Q&A with field recorder and musician Matt Downer

Q&A with field recorder and musician Matt Downer

July 1st, 2011 by Casey Phillips in Life Entertainment

Chattanooga Times Free Press lifestyles reporter Casey Phillips spoke to field recorder and musician Matt Downer about the 13 years of work he put into an upcoming CD documenting the music of regional old-time musicians.

CP: When and why did you start doing these recordings?

MD: I started doing them in 1998 when an older fellow named Stanley Baker started coming by my granddad, Wayne Heard's, house. They were playing some. I started recording them on a small handheld tape recorder I had. Very shortly after that, Stanley Baker passed away. He was my uncle's father (not related by marriage), and many of the people in his family were interested in the recordings I had. They were super low quality, but they were the only ones that they had of him. They were interested, and they prodded me to take it more seriously and start doing it in earnest.

CP: What were those first sessions like?

MD: He was just a larger-than-life character, I guess - a real good storyteller who knew a bunch of songs. He was just a character. It made me want to catch what I could. It was mainly on weekends when I was up visiting my grandparents on Sundays and he'd come by to get together.

CP: Were you already playing music at that point?

MD: Yeah, my granddad was the one who taught me to play guitar to back him up when I was 16. He played Dobro.

CP: Were you trying to capture the music to build your repertoire?

MD: To begin with, I wasn't interested in archiving the stuff or collecting. It was just to learn the songs he did. I was just playing guitar at that time. Specifically, I was interested in some of the bass runs he would do on the guitar and things like that interested me. I tried to pick some of that up off the recordings, some of his guitar style and songs.

CP: How did he react to you wanting to record him?

MD: It was very, very laid-back and informal. They'd be playing, and I would stick the thing (the recorder) between them. I'd be playing or watching them play, and they never even talked about it. Some of them have since then, but he didn't mind, for sure. He took it in good humor.

CP: How old were you at the time?

MD: I was 24. I'm 36 now.

CP: How many artists have you worked with since then?

MD: As far as recording? I would say about 15 artists.

CP: Where did your grandparents live?

MD: It was in Sand Mountain, Ala., about an hour away.

CP: Are the other artists from Sand Mountain?

MD: A couple of them, the ones on the set, three are from Sand Mountain and one is from Old Memphis down in South Alabama, near the Mississippi line.

CP: How do you find these musicians?

MD: I grew up there, and the first one I called up was Jess Moore, a fiddle player up there. He was in his 90s when I started playing with him. I knew him growing up. Everybody knows about his fiddle playing up there. He was the first one I called, and it seemed like one would lead to another after I started doing it. I would always ask if they knew any other older musicians. I was kind of following the trail that way. It was mainly word of mouth.

CP: When you went to record the second artist, after Stanley Baker passed away, was your attitude toward recording different?

MD: Yeah, he (Jess Moore) was a fiddle player, and I was very interested in fiddle tunes at that time. Backing him up on guitar is kind of an acquired thing. All fiddle tunes sound the same, so it takes a lot of listening. I was interested to learn that stuff.

I kind of approached the sessions with him as wanting to document his oral history, as far as growing up and how he came up. He was born in 1911, and he had a very unique history, as far as playing music and experiencing it. He was able to relate stories about the first record player and the first radio up there. It was really interesting.

Definitely the attitude had changed. At first, it was me just wanting to catch what I could of the music style of the musicians, but when I went back the second time, I had questions I wanted to ask. Of course, I wanted the music, too, but I also wanted some of the stories that went along with them.

CP: How intertwined were the music and the stories?

MD: Very much so, I think. I wish I'd asked more questions of Stanley when he was around. They called him Preacher Baker instead of Stanley Baker. I'm sure he had great stories.

It (music) is a part of their life. The people I've recorded, the music is a big part of their lives, so the stories are all one together. When you can record them at their home, it's kind of a snapshot of place and time.

CP: Were any of the recordings done at your house?

MD: No, every one of them was done at their home.

CP: How, if at all, did recording at their homes affect their interactions with you or their approach to the music?

MD: Well, if you want a super-clean, high-fi(delity), digital sound recording, you can get those all day long at Wal-mart. But in my opinion, if you go to where the music lives - where the musician lives - that's where you get the true essence of it.

It's where they play every day. They're not putting on a show; they're just playing music. They were all very informal. It was a snapshot of daily life and music was part of their lives.

CP: So when you were working with Stanley, you didn't conduct any of the interviews like you did with the later artists?

MD: Correct, I had no notion of even making a collection or doing it - beyond just for myself to learn the tunes - until after he had passed.

