Award-winning flatpicking guitarist and mandolinist Tony Watt has performed throughout the United States and Europe, on the Grand Ole Opry, and beyond. He has been featured in Bluegrass Unlimited, Bluegrass Now and Flatpicking Guitar Magazine multiple times, including the recent Waltz Issue. Tony toured and recorded with Nashville-based Cages Bend, east Tennessee-based Meridian, with Rounder Recording artist Alecia Nugent, and most recently with Leigh Gibson, guitarist for The Gibson Brothers. Tony currently performs with his band, Southeast Expressway, and with Laura Orshaw & The New Velvet Band. He is a graduate of Leadership Bluegrass 2012 and currently serves on the International Bluegrass Music Association(IBMA) Education Committee, the IBMA Board Selection Committee, and is a Board Member of the Boston Bluegrass Union (BBU).
Tony has taught privately for over 15 years, and now teaches courses in bluegrass guitar, mandolin, harmony singing and more for the BBU's Bluegrass Academy, as well as jamming classes as a certified Wernick Method jam class instructor. Tony is the director of The Bluegrass University, which offers classes for adult beginners at the Jenny Brook Bluegrass Festival (VT), at the Pemi Valley Bluegrass Festival (NH), and at Thomas Point Beach (ME). He has also taught workshops and Kids' Academies at bluegrass festivals including Grey Fox, Joe Val, Thomas Point Beach, and many more. Tony currently teaches lessons, classes, workshops and jam sessions in Albany, NY, Hartford, CT, Cambridge, MA, points in-between, and anywhere in the world via on-line Skype videoconferencing.
Another CD we received at IBMA that we haven't yet mentioned is Now I'm Lonely from Cages Bend. It's a release well worth your attention, and we had held off posting about it on The Bluegrass Blog until online distribution was in effect.
The band is based in Nashville, and fronted by the husband/wife duo of Sim Daley and Missy Radeke-Daley. Missy handles the fiddle and the bulk of the lead vocals, with Sim on banjo. Missy has been playing bluegrass since she was a child with her family's band, Misty Ridge.
Oddly enough, many folks in bluegrass and acoustic music know Sim from the mandolin world, as his Daley Mandolins are highly prized, and played by such noted artists as Dan Tyminski and Adam Steffey. He was born and grew up in England, developed a taste for the banjo and bluegrass music while still a youngster, and won the UK's Edale Bluegrass Festival Banjo Contest in 1994.
They are joined by a trio of hot young pickers: Tony Watt on guitar, Jenni Lyn Gardner on mandolin and Daniel Hardin on bass. All three play brilliantly on the CD, with special emphasis on Watt's rhythm and lead guitar, and Gardner's vocals and mandolin work.
Now I'm Lonely was produced by Stephen Mougin, guitarist with Sam Bush, and the band credits him for the polished sound they achieved in the studio. Stephen also engineered and was deeply involved in helping select and arrange the songs for this project. The bulk of the songs are originals written by band members, and they show a dexterity in treating a variety of styles with authority - and passion.
Audio samples are available on the Cages Bend site, and on CD Baby.
The July/August 2007 issue of Flatpicking Guitar Magazine featured Tony Watt in the Flatpick Profile section of the magazine. The article and interview were written by Dan Miller, the magazine's editor and publisher. In case you haven't gotten the chance to check it out, here is an excerpt from that article. Thanks to Dan Miller for permission to reprint this excerpt.
Flatpick Profile: Tony Watt by Dan Miller
In the past few years Flatpicking Guitar Magazine has covered a number of young guitar players who have moved to Nashville in order to find a career in music. This list includes guitar players such as Josh Williams, Chris Eldridge, Andy Falco, Cody Kilby, Tyler Grant, and Justin Carbone. Although Tony Watt is not as well known as some of his good buddies in Nashville, he can also be included in this group of young flatpicking stars. However, his reason for moving to Nashville wasn't totally about playing music. After graduating from Georgia Tech with an engineering degree and moving back home to the Boston area to pursue work in the engineering field, Tony decided to go to graduate school and work on his PhD in Materials Science. The fact that he chose Nashville's Vanderbilt University as the place to pursue his graduate studies had everything to do with music.
Like his current roommate, and this issue's cover story artist, Andy Falco, Tony Watt is a Northerner. But unlike Andy, who didn't discover bluegrass music until he was in his early twenties, Tony grew up with it. Tony's father, Steve Watt, was a mandolin and banjo player and one of the founding members of the Boston Bluegrass Union. Tony said, "I grew up listening to Dad play in bands. We went to a lot concerts, jams, and festivals."
Although Tony had taken some piano lessons in elementary school and learned a few chords and basic folk songs while taking private guitar lessons at the age of eight or nine, it wasn't until he was about thirteen that he became interested in learning how to play bluegrass. He said, "I liked bluegrass before that, but it wasn't one of my favorite things and my Dad hadn't ever pushed me into it at all. When I was about thirteen I became more interested in it and asked my Dad to teach me how to play the guitar."
