Where to begin when attempting to define the music of Kentucky's Ben Sollee, a cellist, composer, and singer who's released 10 studio albums, one live album, and two EPs in less than 10 years? His just-out new record, Ben Sollee & Kentucky Native, is nominally a bluegrass release, though it's hardly Flatt & Scruggs (more on that later).
He's classically trained on his instrument and he's created works for the Louisville and Charlotte Ballet companies, but he's also collaborated with My Morning Jacket's Jim James on a project for Sub Pop Records. He's deeply rooted in the traditional music of his home state, but he's also a fiercely modern artist who has lectured extensively about using as few natural resources as possible while on tour, even going to the extent of touring via bicycle in the late 2000s. He's appeared at Lincoln Center and composed music for a John Travolta/Robert DeNiro film called Killing Season. There's a lot going on in Sollee's music, and he's not even out of his thirties yet.
And there's certainly a lot going on in the music he plays with Kentucky Native, an ensemble that includes his longtime percussionist Jordan Ellis, fiddle player Julian Pinelli, banjo player Bennett Sullivan, and bassists Jon Estes and Josh Hari. On the album's 10 tracks, Sollee and company weave all manner of influences into their acoustic music, from Irish jigs to African rhythms to Latin percussion and beyond. It's an album bursting with melodic ideas that spin like a top between styles, with the band sounding like they're having a ball. It's about as far from the shopworn "traditional bluegrass" style as one can get, and that's exactly how Sollee planned it.
"Growing up here in Kentucky, I used to go around to musical gatherings with my grandfather, who was a fiddle player," Sollee says. "I saw people with missing hands playing bluegrass, and I saw people playing homemade instruments, and I saw bluegrass for what it was: a living, breathing form of experimental music. And so as I went out into the world and played at these bluegrass festivals, I thought that traditional view was a narrow one, even though I loved it and it was full of amazing players."
He saw it as a more rule-breaking form of music, in other words, one that pulled from a variety of sources both homegrown and foreign.
"Bluegrass music was created from a process of collecting sounds from all over the world and the state," he says. "It was rebellious and badass about mixing in gypsy jazz and African rhythms, and I just found that it began as a much more untamed act than the tradition of bluegrass has become, so I wanted to continue the practice of bluegrass in today's setting by including some of the immigrant music you find in Kentucky these days."
And thus Kentucky Native was born, mixing the African, Cuban, Mexican, and other ethnic styles of music that you might find in modern-day Kentucky. And despite the dizzying time changes and complex arrangements that sparkle all over the album, it was recorded almost entirely live, in an atmosphere quite different from the typical sterile studio.
"We recorded it in a cabin in the woods of the Bernheim Arboretum & Research Forest, south of Louisville," he says. "It was a small place, and we all bunked up together, cooked dinners for each other, drank bourbon together, and everything was recorded live as an ensemble in the living room space."
With no individual tracking and no overdubs other than a vocal here and there, the group had to figure out what they were going to do in full detail before they played, not that Sollee sees that as a new or novel process.
"That's the way recordings have been made for over a century," he says. "But more and more, recordings have been made with isolation, doing one track at a time as a layering process. It's a big commitment; you're cooking collaboratively with a lot of different chefs in the kitchen. That makes for a very unique sound, and [producer/engineer] Alex Krispin was our captain. He guided us through the family bonding of being in a space together. If you listen closely, you can even hear the fire crackling sometimes."
Perhaps even more surprisingly for such an intuitive, tightly played album, Sollee had only ever worked with Ellis and Estes before recording it.
"I don't think there's a better way to get to know someone than to create music with them," he says. "When you're making art and jamming with people, you get to know them very quickly on a pretty intimate level. There's no hiding behind words or anything like that. At times it was challenging for sure, because I didn't feel like I had the facility the other guys had, even though I'm classically trained. But I was able to bring them types of music that inspired them and demos that were exciting to them, and we all got to know each other really well."
By any standard, it's adventurous music in the vein of newgrass trailblazers like Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, or Jerry Douglas. And as it turns out, Sollee comes by at least one of those influences honestly. He played with banjo master Fleck and Fleck's wife Abigail Washburn as part of a group called the Sparrow Quartet in the late 2000s.
"Bela helped broaden the scope of what is considered bluegrass music and what people are interested in hearing," he says. "He's been a huge influence on me, and it was certainly in the back of my mind that he'd be listening to this, and I wanted him to be excited about the inclusiveness of the sound."