Before we go any further I would like you all to watch this wonderful video that Sally has so generously (and exclusively I might add) given permission to TWiE to host. The video is a documentary style insight into her love of the weissenborn. It also features an intermit performance of the TWiE award winning single "Na Geadna Fiadaine".
Sally Van Meter; a name synonymous with the Dobro and Blue Grass music you might say and rightly so, she has after all won a Grammy for playing the resophonic guitar and played with & for the best in the business, but with the release of her first all weissenborn EP “Tre Mistiche” we might have to rethink that notion and preconceptions. For “Tre Mistiche” is possibly the most charming, elegant, heartwarming collection of weissenborn instrumentals ever recorded. It will make you fall in love with this wonderful instrument all over again as she lovingly and tenderly plays timeless instrumentals that will delight and transfix you. Winner of TWiE’s “Best Weissenborn EP” and “Best Weissenborn Single” of 2015 it was essential I talk to this wonderfully talented lady and ask her how this love affair with the weissenborn started and blossomed over many years in to this delightful collection of aires, ballads and waltzes that we have before us today.
What pick-up do you use for live performances on your original Weissenborns?
"I do not use a pickup (I know people might be wincing right now), just a microphone, and even then, I like to keep it simple. I really want only what the guitar will acoustically give. I most often use a Shure 57. There is just something about a workhorse simple mic that captures what I want to hear and feel from a Weissenborn. I do have a sunrise, which is what I would typically use, but I much prefer to let the room respond to the guitar through the mic".
Any major tone sculpting or FX blended in there?
"No. Much of the reverb you hear is from the room, with just a little bit added in. No sculpting or effects, edits, fixes, etc. It is what it is: a live performance left alone. The one thing that did happen with 'Margaret’s Waltz' was that initially it was just Gerry on guitar and me on Weissenborn, but then after we tracked the one take, it felt so good, and Gerry proposed letting him add a soprano ukulele and a single rhythm track on an older Martin 12-string. And I fell head over heels for that. It fit so perfectly. There was balance; a beautiful layered colour added in by doing that and I am happy he asked to do that".
I take it you use finger picks on your Weissenborn being a life long Dobro professional?
"Mostly yes, but occasionally during a recording session where there is no pressure for an audience to hear every note loud enough, I will take them off for a fatter sound. It takes a few minutes for me to get used to that, but I often end up playing with a little more intent, at least it feels that way to me. My heart and head relate a little differently when not using picks. I am using them on 'Tre Mistiche'. I wear them low on thumb and fingers in order to still have the same attack as if I were using the pads of my fingers. I think that comes from being a guitar player as a kid. Some habits are for me of the diehard kind".
I was going to ask your choice of tone bar until I did a little bit of research and found that you were the person behind the design and concept for the Shubb SP-3 tone bar, wow! “Designed for playing Bluegrass”, the advert says. Do you use it on your Weissenborns too?
"I use the Shubb SP3 all the time. It is the one that fits my hand, the one that I don’t have to even think about what I am doing when playing. It also gives me the tone production I want with no effort. Rick Shubb came to me about twenty-four years ago and asked me to help him design a bar that Dobro players would be happy to use, and the SP3 is what we came up with. Nice radius and good fit for my hand. I have tried others, but they just don't feel right in my hand. I think bar choice is personal, and what works for one player might be different for another. I just look for warmth in the bar, which I tend to find in the SP3. I have a nice stash of the pre-stainless steel version that is chrome and nickel-plated, those are the ones I love. They just have something different in their feel and their sound connection that a stainless steel one does not have".
Photo Credit: Brad Bechtel
Talk us through the cover artwork and your current passion for photography.
"I had about two weeks to pull together the design and layout for Tre Mistiche, so I thought about the title, and what that meant to me. Photography is a passion indeed for me. I find calm and happiness when I am out shooting images. For me imagery exists in both music and photography, and they have a dual relationship that is very human in nature. If I am not playing, teaching, etc, I am always out and about with a camera to see what can happen in nature. I went for a drive into the next town, and on the way home drove through a semi-blizzard but drove home, got my camera, and drove back to a place where I always see two horses, one black, the other white. I had long wanted to shoot that image, and the conditions were just right to get the feel I was looking for in that image, and that day during the snowstorm, there were two black horses, and the white one as well. So it all seemed to fit into how I felt about doing this recording. I shot the images, actually, I froze my tuckuss off to get those images, but the results were well worth it. I knew I had the image to go with the philosophy behind the title of the recording-, which was for me a ‘small congress’. ‘Tre Mistiche’, in Italian, means the "The Mystical Three", which for me is a Weissenborn, a guitarist, and I all playing together. In the liner notes, I explain the whole relationship of this in terms of why I decided to make such a raw and simple recording. To me music is mystical, in terms of how it just happens for me. Having the Weissenborn be the raison d’etre, the sole purpose for making beautiful sound came together instantly".
