Casey Driessen - Fiddler dancing on a highwire


Casey Driessen should feel at home at Fiddle 2014. The annual Edinburgh gathering of fiddlers of all ages, all levels of ability and various nationalities is the sort of event that used to fill Driessen’s summers between his early school years and studies at Berklee College of Music in Boston.


“I didn’t so much choose the fiddle as have one thrust upon me,” says the Minnesota-born musician who has turned the bluegrass style he grew up playing into a passport to jazz, folk, country and through the wonders of modern technology, the one-man funk band who can bring Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder songs alive in 3-D sound.


With a banjo-playing father and a pedal steel guitar-playing uncle, it was deemed only fitting that the six-year-old Casey should join family bluegrass sessions and the fiddle, being available in children’s sizes and not as heavy as banjo or pedal steel guitar, suited the line-up.


So began, with a year or two of Suzuki method violin training, an adventure that saw hours and hours of playing at home expand into fiddle camps and bluegrass festivals beyond the Chicago area where his parents laid down one law (a challenge they made occurs later): you can stay up as late as you like as long as you’re jammin’.


And jam the youngster did, with, among others, an itinerant squad of like-minded, similarly-aged pickers and fiddlers that included mandolin genius Chris Thile and his Nickel Creek chums, Sean and Sara Watkins, and Cody Kilby, who went on to play guitar and banjo with bluegrass superstar Ricky Skaggs. Driessen formed his first band, Minor Bluegrass, with three other underage players at the age of twelve and around the same time while, like Thile, being driven to gigs by his father, he began developing his improvising skills by playing bebop.


At Berklee his horizons broadened further as he took advantage of his fellow students’ CD collections. “Those were the days when everyone took all their CDs to college,” he says, aware that the music file-storing generation might find the notion quaint. “And what was great about that was that they’d all done the weeding out of, let’s say, albums of less importance within their chosen genres. I had a collection of prime bluegrass and jazz and my new friends had the same in funk or R & B and I got to explore it all.”


Other avenues of exploration such as drink, drugs and smoking cigarettes were closed through an arrangement his parents had made that saw Driessen foreswear all of these things until he was at least twenty-one in exchange for $1000. “It wasn’t a great sacrifice, really, it was just to stop me getting started on bad habits too early,” he says. “And I kept my side of the deal.”


It was shortly after moving to Nashville from Boston that Driessen discovered the attractions of the effects pedal. Playing as the main soloist in a pop band, he looked at other instrumentalists in that role and noticed that they all had pedals. So he got one that enabled him to record twenty seconds of music onto a loop. At first he used this as a practising tool, recording a song’s chord changes and then improvising over them. But as many others have discovered, one pedal leads to another and he found himself building layers of sound and rather enjoying the results.


“It didn’t become part of my act, if you like, until I was at a fiddle camp in 2009 when Michael Jackson died and I was due to give a performance next day,” he says. “I thought a tribute was in order so I went back to my room and listened to Billie Jean as I’d never listened to it before. I wanted to incorporate the bass line, chords, backing vocals, everything, and see if I could execute this on the violin.”


Mission accomplished, he set out adding to his repertoire and effectively working towards his third album, The Singularity, on which he sings and plays all the parts on items including Tom Waits’ Murder in the Red Barn and a percussion instrumental, Tanuki Attack.


“It’ll never replace the thrill of playing with other musicians and the magic that can happen spontaneously in that situation,” says Driessen, who has played with luminaries including banjo sorcerer Bela Fleck, bassist Viktor Krauss and master of all American vernacular music, Darrell Scott. “But it’s fun and challenging. I never pre-record anything because I think the audience should see the whole thing being created, stored and looped in the moment, and anything else would be less than satisfying. Working the pedals in sequence means you have to get your footsteps in order and because everything happens as the audience sits watching, you could say it’s like dancing – on a highwire.”


From The Herald, November 12, 2014.


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