An Interview with Bill Mize and Beth Bramhall by Andy Burke
Bill Mize is a Grammy award winning guitarist whose music has been featured on Windham Hill Guitar Sampler by Windham Hill Records and Masters of the Acoustic Guitar by Narada Records. He is a past winner of the National Fingerstyle Guitar Competition and his compositions have been featured on the Ken Burns documentary “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea."
Beth Bramhall is a pianist and accordionist. Beth’s music has been heard at the Focus Festival of New Music, in an Emmy Award Winning documentary, and in a number of live theatre, CD and television projects.
Here’s a sweet little axiomatic theory I have developed after many years in the odd world of music: The better the musician, the nicer the person. What do you think about that one? It might seem unrealistic and I cannot disagree if you reached out to someone you admired and were slapped down. After all M. Flaubert wrote, “Never touch your idols: the gilding will stick to your fingers.”
However, it has worked well for me…Chick Corea, John Hammond, Steve Winwood, Marcia Ball, Randell Bramblett and Tommy Talton are well-known, superbly accomplished musicians whose overt kindness and openness gladdened my heart. Following this line of thought I want to introduce (or re-introduce) you to the Grammy-winning and all round good guy, guitarist Bill Mize. Born in the musically rich hills of East Tennessee, Bill has carved out a successful career as a solo acoustic guitarist touring, recording and teaching. His beautiful and lyrical fingerpicking has been tabulated by Mel Bay in the book, Tender Explorations and to date, Bill has released six sonically excellent CDs. I’m not sure anyone is such a perfectionist when it comes to stage and recorded sound as Bill. His is a lush, full and rich sound and if you are not seeing him live you would wonder who the second guitarist is.
I was able to catch up with Bill and Beth in Bryson City, North Carolina where they moved last year from their longtime home in Missoula, Montana. Beth occasionally accompanies Bill on stage and recordings and it is always magical to hear them together. Beth was kind enough to answer a few questions as well. For more information about Bill and his music, check out his website.
AB: Hi Bill. Lets start off with a an easy one. Why are there so many good guitarists out of East Tennessee?
BM: Maybe it's something in the moonshine? I think there has been so much music out of Tennessee-from Memphis to Nashville to Bristol-because people grow up surrounded by music and the connections are passed down through the generations. It all begins in the church and there is a definite church influence here for sure. A friend of mine from New England commented once that there was a musical vortex in Tennessee which attracts players from everywhere. Tennessee really is the most centrally located state in the East and that makes it sort of a melting pot.
AB: When did you first get interested in music?
BM: I was about 31/2 years old and my parents keep talking about some guy named "Elvis" who was going to be on TV and should “we let him (me) watch it?” I had already exhibited juvenile delinquent tendencies and they were worried that it would influence me even more in that direction. They let me watch it and yes they were right. Even at that young age, seeing Elvis on TV was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. I knew right then what I wanted my life to be all about. As a young teen I bought an unplayable guitar for $2.00. My friend Steve Dixon had a great little Gibson Melody Maker his uncle had given him and Steve taught me a few chords. He and I rode the bus to Knoxville most Saturdays taking lessons from Archie Burns (Jethro's brother). I started saving my money and eventually bought a Dakota red Fender Mustang-which was a great guitar.
AB: You lost a great friend last year. Can you describe your relationship with Phil “Hump” Hamilton especially your early years in Sevierville with him?
BM: I met Phil in the 1st grade. Could have even been the first day of school. We were good friends ever since. Not being from his neighborhood, I wasn't in his immediate gang, but always a honorary member. After high school I sort of went one way and he another, but we would still get together occasionally and hang out. When he was diagnosed with cancer 10 or 12 years ago, we started jamming a lot because that was Hump's best medicine (and mine too). Although I was mostly living in Montana I would travel back 3 or 4 times a year to Tennessee to do gigs and got to spend a lot of time with Hump. He was the heart of all our Sevierville group of friends that grew up and old together. I cherished every moment I got to spend with him. Especially our long road trips to Jacksonville where we played at RAM and I got to see Hump jam at Springin’ the Blues with Linda Grenville’s blues band. (check out Bill and Hump jamming on the Memphis classic “Born Under a Bad Sign” to close out Bill’s set at Memphis’s The Otherlands: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mf1bmhs4Pv0)
AB: Tell us about the cabin your grandfather built, a place where you have recorded much of your music.
