Trevor Hyett

I started my interview with Ron by recalling how detailed he was in preparation for the banjo class I enjoyed with him way back and complimented him on his approach, particularly how impressed I was with the amount of time he spent describing his whole attitude to learning, in contrast to simply handing out and working through reams of TAB…





Ron Block I do have to talk about the philosophy and the thought behind it otherwise you can play the notes but you cannot have the basis. So we talk about fundamentals…Scruggs, JD Crowe, learning the roots. Also, the importance of playing with a relaxed mind and body, not with the attitude of ‘I don’t know if I can do this…it’s hard.’ Then moving on to: ‘It’s not hard to play one note – all I have to do is play this one note and that’s it. And then all I have to do is play one more note.’ Break it down; that’s what you do to make yourself comfortable. So what I teach people is to break it down and be more relaxed. You don’t have to eat the entire elephant all at once. It’s just one bite at a time; breaking things down takes the stress away. If you look at an entire TAB as a whole, and don’t break it down, it’s overwhelming, especially if it’s a complicated tune. But if you scan that TAB and look for similarities, and go ‘Oh! This is the same lick as in measure 3…and here it is again…that’s 3 less measures I have to learn.’ If you can look through the TAB and figure out that you only have 2/3 of the TAB to learn because of the repetitions, then you’re good to go…it takes the stress off. I taught them to break it down and learn it one or two measure segments. Play them as a loop and keep playing them until you’re comfortable, then move on to the next two measures.

Trevor Hyett You talk about being relaxed…and even today, when I’m trying to learn something and I feel the tension in my shoulders, I say to myself: “Remember what Ron said…”

RB Yeah…me too and I have to say to myself “remember what you told people …”

TH Going back to comparing your first visit with this one, does it feel different this time?

RB It does…

TH Is that a subjective thing or do you think it is actually different…

RB It might be a subjective thing because I feel more involved…

TH More embraced…?

RB Yeah! That’s what people are looking for when they come here. They like that fellowship feeling, the shared experience…we all like this thing we’re doing. And then participating together and playing music…it’s really what communities used to be and now we’re so fragmented as a society, people are all over the place…it’s such a shame…

TH Given that you have such a busy schedule, with Alison and your solo projects and recordings, how refreshing it is to come here and be locked away from the world for several days?

RB It’s been great; I barely have looked at my phone; haven’t used my computer except for classes. I’ve hardly been to to my room…I only go there to sleep…so that tells you…

TH How big a break is it? Clearly it’s a very serious business that you’re in…and I wondered to what extent it’s a relief to be here.

RB It is absolutely a relief! I’d rather be in this jam…or talk to some other people over there; or I’d rather give this person a lesson. So I’m making choices that have nothing to do with the internet, or phones…all that stuff that sometimes breaks communities. They’re valuable tools, but you have to use them judiciously. So to get over here and be free of that for a short while and then totally free of other responsibilities…It really has been a vacation, although the teaching, mentally, is demanding and I have to focus for an hour and a half at a time on making the experience a good one for the students…it can be tiring; and staying up late at night jamming…!

TH I’m interested in what you say about community…there is a tendency to atomisation of folks generally and this is the paradox of what is happening here and now at Sore Fingers…

RB Yes…here there is a drawing together…

TH Which is crucial and at the heart of what the management aims to achieve…but away from here, can I ask you about Alison Krauss and Union Station?

RB Playing with Alison & Union Station…that’s really been the best career that I could possibly have. There’s nothing that I can think of that would have been more rewarding in a musical way, personally, financially…absolutely great bunch of people to play with. But as we go on and get older, the touring is more contained, usually confined to a 3-month period. And so there’s 8/9 months of the year when the question is: ok – what do I do with this time? And some of that time has been taken up by being available at home – to practise and write songs and being with my family. That’s been a great thing – my kids are in their mid and late teens so, yes, it’s been amazing that I’ve been able to do that. But, as time goes on, I find myself wanting to play so I’ve been here wanting to jam every night…there hasn’t been a night when I haven’t sat and played for 2 or 3 hours…

TH What’s your practice regime?

