the parts with charts that I made. When we came in, we just nailed it. I couldn’t have asked for anything better.
As an artist trying to head up a project like this, you just don’t know how it’s going to go until your in it. I had a suspicion that it would work out fine, and it did. From there, I took it all home, and did all my own vocals in my studio. All the harmony vocals and banjo were overdubbed, and I just e-mailed people tracks to work on in their home studios. That got me some dream players. Then I gave it all back to Scott, and he mixed it and put his magic touch on it.
AH: Were you thinking about the fact that natural imagery comes up a lot in these songs, or is that just going to happen more organically working on Bluegrass music?
JG: I did kind of see a theme developing with “I Am The River Wild,” which was more of a nature approach. The “River Wild” lyrics talks about the snow melting on the top of the mountain and trickling down, and I actually live at 8,000 feet here in Colorado. I see where the snow melts, starting as a trickle outside my house, which goes into a ditch, and that flows down into the Little Thompson River, and that flows into the Big Thompson River, and that goes down to the range. It’s an amazing thing to be able to witness that.
I co-wrote that with Rick Lang, who is a bluegrass writer, but I feel like the song is actually talking about me, or maybe you, as a listener. I’m like snow on the mountain. I start out gentle but I have a wild spirit about me and I have a kind of attitude. You don’t really want to cross me in certain ways. A lot of that describes me, but the nature imagery helps bring in double-meanings.
AH: I love that point about human beings. It’s useful that a river is something ambiguous, neither good nor bad, but powerful. I think it’s true what you’re saying, that human beings are forces of nature, and they often don’t realize that about themselves or others as much as they should.
JG: I was also trying to make a bluegrass record that didn’t talk about trains, down home, mom and dad, that kind of thing! I like all that stuff, too, but I wanted to stay true to originality by doing things a little different. I wanted to bring in powerful lyrical ideas that were still bluegrass.
AH: A song you mentioned briefly, “In the Blink of an Eye” is more modern but I think it still has a lot of traditional elements. It reminds me a little bit of a Neil Young song.
JG: That song is probably the most like a Stringdusters song. I’m very conscious of not making a record that sounds like a Stringdusters record, but if there’s one song on here in that vein, it’s that song. Even though I wanted to make a “traditional” bluegrass record, I still wanted a modern current flowing through it. That song, as well as some of the more instrumental music, was actually written with the more progressive Bluegrass listeners in mind.
Neil Young was sort of where I was coming from with that vibe. It’s sort of a cry out song. I had actually just driven across the country to go on tour with the Dusters, since it was iffy back then whether you could get on a flight. I drove my truck cross-country and had plenty of time to think about the melody. Then I got together with a frequent co-writer of mine, Jon Weisberger. We’ve written over 100 songs together, and we wrote that song together at his kitchen table in North Carolina after I’d just gotten done driving there.
It was a super-meditative drive that led me to reflect, and I wanted to be able to write lyrics that weren’t specifically about me. I wanted to reach anyone where they were. That’s where we were coming from. Seth Taylor’s guitar work on that is some of the most incredible guitar work that I’ve heard in my entire life. I’ve played in so many studios with so many great pickers, but he just put a magic touch on that song that was so rich and deep. Personally, that’s one of my favorite tracks on the record.