Open up the CD case for Adam Steffey’s third solo album, New Primitive, and you’ll see old, sepia-toned photos of a strong-jawed man named Thomas “Big Tom” Carter, a doctor and circuit preacher in Scott County, Va. One shows him baptizing a woman in the Holston River, another shows him with his horse and two hounds getting ready to hunt and a third shows him posing for a portrait with his wife Clara.
“Big Tom” was a first cousin to A.P. Carter, the patriarch of country music, and the great-grandfather of Steffey, who discovered these photographs only recently. A presentation of traditional songs from the old-time canon, New Primitive is a musical genealogy exploring the intersections between the old-time music Steffey’s family pioneered and the bluegrass he has innovated in the Lonesome River Band, Alison Krauss & Union Station and the Boxcars.
CMT Edge: Where did the idea to explore these two worlds originate?
Steffey: On my prior solo record, One More for the Road, my wife Tina came in and played banjo on a song or two. Having the old-time banjo hooked together so well with the bluegrass instrumentation, and I thought it would be fun to focus on the old-time side of things. Tina is really in the old-time world, and we would go to fiddler’s conventions and things like that, so I gained a lot of knowledge from those musicians and learned these tunes from them.
I’ve been thinking about doing this since I completed that last album. I wanted the album to have a live feel. I wanted it to have the feel of walking up on a jam session. The guitar player is Zeb Snyder. He’s 17 years old and just an amazing player. We’re both from a bluegrass background, but the other players — my wife Tina and Eddie Bond, who plays fiddle and sings on a few tunes — come from the old-time camp. I’m listed as producer on the album, but really I just turned everybody loose and told them to do whatever they feel.
There seems to be a lot of overlap between those two traditions even if they seem very distinct and separate today.
There are so many tunes in the old-time world that translate perfectly to the bluegrass arrangements. A lot of the subject matter is the same. There’s a lot of killing and death and all that stuff. And there are a lot of great instrumentals you can pick from. I look forward to doing more of this. I’m not a trailblazer by any means. There are some great bands doing this kind of thing, but it’s something I’m really excited about.
When I started thinking about this record, I thought a lot of people who are used to hearing me play bluegrass might be shocked by this. But I hope they like it. Most people in both the bluegrass and old-time camps are open to artists interpreting the music, but you do get these camps where it’s old-time or it’s nothing. It’s that way in bluegrass as well. I’ve gotten feedback from both sides. Some people say it’s too old-timey, and some people say it’s too bluegrass.
Historically, both traditions have benefitted from artists combining them in unexpected ways.
Sure. And as I’ve gone back and looked at the beginnings of bluegrass music, that’s certainly how it all came together. Artists like Bill Monroe were playing it before it was even tagged with the moniker of bluegrass music — when it was just considered hillbilly Appalachian mountain music. It’s always been evolving — blending stuff in, throwing stuff around, trying stuff out. That’s why I love it.
Family is obviously a crucial aspect of this record, not only learning these tunes from your wife but exploring the influences of the Carters.
I’ve come to appreciate that more in the last decade or so. I can remember my grandfather telling me about the first time he heard a phonograph recording. A.P. Carter actually came up to my great-grandfather Big Tom’s house with a phonograph and played it for all the kids there, including my grandfather. I guess it would have been the original Carter Family sessions in Bristol back in the late 1920s. I guess I was about 10 or so when my grandfather told that story. I hadn’t even started playing mandolin yet or taken any interest in music. I look back on that now and wish I’d paid more attention, but I was just a boy.
But you got into music through your family, right?
I got into music by going up to the Carter Fold up in Hiltons, Va, the home place of the Carter Family. They still do shows up there every Saturday night. I would go with my grandfather, who was there just to catch up with people and hear all the local gossip. I started watching the bands onstage, and that’s how I got interested in the mandolin specifically.
No one else in my family played string music. My mother played piano and organ, and she gave lessons. I can remember coming home from school and my living room would be full of people waiting their turn to take lessons from her. Now my wife has opened up a whole other encyclopedia of stuff that I can start digging through. Not that I have bluegrass figured out by any means.
Do you feel you have a deeper connection with this music than that on your previous records?
I really enjoyed making those albums, and they were a lot of fun. But there’s something about this one that’s really special. Maybe it’s the family connection and how it’s all come together. I have two small boys — 21 months old — and certainly my wife and I aren’t pushing music on them, but if they’re interested, I’ll certainly help them out in every way possible.
It’s my hope that they will look back on this recording and know it was done just after they were born. And it’s my hope that if they do get into music, they’ll understand it’s supposed to be fun. I hope that comes across on this record. I’m serious about music and want it to be as good as possible, but I want the happiness to come out in playing a song. Not to sound soupy and melodramatic, but this album is me right now being really happy.