BM: My cabin was built in the late thirties by my grandfather who worked for the National Park Service as the Service was forming the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He bought a small partial of land just outside the park boundary for next to nothing and built this cabin which is more like a rustic cottage. But we don't say "cottage" in East Tennessee. My Grandfather also had a small sawmill and planer which he used to saw and dress all the lumber used for it. It's mostly very aged knotty white pine and chestnut. I moved into into it around 1974 after a failed attempt at academia. I also remember that first winter being very cold and I only had a fireplace, no phone or TV either. I really submersed myself into playing guitar and began learning how to plagiarize crickets, mountain steams, fireflies, wood fires, Spring peepers, thunderstorms, etc. Pretty clever and opportunistic if I do say so myself…
AB: The great writer Cormac McCarthy spent the first part of his life in Knoxville and produced some wonderful fiction in and around Knoxville and Sevier County. Did Cormac's writing influence your approach to your own music and art?
BM: Cormac McCarthy's influence helped me create a sound track for his novel Child of God. My imagined movie of this novel opens with the sound of Spring peepers in the total dark of night with a mysterious ember lighting up the darkness every few seconds. Eventually it zooms in on this ember and in then you make out the image of Lester Ballad smoking his roll-your-one, sitting on the hillside above the house of a woman he later terrorizes. My song entitled "A Child of God" tries to capture the haunting beauty of some of the remote hollers of Sevier County in the fifties. Although the novel is very dark and disturbing, it is filled with humor and beauty as only McCarthy can conjure up. I think just the fact one reads great books and enjoys the arts can stimulate the imagination and creativity. I always thought I have more imagination than talent!
AB: At what point did you veer away from the standard I IV V strumming chord progressions patterns into a more nuanced fingerpicking style?
BM: Probably when I started writing my own music and just started digging deeper and hoping the muse would supply.
AB: Tell us something about your guitars.
BM: Well my main guitar is a 1963 Martin D-28 that was given to me 30 years ago. I had met a guy from California at The Winfield Walnut Valley Festival (where Bill won the Walnut Valley Festival fingerstyle guitar competition-ed) in Kansas in 1985 who was starting up a guitar music label similar to Windham Hill. He asked me to sign on which, of course, I did. After a few attempts to get 5 of his signees recorded at a great studio called Different Fur in San Francisco (with John Pearse producing) it seemed like things started imploding and he wasn’t carrying out his promises. So to create some goodwill, he gave everyone a $1,000.00 Xmas bonus-that is except me! I got a call from him one day saying,“Bill, I know you have said you always wanted wanted a nice old Martin D-28 and I found a beautiful one in a store in San Diego. If you send me the guitar you won at Winfield I will send you this Martin.” I did and he did. I never got a recording out of that deal but I got my guitar soulmate. I never even had a backup acoustic until about 10 years ago when I met luthier Brent McElroy at a gig in Seattle and he offered to build a custom guitar for me. And I really love that McElroy! I have never had a more enjoyable guitar to play and I often travel with it. It sounds good acoustically and amplifies stunningly.
AB: I love your arrangement of Ray Charles' 'Wha'd I Say" on your "Angel's Share" album. Tell us how you approached that classic and a little about arranging it your distinctive style.
BM: I tried to play the melody over the famous bass riff, plus add the middle rhythm riff. Which for me is like trying to juggle, tap dance and chew gum at the same time.Rather than just playing the same thing each verseI I tried to make each verse a little different which I thought gave it a certain uniqueness.
AB: It is a beautiful arrangement! Please describe your stage gear.
BM: My stage set up has been for many years a LR Baggs Duel Source pickup with a Ribbon Transducer and a Joe Mills internal mic, (unfortunately both discontinued) and a LR Baggs Venue acoustic pre-amp and a Strymon Blue Sky reverb.
AB: And for recording?
BM: My recording set up is Pro Tools 12 with an Apogee interface, a Millenia Pre Amp and a pair of KM 84 Neumman mics. Also a Lexicon PCM 90 reverb.
AB: Thanks Bill for your time! Always good to catch up with you.
And as mentioned earlier, Beth Bramhall agreed to sit down with us for a few minutes.
AB: Hi Beth! Good to talk with you again after our last visit in Missoula a couple of years ago with Hump and Al. Can you tell us where you grew up and your musical influences? Was your first instrument the piano and did you have formal lessons as a kid?