CP: After 13 years doing this, what have you, as an archivist and musician, taken away from your interactions with these musicians?

MD: Oh man, every single one I've worked with I wish I'd been able to spend more time with. I've done it all on my free time, and it was been unfunded. I've done it when I could around working a full-time job. Everyone, I wished I could spend more time with.

Of course you look back on it and it's very special to you, but after Stanley passed away, I appreciated it while I was doing it, as well. Just getting a chance to sit and talk to those guys was invaluable to me. The kind of music I'm interested in, old time music, that's how it survived, as an oral tradition. You don't pay to learn it; you go to the old-timers and they pass it down to you.

CP: How many of the artists you recorded are still alive?

MD: Three of the four who are on the set have already passed away. So yeah, that (death) is part of it. It's my hope that, through archiving the stuff, they'll live forever in a way they wouldn't otherwise. This way, even someone born in the 21st century will have a chance to virtually to sit in the living room and hear them talk about the music and the history. That's one of the neatest things to me.

CP: What kind of stories did they tell you?

MD: I always tried to ask how they got their first instruments, how they got started, what spurred their interest. Everyone I asked, (they) were maybe 10-14 years old when they started to take a really serious interest in it. I also asked what the first songs or tunes they learned or heard. It was things like that, mainly. It would go on from there. That would lead my questions.

CP: What was the most interesting story you were told?

MD: One interesting one is actually on the DVD. It talks about Jess Moore. When he was a young guy, he came to a fiddlers convention here in Chattanooga from Sand Mountain. He hitchhiked to get here, and he got a ride on a cattle truck. He played the contest. He came here with a friend named Noah Lacey, who was an excellent fiddle player, too.

They came together, and Jess got in the finals, but Noah didn't. They both stayed over in Chattanooga, and they couldn't find a ride back, so they walked back to Sand Mountain from Chattanooga and got back at 4 in the morning. (Laughs.) It's right at about 50 miles, I think.

CP: How often did you get a chance to conduct these interviews?

MD: A lot of them, the ones that appear on the set, I made when I was living at a campground out there, right at the foot of Sand Mountain at Sequoyah Cavern. We were all living in a camper, a conversion van, me and my wife and two kids and a dog.

I would go up there at least once every three days, and sometimes more than that. I was hitting it hard back then. I went as much as I could, for sure. On average, I was going every other weeks, but when I was doing it heavy, maybe twice a week.

CP: When were you living there?

MD: That was 2003. I stayed there right at about a year.

CP: Meeting them as often as you did, what kind of relationship did you build with these musicians?

MD: It was great. With a lot of them, it seemed like a great southern tradition to poor mouth your talents and not see the worth of your stories and music when it's something you do as fun or entertainment just for yourself.

They could obviously see that I was interested in it and had great respect for them. I had a great relationship with all of them. They were all kind and generous. We were all great friends. Despite the age difference, I consider them all very good friends.

CP: How much older were they?

MD: I think the youngest was probably Willie King, who lives in Old Memphis, Ala. He was in his 60s. The oldest was Jess. He was 91 or 92 when I was recording with him.

CP: When did you work with Willie? With Jess?

MD: I recorded with Willie King in 2005. I recorded with Jess in 2001-2002. Willie was the only African American I worked with.

CP: What, if anything, surprised you during the course of doing this research?

MD: I'm trying to create a regional music archive because I've got so much more stuff than would fit on a DVD and CD. I would like to have it housed where it would be accessible to people. I know several people locally who have huge archives of local field recordings just sitting in a box. That's the way mine were for years, and that's not the place for them. They're a part of history. I've been trying to get that going, and I'm surprised by the lack of interest in that.

CP: When people hear your CD, what will strike them the most?

MD: I think the fact that you can live around such talented musicians. You're not going to hear them on the radio; they won't necessarily try and go out and make a career out of their music. But the talent these guys have, if somebody doesn't go out and actively seek them out and try to collect their stories and music, they could be lost forever.

I hope young people take an interest and start appreciating it and start doing it themselves with their grandfathers or grandmothers. When they're gone, it's too late. You can think, "I wish I had this" or "I wish I had done that" all you want, but when they're gone, you're not going to get it back.

CP: What is the name of the album?

MD: "Slowtime Field Recordings: Volume 1, Alabama."

CP: Do you think the fact that you play music helped these musicians to open up to you?

MD: Absolutely. Oh definitely, 100 percent. You have a huge common denominator there when you come in as a musician. Every one of them would insist that I played with them when I came. It was important to all of them.

Personally, I think they saw what I was doing as important because of how much they were willing to share. Being a musician opened the doors that much wider. Being from the south, too - being from where they were from - helped. Not that somebody would be looking to exploit them, but I could see how they could perceive it that way.

