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Artist of the Month for November 2004: Chris Newman

Where do you hail from Chris?
I was born in the south of England in a small town 30 miles or so north of London. I grew up in the north though, and apart from a few years in my late teens/early 20s when I went back south I've spent most of my life in Yorkshire. It's a nice part of the world, roughly halfway between London and Edinburgh. It's a very convenient place to live if you're touring as nowhere in the UK is all that far away.

At what age did you start playing guitar? How about mandolin? Which came first?
I have a brother who's ten years older than me, and in the late fifties he became involved with the music popular at the time - Buddy Holly, skiffle, Lonnie Donegan and so on. He managed to get a guitar for his birthday and I made enough noise that I got one too! I suppose I was 4 or 5 when I started to pick out tunes on single strings. For many years I learnt everything second hand from my brother as I was too young to go to folk clubs. He'd visit all the local places and come home armed with all these new chords, songs etc and I'd sit there and copy him.

When I got to be about 12 or 13 I was able to go and see other players myself. I did my first paid gig at 14 in a folk club in Leeds and decided there and then that I was going to make a living at it.

Mandolin came very much later. The first time I picked one up I was probably in my mid-twenties. At first I retuned it like a guitar…then I realised how fifths worked! I don't play mandolin very often - when I'm working on a piece for a recording I'll practice like mad until I get it right, then I'll record it and promptly forget it! It's a nice instrument though, and a useful alternative for a guitarist as so many of the techniques are the same.

What got you into playing music in the first place?
See the answer above - even as a small child I always enjoyed listening to good tunes and was delighted when I found in the guitar the mechanism to play them myself.

You are an awesome guitarist and mandolinist. Do you play any other instruments?
Not really. I've dabbled with the electric bass for years and have done lots of recording on bass, but almost never on stage. I love the piano and, in truth, consider it to be the king of instruments. I had piano lessons when I was very young, but let it go as I much preferred the guitar. I still dabble occasionally, and love the idea that these days you can play everything in C major then press a button to go to any key you like. Cheating of course, but as a non-piano player I love it!

What was your very first guitar? Your first Mando?
I've actually owned very few guitars. My first was a Tatay - small bodied Spanish nylon string model. From there I progressed to a Yairi classical where I used light gauge steel on the top three strings. From there to my first real steel string guitar, a Yamaha FG-110. Then in fairly quick succession came a new 1972 Martin 000-18 followed by a 1924 Washburn 5200. An English luthier called Russell Wootton built a copy of the Washburn that I liked better so I used that until, in 1984, I bought my 1930 Martin OM-18 that I still have. I used the old OM on every concert from late '84 until summer 2000 when the thing became unplayable as the neck had lifted and badly needed a reset. It was more like a dobro towards the end! In July 2000 I bought a brand new Martin OM-42 from Elderly in Michigan and have used it ever since. The old OM's been reset and is once again fine to play, but I much prefer the modern guitar with the low profile neck. I use the old one for the occasional recording, but I'll never use it live again.

My first mandolin was an Ibanez - it was OK, played in tune etc. Then I got an early 50's Gibson A-40 that I still have. It's a workmanlike instrument that will never set any pulses racing but suits me for the rare times I need to play mandolin. I'd love a better model but I really can't justify spending loads of cash on something I rarely use. My good friend Simon Mayor (seriously good player) has several mandolins made by Mike Vanden, and on a couple of occasions has lent me an instrument for a particular project.

Who were your early influences? What sort of music were you drawn to when you were a young player?
My parents played Beethoven recordings pretty much non-stop when I was very small, so I guess I could hum all of his main themes by the time I started playing. The Beatles were a huge influence - their records were released in this country on a Friday, so I'd buy them on the Saturday and have all the parts learnt by Sunday! For my tenth birthday my sister bought me a Chet Atkins LP called 'Down Home' - I loved it and immediately set about learning the various pieces.

What was your first gig?
I played a college in Leeds when I was 14 years old, and was paid £14. This was roughly twice the national average weekly wage at the time (1967) and I remember thinking that I could go out and play the guitar for an hour or two and people would pay me large amounts of money. What a great scheme! It was at that time that I realised there was only one career path to follow so I've been doing much the same ever since.

You told a little tale about your current Martin OM-42 and how it was destroyed and then ressurected. Can you please repeat that for our 13th Fret audience?
The guitar I bought in Lansing in July 2000 had been tweaked quite extensively by the chap who does all my work, Mark Challinor. As well as everything else he does the world's greatest setups, and had spent a fair bit of time getting the new -42 into really 110% playing shape. On a flight from Chicago to Manchester in August 2001 the guitar was thoroughly trashed. When I collected it off the belt at Manchester I noticed that several of the latches were broken - not a good sign. I opened the case to see the action was about 2"! A forklift, or other pointed object, had penetrated the very heavy duty Pegasus fiberglass case and ruptured the treble bout of the guitar. The end block was split, causing the distance between the back and the top to be greatly enlarged - hence the huge action. The whole thing was a real mess, and the airline couldn't have cared less.

Mark rebuilt the guitar with great results - the split is clearly visible if you look at the treble bout, but the guitar plays and sounds as well as ever despite the trauma. I took it to the Martin factory in May 2003 and Dick Boak was impressed by the quality of the repair. Mark did a good job, and I once again have a thoroughly playable guitar for day to day use.

