By Greg Cahill | From the July-August 2022 issue of Strings magazine
It all started four years ago when Nitty Gritty Dirt Band co-founder Jeff Hanna called former Mumford & Sons member Ross Holmes to inquire if the Grammy-winning fiddler could join the legendary band for a few shows after longtime fiddler and banjo player John McEuen left to focus on other projects. “I was currently a member of Bruce Hornsby’s band, the Noisemakers, but had a little free time to learn Dirt Band material and join for a couple of weekends,” Holmes recalls. “Jeff’s son, Jaime, is my neighbor and a fantastic singer and player, so we talked about the idea of both of us going out with the band. As often happens in music, one thing led to another, and we both segued into the band three months later.”
The result can be heard on Dirt Does Dylan (NGDB Records), Holmes’ recording debut with the reformulated Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The album, the band’s first studio LP in 13 years, contains ten Bob Dylan covers and features blues-rock singing duo Larkin Poe and such Nashville luminaries as Rosanne Cash, Jason Isbell, Steve Earle, and the War and Treaty.
The Grammy-winning Nitty Gritty Dirt Band helped to make bluegrass and traditional country cool with the release of their eponymous 1967 debut. Some 55 years later, Strings caught up with Holmes as the band prepared to launch an extensive U.S. tour.
On Facebook, you have referred to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band as your heroes. What’s it like to now be a part of that legendary band?
The very first vinyl record I remember my dad showing me how to lay on the turntable was Will the Circle Be Unbroken. That album was revolutionary and groundbreaking—these long-haired California hippies recording alongside Mother Maybelle Carter, Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs. It was unheard of then and its impact is still felt today. Circle and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band reside at the very top of the Americana-music lexicon, and to be a small part of this story seems surreal at times. It’s a great privilege and responsibility.
How have you been influenced by or admired the fiddlers [John McEuen, Chris Darrow, Al Garth, as well as Vassar Clements] that have recorded with the band over the years?
Listening to and absorbing the spirit of these iconic players always inspires new ideas and ways to approach fiddling. Vassar is one of my greatest influences—I’ve pored over his style and quirky vibe for decades. I’m a sucker for thematic improvisation and oddball thinking, and Vassar was a master of both. I often remind myself to think “Vassar.” Tone is usually the first giveaway when guessing who might be fiddling, and every player who has collaborated with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band—from Roy Acuff to Vassar, Alison Krauss, Sean Keene, all of the ’grassers, on and on—is an icon of tone.
Are there other fiddlers that have influenced you?
Too many to name. Certainly, the fiddlers we all admire have been big influences, but at this point I am so inspired by the phenomenal talent younger players are sharing with us, I’m floored by the posts I see on social media and YouTube. If it’s the responsibility of each passing generation to set the bar higher, the future is in excellent hands.
What was it like to record the Dirt Does Dylan album?
Recording studios are mysterious and the studio is my favorite place to explore sound—after hundreds of sessions over the years, I still get butterflies when I walk into a control room. The experience in front of a microphone as a session player is different than as an artist or band member. The pressures are unique. With the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, they lean on me for presence and to serve each song appropriately, sonically and as a contributor. I rely on them to do the same. When we recorded Dirt Does Dylan, we’d discuss which tune we wanted to jam, then run through it a few times to make notes about solos, where to fill, who’s singing which harmony, etc. Only when we locked in on a direction would we cut. It was relaxed and easy. Ray Kennedy did a brilliant job as producer, highlighting our strengths and giving us room to find ourselves on each track. “Country Pie” was really a highlight for all of us—we sat around two microphones and went at it: no edits, just a real take.
When did you start playing violin?
I started fiddling at age nine after my little sister, Katie Shore—she fiddles and sings with Asleep at the Wheel—started taking lessons. Our granddad played fiddle and encouraged her to begin when she was five. She loved it. I wasn’t wild about it, but after watching the two of them play together, I walked into her bedroom one afternoon, picked up her fiddle, and managed to get through “Boil the Cabbage.” I started lessons the following week and here we are.
Was it your first instrument?
Piano was my first instrument, then vocal studies. Between studying piano at Texas Christian University, singing with the Texas Boys Choir, and weekly Texas-style fiddle lessons, it was a bit intense for my folks, and we agreed piano studies would stop. It wasn’t long before I moved on from the Boys Choir and did a deep dive into all things fiddle—contest style, Celtic, swing, jazz, bluegrass, and classical violin.
