Inside The Mind Of Casey Driessen

Writing a blog sounds easy. Just sit down and put pen to paper, fingers to laptop. But not so fast, Ernest Hemingway. It takes some talent to pull that off. Talent is something solo fiddler Casey Driessen, appearing at Maryland Hall on Wednesday October 24, has in abundance. The Berklee School of Music graduate is a combination of talent, enthusiasm and creativity and quickly established himself as a sought after band mate and accompanist with people like Steve Earle, Abigail Washburn, Tim O’Brien and Béla Fleck.

It was in the middle of a Béla Fleck & The Flecktones set at the 2011 Telluride Bluegrass Festival that I first encountered Driessen, as Bela Fleck's roadie, as in the guy who runs back and forth, behind and occasionally on the stage waiting on the star. But then Fleck brought him out to sit in on fiddle and the crowd rose to its collective feet as he brought the house down:

He followed that up with a singular performance at Telluride’s Elks Park where he proved that listening to a fiddle, solo, for 45 minutes, could be a transforming experience.

Much like Futureman does with the Drumitar in the Flecktones, Driessen’s “Singularity Tour” makes heavy use of the latest in electronic wizardry by way of loop machines and pedal boards that would make Hendrix jealous. Using his creative muscle he builds songs from scratch using only his fiddle, his imagination, his enthusiasm and the power of the pedal. And within that context he creates a unique blend of traditional bluegrass, jazz, pop and rock that you will not see anywhere else. Talent like this might suggest some special upbringing, a dedication started before he could walk or a pedigree a mile long. But in speaking to him for this blog he revealed that it wasn’t quite that easy.

In fact, after his parents started him on Suzuki violin at age 6, he didn’t immediately take to the rigors of practicing (what 6 year old does). “I was heavily bribed,” he calmly says. “My dad would tell me in order to earn money to get mom a present for Mothers Day or her birthday or such, he would pay me a few bucks to practice. That’s how I was cajoled into putting some time into it.” That morphed later into being bribed with baseball cards, his other passion at the time. “Eventually I started to realize I was actually getting better. That began to motivate me more than the bribes,” His dad’s own part time career as a musician (pedal steel & banjo) and his artist mom’s creative juices led them on weekend family camping trips to bluegrass and music festivals where Driessen was immersed in the music of fiddles, guitars, banjos and dobro’s. After high school he met master fiddler and Grammy winner Matt Glaser (Ken Burns’ “Civil War”) at a fiddle camp. As head of the string department at Berklee, Glaser encouraged him to enroll and Driessen did. He still points to him as one of his most influential mentors. After graduating Driessen went straight to Nashville where he began his professional career first working with Steve Earle during his stripped down acoustic period. That quickly led him to work with an array of bluegrass and acoustic music heavyweights and a fruitful collaboration with Bela Fleck.

Since then he’s traveled the world performing with Béla Fleck, Tim O’Brien , Lee Ann Womack, Jim Lauderdale, The Duhks, Zac Brown Band and Chris Thile. He’s recorded with John Mayer, Jerry Douglas, Blue Merle and on the Grammy winning soundtrack for the Johnny Cash biopic “Walk The Line.” In 2006 he toured China and Tibet with The Sparrow Quartet as a founding member with Béla Fleck, Abigail Washburn, and Ben Sollee of which he said, “We seemed to be the audience's first introduction to American music. They were so polite they didn’t clap during the performance and we had to explain to them it was OK to applaud after solos and songs." His experiences led them back for three more tours.

As a rising star he continues to push the limits of his instrument explaining, “My style has developed over time in bits and pieces as I look for new boundaries to break with the fiddle. I'm currently working on new collaborations between percussion and fiddle called “Fiddlesticks” where I get together for a few days with a drummer or percussionist and we write, arrange and record some unconventional angles, reinterpret cover tunes and go beyond the traditional limits of the fiddle.” In his “Colorfools” trio project he works with acoustic bass and a drummer/percussionist.

If you want to get a sense of Driessen’s intensively creative output, just visit his website where you are ushered Inside The Mind Of Casey Driessen, as the title suggests. I thanked him for not using his photo page to put up the obligatory stage shots. Rather, you'll find beautiful, unrelated photographs that he takes in his spare time on the road. It's his way of relaxing and exploring yet another aspect of his creative mind. In a nod to traveling musicians everywhere he even adds a set of photos devoted to the dressing room bathrooms he's visited. If you've spent any time on the road you'll recognize this less glamorous point of view. Driessen is a road warrior who balances his burgeoning career with a family and home in Nashville. His travels regularly take him from the classical, jazz and bluegrass world of The Sparrow Quartet and Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, to the up tempo, modern country of the Zac Brown Band. And when he's not on the road he's in the studio working on his video lessons series. His latest CD titled “OOG” is an adventure in sonic playfulness. It's not a fiddle record, it's a musical stew to warm your soul.

When I asked him what people can expect at his show at Maryland Hall on October 24, he said he wanted people to understand that, “It’s only me up there, recording loops and playing them back live along with the acoustic fiddle woven in, exploring everything from originals to traditional tunes redone, to covers and sonic landscapes.” I will add that you will not be disappointed. In fact, once he launches into his loops and percussive machinations surrounding the intro to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” you'll never hear the fiddle the same way again.

Grammy-nominated fiddler Casey Driessen's Singularity Tour will stop at Maryland Hall on Wednesday, October 24 at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $15; $10 for Maryland Hall members.

The Showcase Artist Series at Maryland Hall presents unique performances from the world of jazz, folk, bluegrass, classical, film and pop. New to the series this year, MHCA has added bar service featuring beer, wine and sodas available for sale starting at 7:00pm. Each ticket holder is entitled to one free drink with their ticket stub. Come early and meet and greet the artists prior to their performance.

Tom Fridrich,Director of Performing Arts, MHCA