RB I always have to practice…I can’t go more than a couple of days without. After a couple of days it’s like I’m not on my game. I like practising banjo and guitar every day. Writing goes in phases – it just has to; there’ll be times when I won’t write for a while, and when I decide to do it, it does become more regular. I wish I could make it a daily practise.

TH Do you ever get smacked by an idea and go: Wow! That’s a great idea for a song…or that’s a great chord sequence…let’s see if I can write words to justify using it …

RB Yeah…it happens in a lot of ways. I used to write songs always by playing first, and humming a tune and eventually I might think: that’s interesting and I’d follow a line of melody to where it had a verse and a chorus then I would record it, play it into the recorder. Then I would play and listen to the recording so I’m not distracted by trying to sing and hum…and lots of times, the humming sounds I make are vowel sounds and then words pop into my head and then I sit and write. But for the last while I’ve been working with a co-writer Rebecca Reynolds and we’re working on some more stuff as well.

TH You’ve mentioned your family life and the fact that you have two teenage kids – which is demanding enough for anybody – how do you adjust to being away for long periods then around all the time at home?

RB My kids are great…they’re used to it and they know that if I’m at a thing like this (Sore Fingers), then we communicate…we have a message group going which my son has labelled “Those awesome Block People!”

TH You’ve spent a good deal of time in 2017 with Kate Rusby and Damien O’Kane…how did that come about?

RB I met Joe Rusby first, I believe at Sore Fingers, and a couple of years later he brought Damien and Kate to an Alison Krauss & Union Station show. They asked me to play on Kate’s upcoming record, and I ended up playing some shows with them when the record came out. Since then I’ve had the thrill of playing banjo on most of her records, and Damien’s last two, plus Kate sang beautiful harmony vocals on my 2013 record, Walking Song. I’m a huge fan of Kate’s music, and of course Damien is one of the best I’ve ever heard – guitar, banjo, vocals, arranger, producer, composer.

TH And how have you found the meeting of musical minds from quite different musical cultures?

RB It has been the best thing for my musical growth. Their music requires a completely different approach on the banjo than playing with AK & US, and it has forced me to come up with new ways of playing the banjo. Damien and I are currently finishing up a duo banjos record, and it has a wonderful challenge to keep up with him. He’s one of the best musicians I know.

TH It seems to me – I could be wrong (often am!) – that you’re spending increasing amounts of time this side of the Atlantic when you’re not working with Alison and Union Station…how rewarding is that for you, musically?

RB I have always loved coming over here. In the early days of AK & US we came over a lot, but when we all started having families it cut our overseas travel a lot. We didn’t come over from around 1998 until 2005. Being over here in whatever capacity is always rewarding, whether with AK & US or with my family (we had an epic trip here in 2014), or at Sore Fingers, or playing with Damien and Kate. There is a rich musical heritage over here, and among rooted players and singers there seems to be a deep awareness of what makes music valuable. Playing with folks over here is changing my playing for the better and making me more able to shift into new musical gears.

TH At Sore Fingers, you are typically very generous with your time, especially with the younger players…how do you view the general level of skills/capabilities?

RB The skill levels vary from one end of the spectrum to the other. What I love is the sense of cooperation and fun and generosity that prevails at Sore Fingers; it’s really a sort of anomaly in the Matrix, something of an annual peculiarity in this strange world we’re living in.

TH Similarly, you were very generous in your notes on Midnight Skyracer’s debut CD…how did they approach you to write that endorsement?

RB Via Facebook. They’re super folks and musicians.

TH How is 2018/19 shaping up? (I know you have to plan ahead…!)

RB 2018 has shaped right up. I’ve finished the banjo record with Damien, recorded a project with Ella and Jackson Paul at my studio, finished overdubs for the banjo record with Stuart Duncan, Sierra Hull, Barry Bales, Sam Bush, and Ethan Jodziewicz, heading to Sore Fingers soon, and when I get back I’ve got rehearsals for the Alison Krauss tour. The tour runs till fall, but I’ll be back over here for a three-week stint touring the banjo record with Damien starting in mid-July.

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