"by Paul Kucharski"
Rhythmic and imaginative, sensitive and subtle, superpicker Mike Dowling is a master of American roots guitar. Firmly grounded in authenticity and possessed of a musical soul as old as the vintage instruments he favors, Mike is capturing the hearts of acoustic music fans worldwide with his engaging voice, self-deprecating wit, and elegant interpretations of an arsenal of old blues, swing, ragtime and original tunes. Fluent in several styles, difficult to pigeonhole, Mike has recorded with artists as diverse as House of Bluesman Paul Black and film star Madeline Kahn. He’s worked with such outstanding players as Jethro Burns, jazz great Joe Venuti, and master fiddler Vassar Clements, including session work on Clements’ grammy-winning Nashville Jam.
Mike’s own recordings include the critically acclaimed Beats Workin’, recorded in Nashville in 1991 with a band of pickers that featured Vassar Clements on fiddle; Swamp Dog Blues, his solo acoustic CD released in 1995; and Live at the Cafe Carpe, recorded in 1996 with Mike’s long-time friend and sometime jazz fiddle playing partner, Randy Sabien.
Long a favorite of bluegrass and acoustic players in Nashville, Tennessee, multi-talented Mike has had songs recorded by such artists as Emmy Lou Harris, Kathy Mattea, Tim O’Brien, and bluegrass songstress Claire Lynch. Often co- writing with his wife and partner, Jan Dowling, Mike’s songs have been performed on the Grand Ole Opry, Prairie Home Companion, TNN, and television’s Northern Exposure. He’s had a #1 hit with Canadian country star George Fox’s version of “Fell In Love/Can’t Get Out”, and his tune “Backtrackin’”, recorded by the Nashville Bluegrass Band on their grammy- winning Waiting for the Hard Times To Go album, was nominated Bluegrass Song of the Year in 1994 by the International Bluegrass Music Association.
After ten successful years in Nashville, Mike moved in the fall of 1996 to a new home in the mountains of northwestern Wyoming where he has opened Wind River Guitar, a unique live-in school he and Jan operate out of their wilderness home. Mike continues to write and record and maintains a busy tour schedule, playing concerts and festivals in the U.S. and Europe and teaching at a variety of camps and clinics throughout the country.
Before we get into the usual biographical details, tell us about your new CD, "Live at the Cafe Carpe" with Randy Sabien. What inspired this project? Randy Sabien is an outstanding musician in his own right, how did you two get together?
"Live at the Cafe Carpe" was recorded in 1996 so it's not so new anymore. I've got three projects in the works, or at least in my head, at the moment so I hope to have a couple of new CDs available by spring or early summer. But Randy and I met in the early 80's in Madison, Wisconsin where I was living at the time. He had just moved to Wisconsin and we share a love of the same kind of music. He also loves to fish and we've been friends ever since."Live at the Cafe Carpe" was actually my wife Jan’s idea. Jan is my business partner, co-producer, co-writer, etc. and she thought Randy and I needed something that would represent the occasional gig we still play together.
Again, Jan and I co-produced Swamp Dog. The first recording I did under my own name was "Beats Workin'" and we had some good players from Nashville help out on that one, Vassar played, and Paul Anastasio, Mark Schatz, Bob Hoban. That was a lot of fun but it represented a band that I couldn't take out with me on the road. So when I began to play out more and more as a solo artist we felt I needed a CD that would reflect my solo performances. Our original thought was to do a CD we could put in a promo package to showcase my versatility so the tunes were selected with that in mind. One of my favorite things to do is to take an old tune, in some cases a real old tune ('Rosalie' was written in the mid 1800's) and arrange it for guitar or my style of playing guitar and I did a lot of that on Swamp Dog Blues.
Your first CD, Beats Workin was done with the great fiddler Vassar Clements. What was it like working with Vassar and the other Nashville players on this project?
Vassar is just great. He’s so musical and so identifiable. I met Vassar back in 1973 while I was still living in Wisconsin. I was playing with a band called 'Home Cooking" out of Milwaukee and he heard me and I did some side work with him when he would come to the state. As a result of that, he hired me for a touring band he was putting together and I moved to Nashville for the first time in the mid-70's. This was Vassar's first touring band and I did that gig for about a year, traveling the country in the band bus. I also did some recording with him and one of those albums, Nashville Jam, was nominated for a grammy. The other players on Beats Workin’ are friends of mine also. That's the best thing about living in Nashville, having access to so many great musicians.
Who or what events inspired you to play the guitar? Was music a part of your household when growing up? How old were you when you began to play?