On the basis that 'lightning never strikes twice' I'm sometimes tempted to take it on flights in a brown paper bag…

What other guitars do you own? How about mandolins?
I have the 1930 Martin OM-18, 2000 Martin OM-42, an Oakwood copy of the OM-18 (great guitar and light as a feather) made in 1993 and 1994 Fender Stratocaster. One mandolin, the aforementioned Gibson A-40, and an octave mandolin by Davy Stewart of Christchurch, New Zealand.

You are known as a country swing artist, but you also are a masterful Celtic player as well as a fantastic mandolinist. How did you develop your style of playing?
Originally I played anything - Beatles tunes, adaptations of classical pieces, ragtime, Hendrix, the lot. I think that a personal style develops from everything one's ever heard. For example, I've often been in situations where someone's playing a tune on the guitar - something really basic and maybe quite slow. Not the greatest player, but they might play one small thing that makes me think "that's really nice" so I'll remember it and put it in the cupboard to be pulled out at some future time. This happens a lot. You can learn something from almost anybody if you listen properly.

At Steve Kaufman's Acoustic Kamp this year, you taught us some really torturous drills for the left hand. I do a few of them every day as a warmup. They really helped increase the strength of my left hand and especially the pinky finger. What's your practice regimen Chris? Do you perform these somewhat painful, yet hugely effective excersizes? I'm afraid to admit that I come under the category of "do as I say, not as I do!" When I'm touring with Máire Ní Chathasaigh (my regular playing partner) I rarely get the chance to practice or warm up. Most of the day is spent getting to the next venue and rehearsal time is very short if not nonexistent. I'm very lucky in that I have never felt the need to go through lengthy routines as a rule, but those exercises certainly help. Even a quick 5 minute routine is better than nothing.

Who are some of your favorite artists?
Almost everyone I've ever seen. I can learn something from pretty much anyone. I couldn't begin to make a list of favourites as a) it'd be way too long and b) I'd be bound to miss out someone by accident.

Your CD entitled "Fret Work" is a tremendous work of art. You wrote most of the tunes on it. They remind me of both Celtic and Bluegrass music. It is obvious that the two have similar roots, or more specifically, that Bluegrass was born of Celtic. Can you touch on the commonalities these two styles of music share? Do you have any ideas on the history of Bluegrass as a descendant of the Celtic style?
Fretwork was the result of some 16 years of tune writing. I'm not terribly prolific but there was something of a backlog! The Celtic/bluegrass thing is interesting - I'm certainly not an expert but it would seem logical enough that much of the bluegrass repertoire came originally from either Irish or Scottish roots. Many of the tunes are virtually identical - the bluegrass Red Haired Boy is more commonly known as The Jolly Beggarman in Ireland. As I understand it the main difference between the two is that the bluegrass version is faster and has most of the ornaments and variations removed.

You do a lot of touring around the world. What are some of your favorite places to perform?
Everywhere's nice! Even the most unpromising-sounding place has a story, and usually some nice people in residence. The US is a great place to play, but is becoming very difficult to do legitimately as the rules and regulations change almost by the hour. You wouldn't believe the hoops we have to jump through (and the money we have to pay) in order to get work permits. Several UK-based musicians I know no longer seek work in the States as it's simply not worth the hassle. We've just got new visas valid until October 2005 so we're OK for a while.

Australia's great, as is New Zealand. Fantastic countries full of marvelous people eager to show the visitor the best the country has to offer.

A couple of years ago we did a concert in the Shogun's palace in Kyoto, Japan. That was pretty wacky, as was Beijing…

Is there anything else you want people to know about you, your playing style or your views on today's music in general?
Not really. I just enjoy doing what I do, and consider myself extremely fortunate to make a decent living doing something I enjoy so much. It's also a huge bonus to get to travel so many parts of the world that the tourist would almost certainly never see.

Check out Chris's website.
If you are a guitarist with a cd out and would like to be featured here please contact me.

AOTM Archives:

August 2008 - Danny Combs
March 2006 - Bryan Clark
Februry 2006 - Darin Leong
January 2006 - Andy McKee
December 2005 - Don Alder
November 2005 - Doug Young
October 2005 - Nancy Conescu
August - September 2005 - Warren Greig
July 2005 - Ian Melrose
June 2005 - Roger Lasley
May 2005 - Jim Tozier
April 2005 - Jessica Papkoff
March 2005 - Todd Habekost
February 2005 - Michael Hewett
January 2005 - Steve Barney
December 2004 - Tony McManus
November 2004 - Chris Newman
October 2004 - Kevin Kastning
September 2004 - Rick Duke
August 2004 - El McMeen
June-July 2004 - Charles David Alexander
May 2004 - Tony Capri
April 2004 - Shane Simpson
March 2004 - Bill Cooley
February 2004 - Greg Meckes
January 2004 - Gary Leek
December 2003 - Ernie Hawkins
November 2003 - Keith Knight
October 2003 - Jaquie Gipson
September 2003 - Chuck Durfor
August 2003 - Cathy Horner
July 2003 - Art Edelstein
June 2003 - Muriel Anderson
May 2003 - Clarelynn Rose
March-April 2003 - Steve Wildey
February 2003 - Rick Ruskin
January 2003 - Kerry Kling
December 2002 - Tim O'Brien
November 2002 - Howard Emerson
October 2002 - Dennis Roger Reed
September 2002 - Larry Pattis
August 2002 - Paul Asbell