What was your experience with lessons and fiddle camps?
Jimmie Don Bates, a storied Texas contest fiddler, was my first serious fiddle teacher, followed by Kurt Sprenger, who set me on a path to find my voice inside the fiddle with the technique and control of a classical violinist. Our parents went to a lot of effort to sign us up for camps and lessons around the South. [Former Bob Wills fiddler] Johnny Gimble and Randy Elmore had Western-swing camps in Texas, Byron Berline held regular weekend bluegrass camps in Oklahoma, and we made the trek to Tennessee several years in a row for O’Connor Camp. These gatherings attracted so many fiddlers from such different backgrounds—I was in heaven. The greatest thing that’s come from camp has been the relationships. Many of my childhood heroes have become dear friends and collaborators, and most of the fiddlers my age who attended camp have gone off and done monumental things for our string community. I’m ever inspired when I stop and admire the landscape these players have created.
What fiddles do you play on the new Dirt album?
Violins have been an obsession since I was a kid poring over Strings magazine, reading ad listings and player details. I had no clue how to pronounce Vuillaume at age nine, but I knew I needed to play these fiddles. Travel has afforded me the opportunity to visit dozens of shops, and I’ve been on a quest for 20 years to find “The One.” I’ve owned several fine instruments, but the right one is still out there waiting. My main instrument is an old French fiddle—F. Breton from Mirecourt, circa 1829—that previously belonged to Aubrey Haynie. I had first seen the “Grand Marnier,” as it’s known, when I was about 20 and Aubrey was using it at a Time Jumpers gig. I played it after their set, and it felt like I’d gone from driving a Pinto to a Porsche. When Aubrey decided to finally part with it, a whisper made its way to me. I drove to Nashville with whatever cash I had saved up and left with the instrument that has been a part of every session and show I’ve had for almost 15 years. Bows are another deep study I’m passionate about, and I rotate between three sticks: an incredible amourette Guinot from 1840, a prototype CodaBow, and a modern bow made by the insanely talented fiddler and luthier Tyler Andal.
How would you describe your devotion to the fiddle?
It’s my goal to build bridges between the worlds of fiddling and classical violin, and my most recent focus has been creating “The American Fiddle Suite,” a 13-movement journey for solo fiddle and orchestra. I had been writing themes for years, and my dear friend Aaron Malone, a renowned composer and player, expanded a couple of melodies I shared years ago on Instagram. The “AFS” emerged from these orchestrations, and my focus shifted from studio sessions and touring to composing and arranging on a grander scale. Growth was inevitable, but the big things I’ve taken from this work are the importance of honesty, transparency, and inclusivity—honesty as a player, heart first, hands second; transparency of intent, understanding strengths and weaknesses and how best to communicate through each. Inclusivity is the most important: How we hear others, their ideas, their love, and how we embrace the beauty of each story being lived along with our own. The fiddle is sacred, and I am grateful for everyone brave enough to pull the bow across the strings.
I noticed that you host a web program called “The Search for the Sound.” Tell me about that experience.
“The Search for the Sound” was born out of a desire to simply nerd out with wonderful players and guests about their instruments and interpretation of sound, what it means to them. My co-host, Jason Anick, is a fantastic jazz violinist and a great admirer of lutherie. We began interviewing players for the series after we spent a week visiting shops in New England playing dozens of fiddles and making notes about which ones we were drawn to. Maybe we’ll partner with Strings and tap into players we’ve only dreamt of interviewing!
A ROSS HOLMES FIDDLE TIP
Become as comfortable playing in second position as you are in first and third. Many older folk fiddlers didn’t— and still don’t—use their fourth finger for double-stops. You’ll often hear subtle slides when players play a G/B, then move to A/C-sharp using the third and first fingers. Second position is also wonderful from a shape standpoint, taking closed-note scales like A major, shifting them up a step, then playing that same closed scale, but now in the key of B-flat or B. The key of B is tricky, and it’s all over bluegrass music, so taking lines you know in the key of A, for example, and moving them up the fingerboard really helps build confidence in an often- neglected position. —RH