• The Adam Hurt Interview

    Adam Hurt - photo by Tim Brown
    Photo credit: Tim Brown

    About the author: Seven-time National Fiddle Champion, Megan Lynch Chowning — who doubles as an exceptional writer and operator and director of some of the finest acoustic music camps in the U.S. — delivered an enthusiastic response when we asked her to sit down with Adam Hurt for this interview. A recent musical collaborator of Adam's, earlier this year they released a widely acclaimed duet album titled "Inside Out."

    "Adam is one of the most important young clawhammer banjo players in the country," Megan told us during preliminary discussions prior to the interview. "His playing is thoughtful, his albums are cherished, and his teaching is spoken of in reverent tones. He's certainly won all the contests and performed at most of the festivals and gatherings and so his credentials are in fine shape. But the thing that sets him apart is how he thinks about old-time music, the banjo, and his place in all of it."

    We've looked forward to this article for a long time, and couldn't be happier with the end result. Long one of our favorite banjo players, in case some of you have yet to hear his music, rest assured you're in for a special treat. Take it away, Megan and Adam!

    Charlie Schwartz
    Banjo Cafe

    Musicians as well as fans of old-time music often spend a lot of energy researching the sources of tunes - whether it be the recordings, the regions, the players, or all of the above. However, many of these tunes have changed dramatically over time and in some cases they owe more to contemporary players or interpreters than the original source recordings. How do you feel about this and what do you think your obligation is to the history of the tunes?

    Well, I like knowing that this is old music. I like old things in a variety of life's categories and as such I do feel I owe it to the music to at least know a little something about a tune that I've learned to play. But that's kind of where it stops for me, or at least where the lines begin to blur. Many people in old-time music take things a step further. They learn tunes from the primary source musician who recorded it and that's that. They will play it as the primary source musician played it and not use the tune to express anything of themselves as musicians, as creatives, as people. And I think that's a little bit of a problem, to be honest. The people whose music we admire, both because it was just great music as well as because it was the first recorded example of tune "X" were, as far as we know, not parroting the music of their influences no! They were inspired by the music of their influences. But their music was so great and remains so great because it was an expression of themselves. And I think as much as we do need to honor the history of this music, we also need to honor who we are as people and the times in which we live and the places and cultures from which we come.

    The sounds and the influences that we experience, I mean, to say that we have the same group of sounds and influences as Tommy Jarrell, it's just not true, right? So...

    It's a different time, the world is a different place, and we come from different places within it. We cannot sound like Tommy Jarrell, as much as we might try to learn every nuance of his recordings, because we aren't Tommy Jarrell.


    Adam plays "Snowdrop" on a 1915-ish Fairbanks-Vega Tubaphone banjo with a reproduction five-string neck.

    It seems so obvious, and yet...

    And yet... I have listened to the old players and liked a lot of what I've heard. I've listened to the new players and liked a lot of what I've heard. I've listened to a lot of the so-called "revival players" whose recordings in the 70's and 80's served to get a lot of people involved in the music.

    Is that like The New Lost City Ramblers and bands like that?

    Sure, that whole group of musicians New Lost City Ramblers, Highwoods String Band, things like that. And I have a pretty good memory of sounds that I have heard, such that even if I had wanted to, I could not just ex-communicate those more contemporary influences from my sonic consciousness.

    That's actually an excellent point and I've never thought about it like that. You're saying that the way to be exclusively reverent to the old way is to force ourselves to, as you said "ex-communicate" the sounds that we take in. So as musicians, as people who are, I guess more skilled at hearing and internalizing sounds, that's really difficult to do. It's telling us, as contemporary players to set aside things that do influence us, that do speak into what we play, on purpose. You wouldn't have said that to Ed Haley. You wouldn't have said that to Tommy Jarrell or whoever insert your first generation player here.

    Exactly! Now, I don't want to diminish the skill of those of those who do seek to play this material as it was first recorded. That's really hard to do. I do know there are people who can play the music as close as they can come to doing what Tommy Jarrell was doing, without being Tommy Jarrell. Not only does that require a crazy amount of in depth listening and study but it does require a certain shutting off of noises in their heads which I don't think I can do, and I don't think I want to do. I'm ok with that. But if they want to do it that way, more power to them it's an amazing thing to behold in a completely different way.

    Adam Hurt Solo Recordings

    Insight (2006), Perspective (2009), Earth Tones (2010).

    I've heard you mention an elementary school teacher from your younger years who gave you your first experience with traditional musical instruments and whom you credit with sparking your interest in old-time music. Do you keep in touch? Does he know what you've done with the inspiration he provided?