I started playing guitar when I was about twelve. I had taken piano before that and didn't like it. Then my dad had me take a few guitar lessons but I didn't like what the teacher had me doing. I came back to the guitar on my own when I heard groups like the Ventures and Les Paul and Mary Ford. That was all the inspiration I needed to start teaching myself and I just took off from there.
Do you feel that your starting age is a critical factor in playing your style?
I don't think age is necessarily a critical factor for developing style, but I do think it's easier to learn if you find your passion at an age when you've got the time to pursue it. And my folks were very supportive. My dad was teaching college in Stevens Point, Wisconsin where I grew up and he was not so subtle about bringing his guitar-playing students over to the house.
Any formal music training?
Just the few lessons I mentioned earlier when I was a kid which I quickly abandoned. I'm pretty much self taught. I did have the opportunity to spend some time with the great jazz guitarist, George Barnes, out in San Francisco shortly before he died. I had already been playing professionally for a number of years but that was a great experience and I still have those lessons on tape.
What styles interested you when you first began to play? How do those early preferences influence your current music?
As I said, my folks had some Les Paul and Chet Atkins records around the house and I guess that was my earliest inspiration. When I heard guitar played like that I knew what I wanted to do.
Any teachers or method books of note? How about influential artists?
I mentioned how fortunate I feel to have spent time with George Barnes.He was an amazing player who never quite got the popular recognition he deserved and I often tell my students to get hold of his recordings. As far as influences, people like Mississippi John Hurt, Oscar Aleman, early Tampa Red, and Lonnie Johnson. I love the raw purity of that music.
You were a Nashville session player for 10 years. What was that like? Any advice for aspiring guitarists who would like to do that?
Well, I did some sessions while I lived in Nashville but I wouldn't call myself a 'session player'. That's a very exclusive club and most of the guys who do that work regularly have devoted their careers to just that one thing. They're very focused. There's an unspoken rule in Nashville that if you want session work you never leave town. You have to stay visible, available and up to date at all times and I never pursued that seriously because I was interested in too many other things. It was while I lived in Nashville the second time that I started playing out as a solo.
My friend Buddy Spicher tells a great story about Nashville session work and Buddy was THE fiddle player in town for a long time. The story goes like this, "Who's Buddy Spicher?" "Get me Buddy Spicher" "Get me someone who sounds like Buddy Spicher" "Who's Buddy Spicher?" I actually had the most fun doing sessions in Chicago when I had the opportunity to work with Joe Venuti and Jethro Burns. That was back in the 70's.
What musical avenues do you wish to explore in the future?
Jan and I are living where we want to be now. We left Nashville in 1996 for a little cowboy town in northwestern Wyoming. We bought a cabin we’ve remodeled in the mountains surrounded by trout streams and wilderness and since I've always done a lot of teaching we started taking guitar students into our home for a week at a time. We call our business Wind River Guitar and it's really starting to take off. We're getting inquiries now from people all over the world. I teach at home when I'm available and of course I continue to record and tour.
I was invited to play in Japan a couple of years ago, went to Europe twice this year, and I'll be going to England in May. We sometimes marvel that I'm busier since we left Tennessee than I ever was in Nashville and I expect things will only get better. I've been playing guitar all my life, but it’s only been a few years that I’ve been performing as a solo artist so the word is still getting out.
As far as the future, I want to produce more instructional materials. I'm putting a book of my own tunes together, writing some articles, and I want to do another instructional video. And I'm always writing music for the guitar.
What keeps you interested in the music business?
Music is what I do, it's what I am and I will always play the guitar. That's a given. As far as the business end of it and being able to make a living at it I have to give a large part of the credit to Jan. She's the practical one who has a knack for putting it all together. When we decided it was time to leave Nashville we bought ourselves a cabin in the Rocky Mountains eighty miles from the nearest airport and no music resources in sight. She said "trust me", and I did. And it's been great.
Have you ever had to weather a creative dry spell in your playing or composition? How do you overcome writer's block?
When Jan and I were in Nashville we started writing songs together, we tried our hands at it because that seemed to be what people did in Nashville. It's such a songwriters mecca. And we had some success with it, but now that we're out of that community we've stopped writing together, at least for now, because we really don't have time for it these days. So I guess you could call that a dry spell, although one of the tunes we wrote just before we left Tennessee was recorded by the Del McCoury band last year and is currently on the bluegrass charts. I'm concentrating more these days on instrumental music for the guitar and when I have the time to sit down with it I don't really have a problem with writer's block. Lyrics can be a different thing, of course, but that's not my primary focus.
Some of your original tunes were written with your wife Jan, what role does she play in your song writing?