So where and when were the tracks recorded? I believe some were recorded in the UK?
And finally regarding the choice of songs for the EP, can you quickly talk us though the tracks, why you chose them, and what significance they may hold for you.
"Five of the tunes/songs were recorded here in Colorado near my home at a small studio and at the Boulder Theatre for the live performance track with Led Kaapana. I have always loved the feel of ballads, in particular Celtic ballads and Aires for their narrative feel. Guitarist extraordinaire Gerry O’Beirne and I got together while he was touring, and he taught me the two Aires, ‘Na Geadna Fiadaine', ‘My Lagan Love’, and of course the prettiest waltz on earth, ‘Margaret’s Waltz’. There are narratives within those tunes, and with 'Margaret’s Waltz', it was actually written back in the 50s by Pat Shaw, who was an Englishman who resided in Scotland. He apparently wrote that tune for a Scottish woman (not named Margaret- at least that is my understanding). The live performance tune 'Hard Times (Come Again No More)' is a very old civil war- era song written by Stephen Foster. I had always heard it sung, but never done as an instrumental, and with the legendary Led Kaapana, it just seemed like a good idea to see what would happen to play it for the first time together live, and also I believe the first time for him ever. I think it worked perfectly. The two Johnny Dickinson tunes, 'Little Mischief', and 'Feathers of Fen Rother' were the different sounding tunes. Johnny is a Northumberland slide player, a very lyrical player, and I always love the tunes he writes. He is playing Bottleneck alongside my slide. We decided to go into a small studio while I was over in the UK, and those were two of the tunes we had been performing together live at gigs. There is a rich Borders feel to the music he writes, and I am a big fan of the small pipes as well".
"The final song 'Little Satchel' is with Bruce Molksy, who is no stranger to the British Isles. Most folks know of Bruce for his amazing old time fiddle playing. We are longtime friends, and I wanted to be able to do some kind of recording on the fly with him, and the song we chose was this one. I did want at least one vocal on this recording, and one that told a traditional story. I suppose if there is to be significance here, I knew that I only wanted traditional tunes/songs for this recording. I am a champion for evocative tunes and songs. It is what I want from music. There are more available to release, but those will happen at a later date, possibly sort of a Volume Two thing".
How did you choose the musicians you play with on the EP? Johnny Dickinson is an old friend from Northumberland England who you have known for 30 years I believe.
"Johnny, who comes from the market town of Morpeth, is a very dear friend of mine. We met around thirty years ago in London at a gig of mine at the 100 Club and became fast friends and musical cohorts for life. We just knew we would be friends for a lifetime. Johnny and I had been doing a bit of gigging in England, so it just seemed natural to go into the studio with him on the spur of the moment. I also spent a few years inviting my other friends to go in and track without any planned-out time, much in part due to our friendship and through being able to speak the same language in our playing. I didn’t sit down and write a list of preferences, I just went with the moment, and when they were in my town, I called them up and asked if they would like to go spend a few hours in the studio with me to see what could happen. The whole recording, even the live track with Led Kaapana was done with that in mind. I very much wanted an ‘in the moment’ live experience; I hoped that would translate into a solid recording release, and it did".
Photo Credit: David Shane Duke
Reading the EP’s footnotes it seems very evident that this whole experience has been very spiritual and cathartic for you. You talk very openly and candidly about how the Weissenborn “makes your heart sing”. So “the BIG question” for my readers and me is: How did your love affair with the Weissenborn ignite?
"I have to say, the spark for playing Weissenborn began with Lowell George's style of slide back in his days with Little Feat, and then the ignition - the real flame - happened the first time I ever heard David Lindley's recording of 'Look So Good' - that tune and his tone and his playing just slayed me. I could not stop listening to his playing because I immediately felt a deeper connection with that sound. I had already been playing electric lap slide, Resonator, and bottleneck style for quite a few years, but this sound was different. It was so full, so rich, and so expressive. Playing slide on this particular instrument indeed does make my heart sing, it completely grounds me as a player, and as a person. It is where I am most happy in life. That might sound odd to some, but I am willing to bet there are other players who feel similar to this feeling when they land on the instrument they were meant to play. I very quickly acquired a very old killer Style 1 and that changed everything for me".
