Mandolin Orange Pick an Unexpected Approach to Bluegrass

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Picker, singer and songwriter Andrew Marlin grew up in itty bitty Warrenton, N.C. Without even having to ask, it was clear that his hometown’s antebellum history dwarfs its present population and that it’s produced a couple of U.S. senators, but zero notable musicians — until now.

Marlin, one-half of the whimsically named Chapel Hill-based acoustic duo Mandolin Orange, happens to be the only musician I’ve ever interviewed who’s from the same place as my folks. He and singer/multi-instrumentalist Emily Frantz have even played a show in a former furniture factory where my granddad was once employed.

It’s a small world in more ways than one. Mandolin Orange released their new album, This Side of Jordan, on North Carolina indie Yep Roc. That’s the label home of Chatham County Line, whose shows turned Frantz on to bluegrass in the first place.

For all the familiarity, Marlin and Frantz also have some influences, perspectives and sensibilities from off the beaten folk music path.

CMT Edge: I recognize this area code. You’re from Warrenton, aren’t you?

Marlin: Yeah.

That’s where my family is from.

Are you serious? There’s a chance we might be related then. … You’re probably the only person I’ve ever talked to, as far as interviews go, that actually knows where Warrenton is.

People might find it surprising that you listened to grunge and metal while you were growing up in this small town and only discovered folk music after you moved to a bigger place.

Yeah, it’s crazy how that happened. I guess most people grow up [with the opposite experience].

How did that happen? How did you come across the Ricky Skaggs and Tony Rice album that turned you on to acoustic music?

I work at this studio in Chapel Hill, whenever we’re not touring, called the Rubber Room Studios. The fella who owns it has played bluegrass. He played in the Shady Grove Bluegrass Band. … He’s the one who turned me on to that record.

As soon as I put it in my CD player at home, I was like, “What in the hell is this music? This is amazing.” From there, I started looking for everything like it. Even though that was the first record I ever heard, like folk music, I still think that’s probably one of my favorite records, if not my favorite record.

Isn’t the first folk song you ever wrote on the new album?

Yeah. After listening to that Skaggs and Rice record about — I don’t know — a thousand times, I was like, “Maybe I’ll try and write some stuff like this.” [“Until the Last Light Fades”] was kinda my first go at it. It’s one of my favorite songs to sing. It just never really fit on another record until now.

I’d almost expect an album called This Side of Jordan to lean toward traditional gospel. What’s surprising is that in songs like “House of Stone” and “Hey Adam” you’re working with gospel ingredients to critique religious tradition. How did all those elements come together?

I’ve always considered myself a pretty spiritual person, you know, not so much religious. But I think those themes and those thoughts are pretty prominent in my life. I pretty much moved away from the Christian church when I moved out of my folks’ house. Not that it’s a bad religion. I don’t think there is [a bad religion]. I just think there are a lot of people that will misuse those ideas and what they’re supposed to represent.

What I was trying to do with this is make something that works for me and what I believe in, I guess, without trying to put anybody down. You know what I mean? Like with “Hey Adam,” it’s basically saying if people can use the Bible to prove their point, as far as why gay marriage shouldn’t exist, then why can’t I use the exact same stories to portray why it [should].

It’s interesting that you feel free to explore those ideas working with those idioms.

Yeah, it’s not something I’d probably bring up at a bluegrass gig.

Depending on where it is.

For sure. But, I mean, if I sat down to jam with Ricky Skaggs, that probably wouldn’t — or maybe it would — be the song I would bring forward. I’m not an in-your-face kind of guy. Some of the subjects, I guess, on the album can seem a little, um, jarring, but it’s not really who I am.

I don’t know that the way you present it is jarring. Maybe just unexpected.

I can deal with unexpected.

It’s good to take up traditional instruments and do something new. You use a lot of acoustic guitar, mandolin and fiddle — almost a pre-bluegrass configuration — but there’s something about your mellow singing that feels more contemporary to me.

I’ve heard some of my friends say, “Man, you sing just like you talk.” So I guess that’s maybe what I do. I don’t really have any singers that I try and sing like. I’m sure I’m inspired by a lot of different singers. … A lot of bluegrass, there’s a certain way that people think you need to sing, and they’ll go for that.

I understand Emily got into bluegrass by going to hear nearby bands like Chatham County Line and the Steep Canyon Rangers play when she was in high school. Now you’re labelmates with Chatham County Line. Does that seem like a big deal?

It’s not something we talk about very regularly, just because by now we’ve gotten to know the Chatham County Line boys. I played a show with [Chatham members] Jon Teer and Chandler [Holt] not long ago. I guess the scene here is so closely knit. It’s a small town. So we all just kinda play with each other.

I think when that first started going down is what got us the most excited. We were like, “Wow, these people are calling us for gigs now.” But, yeah, to be on the same label with them and to be able to perform with them is definitely an honor and a morale boost.

Between your previous album and the new one, you broke your pelvis in a bad fall, didn’t you?

I did, yeah. I was hanging out by this spillway down the road from us. That’s a great place to go swimming at night, especially in the summertime. A lot of people hang out there. But it was too late to be down there that one time. I got a little close to the edge and fell over.

Did you have to set aside touring for a while?

I definitely did a lot of songwriting, but that was, I think, mainly because I wasn’t going out on the town during that time. I was mainly just hanging at home. We actually played a gig, like, two days after I got out of the hospital. We never sit down, but I did at that show. We’d rather play than not play anytime. If I’m gonna be at home playing, I might as well be on the stage playing somewhere.

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