    Yes! Don Paden. We are in touch to the extent of being connected on Facebook.

    That's something... That's what many people call a "valued relationship" in modern society.

    It's the 21st century way, isn't it? He is aware that I've made this the center of my life and I'm sure he's come to the conclusion that my life would have taken a completely different course had he and I not made that connection years ago.

    Are you aware of any other kids for whom his bringing the instruments into class was the catalyst for them getting excited about traditional music?

    He was approaching the end of his teaching career, at least in that institution, at the time that I knew him. But he had been in that school for quite a while and I had heard tell of people maybe a decade older than I was who were positively affected by the music he shared with them. I don't think any of them ended up turning it into any kind of career but it did enrich their lives.

    I think it's just an interesting example of something that isn't necessarily a formal music teacher/student relationship and yet it had such a dramatic effect on you and maybe others, in terms of having a relationship with music. It seems a good example of the idea that as citizens of the world, we all have an opportunity to be teachers just by exposing people to things about which we ourselves are really passionate.

    Completely. I'm so grateful that he decided he wanted to share this thing that was so important to him with anyone who was willing to listen. And I'm thankful that this school wasn't more pedagogically rigid so as to not allow for him to bring traditional music into the regular fourth grade classroom setting.

    More Adam Hurt Music

    Megan Lynch Chowning & Adam Hurt Inside Out from 2016 and Adam Hurt & Beth Williams Hartness Fine Times At Our House from 2012.

    You've often spoken about the fact that you feel a deeper connection with the fiddle tune side of traditional music, rather than with bluegrass or folk style singing songs. To what do you attribute that specific connection?

    A couple of things perhaps... So, my parents played classical music and I heard their music at home. Neither of them sang as a part of their music making. They both could sing but they didn't sing. And when I went to my father's concerts with the Minnesota Orchestra most of the concerts for which he got tickets were programs that didn't involve singing. Some did, but not many. And the ones that I liked the most were the instrumental programs. So I think that was part of it. It was just sort of what I knew. Even though the genre was entirely different from I ended up choosing. Another thing is, even listening to the radio playing genre "whatever," I struggle to understand lyrics - unless I'm really familiar with whatever the piece is and have had the opportunity to listen close and perhaps pause and rewind and hear a line again. I don't know what my problem is. I can't make out lyrics!

    I suffer from the exact same thing, and yet, from one hundred yards, I can hear and transcribe a fiddle tune note for note, even if it's in the middle of like a giant string band jam. I don't know if that's a chicken or egg thing because you and I both began so early with melodic reinforcement. Me starting with the fiddle at four years old, you being surrounded by the classical violin practice, those kinds of early influences. I don't know if that helped form different synapses or what happened there... You and I are both big readers and big talkers but we've both struggled with hearing and understanding lyrics. Very interesting to me. We really need to study the neuroscience of this. I am just glad to know it's not just me!

    The last piece might be I struggle to understand lyrics in the first place so I'm probably not going to bother listening to a singing song and trying to figure out what's being sung unless I think it sounds pleasing. If it's an ugly sounding piece in any way or just sort of an average sounding piece, I'm not really going to go to that trouble. So, if I've gone to the trouble to identifying these pleasing sounds, at that stage it doesn't really matter to me if there are words or not and if there aren't words that just saves me time.

    Adam Hurt and Beth Williams Hartness

    Adam Hurt and Beth Williams Hartness play the medley "Old Beech Leaves / Sheep and Hogs Walking Through the Pasture"

    That makes perfect sense! The follow up to that is, even though you are such a master interpreter of the aforementioned fiddle tunes, I know from having recently toured with you, that you are starting to include a little singing into your performance repertoire. Are you enjoying that? What do you find most challenging about it?

    I am enjoying it! And I find every aspect to be a challenge. There's nothing not challenging about it. The coordination of it is patting your head and rubbing your stomach times a thousand, I can sing semi-coherently and intonate semi-reasonably if I'm not playing anything on the instrument. Things start to shift if I start to play the instrument and then if I start to play something on the instrument that sounds and feels halfway decent, well, I can just forget about singing. So that's a real challenge and has it ever made me appreciate the mad skills of great singers, especially if they play instruments and even if they don't. It's really hard to sing well! And I really think I underestimated that before taking a stab at it here recently.

