Saturday, May 29, 2010

Interview with Craig Woodward (Part One of a three part series)

Craig Woodward is one of Melbourne’s premier old-timey musicians. One of the founders of well-known string band Headbelly Buzzard, who held the famed Friday night residency at North Fitzroy’s The Railway Hotel for fourteen years, he has been playing fiddle, guitar, banjo and mandolin for over twenty years. His former bands include: The Cajun Aces, Sandilands, an original, roots based country-blues outfit with song-writer Mick Cameron, and the ACME string band – started with Mick, later featuring: Aubrey Maher (The Brunswick Blues Shooters) and Mick Flemming (Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band). Craig has recorded over a dozen albums throughout his twenty year career and is currently in two outfits: The Flying Engine String Band who play monthly at The Post Office Hotel in Coburg and Woodward and Rough who hold the 10pm Sunday night spot at popular roots venue The Lomond Hotel, East Brunswick.

On Saturday, May 15th 2010, I bought Craig a whisky (straight) and sat him down at the wooden table outside the Lomond Hotel, opposite 3RRR in Brunswick East. Under the hum and whizz of passing Blyth Street traffic, huddled against the cool late Autumn air, whisky in our bellys, we began recording this conversation …

HT: Hi Craig – What bands have you got going at the moment?

CW: Well, we stopped using the name Headbelly Buzzard when Mick Cameron died [in 2008] --who was a founding member along with myself. We sort of kept the band going with a few changes of course but we were playing as The Friday Night Old-time Band and still playing at the Railway. It was a name we were just using until we thought of something else because that’s all we were doing was playing Friday nights; so my current band ‘Flying Engine String Band’ is sort of that line-up. Um, I’m playing banjo and fiddle, and my friend Liam Wratten – who lives up around Daylesford way – is playing banjo and fiddle also, so we swap that around a bit; and Brett, who used to play in the Headbelly Buzzard line-up, Brett Lepik – he was playing guitar with The Friday Night Old-time Band at the Railway but he’s back on the banjo-mandolin like he used to play in Headbelly. And Johnny Wilson – he’s playing guitar.

HT: He’s the youngest in the band isn’t he?

CW: Yeah, by quite a way I think. He’s quite a bit younger than the oldest in the band.

HT: (laughing) Who is who?

CW: (laughs) Yeah, we have Jeremy Hanley playing bass …

HT: Yeah, blame it on him.

CW: … which is good. He is the only double bass player around, that I can think of, who actually listens to old-time string band music very much.

HT: Is that a usual part of string-band music – the double bass? Or is that something you guys do that’s a bit different?

CW: It’s pretty usual these days for a string band line-up.

HT: What about traditionally?

CW: Well, some of the bands on the old records that we listen to from the 1920s do have bass. But often you can’t hear it on those recordings. And still a lot of people record old-time string band music without a bass but when you’re playing live or playing for a dance, it kind of tends to hold things together really well and makes a really obvious beat in the music that, you know, the people in the room can hear – [they] don’t have to think too much about where the feel is when you’ve got a bass panning it out. It’s pretty simple bass.

HT: Good for dancing.

CW: Great for dancing.

HT: So you guys have got a new residency at the Post Office Hotel in Coburg on the first Friday of every month, is that right?

CW: Yeah, that’s right, for now. I think it’ll be good. Things are moving out [north] a bit and there aren’t really any other venues in Coburg so it’ll be great to have a venue there. And for us – I mean it’s been there for a long time – well, I don’t know how long – it’s an old pub.

HT: (laughs) Bikie club, I heard.

CW: (laughs) It’s sort of new, feels a bit new. It’s changed a bit quite recently – it closed down for awhile and reopened. Some of the owners used to frequent the Headbelly gigs at The Railway so when I approached them they said they weren’t ready to make it a live music venue yet but they knew us and knew our crowd so were keen to try it out. And if they do decide to have it as a new venue, it’ll be great. Also we were the first band that’s played there; which was the case at the Railway, when we played at the Railway – we sort of started that as a band venue. And I think maybe even at The Rose Hotel which is where the band started – Headbelly Buzzard, I mean. So, something new and also I can walk home from there.