Jan's a great writer. She's doesn't play music but she has a good ear and wonderful instincts so it's easy for her to collaborate with me lyrically. She doesn't always get the credit she deserves for the work that she does because she's not a musician, but she's responsible for a lot of the music I've done.
Your music is pretty stylistically diverse, which of your albums would you recommend to someone buying one of your recordings for the first time?
That's a hard one to answer because the three recordings I've done under my own name are each a little different. Beats Workin' has the Nashville band, "Swamp Dog" is just me and "Live at the Cafe Carpe" is the acoustic trio live. But the music is pretty much the same mix of blues, swing, ragtime and the occasional original so I guess it would depend upon the musical configuration a listener is looking for. The project I'm currently working on will be different still. I'll do the recording by myself so it'll be essentially solo, but I'm going to overdub additional guitar parts on some of the tunes.
I don't know if I've had a low. I've been fortunate to be able to make a living playing the guitar for most of my life so even when the income was marginal and I wasn't sure where the next gig was coming from I was still happy doing what I love. And the highs are still coming. I've been playing solo now for about five years and connecting with an audience who is really listening to my music and showing me that they appreciate it is surely one of those highs.
Current activities and tour schedule?
Jan and I have been busy nonstop this year from April through November with students and traveling and we've just now got some time to ourselves to work on new projects. I've got some gigs in the area over the winter but I'll mainly be concentrating on writing and recording over the next few months until it starts to get crazy again in spring.
Short term/long term personal goals?
Just to do what I’m doing, and more of it.
Aside from the guitar, what do you do for fun?
Well, Jan and I chose to live where we do because we love the wilderness and we love the West. When we have free time, which isn’t often, we're likely to be out in the woods or on a trout stream. I do as much fishing as I have time for. There’s so much good water out here it would take a lifetime to learn it. And Jan loves horses. We're not home enough to have our own horses yet, but since moving out here we've hooked up with an outfitter friend of ours who runs wilderness horsepacking trips out of Dubois. We worked three trips for him last summer and plan to do a couple next year if our schedule permits. It's been my first experience with horses and although it's really hard work we both love it and it gets us into some really wild country we'd never see otherwise.
Other creative endeavors?
I have a small guitar repair shop at home and restoring my own guitars is a sideline I enjoy. Most of the old guitars I come upon need considerable tweaking to get them to play right and it’s very rewarding to be able to do that myself.
Which artists would you most like to collaborate with in a recording or tour?
Since I think of myself as a solo performer these days nobody really comes to mind. But I certainly wouldn’t turn down proposals from players like Johnny Gimble, David Grisman, or Doc.
You run a guitar school out of your home in Wyoming. How did that come about and how do you structure these sessions? Where can someone get information on your school?
We believe our school, which we call Wind River Guitar, is unique in the world of guitar instruction. There are a lot of camps and workshops out there, and I teach at some of them, but we offer something different in that students stay with us in our home for a week at a time and the instruction is very personalized and pretty much unlimited. Students who come to stay with us can structure the experience however they want. We find that some people want to have a guitar in their hands all week, while others want to combine instruction with some recreation in our mountains. People can reach me through my website www.mikedowling.com and we'll be happy to send them a brochure.
You also do Guitar Workshops and Guitar Camps pretty regularly. What do you have coming up in the near future?
I've done a guitar camp in North Dakota for the past three years which Jan and I put together with John Andrus who runs the Missouri River Bluegrass and Oldtime Music Festival. I've played the festival for John a couple of times and as a result of that he asked me if I wanted to put together a guitar camp in that part of the country and of course I said yes and Jan did most of the work. It's been a lot of fun getting this thing off the ground and now we're at the point where we can bring in additional instructors and offer fiddle and mandolin in addition to guitar. We hold this camp at a state park north of Bismarck and we're able to keep the cost down to a very reasonable $290 for five full days of instruction. I'll also be back for a third time teaching at a good three-day guitar camp in St. George Utah in June, and at the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, West Virginia for "Swing Week" in July. Anyone wanting more information on any of these can contact me or through the website.
You have some great instructional videos out (one of which is reviewed on this site), tell me about those? What level of player should consider these?
Well, I appreciate the kind words. I did the bottleneck video first and that came about because I was getting so much interest in my style of bottleneck playing which is different from the more familiar Delta style. I use the bottleneck more as accompaniment (rather than focus) to the Piedmont style of alternating thumb fingerpicking that I love. And since I wear the bottleneck on my ring finger, which is a little unusual, people are always asking me about that. Now I can just tell them to check out the video. That one is two hours long and I cover a lot of material, though I start slowly, pretty much with the basics, and add more difficult work as the viewer gets into it. I tried to target that to a player coming from standard guitar, like I did, who knows how to play but is new to slide and open tunings, or to the slide player who wants to combine fingerpicking with the bottleneck.