CP: How much material have you assembled?

MD: Video, maybe 250-300 hours. Audio, I would say probably have 500-600 hours. It's overwhelming. When I started compiling it, it was overwhelming.

CP: Where is all the material stored?

MD: (Laughs.) In Rubbermaids. I was able to put a lot of it on external hard drives with that grant money. I didn't even have a computer (before the grant), but I was able to get a computer and external hard drive, better field audio and video recording equipment.

Anything I do in the future will be so much easier. I had to pull this up, some of it, from cassettes. I went back to VHS and Hi8 video. It made it a lot more labor-intensive to get that to where I could work with it on a modern program. Anything I do in the future, thanks to that grant, will be so much easier thanks to the grant.

CP: When did you start incorporating video into your interviews?

MD: I started, actually, with Stanley Baker. That was always important to me. I think, as a culture right now, we're so visually stimulated that you've got to have that, just about, to hold anyone's interest for very long.

Also, it's pretty powerful, too, to be able to go back and look back and see it. It's one thing to hear it, but it's another to be able to see it. As a musician, to be able to see the way their hands are moving when they are playing is very important to me.

CP: And you've been steadily improving the video equipment you use?

MD: I borrowed my parents' Hi8 camera and started taking it to Jess Moore and to my grand dad. I would get him playing Dobro. I would also take it up to Cast King.

I got a mini-DV camera at a garage sale. It didn't have external battery, and you had to leave it plugged in. It was kind of cumbersome, but it got really good quality. Then, I bought a mini-DVD recorder where I could finalize it on the camera and put it in.

CP: When did you get that?

MD: I got that 2005-2006. Now, I've got the one that just uses the SD card. It's so much easier. I got that with the grant money from CreateHere.

CP: Was that last year?

MD: The grant started last June. That was the first stuff I bought: the laptop, the camera and the audio recorder - a Zoom H4N. It's neat. It's got two stereo makes, an XLR mike plug input. You can multi-track on it. Prior to that, I was using mini-disc. I went through three of those. I wore them out.

CP: When you compare the recordings you're doing now to what you were capturing then, how drastic is the increase in quality?

MD: Some instances it's more drastic than others. There's definitely a difference. I still listen to stuff that was recorded on 78s, so I kind of like the old sound of some of the stuff.

It's tough to beat the analog sounds, too. A lot of it depends on how close the mike was sitting in next to what was going on. I tried to use the best quality recordings that I could for each guy.

CP: How long were you visits with these artist?

MD: Oh man, they were several hours, usually. The first time I went to see Cast King, I was there for eight hours the first time I met him. That was not uncommon. On average, it was 3-4 hours.

CP: Which four artists have you chosen for the first release?

MD: Jess Moore (fiddle), Wayne Heard (Dobro), Cast King (guitar/songwriter) and Willie King (guitar/songwriter).

CP: How many tracks will be on the release?

MD: 20 tracks on the CD. I just picked them up today. They look great. The DVD is an hour and 3 minutes.

CP: How many for each artist?

MD: There are six each for Cast, Jess and Wayne. There are two on Willie King. I only got one session with him as part of the Alabama Community Scholars Institute, which was a two-week thing down in Alabama for people who were doing independent field work. They taught you about different equipment and interviewing and archiving techniques. It was a really intensive thing. As one of the projects, we went up in groups of three and went to people's houses and talk to them. He invited me back up to stay with him and teach me some new things, but he passed away, and I never got back down there. That was in 2005.

CP: What were your criteria for what to include on this first volume?

MD: I kind of wanted to get the earliest stuff I did just because I've been sitting on it the longest, and it seemed to make sense to go with four guys from Alabama. They are different instruments, but they seemed to compliment each other, as far as the video and audio.

The interview stuff is on the DVD along with some live footage of them playing. There is very little of me talking on the DVD. I try to keep that out as much as I could and have it be just in their own words. I was able to do that 98 percent of the time. I worked that into the video.

CP: How did you choose which songs to include?

MD: That was tough. Some of it had to do with the quality of the recordings. With a field recording you'd be out on the porch and a car would drive by or people would be talking in the background. There would be kids crying and people doing dishes. It was par for the course.

I tried to get the quality of the stuff be the best I could. A lot of times, they would stop and not play a song all the way through. I tried to get the ones where they played all the way through and the best performances. A lot of times, they would stop in the middle and start talking without playing all the way through. I tried to get the ones where they played whole songs all the way through with the best performances.

