To say that Ben Sollee is a busy musician is just a bit of an understatement.

Sollee and Kentucky Native will play the Funhouse at Mr. Smalls on September 16.

The Kentucky native Sollee was raised around and in the tradition of bluegrass music.

Bluegrass not being passed off by a British band with a banjo, or some neo-modern take that is misrepresented, often by the press, as bluegrass music.

Bluegrass music, the kind that has roots that travel deep and wide through other traditional music.

Sollee is a proponent of evolving the tradition of bluegrass. In taking it to its next step, Sollee has also delved deep into its history, seeking and finding what is at the heart of the tradition.

He has recorded nearly an album a year since 2008, sometimes two or three. Sollee is also busy with environmental activism. He has toured by bike (towing a mini-trailer) promoting the cause through his concerts and music. Sollee feels, unlike a lot in the odd times we currently find ourselves, art can challenge issues, offer solutions and create change.

“Ben Sollee and Kentucky Native” finds Sollee and his band going back to the origins of bluegrass. The group holed up in a cabin in Kentucky to work on the album. It was captured live on a portable analog studio.

The Swerve Magazine recently talked with Sollee about the linage of bluegrass, how Mumford & Sons are not bluegrass, the environment and we should treat each other as humans and nothing less.

The Swerve Magazine: Everything needs to evolve, that is very much appreciated in your approach to the genre of bluegrass music. How did you come to this view, and why do you think it is so important to evolve the genre?

Ben Sollee: Growing up in Kentucky, my grandfather Elvis would take me around to all these fiddle gatherings. I would see folks playing pedal steels, autoharps, and homemade instruments. It felt experimental and organic. As I grew up and came to know bluegrass as a tradition, it felt a bit protectionist. This project is my way of opening the practice of bluegrass music to what it was from the star
t; a distillation of music made by immigrants from all over the world. And in today's Kentucky, the music sounds different.

SM: A lot of people hear the word 'bluegrass,' and stereotypes spring to their minds, like "Dueling Banjos" and that backwater-type lifestyle. How do you confront those prejudiced views? Are they able to see past their bias and see/hear the music?

BS: If and when they understand that bluegrass started out as this broad blend of musical influences, then their bias is hard to maintain. But you have to get folks listening first... so my main strategy is to write an engaging song. Everything else follows.

SM: On the other hand, you have people that hear 'bluegrass,' and think The Avett Brothers or, god forbid Mumford & Sons, do you use the same tactics in getting them to appreciate the history of bluegrass and how it came to be?

BS: Lordy, I can't stand it when people associate bluegrass and Mumford & Sons... Bluegrass is not a banjo! But to be honest, I know that the musicians in both those bands appreciate and love bluegrass music, so I trust they will direct their fans to the source (wink).

SM: Those questions, in a way, lead to the idea that you've described bluegrass as 'immigrant music.' It takes a bit from all the cultures and presents it in a new form. With the current climate in the country with immigration and all, how important is getting the message out that we need the mixing pot of cultures to evolve?

BS: It’s a subtle but powerful message. It's easy to be tribal about music and culture. Lord knows I've tripped over the battle lines on my path as a musician. But you'd never have heard music like bluegrass or jazz or rock or hip hop or... the friction of living with people from other places with different ideas brings us closer. It's the closest thing we currently have to a global/earth flag.

SM: Touring as much as you do, you've said in the past that you put issues before people in your songs, but you've relatively recently discovered from talking with people on the tour that the people are more important. Can you explain how your view changed?

BS: I’m not sure that I've ever put issues before people, but I certainly used to write more issue-based songs. Now, having performed throughout the world, I really feel like songs need to generate affection around issues. People protect what they care about, and a song about a specific place or person can do more to rally humans around issues than sets of data, statistics, or protest songs.

SM: Do you find it easier to get messages and issues into your songs if you present it as from a certain point of view of a certain character?

BS: Maybe. Sometimes. On the new record, I address climate change from the perspective of a tugboat operator in the song "Eva Kelley." In the song "Moon Miner," I touch on the isolation of being from an impoverished community. Again, subtle but, hopefully, more heart-shaping in the end.

SM: Of all the characters presented on the new album, is there a favorite? One that is close to the heart?

BS: I love the portrait of the “Well Worn Man”... "box springs on his back, all you see is what he lacks but he lives life with the facts." In this day and age, we can curate ourselves to give virtual/false ideas about who we are. Making the "natural", un-tampered human image more elusive.


SM: You recorded "Ben Sollee and Kentucky Native" in a cabin in the woods with a group of musicians, an analog recording system, and bare-bones approach. You've played with Jordon Ellis quite a bit before, but the other musicians were new to you. How did you get the cohesive sound that is on the album, if you just met and some of the songs were fleshed out in the cabin?

BS: It’s the process. A lot happened away from the pics: we cooked meals for each other, tended the fire, went for hikes... you make a lot of art in those unspoken moments of collaborating on mundane tasks. It's kind of the Master Miyagi approach. But I have to give the producer, Alex Krispin, a lot of props for helping us navigate through the heap of ideas and then capturing them beautifully.

SM: You are an environmental activist who uses music to help tackle the issues of how art can create meaningful change. Is that idea/process harder in this new era we are living?

BS: Yes… No. I think musicians, particularly folk musicians, are still responsible for archiving in song the spirit of a time. Lots of different ways of doing that of course, but people are often looking to music these days as a form of escape. Many folks are overwhelmed by the weight of issues from every corner of the world. There's a new notification every time they look at the pocket computer we call "phones." So my job is to find a way to help people recharge so that they can care about these issues.

SM: You’ve been quoted as saying "There is no fixing the future, it's just a path that we are all on." If we can't fix the future, what do we do to make it a better road getting there?

BS: Get up everyday. Do good work with good people. Make family part of your artistic output. Be gentle with yourself and others. Treat humans like humans, no more or less.