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Artist of the Month for December 2004: Tony McManus

Editor's note: Tony is another artist whom I met at Steve Kaufman's Flatpickin Kamp in the summer of 2004. I had the distinct pleasure to share meals with Tony, Beppe Gambetta and others at Steve's great camp. Tony's sense of humor is one that kept me cracking up. Always with a joke, Tony never stopped smiling. His expertise in all things Celtic is impressive. His guitar work is moreso. Known worldwide as a fingerstyle guitarist, Tony is also a flatpicking monster! I hope you enjoy this interview that I had with Tony. There's more to come also, so please check back for some new material.

DS: You are on the leading edge of Celtic guitar music as we know it. You are a historian. I was very impressed with what you taught in my particular class in Kaufman's Kamp last summer - about how the upper left-hand corner of most Western European countries is Celtic. I find that history to be fascinating. What was it that made you decide to take on the task of re-writing old Scottish bagpipe tunes for the acoustic guitar?

TM: I've always been trying to deal with these two obsessions- guitar and traditional music. I was drawn to the instrument as a kid but not exposed to the music you would associate with acoustic guitar in the UK; Jansch, Renbourn, Kottke etc. Instead I was listening to The Chieftains, Planxty, The Bothy Band and trying to get that music to work on guitar.

DS: You are as well known for your fingerstyle as you are for your flatpicking. Do you prefer one style over another or is it a utilitarian thing - in other words - whatever method fits a particular tune best, you play?

TM: Sometimes it's the musical situation in which you find yourself that dictates. If I were playing in a big jam session I'd reach for the pick whereas if I were at home I'd usually noodle fingerstyle. But mostly it's as you say- whatever suits a particular tune.

DS: The "Men of Steel" project is a fantastic idea. Bringing together steel-string acoustic guitar players from four different countries is certainly unique. The four of you; Don Ross - Canada, Beppe Gambetta - Italy, Dan Crary - USA and yourself from Scotland, play so well together it is natural. Who came up with the idea?

TM: Originally Dan and Beppe- who were touring a lot in as a duo Germany and elsewhere- came up with the idea of a travelling guitar summit, having been involved in several shows with a bunch of guitarists on stage, and settled on the idea of four very different players from four different countries working as a unit.

DS: Are the four of you the original members or was someone else involved at one time?

TM: Nope. The four of us met at Dan Crary's place in Oregon in February '03 and basically worked our buns off putting a show together over the course of a week, did the gig at the local cinema, recorded it, mixed and edited it (actually Dan and Billy Oskay did that bit) and we had an album by April.

DS: Are all your shows with MOS the same, or do the tunes and order of performance change much?

TM: They change and evolve in a natural and beautiful way! For the first tour we stuck to our guns pretty much as we hadn't much rehearsal time but the more we play the more flexible it becomes.

DS: How often do you do MOS tours?

TM: When ever the four of us are free! It's a bit of a nightmare trying to coordinate four musicians, four agents, four managements etc. In theory we block off time for the band and the relevant agent in the relevant territory fills in the dates. But often an offer comes in and we then try to fit other things around it if there's a window for all four of us. But it's a logistical headache- as is the fact that Beppe and I require visas to perform in the States at time when those doors are being slammed in the face of overseas artists.

DS: Do you foresee any studio time in the future of MOS?

TM: I'd hope to do a studio album at some point. The energy of the live gig, plus the banter between us in stage, is great fun though. We'll see. . .

DS: Where do you see the convergence of the Celtic and the American Folk genres of music into what is commonly termed "Bluegrass". This is a topic that I personally find very interesting. I always thought it had a lot to do with Irish emigration to the USA in the early 19th century, and their subsequent migration to the southern and western parts of America. What's your take on it?