    As a teacher I find that as I spend more years teaching I find myself, maybe on purpose, maybe not, making my world a little smaller in terms of the things that I learn. You're wearing your teacher hat more often and then somehow you do decide to learn something new for me it was knitting, I often tell the story in my workshops about the first time I went to the knitting store and all the employees were throwing around unfamiliar tools and vocabulary and I realized that this must be how my students feel on a daily basis, confused and intimidated that brings you out of your ever-shrinking world. There is something really fabulous about putting yourself in a situation that helps you understand what it's like to be at the bottom of a ladder looking way up at the goal. It has to help us as teachers and as people in general.

    Certainly. And I think, as someone who does occasionally perform, even though it's not my favorite thing, I do kind of owe it to the audience to go there. Even if it may not be as good quality as I wish it were, not everyone in every one of my audiences is a banjo player or a rabid banjo enthusiast who's going to to hang on every instrumental note played and be engaged for two 45 minute sets of that. The audiences are mixed and I think I need to be respectful of that and do my best to reach more of a cross section.

    Adam Hurt & Beth Williams Hartness

    Adam Hurt & Beth Williams Hartness
    Photo credit: Martin Tucker

    In the past you've publicly stated (as well as earlier in this interview) that although you enjoy performing, you really prefer teaching. What is it about teaching that is more attractive to you than giving a concert? Do you feel that the things that you find challenging about performing help you relate to the fears and difficulties your students often face in all aspects of their playing?

    As far as the private teaching is concerned, which is most of what I do for my living these days, I like the lifestyle better than the lifestyle of someone who is performing old-time music. I think I would struggle to live very well performing old-time music on a full time basis. I'd be on the road all the time. I'd be exhausted. I wouldn't have much of a home life, I don't think. I haven't done it so I can't necessarily say but I do know what I know and I know that the teaching feels as much like a "regular job" as I think I could stand, and feels much better to me than the more itinerant and routine-less lifestyle of an active performer.

    Ha! Same here.

    I really like the normalcy of it all. I like the routine. Now, as far as private teaching and group workshop leading goes, I like both of those categories better than the performing category because of the personal connections I get to make with people. The folks that I get to meet through teaching this music are so interesting. They are so talented. They are so driven, not just to get better with the music, but in all of these other fascinating pursuits in their lives that I would never have known anything about if I were just playing for them from a stage and chatting superficially with them at the CD table and then going away and never seeing them again.

    That makes perfect sense and I agree with that wholeheartedly. I am interested in every single thing and I know that's a personality trait you and I share. It doesn't matter if that thing relates to your every day life, it's still interesting and we want to know about it! We get to meet these amazing people who do all the things and we get to ask them and learn about them and then share something of what we know with people who are generally of above average intelligence and life experience. We get to interact with some high level people and for that we are so lucky.

    I really love that and I love too, in the context of teaching, that I get to hear so many people making music. I tell new students that are getting ready to play for me for the first time and are a little bit scared about it that this may be the best part of my job. I just love the banjo and I love to hear people play it and it doesn't matter how it's played I'm always intrigued!

    I agree! And isn't that interesting? Because my students are always so freaked out that they're playing out of tune or doing something wrong and for whatever reason, it never bothers me. I mean, I want them to do well and I want them to improve but no matter how they play something I'm just happy they're doing it.

    Any connection between a person and an instrument is a beautiful thing to behold.

    I often find that students have misconceptions about taking private lessons, especially within the traditional music genres like old-time or bluegrass. Do you experience that and if you could change one of those misconceptions with this interview, which would it be?

    Well, I'm not sure that private instruction in any genre is necessary for every kind of music learner. Some people might need or want this to be sort of a solitary exploration, rather than something interactive, and that's fine if they're satisfied with the results that they're getting from learning music that way in a vacuum. And if they're not, there's a solution to that. There are instructors available, there are workshops that can be taken, there are camps that can be attended. There are a number of very respectable books out there today addressing clawhammer banjo that can be bought. There are DVDs and there is YouTube.

    But if you had to send a student out on a desert island with either an instructional book or a private teacher, which would you choose?

    Oh definitely a private teacher.

    Adam Hurt & Beth Williams Hartness

    Adam Hurt & Beth Williams Hartness perform "Georgia Row" on WAMU's Bluegrass Country.

    Do you think that the books are best served with the guidance of a private teacher, someone who can help them cut through some of the confusion?

    I think that's a good way for books to be used, yes. And I have a handful of students who work with me on just that, in addition to things that we're doing together. I think that a book can be useful without the guidance of a private teacher if the student working with the book has enough of a fundamental knowledge base about the instrument, the techniques, and the music, to where they'll be able to draw the correct conclusions from the book. The book itself can't be a three dimensional experience.

    We're certainly not throwing the baby out with the bathwater here. Books can be great references, at the very least. You and I can't remember all the tunes. We can't be responsible for that! It's not normal.