HT: Craig’s a local. So it’s a good omen then – being the first band at this new venue. Good luck with that. You also play in the old-time/country-blues duo Woodward and Rough – can you give us some insight into that line-up?

CW: Yeah, well that’s Warren Rough on guitar and myself playing mostly fiddle and some banjo-mandolin.

HT: Do you do traditional songs or songs you’ve written?

CW: Ah, no, nothing we’ve written ourselves. We’ve kind of got our own arrangements of things but some you could definitely call traditional and some of it’s a bit more, sort of, period music from the 1920s – old-time with a lot of fiddle and guitar and duet kind of stuff from the 20s. Some of it is old tunes and some of it has a more rag-time feel or a bit more of a blues kind of feel; they sound a bit more – we try to do them as a period thing I suppose. Our first album was very much like Narmour & Smith and other Mississippi duos. We got a good review in the Old-Time Herald, which is an old-time music magazine in the Sates. It was really positive about the musicianship and material, except on the negative they said it sounded too much like the old recordings.

HT: (surprised) Oh … That’s interesting. What were they expecting do you think?

CW: Well, they were expecting we’d make it more unique – change it a little bit or something; which we did and maybe on the second listen they would hear – well definitely some of the instrumentation but also some of the melodies and the words for the songs are different to the old recording that we were sort of basing it on. But we were just trying to, you know, use some of the sort of sounds and some of the style of those recordings – you know, we wanted it to sound like the old recordings but we didn’t straight copy the old recordings. But I guess we don’t really – we’re not too conscious of that when we play now but when we first started that’s sort of what we were doing. And I think it has probably evolved into playing things pretty much our own way rather than trying to get the sound off the old records.

HT: Warren Rough has played a diverse range of music: rockabilly, jump blues, country, psychobilly, country-blues. How long have you been playing together and how did you meet?

CW: We’ve been friends for a long time. I mean we used to go and see each other play for quite a while before we actually played together. Warren was playing in Paramount Trio and I was playing in Headbelly with Mick Cameron and Nicola Hayes. Headbelly sort of sprang out of The LeBlanc Brother’s Cajun Aces in the early-mid 1990s. For a long time before I ever played with Warren he used to play me recordings – sort of a lot of those recording that I was talking about earlier that come out of Warren’s enormous collection.

HT: Which recordings are they?

CW: Well, mostly 1920s and 30s recordings of old-timey string band music. Narmour & Smith we both really like and they’re from Mississippi and a few other Mississippi kind of guitar and fiddle duos; they’re kind of on the bluesy side of white music from Mississippi.

HT: So they were the inspiration for Woodward and Rough?

CW: Yeah, I think Narmour & Smith were definitely one of the inspirations; we took our name from them. ‘Woodward and Rough’.

HT: Oh yeah (laughs) And what’s the collaboration process like, with Warren?

CW: For the first couple of years we got together once a week and did a lot of playing and listening. These days it’s a bit more organic and sometimes we just try something live and see how it works.

HT: What do you each bring to Woodward and Rough, in terms of influences and music style?

CW: Warren comes from a finger-style guitar playing background which is less common in old-time music these days – so there’s a lot more possibilities in regard to the arrangements rather than just the bass-note-strum guitar style that’s more common in string band music now. I also have some background in the bluesier side of old-time fiddling which lends itself well to the finger-picking guitar style.

HT: Yes. So Woodward and Rough play every Sunday night at the Lomond Hotel, East Brunswick. 10pm. You also do other gigs around Melbourne is that right?

CW: Well, we’re trying to get out a bit more. We do that gig every week but it’s not for everybody: 10pm Sunday night – it’s a pretty funny time slot. But we do have some appreciative folks down here that think that’s a good way to finish the weekend. But, yeah, just the other day we did one at the Drunken Poet (North Melbourne) and that seems like a pretty good place for us, being a small act, you know, fairly lively.