The swing video came about also because I had so much interest in one. There are a zillion instructional videos out there now but not much that I could find on swing guitar so I made my own. I started with rhythm guitar and I plan to do another on swing solos and improvisational techniques.
Any particular teaching/learning techniques, such as maintaining a log of practice time?
My only advice is to play, play, play, as much as you can. And play with other musicians if you have the opportunity. It’s also good to learn how to read chord charts and lead sheets and know enough theory so you’re able to understand and explain what you’re doing to someone who might ask.
Any advice to beginning musicians?
Don't be discouraged. I sometimes hear people say that they went to hear so-and-so and now they want to throw their guitar away. I’ve never understood that. What they don’t realize is that so-and-so might have spent a lifetime developing his talent. So I encourage my students to take inspiration from the people they admire and use that for motivation. That’s what I do. And remember that you’re never too old to learn, or to improve. A lot of my students are in their fifties and they might have played some guitar in college but they're just now finding the time to get back to it.
Ideas about professional management. Pros and cons of managing ones own performing career, or forming an independent recording company.
Jan and I manage our own business and so far it's worked well for us. Because of the school here at home we need to keep control of our calendar. I'm fortunate in that I make my living in the music business but I'm diverse enough not to have to rely on any one aspect of it. I perform and tour, yes, but I also record, write, teach and even repair guitars. Since performance is just one aspect of my career I don't feel the need for professional management. I’m just not so frantic to be out there touring all the time. I would much rather travel to one or two good concerts or festivals than try to string a bunch of smaller gigs together. I just don't have the time for that.
As far as my recordings, Beats Workin and Swamp Dog have in the past been manufactured and distributed by a small indie label in Europe but Jan and I are in the process of getting them back. By the end of next year we'll have the three I have out currently, plus two new CDs out under our own label. It used to be that if people were putting out their own recordings it sort of implied they couldn’t get a "real" label interested. Now it seems to be swinging the other way. Anybody can make a CD these days, get it into distribution and even get airplay. The mystery has been taken out of the recording business and more and more people are keeping control of their own products.
How can one best prepare for making a living with the guitar?
I can only speak from my experience, but I would say versatility certainly helps. I would think that limiting oneself to just one aspect of the guitar, whether that's performing, teaching, writing, or even recording would make it more difficult. It certainly would for me. Plus I'd get bored doing just one thing even if I did it really well. I love the diversity of my life and yet everything I do is guitar-related. Even those horsepacking trips we do I take my guitar along and play for the dudes around the campfire at night.
Any advice to young performers just breaking into the industry?
Do what you love because you love it. Don’t do it expecting money or fame. Do it from the heart and do it well and some measure of success will come your way.
You play in a few open tunings. How do you decide which one to use on a given piece?
Different tunings have different qualities. I look at how one or another tuning fits my vocal range or how best I can play my melodic ideas. I also think about the harmonic range and the general feel of the tune. If the tune in question was originally played in an open tuning I’ll most likely stick to that tuning, with maybe a few exceptions. But if you’re talking about arranging something that was not originally played in an open tuning, like Deep River Blues, I’ll choose a tuning that gives me the same kind of tonality, like D.
What are your technical strengths and weaknesses?
That’s a tough one. One of my greatest strengths may be my versatility and I would say that that derives from the opportunities I’ve had over the years to play all kinds of music in all kinds of musical situations, from bluegrass dobro to "Dixieland" guitar to electric blues, rock ‘n roll, and jazz. I was fortunate even at a young age to be able to get real "hands-on" experience in different musical styles in different musical genres with some really good players. And I’ve always been eager to understand or be able to explain in musical terms what it is I’m doing so that natural curiosity I have has probably served to make me a better teacher as well as a better player.
My experience as a band leader and an arranger is probably another strength. It taught me how to communicate with fellow musicians, whether they’re old-timey or jazz players, in all kinds of situations. I’d say I’ve been very fortunate in my career to have had associations with really great musicians, some famous and some not, but I’ve learned something from every one of them and I’ve been able to draw upon their diversity to enrich my own music.
The notion of weaknesses is interesting. I used to think that not being able to play real fast would be a weakness for a guitar player. Now I don’t even consider it. Instead I think about melody and feel and balance. I used to think that not being a good sight reader (and I am a little weak there) would be a hindrance for a guitar player. Although I’d never presume to describe that as a weakness in another musician I’ve been less able to cut myself some slack in that regard.
Do you read music? What's your opinion of tab vs. notation?