    Absolutely right. Now, specific to this genre, I think there's a little bit more concern about how good an idea it is to seek out private instruction, compared to more formal music of some kind, where private instruction is the norm. And to that I say, well, times are different. People are approaching this music not having access to it through their families or through their local communities. And no, the older musicians or the no-longer-with-us musicians whose playing we so admire probably didn't study with somebody for an hour every Wednesday afternoon. But I don't think those people would have had to. They had access to the music in ways different from how most of us can access it today. Do you think that's reasonable to say?

    Oh I think that's absolutely right. I also think, on the flip side of that, that in the past, fewer people heard this music and therefore fewer people wanted to know how to do it. So I think now, you can turn on Sirius/XM and tune in to the Bluegrass Junction channel and hear bluegrass if you're living in Tucson, Arizona which is something that 75 years ago wasn't possible. People in Rosine, Kentucky were hearing bluegrass left and right but people in Tucson, not so much. So now people in Tucson have heard it, they want, and they need to know how to get it. But they don't have a Friday night pickin' party on the front porch of Bill Monroe's house.

    There's not a local old-time jam, there's not a great uncle whose house they can travel 10 minutes to who knows how to play all the instruments...

    As you said, times are different. And so our ways of passing this music down have become different, but no less effective, really.


    To that end, you and I recently released a new album called Inside Out. It's full of old-time tunes and Texas style tunes and a few tunes that could qualify as both styles. It has fiddle and clawhammer banjo as the main melodic instruments but six string guitar and tenor guitar playing Texas style backup. What are you trying to say about traditional music with this album and its mashup of genres?


    Adam Hurt & Megan Lynch Chowning play "Dora Dean" from their new recording Inside Out.

    Well I'm hopeful that you'll agree with what I'm about to say for me, it's asking the question, "can't we all just get along?" I've been mystified and occasionally frustrated by these seemingly arbitrary divisions among genres that have more in common than not. The old-time and bluegrass camps rarely coincide I can be near neighbors with a bluegrass guitarist and not know it because we've never crossed paths at the fiddlers' convention we're both going to in a couple of weekends. And I think that's a shame. These genres can pull from one another. They can learn something from one another and I think there's no reason not to.

    I think that's the whole point. It's completely about "can't we all just get along?"

    And if it sounds good it is good.

    In pursuit of good music, above all else, above all labels, right?

    Right. Whether it's the music that we consider ourselves practitioners of, or some other kind of music.

    I do think that musicians like us who have a loyal following in a very small but hopefully meaningful niche we both understand our places in the hierarchy of the "music industry" as it were have, within those fans, people who trust us. We've worked hard to build up that trust and I like to look at it as trying to use those powers for good and not evil. We want to show the people who trust us that we, as musicians from different corners of traditional music, are friends and can play music together and learn from one another and find some common ground, all in the pursuit of good music. There are plenty of people who have looked at our album and said, "who the heck is Adam Hurt?" And plenty more who have said, "who the heck is Megan Lynch Chowning?" And that's awesome. Because first of all, it allows each of us to meet and discover all the new people, which, as we talked about earlier, we love so much. But secondly, musically, it really helps them start begging the question in their own lives, "where is my Adam Hurt?" Or, "where is my Megan Lynch Chowning?" Maybe that person already lives next door and I don't even know it yet.

    You came of age as a player learning from a wide variety of sources, both recorded and in person. What do you do with your own students to make sure they experience those same broad horizons?

    I try to teach them the music in not just one style. For instance, on the banjo, I'll teach my take on a Tommy Jarrell version of something. I say my take because I'm not Tommy Jarrell. I might play the notes as faithfully as I can but it's still going to be a different thing. And then I'll show them a Kyle Creed take on the same thing. Again, through my lens, but you get the point. Same thing when I'm teaching the fiddle I'll show a bowing aesthetic for a particular tune that mimics the sound of a certain group of players and then show what we can do differently with the bow to sound more Kentuckian than North Carolinian.

    Adam Hurt - photo credit Martin Tucker
    Photo credit: Martin Tucker

    Which, by the way, sounds like a mode in old-time music. A mode we just haven't invented yet. There's Mixolydian, Phrygian, and North Carolinian.

    The undiscovered modes! I love it. I also put together recommended listening lists for when people ask me, "who should I be listening to?" And I make sure that list does not favor any one sound, even if that one sound might be my personal taste, no. I put players on whose music I think folks will find compelling. Whether they love everything on the list is hard to say. But there will be a mixture of old and new players. There will be a mixture of solo and ensemble players. There will be a mixture of sort of raw and refined players. It's all good.