TM: I think that's part of it- though only part. To the extent that bluegrass came out of American Old Time music with its roots in African- American music there's an element of black culture there too and all the other stuff that went into the melting pot in the South. Much as I'd like my ancestors to take credit- the Irish did not introduce the banjo to America.
The Scots and Irish input into American music though is very important as you suggest. I'm working this week with one of the finest exponents of Southern Appalachian music around- Bruce Molsky- and in his music those roots are there to see. He even had a really crooked old tune called "The Flowers of Edinburg" which he got form an old fiddler in West Virginia which, when straightened out, was clearly a well known Scottish reel "The Flowers of Edinburgh". There are loads of examples in Bluegrass of tunes that are Americanized versions of Scots and Irish tunes; Red Haired Boy, Fisher's Hornpipe, St. Anne's Reel etc. One big difference is in the variety of rhythms found in, say, Irish music that doesn't appear in Bluegrass. When teaching at Kaufman's camp, for example, I come across wonderfully talented flatpickers among the students who struggle to comp in jig time, i.e. 6/8. . . then there's slip jigs in 9/8 . . . help! It is a really rewarding thing to see these guys open up to those rhythms- because it's not that they've got no sense of timing- clearly you need a ton of it to play the stuff that they play already- it's just that, as I often joke, in Bluegrass there are only two time signatures; 4/4 and The Tennessee Waltz. It's a beautiful thing because I find I learn as much in the course of one of the camps as the students do. I have a fine time jamming and learning some great American tunes.

------------------------------Now for the usual stuff----------------------------------------------

DS: How old were you when you started playing guitar?

TM: 10 years old. It cost 12(pounds) and came from a pawn shop in Glasgow.

DS: Was guitar your first instrument?

TM: I started with violin lessons when I was seven. . . I really struggled with bowing (I'm left handed!) but my other hand was not bad- intonation was fine and I had a good sense of where the notes were. But I'll never be a fiddler.

DS: I know that you play mandolin as well. When did you start playing that instrument?

TM: When my parents couldn't take any more of my violin playing! My dad got me a mandolin after discovering me with the fiddle on my lap trying to get chords out of the thing- age 9, I think.

DS: What other stringed instruments do you play?

TM: That's about it. I've dabbled with other things- in the studio for example, working on other people's music, I'll borrow a bouzouki or something just for the change of scenery.

DS: How about the Highland Bagpipes - do you play that instrument?

TM: Dear god, no! Pipers are all crazy, to a man and, increasingly, woman!

DS: What's your practice regimen, if any?

TM: There's too much stuff to get through in a day. . . .I rarely do exercises as such but I'll work on passages that I screw up on a regular basis and try to stretch myself. Sometimes I'll work with a metronome to get some discipline into the proceedings- particularly with flatpicking.

DS: What advice can you give to players who want to advance in their abilities?

TM: Listen to other players- and not just guitarists. Allow yourself to be influenced by the way a singer colours a melody. If you are arranging a fiddle tune be aware of how a fiddle player ornaments things. Practice the things you find difficult slowly and build up speed when you get it happening slowly.

DS: I see that you are going to be instructing at Kaufman's Kamp again this year. How did you get into doing that great gig?

TM: Steve heard about me when he was touring over in the UK and checked out my website and bingo! I'm enormously grateful to Steve for the support he gives all his instructors. The experience of being around such great teachers- and such great students- has lifted my game over the last few years.

DS: What do you see in your future Tony? What are your musical plans?

TM: At the moment I'm working on an album in Paris with French bass player Alain Genty- he played on my second album and we've worked on many things together but this is a straight duo project which will be a little bit more off the wall than my previous albums. We have a long tour of Australia next spring and there's more Men of Steel stuff in the US (if the Fatherland Security department deem me of sufficient artistic merit to let me in) and Canada. I've a concert in Glasgow Cathedral next month with a String Quartet which should be exciting. Next recordings- I have had an idea to do an album of duets with various people from around the world whose music has really inspired me. This is a long term project and as an antidote to that I'd like to do an album of just solo acoustic guitar, no overdubs but a bunch of different guitars.
I really enjoy working in the studio in other people's projects. I've recently relocated to Canada and it'll take a wee while for that aspect of things to build up again but it's starting to happen.

Check out Tony'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