I saw you were at RESO summit this year teaching and playing as you have many years previous, but if my eyes didn’t mistake me you snuck a Weissenborn in there! (Is that even allowed hehe :-)?
"Actually, the folks who run ResoSummit had heard about the new recording, and requested I teach a few classes on it. It was a pretty successful venture. Both classes were fully attended, and they were all keen to understand this instrument as fully as possible. It is very different in nature from a resonator slide guitar".
I understand you still regularly teach and hold seminars for playing Dobro. Have you done any for Weissenborn?
"Yes, I teach a fair amount of the national camps, and a few here and there in Europe/UK as well. Teaching Weissenborn is unique in terms of how few people really do play them comparatively speaking, and also in understanding those differences between a resonator and a non-resonator style of playing. I will be teaching Weissenborn classes here and there, but likely not on a regular basis. I like to keep it special for me, you know"?
I suppose we should talk about your early formative years as a teenager messing around with open d tuning. Tell us how you ended up being firmly and possibly eternally associated with the Dobro. Was this by design or circumstance?
"An early childhood exposure to a great traditional Hawaiian steel player my father was in a trio with, plus circumstances leading to a sort of confirmation might be the most honest way to begin to answer that. As a teenager, I used to sit in my living room, beginning with bottleneck style, but through another circumstance, a friend of my older brother’s gave me a lap steel, a bar, and said, "Try this”. I did and that became what made the most innate sense to me musically speaking. At that point, there was no turning back to playing bottleneck style, even though I really loved that sound. Those two things in my early years I do believe put me on this single path. Probably the one final incident that ended up establishing my place as a Dobro player was at the age of twenty joining a musically innovative band in the San Francisco Bay Area and working with them for many years, and beginning to do studio session work".
Only one solo album in your career to date back in 1991”All In Good Time”, produced by Jerry Douglas, looking back now many years later what memories do you hold dearest from that period in your career?
"That is a tough question to answer honestly. I was much younger, and in some ways felt like I was struggling to become an individual both personally and professionally speaking. I had confidence about my playing confirmed by some very respected players, and the support system they provided was, in retrospect, powerful. I think the memories that hold the dearest for me are those moments of playing with so many musicians, and that they taught me so much. Touring in Europe and the UK will always hold a most special place for me, as my music world became so much larger. I think that most American musicians are cognisant of the change that happens when you meet and play with other musicians around the world. This is life changing in such a positive way and it is hard to explain".
Only one solo recording maybe, but countless session work and collaborations down the years. Tell us some of your proudest and most rewarding projects you’ve worked on.
"Now you are really testing my memory! My first solo recording made me proud to realize that there were many people who appreciated the music work I had done up to that point in time, and this made me want to go farther afield when it came to playing slide. One session I am very honored to have been a part of was to do the last recording session at Grisman’s house for Jerry Garcia. I had been a longtime admirer of his playing, and to have him request me for the session specifically is something I will always cherish. He passed away less than a month later, and yet it is still the conversation we had during the session that day that is very present to me. Touring and recording with Jorma Kaukonen was a really special project to be included on- quite an honor. After touring for a long summer season, Jorma asked if I would work on his ‘Stars In My Crown’ recording and I was thrilled to be included. 'The Great Dobro Sessions' is something I am very proud of. To have that recording earn all of the featured artists on the album a Grammy was very special. To be one of those featured artist on a Grammy winning recording is wonderful in so many ways it is hard to delineate for you here the reasons why. Some people would define it as maybe a career benchmark, but it is much more than that for me. In nearly all the sessions and collaborations I have been so fortunate to be a part of, I am both humbled and happy to have been any part of it all. It is not an easy life to remain committed to being a professional musician as a calling; there are so many gray areas as to how to handle this kind of career. So many musicians I know accept that thick skin and desire to make music are part of this package, as well as a willingness to set aside the kind of standards in my country as to what constitutes successfulness. I can’t quit music- it is as simple as that. Oh, and lest I forget, the new solo recording I feel very proud of as well"!
“The Weissenborn and Nashville”; do any people you know play and record with the Weissenborn in Nashville these days? Do you think there is a small but definite rise in its popularity in American music these days, or is that just wishful thinking?
