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Discovering New Horizons with The Misty Mountain String Band

The Misty Mountain String Band is a musical force like no other. With the release of their new record, Red Horizon, the group goes above and beyond the call of musical duty, to bring an impressive record to the table. The collection of songs are captivating from start to finish with a unique twist on each piece. Their knack of combining Bluegrass, Americana, Twang and Folk create a notable and dinstinct sound that sets the band apart from the rest. Gorgeous melodies and driving rhythm form their infectious sound that is intertwined throughout Red Horizon. Recently I had the chance to catch up with Brian Vickers and Derek Harris from The Misty Mountain String Band for an insightful interview which you will find below.

The history of the band is quite intriguing. You all met at seminary. How did you end up being involve in music and starting a band together?

Brian: We all went to seminary but we didn’t all know each other in those days.  Derek and Neal were students together.  Paul was there around the same time but didn’t really know them.   I was actually working on a PhD and didn’t meet the other guys until after they were finished with school.  

Derek: Neal and I were both working on Master of Church Music degrees but Paul and I were both actively pursuing music as a livelihood outside of the church as well. We put together pick up groups for private events, open mics, farmer’s markets and the like.  Our first gig with our current line-up was for the 114th annual Yelvington Campground Revival in Lewisport KY.  Paul brought Brian and I brought Neal.  Something definitely clicked for us on a personal and musical level.  

Brian: We all got together to rehearse some songs to play the revival meeting.  There wasn’t really an idea that we’d be full-time band.  After that we were asked to play in a church or two.  We had such a great time that we decided we’d try to put some more songs together and play out in venues.  Before long we were thinking, “maybe we should make an album.”   

Coming out of Kentucky, which has a pretty diverse music scene, what influenced you to become a Bluegrass-Americana band? Was there a natural gravitation to the genre?

Brian: We didn’t all grow up playing traditional music.  Derek, Paul, and I all came up playing in rock bands and Neal studied classical violin.  Derek and I also studied classical music (Brian on guitar and Derek piano and composition) for years in music school.  We all came to traditional music in different ways.  Growing up in West Virginia, I was surrounded by mountain music at fairs and festivals and did short stint as a dulcimer player, but it wasn’t until much later when I heard the great Norman Blake play guitar that I decided, “that’s what I want to do!”  

Derek: It was definitely a natural gravitation though.  Paul had become pretty involved in the local bluegrass and country scene.  The first time I went to one of his gigs he played some Merle Travis songs, and since I grew up in Muhlenberg County KY, where Merle was from, I was excited.  Around the time we started Paul was trying to get a country band of some sort together and I was available, but once we added Neal and Brian the gravitation was more towards bluegrass.

The Misty Mountain String Band has played with the Louisville Philharmonia Orchestra. That's impressive. How did that opportunity come about?

Derek: Neal had been playing with the Louisville Philharmonia as Concert Master and he pitched the idea to the board. It is a musician run orchestra and they were 100% behind us from the beginning.  They loved the idea of partnering with a local Louisville band and since Neal and I had training in orchestration and arranging that was a bonus. We will play for them for the third time coming up this June at Louisville’s Iroqouis Ampitheater.

You are known for your high-energy live shows; how do you take your studio recordings and hone them for the stage?

Derek: We practice a lot.  You have to if you are going to keep up the techniques required to play this style of music.  There is a lot of flashy playing, improvisation, and you have to have rock solid timing. On top of that you have to be able to engage the audience while all of that is going on in the back of your mind.  The only way to do that is to play together as much as possible.

Brian: We joked after making this album that we would have to go learn our own songs. Once we get a song rolling we practice like we play live with everyone standing around a single microphone, moving in and out to sing and play breaks.  We’ll take time to sing harmonies, building the parts together until we all get dialed in.  Once we are fairly comfortable with a song we’ll start working it into our sets.  Playing live is what really makes everything come together, but when you hear one of our songs live you’re hearing hours and hours of practice behind it.  

Your upcoming album is called Red Horizon. How would you say it is a departure from your 2013 debut EP, Went to the Well? How have you grown musically; as both a band and as songwriters?

Brian: We’ve grown in every way.  Playing together in MMSB for almost 4 years has made a profound impact on us as musicians and writers.  

Derek: When you play with the same people for years and years you develop a group intuition.  On Went to the Well the song arrangements were more personal and unique song to song, whereas we have come to a Misty Mountain ‘sound’ on Red Horizon.

Brian: Yeah, we write for the band now, hone our personal skills for the band, and encourage each other on every level.  Went to the Well is an EP of our best songs up to that point but Red Horizon, even more than Brownsboro, really displays all the various musical influences we each bring to the band.  The music is still essentially in a traditional string-band setting, but far more expansive than Went to the Well.  Take Neal’s instrumental, “Boss Higgins,” it has elements clearly based in traditional fiddle tunes, but classical and progressive elements are prominent too.  It’s also a piece of music that we probably couldn’t have pulled off (or written) technically in the Went to the Well days!  If one of us had brought a “Red Horizon” or “Wings” to the band during the recording of Went to the Well the reaction would have been something like, “What is that??”  There is no doubt that we have made each other better musicians and writers.   

For Red Horizon, what is the inspiration behind the new songs? And what song(s) are most personal to the band?

Derek: Many of our songs are very personal.  Take “Martine” and “See You Through,” for instance.   I wrote Martine about my aunt who died in the year before Red Horizon came out.  The song celebrates her life and the influence she had on me, which you can hear clearly in the song.  Brian wrote “See You Though” sitting by his mother’s bed in a hospice center where she spent the last week of her life.  He stayed there with her day and night and the lyrics reflect on his life with his mom right up to literally the last moment.  Even though those songs are intensely personal, they also relate to a basic human experience shared by everyone.  Hopefully those songs speak to people going through that experience.   “Birds and Bees,” is a kind of whimsical take on spending a week stranded inside by a big snowstorm we had in Louisville a couple years ago.  Again, it’s personal, but everyone who hears it seems to really resonate with it.  Other songs, like “Red Horizon” and “Right in Front of Me,” are auto-biographical but really just about being in relationships.   

Brian: “Blooming Rose” is about my dad growing up in the mountains of West Virginia but it’s also about how memories and experiences are passed down and become the memories and experiences of future generations.   Even the cover song, “Three Men on a Mountain” is a very personal for us as it reflects the core of our faith.  We didn’t choose it at random.      Like most song writers, we combine our personal experiences together with reflections on how we see the world and how it works.  

One thing that peeked my interest in your music, is the storytelling. When it comes to penning lyrics, where do you draw inspiration from? What comes first; the music or the lyrics?

Derek: It is rare for us to write the music of a song before the lyrics.  At the same time, there’s no exact formula. The music might start with a hook or riff, usually with some basic chord changes and then we’ll get together and hammer away at it.  

Brian: That’s been one of the remarkable experiences in MMSB, how one of us brings a song, even a very personal song, and over time we all take personal ownership of it.  Though most of the songs are written by a single writer, they all truly become “our” songs.   

What would you say The Misty Mountain String Band is looking to accomplish with Red Horizon?

Brian: Of course we hope that people will hear the songs and stories and enjoy them.  Music has been such a central part of all our lives and experience and we’d like to think that our music could touch the lives of those who hear us.  Red Horizon really shows who we are musically and as song writers, but it expresses something that the four of us could only do together.  

Derek: We are close friends and we love playing music together, and hopefully you can hear that in our music.  As folk musicians we are just trying to preserve the stories that made us who we are.