HT: Did you get a good turnout?

CW: Yeah, yeah, it was good. So we might be doing some there. If this interview is up in time also next Sunday (23rd May) we are playing at the Fox Hotel (cnr Wellington and Alexandra Parade – it used to be the Tower Hotel) from 5-8pm. So, if that goes alright we might play there sometimes.

HT: Can you give us some insight into your musical history – how did you get into old-time string band music?

CW: I came to Melbourne when I was seventeen and I had been playing guitar a bit. Where I come from (the Wimmera, near Warracknabeal – which is near Horsham) there wasn’t much interesting music on the radio. But I got into country-blues/roots music from hearing it on community radio in Melbourne and I ended up performing at the Melbourne Folk Club and One C One and some of the old coffee shops from the 70s that were still around. I’d probably heard old-timey music before but hadn’t really heard much but I heard some people playing from the High-Times String Band at one of these folk clubs.

HT: Is that a Melbourne band?

CW: Yeah, that’s Ken McMaster who runs the Fiddlers convention.

HT: Are they still playing?

CW: As the High-Times String Band? Um, occasionally. But I don’t know what the band line-up would be; it’d be Ken McMaster on banjo and Norm Adams and Maggie Duncan, who plays the fiddle. They were the first people I heard playing old-time music. So, it was pretty interesting – I liked the banjo style and I wanted to play the banjo. A couple of other people I met through The Piggery – a bluegrass, old-timey kind of thing, and I went there because they had American music on and I could play country-blues there and then through meeting people there, and getting given early recordings of old-time music in particular and also recordings of the older players – the kind of last players that learnt through local tradition who were recorded in the 70s and 80s due to the earlier folk revival.

HT: Can you think of some names?

CW: Tommy Jarrell, would definitely be one of them. A lot of people that play old-timey music these days would be influenced by Tommy Jarrell. He was born in 1900 in a town called Toast near Mount Airy in North Carolina.

HT: What is it about him, do you think, that inspires people?

CW: Well, he plays with a lot of rhythm and the melodies are very simple and mixed with heaps of bow rhythm and it’s the bow rhythm that’s really making the music and that’s what appealed to me. Also, at these folk clubs and festivals, I heard a lot of Irish music; it never really captured me; it’s pretty melodic, you know? It’s good but the old-timey stuff – some people would consider it a strain of Celtic music …

HT: They share a lot of similarities, don’t they? But also a lot of differences. Can you clarify that?

CW: African influence is one of the main things that make it different. They brought the banjo to America and a lot of the rhythms come from that African influence. It’s where it sounds different even in American music styles: the string band music that they play up North – around Boston, New England and up into Canada. It’s sort of the same kind of music but you hear a different rhythm when you hear the southern style of string-band music and it’s the kind of back-beat and the grooviness of it; it’s not quite as diddly as some dance music from Irish traditions. You know, the same kind of thing but it’s got a certain looseness and yeah it’s still melodic but a lot more of the music is coming out of the rhythms, like the bow rhythms.

HT: I’ve heard people refer to old-timey music as trance music. What do you think about that?

CW: Well, I think it’s a pretty good thing to say about it. It works for me.

HT: Do you get into a sort of state when you’re playing it or listening to it?

CW: Yeah, if it’s working – when it’s working, definitely. We play this sort of music just as a social thing as well as performing it. We have a jam session at the Lomond Hotel every Saturday afternoon. A lot of people come along and pick up the tunes – because we play the tunes for a long time – up to twenty minutes, if it’s good – and they’re pretty simple tunes so it makes it easy for people to come and learn them.


For more information on Headbelly Buzzard and Sandilands, please follow embedded links. Woodward and Rough, Headbelly Buzzard and Sandilands CDs are available from

This is part one of a three part series which will be published in weekly instalments. Melbourne Roots would like to thank Craig for his thought provoking and generous responses. Stay tuned for the next instalment!

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