BB: I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, but both of my parents were from West Virginia. I first started messing around on piano at about age 4. I was in the church choir and later had piano lessons from a little old lady down the street, but they were all informal. It wasn't until high school that I really studied music intensely. At that point I decided to have a rock band but also studied classical piano and orchestral percussion. The rock band taught me more about playing by ear, composing and improvising, and when I went on to audition to study music in college, I really wouldn't have aced the ear-training tests without the rock experience. It was in the 1980s, and I had an all-girl band that mostly played Beatles covers. That wasn't very hip back then-Van Halen was more in vogue. I was also really into Yes, Led Zeppelin, Emerson, Lake and Palmer and some of the new wave stuff like the Eurythmics and Kate Bush. (Deep down, I loved classical music and was very much obsessed with Beethoven, but that wasn't very hip either). When I heard Philip Glass the sound really blew my mind.
Once I hit college, I studied composition, piano performance and percussion and had the chance to meet Philip Glass, Karel Husa, Witold Lutoslawski, Loris Chobanian and other great composers; they were highly influential. Eventually I heard some of the 20th century tango composers like Piazzolla and Ginastera, and that caused me to pick up the accordion. The rest is history.
AB: How did you end up in Montana? When and under what circumstances did you and Bill meet?
BB: I love to hike and it seemed that all my time off brought me out West. I was interested in composing for wildlife documentary films, and became involved in the International Wildlife Film Festival in Montana. This was in the late 80s/early 90s. I moved there with John Floridis, another fine musician. We ran a concert series, and that was how I met Bill. (I always like to tell folks that my ex introduced us, just to get the raised eyebrows.) Bill and I became friends, and then over time it evolved into a long-distance relationship. Most of our "courtship" involved drawing each other cartoons.
In the last few years I had the chance to work with two wonderful female composers/improvisers in Montana, Beth Youngblood and Janet Haarvig, and we had a little trio named "Ouzel" of Cello, Violin and Accordion/Piano. That was a blast, and so inspirational. That group is something I miss immensely.
AB: How did you transition from piano to accordion?
BB: Being a pianist made the transition easier, and I think having the composition background allowed me to think more in terms of "parts" to fill in textures or pads. I always wanted to play cello or violin, and in a way, the accordion has been my way of playing an instrument where it's possible to draw more expression from a note and give it an "airy" quality. There are quotes by multiple composers that say something like "it is the silences between the notes where the art resides". One of the best compliments I ever received was from a listener that said he thought that I "worked in the envelope" of the sound.
AB: A very nice compliment indeed! What is your musical approach when playing with Bill? He plays with so much finesse and touch is it difficult for you to work your way into the music?
BB: It's really one of the challenges I've had with coming up with accompaniments. There have been many times where Bill has asked me to add something on a tune, but with everything already happening, I don't always "hear" another part. On those occasions, I choose to not contribute, as it seems that whatever I would add would actually detract. There have been other times where he hears a part, and records it with a slide guitar or e-bow, and I then "learn" what he wants. Often it might be a combination of the two.
AB: With your varied musical background, where do you see your music in five years?
BB: I've been so busy working with the National Park Service and working towards a Master's Degree that I haven't had time to work on my music lately. I'm hoping to get back into it more this summer. I would love to write more for my trio Ouzel in Missoula (with Beth Youngblood on fiddle and Janet Haarvig on cello), and work to integrate mountain music more into that. On that front I'm hoping to learn banjo and get back to playing dulcimer again.I'm also looking forward to exploring other sounds to integrate into Bill's music, such as more percussive instruments and perhaps organ. It would be really fun to come full circle and work piano and percussion back into things. Those are the instruments that I started with.
AB: Thank you Bill and Beth for sharing a bit of your musical world with Radical Notes.
You can find out more about Bill Mize as well as buy his albums go to his website: https://www.billmize.com/
Top photo by Butch Worrell, other photos of Bill and Beth by Andy Burke.
Andy Burke (r) with Phil "Hump" Hamilton, post Experience Music Project Museum. Seattle, Washington.
Born in Nashville, Andy Burke is a writer and musician who first saw the light
at age eleven during a post-hurricane Dora, 30-minute long Beatles’ concert at
Jacksonville’s Gator Bowl. He lives in Bend, Oregon where he studies music theory and jazz piano.