"Interesting question. I do not really feel that it is a ‘wishful thinking’ kind of thing. Most players I know have some amount of time on Weissenborns, but it is still not yet your typical instrument to bring to a session. That is not to say it does not happen. Currently, I have noticed that there does seems to be an interest in the sound of Weissenborns and they are appearing more in sessions, but I like to hope that it is less of the ‘favorite flavor of the month’ thing, and more of a musician looking for something that offers up a sound they have been searching for. I don’t really do the Nashville scene, as I live quite far from Nashville, but players like Jerry (Douglas) have always been open to finding that unique sound/feel for working with singers. I know he has included Weissenborns on his recordings, but not really in performance. As to a rise in popularity, I know that players like me often like to use Weissenborns with singer-songwriters as they compliment the words and the feel so easily. Another thing I have noticed is that since putting out what might be the first all Weissenborn recording this year, it seems to have garnered quite a bit of attention, to the point that the amount of Weissenborn-specific media articles have been showing up more than usual. I am so happy I released Tre Mistiche at this time. There was not really Weissenborn-only things happening, so to have an all Weissenborn recording seems to have hit a new high note with musicians and music appreciators alike".
Have you ever been approached to do any Weissenborn session or band work?
"I am often approached to do Weissenborn session work, which makes me very happy. I think songwriters are beginning to see the kind of sonic opportunities that a Weissenborn offers for them, the kinds of colours and emotive qualities that they would be happy with on their recordings. I do use the Weissenborn live when I can, but that is mostly in trio or duo work, as it doesn’t work as well in a live performance situation with a load of players on stage. I suppose it depends on the situation of whom you are working with at the time".
You are good friends with one of TWiE’s firm favourites, Ed Gerhard I believe? Which is very fascinating to me as I think you both have very similar styles of playing. You both have great touch and a lyrical presence in your playing, “lyrical instrumentals without words” if you will. I have always felt the Weissenborn had a unique way of voicing its self that was in actuality singing to you for want of a better description. Am I talking wish-wash?
"Absolutely not! Ed is a good pal, a comrade of sorts in the quest for beauty in music. He has great soul and such a lovely tone. My heart melts when I listen to his playing. Ed and I met while both teaching at Jorma’s Fur Peace Ranch. I had not met him before that and instantly I knew what a serious musician he was and is- I fell deep into his playing quickly. He also taught me how to make bats fly straight down within inches of the ground in darkness by tossing gravel straight up in the air and let me tell you, that was some fun! You are right in your assessment of how a Weissenborn sings with you, and for you- however you look at it, this is indeed what it does, at least for me".
What Weissenborns do you own and play on “Tre Mistiche” i understand you are a sucker for early originals?
"I own a very old Style 1. I got it around thirty years ago. I have been told it is around 1918-1920 era. This is the one I prefer, and is the Weissenborn that is almost solely used on Tre Mistiche, no pickup, using just a good old ribbon mic. I also own a custom made Scheerhorn Weissenborn copy from about the year 2000. That is the one I take on the road with me, it is set up with a pickup, etc, and is a bit more durable for the road than my old one. Also, on 'Tre Mistiche' I borrowed an older late-twenties Weissenborn for the UK sessions on two tunes I recorded with Johnny Dickinson at a little studio in Penistone, somewhere near or up in the Peaks district area. I love that guitar as well. It is a little quieter than my Style 1, but it offered that same sweetness that I wanted. I do not travel abroad with my own guitar, it is just too delicate to travel with, but I certainly do miss having it when abroad or touring".
Musically are you still very active gigging or doing session work these days?
"I am musically pretty active lately. I gig on the road a little less these days- I much prefer the studio and session work. I find that I have to focus less on being in front of an audience and can really focus on the music. I think I have always had that element guiding me through forty years of playing music for a living. The studio is more intimate for me. That is not to say I don’t like performing, but these days touring for music feels more difficult to achieve what I want in the end game. There are great musicians and singer-songwriters that I tour with and that is because I love to play music with them- it is a pleasure to be able to play with those whose music you personally relate to and often there is an aliveness with those players that keeps me inspired to keep gigging. I also produce other musicians’ recordings, and I really love that experience as well".
Are you going to tour, gig or promote 'Tre Mistiche' in anyway?
"I am not sure at this point. I will likely be doing some gigs if the time and the opportunities to play with those particular players arise. It just has to be the right timing I suppose. I would love to do some gigs with Johnny Dickinson again in the future, doing all the stuff from the recording, and then some. He and I did a small tour that was well appreciated by his fans and mine as well. And it was really fun. Very alive and honest gigs; I like those kinds of gigs".