    And also, they don't have to love everything. Because don't you find that learning what you don't like is just as valuable? There is a lot to learn out there so you don't really want to waste your time on the things that don't bring you great joy. As an example, I am not a Celtic musician. I like it to listen to and I really admire the great purveyors of it but it doesn't speak to me in my bones. It's good for me to know that because I could spend a lot of time working on being a Celtic musician and it is time that could be better spent elsewhere, at least in terms of what I'm going to be most passionate about. Speaking of that, you were raised in a classical music household - both your parents are accomplished classical musicians and I know your father played professionally and was highly regarded as a player and teacher. Although you've strayed from the fold in terms of the type of music you play, do you see any similarities between the way they approached learning and practicing and your own learning style?

    Only to the extent of how, when I was bitten by this particular musical bug, I couldn't ignore it. And I remember my dad telling me stories of his first encounter with the violin and classical music when he was quite young and it was all he lived, ate, and breathed. I'm not sure that my mother has ever been similarly passionate about her music-making and her instrument the piano, the way that either of us have been. Then again, my mother had to have cared about it to a certain extent because she's quite good. However, they both only tended to make music from reading music, not even from memorizing it, but from reading it and that was my struggle with classical music back when I was attempting to play it, back before I got into different types of traditional music. One of the things I like most about traditional music is that printed notes on a page do not have to be referenced and are generally not referenced. That is such a world apart from anything that they knew or did. Our approaches have been more different than similar, for better or worse.

    Tony Trischka and Adam, Suwannee Banjo Camp

    Photo credit: Ned Luberecki

    I've seen you teaching a lot of camps and workshops - including two a year here at my house in Nashville - and I have to wonder, is there anything you'd like students and campers to keep in mind when they arrive for a group learning situation? Is there anything they could do to get more out of the experience?

    Leave your preconceptions at the door! And be willing to try anything. You may not like it all, but you won't know until you try. It's our job to take you out of your musical boxes. Do what you can to feel good about going somewhere new, at least for an afternoon or a weekend.

    I think it comes down to trust, doesn't it? As camp directors my husband and I are always thinking about choosing instructors who are respectful of that trust. They're not going to put a student in a difficult situation and then make fun of them. We want to challenge them, sure, but never humiliate them. And we want them to trust that process. Making mistakes and not getting it right is part of learning and getting better.

    Right. We're going to explore uncharted territory in that camp or workshop but it will be in a safe place the whole time, at least when I'm at the helm.

    That's right, that's beautiful! OK, one last question for you and it's about what's coming up in the near future for you. I know that you have a new solo album in the works and I wanted to ask you I've heard tell of a more ambitious project, at least in terms of guest artists and sounds and ideas. Is there anything you're willing to reveal just yet? What's happening on that front?

    I hope that it will come out this summer after a long time in the making and I'm really excited about the sound. It's a project with more complex textures than any of my previous releases, in large part due to the fact that the default configuration is clawhammer banjo with full band, rather than clawhammer banjo with one other instrument or by itself. And the band is not always going to be your very stereotypical old-time ensemble of the early 21st century but it's often going to contain two guitars, one capoed very high for its ethereal sound, which I just love but haven't heard enough of in this genre. I'm excited. I hope people will like what they hear.

    That's so funny, I love that sound too! I generally hear it in the context of a singer/songwriter type scenario and this is not to disparage singer/songwriters. I truly adore them and my iTunes library is overflowing with that style of music, but I often hear people who are maybe better singers and songwriters than they are guitarists and they will use the capo way up high on the neck in order to sing in a comfortable key without having to think too much about the guitar part of their performance. That way they can focus on the delivery of the song. Or maybe they're deliberately going for a folkier, more retro sound. Either way, it's not a sound I really expect to hear in an old-time context. And it's a beautiful sound so I'm really anticipating hearing you with that layer of sound. That's going to be gorgeous.

    Cool! I was also tending to use the high capoed guitar in a situation where there was also a bass in the ensemble so you've got these two extremes and the banjo is somewhere down the middle.

    Wow, as if anything you do is ever exactly down the middle... I can't wait to hear it.

    Learn more about Adam Hurt at his web site. Grab a lesson, listen to a tune, or just say howdy. Adam Hurt wants to help.

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    Comments 1 Comment
    1. BradKlein's Avatar
      BradKlein -
      Great portrait of Adam. One thing that I love about his recordings is his obvious appreciation and love of Bill Monroe's instrumentals. In his own clawhammer way, he's as sophisticated an interpreter of that canon as Noam Pikelny.