An interview with Steve Baughman | 2012 | Artist Interview
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TT – Thanks for talking to us Steve, I was wondering if you could share with us what drew you to celtic music?
SB- My interest in Celtic music began in earnest in graduate school when my then girlfriend returned from the Orkney Islands with a bunch of LPs of artists she had just seen at the Orkney Folk Festival. That was 1986 or so. I’ve been hooked since.
SB- Personally, I wouldn’t define it, and I agree with Duck Baker that it is a terribly misused term. Also, there has been such an explosion of fusion music lately that most categories these days have seriously blurred edges. I’m not sure I’d even say, to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart on pornography, “I know it when I hear it.” The boundaries are even more blurred than that. I suppose that most of the music played by the old dead people of Celtic descent counts as Celtic. I might say generally that the music of Ireland, Scotland, Brittany and parts of Galicia is Celtic music. That may not be very helpful, but it’s a start. More importantly, I think that it does not matter how one construes or defines the term. If you like what you hear, the label is not really all that important. So sorry to offer such an unsatisfying reply to a very good question.
TT- Is there anything which defines an instrument as suitable for Celtic music?
SB- If it feels good, do it. It’s totally subjective, like preferring vanilla over peach. Having said that, I must confess that certain instruments do not feel good to me in what I hear as Celtic music. Harmonica, for instance, or brass instruments strike me as a bit of forced fusion. But that is a totally subjective thing that probably stems from me listening for decades now to fiddle, pipes, flutes and harps playing this music. The switch to other instruments outside the tradition tends to jars me. Of course, fingerstyle guitar is outside the tradition, but somewhat approximates the sound of the harp so the shift is not as dramatic as it is with, say, a harmonica.
TT- In your opinion, are there any definite albums and artists for Celtic fingerstyle?
SB- I like the guitar players who have marinated themselves in the traditional music and are therefore able to convey some of that essence and richness on the guitar. Most people who record Celtic fingerstyle tunes have not done this, and their music lacks a certain depth for me. I would like to see the musical tradition respected more, and not treated as something to be approached casually. Just because you play guitar does not mean the world benefits from you recording Celtic pieces on your instrument. One owes the music a bit more awe than that. I particularly dislike renditions of Celtic tunes played by classical guitarists. The music usually strikes me as stiff and artificial, even though the players blow me away with their chops. But again, that’s just me.
Now, on a positive note, there are certain essential names in the field. Tony McManus is a god of the genre, he’s one of the few who can pull off jigs and reels with ease. El McMeen and Robin Bullock are very different from Tony, somewhat mellow and stately, even in their upbeat tunes, and I love their playing also. I recently did a gig with Duck Baker and got to hear him very close up. He’s a unique stylist and great player. A new kid on the block, with a brand new CD out, is Anton Emery, who plays the slower harp tunes as well as the faster fiddle tunes very nicely. One of my favorites is the relatively unknown Alec Stone Sweet, a genius with tone and arrangement. There are a few other names I could mention, but I’ll stop there.
TT- So would it be fair to say that the feel of the music is more important in defining it than geography?
SB- Feeling is everything. Music is good if “it works.” If it gives you the feeling you want it is good music.
TT- Is there any advice you might give someone looking to seriously play Celtic fingerstyle?
SB- I think I’d say the same thing to people wanting to play Jazz, Classical, Madagascar fingerstyle or slack key. Listen to and love the traditional music. Once it’s in your soul, play it. Guitarists should be musicians first, and guitarists second. We use our instruments to give voice to a tradition that we have grown to love and that we have somewhat internalised. Skip that stage and your music will probably suffer.
TT- Technique wise do you feel there are certain areas which are unique to or used more in Celtic fingerstyle?
SB- I don’t really know. Most classically trained right hands to not work well, but that is probably due to the hand owner, not to the hand technique. As I noted earlier, I was watching Duck Baker a few weeks ago on stage with me. His right hand is about as unorthodox as can be, but his feel is wonderful. Same for Tom Long, a guitarist in Southern California. I think the same way about guitarist right hands as I do about fiddle bowing. One can get quite doctrinaire about the “right” way to do it, but in the end what comes out is all that is important (assuming, of course, that you’re not hurting yourself.)
TT- thanks for taking this time to speak to us, Steve. Before we go are there any exciting projects you have on the horizon you’d like to share with us?
SB- My new solo guitar CD, Life in Prism is at the manufacturer and will be ready on CDBaby.com and elsewhere by August of 2010. I am also working on posting some free clawhammer guitar lessons on YouTube thru my lesson company RhythmStrummer.com. I plan to do a banjo DVD next year with a Zen monk. We’ll call it Zen Banjo and we’ll emphasize the meditative aspect of old time banjo playing.
Life is good, music is exciting, and I hope all your readers experience the same feeling early and often. Thanks for having me.
PS: Check out Steve’s new album by clicking on the album art below:
©2009 Terence Tan.
Alberico guitars courtesy of Steve Baughman © individuals 2010
Old Celtic Cross by Petr Kratochvil
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