Patrick Ross Q & A

-By Shaun Machia
When you were 19 you moved away from Vermont, studied in Nashville and traveled all around the world playing music.   What made you want to come back to Vermont?
True,  I left Canaan at the age of 19 after living at home for one year.  During that one year between graduating high school and moving to Nashville, I toured with a Vermont band called, “Smokin’ Grass”.   A bluegrass band that blended elements of folk and roots rock.  I was asked to join the band on a cross country tour.  Needless to say, I was more than excited to participate.   It was a great way to see the massiveness and diversity of America while developing my skills as a young musician.  We started in Upper State New York and ended up at the High Sierra Music Festival in Quincy, California after many stops including Tennessee, Colorado and Nevada. After that,  I was offered a job in Nashville to play in a Celtic Rock band, “Ceili Rain” The fiddle player was bowing out, so she recruited me to replace her.  My audition was over the phone with the band leader, Bob Halligan.  I moved to Nashville and became room mates with another fiddle player (Casey Driessen) I had met along the way.  I lived in Nashville for 4 years practiced until my fingers bled and made lots of great connections while continuing to perform all around the U.S. and Canada.

My curiosity motivated me to try new things, so I moved to Colorado and lived a Rocky Mountain life for 3 or so years.  The entire time, continuing to develop my articulation skills.  My time in Nashville taught me that I was good at expressing myself musically but not as good with words.   I was 23 years old, in charge of a ski lift in Steamboat Springs and got to sit on the top of a mega mountain in a warm hut for hours every day, thinking and writing about what I wanted my life to be.   I’ll never forget the views of both the mountains and my future.  I had put so much energy into playing “likable” music that I had neglected the enjoyment of being a young man with the entire world to discover.
I eventually moved from my perch and followed through with my back packing trip of 12 European countries as a street fiddler.  That trip prepared me for the next one.  I lived in Honduras and worked as a music teacher and carpenter at an orphanage.  It was then that I started slowly turning back toward my home in Vermont.Now I’m 31 years old and will be a father for the first time in May.  My twenties were loaded with discoveries, internal and external, not all of which were sweet.  Discoveries that reminded me of where I came from and why living in a place that has 4 seasons is so meaningful.  Plus, Vermont has lots of good water, fertile soil and people who know why firewood is like prayer.My hope is to stay in Vermont and collaborate with the finest of dedicated, artistic people.  To work together and construct recordings and performances that leave listeners with a feeling of good health, vitality and a sense that music is something that, when done well, can better peoples’ lives in ways that are hard to describe.   I’m not just a fiddler.  I am a performer and a conversationalist.  Playing fiddle is how I started on the path of becoming a man who worships hard working people, firewood and potluck dinners.
You’ve been touring with Rusty Dewees.  He’s known for his blue collar comedy through his character, “The Logger”.   Can you tell me about what touring with a stand up comedian has been like and how you as a performer have had to adapt your skills?
What Rusty Dewees does for people is something I had never seen first hand until I started touring with him.  I had heard of “The Logger” and his antics for years.  The Logger’s character is one version of an overzealous Vermont Redneck.  I grew up in Canaan amongst quite a few “Good Ol’ Boys”.  Rusty Dewees takes a professional approach to making people laugh.  Laughing is the key.  I know people, friends of mine actually, who don’t get what Rusty does because they consider him a transplant from Philadelphia who pokes fun of us Vermonters in an offensive way.
I’m in his band.  He plays guitar, sings and plays drums.  I play fiddle and sing.  We’re touring a variety show.  It’s a mix of songs, comedy and other skits.  When Rusty is doing his solo comedy, we other performers get to watch from the side lines.  Watching the audience has taught me a great deal about the diversity of Vermonters.  Watching a full house laugh uncontrollably does something to a person.  The sound of 800 simultaneous laughs it is like pouring the warmest, best tasting cup of coffee on a bitter cold morning.  When people find themselves laughing along with lots of other people, it gives them a sense of hope.  It lets them forget about the bills, their aunt’s cancer, their kid’s bad grades and up coming college debts.  “Rusty is able to maintain the interest of an audience in a way that keeps people on the edge of their seats, never knowing what might come next, but understanding that laughing makes them feel good and knowing he will make them laugh.”
Being part of his theatrical skits have taught me a great deal about timing.   How to use silence and space and when and how to use different ways to say lines.
He has also taught me a great deal on how to manage rehearsals.  How to get things done so as to put the quality of the show at the fore front.