With the video, it was the same. I looked for the best performances and most interesting historical stuff about their history, the most engaging stories.

CP: When did you start compiling the material for Volume 1?

MD: I started right when that grant got through. As soon as I got a computer, I got a program where I could rip. I already had pretty much all of what I had on VHS and high-8 onto DVD as quick as I could so it wouldn't deteriorate. I had to get a program so I could convert DVD stuff into movie files, so I could edit them.

I started that a year ago this month. I got right on it. It was an eye-opener, for sure, the video editing. I'd done some audio editing. It was great fun. I'm already looking forward to the next one.

CP: When will it release?

MD: I'll have to get back to you on that. I'll probably do the release there at CreateHere. I'm waiting on the cover and the booklet. There is a 16-page booklet that goes with it and a letterpress cover.

That's the only thing I got done out of town. I tried to use local, Chattanooga people for the design, layout and disc replication. I'm pretty proud of that. The letterpress on the cover and the booklet I got done in Oregon.

CP: Why did you decide to reach out to CreateHere to begin with?

MD: They did the MakeWork grant, and I knew some people who did it. I had this stuff, and it needed to be out there and accessible and circulating. I figured, "Why not?" It seemed like a good fit.

I knew some people who had gotten grants before, and they were encouraging me to try and do it. I thought about doing a couple of things, but the most-pressing thing to me was to get this stuff out.

They've been great. I can't say enough good things about working with CreateHere. That MakeWork Grant - I don't know too many cities that have something like that. It's a real feather in the cap for Chattanooga to be able to claim them for the five years they were around. Through projects like this and other things they got started, that's a real testament to the creativity they've spawned in the city that's only going to continue to grow. With the equipment I had, there was no way I could have afforded to do what I did without running up a crazy credit card bill or something.

Mike Pack got a grant through the studio. The guy he opened the studio with, Alex Norfleet, mastered the CD for me. He did a great job. Alex Norfleet was the one who mastered it. They work together at Grand Palace Studio, which was in Murfreesboro but is here now. (The mastering) made a huge difference. We sat there probably three nights for hours at a time. Each individual track was different from the other. It's no like you can set the levels for a session and let them go, so it was pretty intensive.

Michael McHathy also designed the layout of the package. He worked at CreateHere. One of the things I'm most exited about is the illustration for the cover of the CD, the Slowtimes logo. Yuriko Hoshino, (local musician) Clark Williams' girlfriend, drew it while they were in France. It's amazing. It's a phenomenal, phenomenal drawing.

CP: Was the grant dependent on you releasing something?

MD: I did it like a two-tiered thing. Half was to upgrade my equipment, and half was for the production of this set. I'll donate copies to the local libraries and all around here.

CP: How much was the grant for?

MD: A few thousand dollars.

CP: Will there be a release party?

MD: I'd like to do a release party at CreateHere. I'd like to do one where I can show the DVD. I'm still looking into a place for that. I may do a couple (of releases).

CP: Will any of the guys you interviewed attend?

MD: The only one who is alive is my granddad. I doubt he'll show up. He doesn't really get out much. (Laughs.) He stays around the house. He is in his 80s.

CP: After working on gathering this material for so long, how does it feel to finally release it?

MD: It's great. It was a big relief when I finally was able to send off the files for the cover and the booklet and take the master of the CD and DVD and drop those off. It was a huge relief.

You think about it and think about it and how you're going to do it and what you're going to put on there and what it's going to look like, but when it's finally out of your hands and the wheels are rolling on it, it's really exciting. It can't get here soon enough.

It makes me look forward to doing much more. I want to do a Tennessee and Georgia edition. I've also got a couple other things I'm working on now with this new equipment. It will definitely be field recording projects, but it won't necessarily be a Tennessee edition. It'll always only put out home field recording stuff, but it won't necessarily be in the same vein (as this release).

CP: What do you think will be in "Volume 2?"

MD: I definitely will do Tennessee. I'm not sure about what exactly it will be. I've got a couple of ideas. I'll see. Maybe I'll wait and see about feedback on this one before I decide what direction to take it.

CP: How many volumes could you get out of the material you have now?

MD: I've been doing more even in this last year that I've been working on this. I'll keep doing them as long as I can. As long as I'm alive, I'll keep collecting stuff. That's always been my main focus, collecting it and archiving it.

I'm not doing it with the mind of putting it out as a release, but just to have it - you can always do that. The important thing is to get it documented and recorded and preserve it.

(The number of volumes) is limitless, I guess. I'll keep doing it. That's my hope, that this one will fund the next one and hopefully fund a repress of it, as well. I've got a bunch of ideas, a bunch of ideas.