Are you going to keep the EP “under the radar” or are there plans to release it on any digital formats, iTunes etc?
"Yes, I have just been very busy, and as I don’t have a manager, I tend to let things go by the wayside when it comes to promoting myself. It will eventually be on CD Baby and iTunes. I think I just have an aversion to the business side of music, always have. Maybe that will change someday. Not really sure about a digital format, but I know that is looming on the horizon. I am one who still loves what vinyl offers, meaning the sound, the artwork, the liner notes, all those things you used to get back in the days before digital".
What are some of your favourite pieces of Weissenborn music?
"Anything Ed Gerhard has done, all of David Lindley’s Weissenborn stuff, whether it is acoustic or not. I like Ed’s tunes because he wrote them and it is still a bit unusual to find tunes written specifically for a Weissenborn. There really is not much out there to find, but I know that will change. I also really love players like Debashish Battacharya, who plays with such heart, even though he does not specifically play a Weissenborn. I guess I could finish this answer by saying that anything that comes from the heart of a good Weissenborn or slide player will ultimately be something I favour".
The tunings on EP- are they exclusively open D? Any capo usage?
"All the songs were played in DADF#AD tuning in the key of D, no capo. Capos don’t really work well on a Weissenborn, as the action is most often really low, plus putting on a capo really takes so much away from the sound. That is the last thing I want to happen"!
So my last question to you, can we expect any more Weissenborn recordings released in the future as a follow up or accompaniment to this EP?
"I still have a small vault of Weissenborn recordings that were done in the way 'Tre Mistiche' was, but I am heading in the direction of a recording that uses both those, and possibly an original tune or two, and a little more vocals. I do like to sing, and it is just a matter of choosing the songs that fit what I do. I will still approach the next one in the same manner - all live and no fixes, or at least as close to that experience as I can get".
Thank you Sally, for taking the time to talk with me. It has been a pleasure and all the very best for the future and we all hope to be hearing more wonderful Weissenborn music from you in the future :-)
"Thank you Aron, and let me say thank you as well for the TWiE awards- I am honored to be among so many other winners. It has been my pleasure. Thank you for spreading the word about Weissenborn on your website"!
Photo Credit: Jason Greenberg
To order your CD copy of 'Tre Mistiche' use Sally's Artist FaceBook page link below...
So Sally, I genuinely don't know where to start with this interview, so let me just start by just saying a heartfelt ...thank you :-) Thank you for sharing with us all this wonderful EP of heartfelt beautiful Weissenborn music, it’s been the musical highlight of my year so far :-) So many questions but my first is simply why has it taken so long to record and release a Weissenborn project? What was the catalyst that started this project off and what was the push that made it finally come to fruition?
"Well, thank you for the compliments! Yes, you are right in that it has taken a very long time to put out a new recording. I honestly was just not ready to put something new out until I knew what it was exactly that I wanted to do. This recording was gathering in strength over the last eight years or so, I very much wanted it to be what I felt I was musically driven to do. I knew I wanted it to be a Weissenborn specific recording as I know that on that particular instrument, I am at my most connected to music. In playing a Weissenborn slide, the music really comes from within me. Rather than put another Dobro recording out where I am working to 'find' the kind of material that best suited me, all the magic that the Weissenborn owns just found its way to me. I have never really been one who feels compelled to produce solo recordings every other year or so. When the idea for this project came up, I made the decision to do what I do best on slide, and for me that is the sound of the Weissenborn, no question".
What's the feedback been like so far from the EP?
"The reviews have been really great (including yours, I might add)! I was previously a little nervous at the thought of doing only a bare bones kind of Weissenborn recording, as most folks know me for being a Dobro player in the bluegrass world, but I had faith that this was the recording I was meant to put out as a second release. I have always been drawn personally to playing Weissenborn as a preferred choice of slide instruments since at least the early 1990's. From the reviews from music publications down to my students, all the responses seem to recognize that there is a magic inherent to Weissenborns that is in some ways is indefinable, but tones, warmth, dark, light, and the opportunities for lyrical approach seem to have been built into those little guitars. All those essential elements musically are there from its initial creation. Some of the kindest things have been said about this recording. It feels like a confirmation that I am doing music right when reviewers use terms like "heart rending and life affirming…and saying that this recording is a "journey with unexpected discoveries and pleasures around each bend… simple, elegant, and beautiful work”. I am finding that in this recording - the first one after so many years - that I had nothing to worry about as long as this recording was honest, that it was real".
Photo Credit: Jason Greenberg
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