You seem to draw on the connection between the bowed instrument and the human voice.   Care to speak on that?
I first started playing fiddle at the age of 5.  For the longest time I never thought of myself as a singer.   It wasn’t until early high school.  I found out that I could leave school and go on trips with the music department if I signed up for band or chorus.  I didn’t play what was considered a band instrument so I joined chorus.  Come to find out, I had a good ear for harmony.  Mostly because my mother made me go to church as a boy.  Out of boredom I would sing along with the congregation and enjoy the anonymity of it.   Now that I think of it, I did go to Catholic School for first and second grade.
Every Friday our class would get to spend a little bit of time around the church organ.  The organ was cool because it could play long, sustained notes.  I would hold one or two notes down with my left hand and play simple melodies with my right.
The bow is the breath of any stringed instrument.  Playing an instrument without frets allows for the bending of a pitch much like a horn.  One thing I learned while studying at Lyndon Institute was the important of incorporating breath marks in my fiddling.  Breath marks are written in for wind players.  They are written in to recommend a wind player inhales.   But when a musician who isn’t playing a wind instrument (mandolin, cello, piano) incorporates those same types of inhales, it doesn’t something to the sound and over all effect.  When the brain is getting all the oxygen it needs, it’s usually going to run on all cylinders.  Being aware of the breath is when soulfulness can find its way into things.
You once had a conversation about Art with President Obama.  How did you meet him? What happened?
When Mr. Obama was on his campaign run in 2007 I was in Berlin, NH on the same day as he was.  I arrived to the rally at the same time as a peer of mine.  She and I were both well dressed and were catching up on things when we walked in, Obama’s campaign people saw that we were in our twenties and well dressed.  They escorted us down to the front row of seating so that we would be on camera.  We’re were not a couple but looked like we could be on camera.  It was a Q&A with Sen. Obama and he was handing the mic around to different people with their hands up.   All the questions seemed to have the same answer of hope, hard work and “We can do this”.  Toward the end I decided to raise my hand.  He handed me the mic.  I asked him what his favorite three movies of all time were.
After giving me a look of puzzlement, as if to ask himself if that as a planted question by one of his opponents, he answered with, “The God Father”, “One Flew Over the Coo coo’s Nest” and “Gone with the Wind”.   He then asked me what my favorite movie of all time was. I said I liked silent films.   He smiled.
When did you know that you wanted to be a musician? Was that something that you ever came to a self-conscious decision about?
I knew that when I was very young that I was driven by music,  My mother would keep me with her from room to room while she was doing the house keeping of the motel rooms.  I can remember how the vacuum cleaner sang loudly.  It kept a straight tone and I could sing along with it without even being heard by anyone other than myself.   It helped me learn harmony by singing with a fixed tone.  
Part of my motivation also came from me wanting to do something that my brother couldn’t do.  As a kid, having only one brother and he being 6 years older made for an interesting relationship mixed with adoration and abhorrence.  When I was fourteen I decided to do music as a living.  I started practicing in a way that competed with myself.   I could hear where I was and where I wanted to be.
I went fishing with my uncle Randal after my dad passed away – he was a very nice guy—and I said to him that I was thinking of not bothering with college and just carrying on with the music. I asked him if he thought that was a good idea, and he said, “Yeah, just follow your own heart.  I don’t see you being a  pencil pusher.”  That has meant many things to me as a young adult.
You have a lot of family members that were fiddle players. Could you talk a little about that?
They were called violoneux, which is a French term for fiddler. My grandfather and my dad were violoneux. And on my mom’s side we had a lot of singers. They just sang traditional French Canadian folk songs, which were just really about weekend entertainment, not unlike the Cajun communities—“We work hard all week, it’s the weekend, let’s have some fun”—self-entertainment society. So the violins would come out, and there’d be some tap dancing, and singing these old folk songs.
When you have that around you when you’re a little kid, it’s great. You actually get a chance to hear something real, rather than somebody playing you records of something real. It’s just a pure form to be exposed to. I imagine it’d be like if one of your parents or a friend of the family was a really great storyteller and just made up a bunch of stuff that might actually be a greater experience than going through the normal classics that every kid would read. So it’s the difference between reality and a picture of reality.
So what projects to you see surfacing to the top for the upcoming year?