Yes, I read music, and I like to use tab when I teach to sort of sketch things out for my students. Tab has one drawback, however, when it comes to writing note values for fingerstyle guitar in that the tab page becomes quickly cluttered.
What do you do to keep your repertoire fresh-sounding?
Well, first of all I play in a variety of styles on a variety of guitars and I think that goes a long way to keeping the music interesting, for me as well as my audience. I also like to think I have enough respect for the progenitors of the various genres to keep the tunes compartmentalized musically so the songs in my repertoire don’t end up all sounding the same. One thing I might do to keep a particular song fresh is to try it in a different key or a different tuning from time to time. I might do something like Mississippi John’s "Louis Collins" in open D while still trying to maintain the nuances of the original tune. And whether it’s my tune or something I’ve arranged, I rarely play a piece the same way twice. That would become boring for me and it would show itself in my performance. So even if it’s just a subtle variation I’m always looking for something just a little bit different or challenging that I can do to keep things interesting.
Describe your practice routine.
I don’t really have a routine, though most days I’ve got a guitar in my hands. If I have a concert coming up I like to run through a little of everything before the show. Otherwise I’m just playing whatever it is I’m working on at the moment. I keep several guitars around in different tunings and whatever I’m working on at the moment determines the guitar I use. One thing that works for me if I really need to ‘warm-up’ is to play along with a good swing recording, improvising lines, or just playing something like "Bill Bailey" by myself as if there were a good rhythm section behind me. I’ve always preferred that to playing scales or arpeggios.
You play fingerstyle on steel strings and I notice you sometimes use fingerpicks and a thumb pick. What advantages or disadvantages are there in using fingerpicks and how do you decide when to use them? What brands and models of guitars/strings/amps/recording equipment do you use?
I used to hate fingerpicks but I made myself learn to use them and now I feel comfortable with them on. Playing solo on stage really gives a player an idea of what’s needed gear-wise to get your music across, and that includes fingerpicks. If I'm playing a slow tune in a quiet room I may not use any picks at all so it really depends on the situation. Picks give you more volume and attack and it’s good to be able to call upon that when you need it.
On stage I use National, Gibson and Martin guitars. One of my Nationals is a 1936 Style O in D tuning. I also play a 1932 El Trovador National I usually keep in G. My flat top is a J185 re-issue and I occasionally play my 1949 Gibson ES-150 or my 1952 ES-350, through a 1964 Deluxe reverb for jazzier situations or a 1956 Tweed Pro. I have an old prewar Dobro and a Gibson EH-150 lap steel for certain band situations as well. I use Elixir strings, medium acoustic plus a .015 and an .018 for open tunings. My 150 and 350 take the electric .052 to .012 electric set. I tend to be very hard on strings, bending and using lots of damping and I find I get a lot of mileage out of the Elixirs.
As for recording gear I think good mics and a good engineer are most important. I try to use instruments that have inherently good balanced tone so as not to require any extra EQ. A little compression going to tape and no limiters, with the possible exception of a Fairchild for warmth. I’m a pretty bare bones player and it’s the same on stage. I like as little between me and the amp as possible. I’ve installed simple pickups in my resonator guitars to give me extra volume and tone when I need it. Nothing beats a good mic in my opinion, but even the best stage mic needs a little reinforcement from time to time.
You're a real fan of vintage instruments and even like to restore them yourself. How did you come across your old National and what was it like restoring it back to playing condition?
Well, my 1936 Style O came to me as a bag of parts. It had been in a fire and needed to be completely rebuilt. I made an ebony fingerboard for it with a little extra radius and compensated the saddle, etc. I put a lot of hours into it but now it’s a great sounding guitar.
Which acoustic pickup, pre-amp, EQ, amplifier? What microphone setup do you favor for solo guitar recording?
I have a Bill Lawrence sound hole pickup, the one with a volume control. Also a little Fishman pre-amp I use sometimes. I prefer to record with two microphones for a bigger sound and more options in mixing.
To what extent have you explored guitar technology, acoustic pickups, amplification of the acoustic guitar, pedals and effects, software, MIDI guitar etc.?
I’m really not much of a tech head and I surely need to get more proficient on the computer so I can do my own transcriptions and get myself set up with a MIDI, etc. Jan could tell you I can barely turn the computer on at the moment. As far as acoustic pickups I find them a little artificial sounding. I combine my Bill Lawrence with a good mic to get the best results. But I’m an optimist and I’m always on the lookout for a good pickup. Lindy Fralin built me a nice low profile pickup for my El Trovador. I use a digital delay pedal and the reverb/vibrato foot switch on my deluxe. That’s about it for special effects.
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