HOT Flannel and Rock Farmer are the two bands that I’ll be writing music arrangements for.  HOT Flannel draws from the acoustic side of Appalachian Music with hints of Gypsy, Swing and folk songs.   There’s a focus on the acoustic instrumental abilities of each player.   HOT Flannel also involves the passing around of the mandolin and guitar from player to player.  Matt Schragg plays mandolin and tenor guitar.   Patt Melvin plays stand up bass and guitar.  Doug Perkins plays guitar and mandolin and I play fiddle, guitar, mandolin and cello.  We all share the singing too.
Rock Farmer is a power trio which involves me playing slide guitar and singing with Anthony Bartolinni on drums and Ben Rubenfeld on electric bass.
I’ll be doing  more than a handful of gigs with Bow Thayer and Perfect Trainwreck.   He plays electric banjo and has an extensive original song book that he draws from with his full rock band.  I’ll be playing fiddle and slide.
I’ll be working with Rusty Dewees on and off through out the year.  He’s a blue collar comedian and plays guitar, drums and sings well.  He’s also known as, “The Logger”.   He has an extensive Vermont following and brings lots of colorful people out to see his shows.   I’ll be playing fiddle, singing and doing other various stage performances with him.
Keeghan Nolan is a female vocalist.  She’s recently singed with a Nashville Record Label.  A collaboration with her might involve me playing guitars and singing harmony.  In the likes of Emmylou Harris and Buddy Miller.   Songs about American Folklore with a Country Blues vibe.
Weddings usually keep me pretty busy though.   Vermont is a wedding destination state for good reason.  A lot of wedding resorts refer their clients to me.  I add an acoustic fiddle and violin touch to their ceremonies and cocktail hour.   If a bride and groom want a live band for their reception I can find just the right musicians to help make it  night to remember.   Other times, I’ll DJ the event with my own PA system.  Already being at a wedding ceremony as the musician allows me to offer DJ’ing the reception at a competitive rate.   I like making people dance mostly…. it’s how I study.
What thoughts do you have on the music industry as a whole?
We find ourselves dragging our way through a lot of popular culture at any given time—it’s just the way it is—and certain things just get all the attention, usually from money buying promotion – and you look at it, and say, “Why is this getting all the attention?” Well, nobody really knows, other than it’s popular. And then somebody will bring a project around like Alabama Shakes  and it’s just beautiful music with a great bedrock of tradition, fantastic melodies, virtuosity and not about sex, or what people are wearing, or who they’re marrying. It’s just the music. Then you get sort of a collective synchronicity kicking into place saying “We’ve had enough with the tabloid—we just want a nice record to listen to.” So that’s why these things become popular.
What change or changes throughout music history interest you most?
There was a lovely thing happening around the 1950’s: the weekend dance. Kids would get together and really look forward to the weekend dance.  They’d play sexy slow songs that were often in the 6/8 time, you know [sings]
“And there was a chance to dance cheek to cheek and maybe on a hot sweaty night.”
I always liked that aspect of rock and roll culture in contrast to Led Zeppelin, AC/DC and Hendrix ,etc… When people think of rock and roll they usually think of up-tempo and fast rhythms, but there was a lot of really slow sexy stuff back then that appeals to me today. And for that matter, the fast rock and roll was not that fast—it had a lot of roll in it. You listen to [sings]:
“keepa knockin’ but you can’t come in, come back tomorrow and try again.”
It’s not fast, you know.
And then something happened in the 70s where suddenly it all became eighth notes [sings]: “do do do do do…”
Then the video technology caught up with audio technology and MTV took over the ’90’s  until the Internet became common place.  Now, smart phones and easy access is a double edged sword.  People don’t need to leave their house, or car or office to enjoy music.  Theres an infinite amount of it all the time.  But with the increase in technology also comes the evolution of live sound for musicians who play well live and can employ proper sound design and amplification.  That’s where my focus is heading.
How do you think music spreads?
Without any doubt, if you do good work and people like it it’s gonna maybe influence somebody: they’re gonna say, “Wow, look at Patrick—who would have thought? He pulled this off pretty good, and people seem to like it, so let’s start with that and go to another place.”
That’s actually the meaning of folk music. If you can unveil the stereotype for a minute, the folk tradition is the passing on of information. It’s as simple as that. It’s like I’ll sing something this way, you hear it, you’ll like it; you’ll whisper it to him, and he goes to the club and does a rendition that in fact is a little different. And that’s how people have built careers on it. We all learn something because of it.


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    “It’s not just the technical expertise or the mastery of an amazing variety of styles that puts Vermont fiddler Patrick Ross several steps above and beyond practically all other players; Ross’s eclectic taste and raw energy make sparks and create musical magic every time his bow hits the strings.”- Robert Resnik – VPR –