Steve Watt taught his son how to play rhythm guitar and Tony began backing up his father's mandolin and banjo playing. Tony remembers, "My Dad would take me out to jam sessions and I had the opportunity to pick with some of the best bluegrass musicians in the northeast. He was picking with all of these great players and he would take me along. They were all very generous to let me sit in and jam. I had learned to play lead on a few songs, like 'Jimmy Brown the Newsboy' and 'You Are My Flower,' but mostly I played rhythm for about the first seven years that I played the guitar."
When Tony graduated high school in 1994, he chose to go to college at Georgia Tech because he felt like in the south he could get closer to bluegrass music and musicians. Unfortunately, Tony was so busy with schoolwork the first couple of years that he didn't have much time to seek out bluegrass jams. During his third year at school he discovered a bluegrass jam in Atlanta that was sponsored by the South East Bluegrass Association and started participating in that jam on a monthly basis. At that jam he was able to find out about another jam that occurred weekly on the campus of Georgia Tech. Tony said, "The Georgia Tech jam was hosted by Tom Barnwell and his wife Aina. We would hold the jam on campus and then we'd all go to a local club called the Freight Room in Decatur and join in the jam there too."
Shortly before he started attending the jam sessions in Georgia on a regular basis Tony was browsing the internet and found a new website that advertised Flatpicking Guitar Magazine. Tony said, "There was an offer where you could fill out a questionnaire and receive a free sample issue. I filled it out, but I didn't expect that I'd learn much. I thought the magazine would be over my head. I got the first issue and was amazed. I also learned about Flatpick-L and became an avid reader. Between reading Flatpicking Guitar Magazine and Flatpick-L I learned so much. That was right about the time that I was trying to figure out more about playing lead guitar."
One of the breakthrough moments for Tony learning how to play lead came from Dan Huckabee's beginners column in Flatpicking Guitar Magazine. Tony remembers, "One of Dan Huckabee's columns had a transcription of 'Red Haired Boy' and I sat down with that and for the first time figured out how to turn tablature into music. That was a 'big bang' moment for me." At about the same time Tony started to move forward with learning how to play lead on the guitar the guy who had been playing lead at the weekly jam session moved away from the area. Tony was designated the new lead guitar player for the group. Tony remembers, "I went to the jam one evening and Tom said, 'Tony you are our new lead guitar player.' That was a great way for me to start learning how to improvise because I had no choice. At first I had no idea what I was doing." Tony's learning process involved learning fiddle tunes from tablature and getting together with friends who would show him things. He points to Atlanta picker Jamie Pittman as being one of the people who helped him quite a bit in those days.
After graduating from college in 1999, Tony moved back to Cambridge and went to work repairing musical instruments at Sandy's Music on Mass. Avenue in Cambridge. In an effort to get involved in the bluegrass scene he began hanging out with members of the band Adam Dewey and Crazy Creek. Tony said, "The guitar player for that band was Lincoln Meyers. I had met Lincoln through my Dad and I'd known him for four or five years. I got to hang out with him and I took five or six lessons with him over the course of a year. I also listened to his recorded material and tried to figure out what he was doing. His tone is enormous. I used to sit and practice for hours just to try and figure out how he could make the guitar sound so big."
Tony became a true devotee of the Lincoln Meyers guitar style. He said, "Lincoln uses a bunch of floaty ideas. Those ideas captured my interest and I got him to teach me some of those. Lincoln has a very distinct voice on the guitar. It is very smooth, no one else sounds like him, except for me (laughs). I'd play for people and they'd say, 'You sound so unique.' What they didn't know is that I sounded exactly like Lincoln." After a while Tony decided that he sounded too much like Lincoln and he began to explore different material. But he adds, "Lincoln is one of the most supportive people that I've ever met in my life. He was not upset when I was copying him and then he was very supportive when I began to make changes."
When he began to explore new material Tony said that his first love was Tony Rice, but he had tried the Tony Rice licks when he was in college and "wasn't very good at it." He also loved David Grier and Clarence White. He said, "When I was searching for people to listen to I didn't want the Tony Rice sound and I couldn't sound like David Grier. I liked the floaty stuff that Tim Stafford and Kenny Smith applied in the bluegrass context. I had heard that Kenny had been influenced by Tim and so I started to focus my energy on Tim's playing. Tim's playing spoke to me the most because I like the melodic content of his playing and his huge tone. I spent years focusing on Tim's stuff. His music truly moves me in terms of his tone, his taste and his ideas, and I consider myself very lucky to have had the chance to get to know him over the years, and express my gratitude to him for his music."
After working in Cambridge at Sandy's Music for one year, Tony then got a job working as an engineer for a company that made superconductors, the American Superconductor Corporation. Outside of work he performed with his father's bluegrass band, True Life Bluegrass, for a while and then he formed his own band, Southeast Expressway. The band made a demo recording and performed at various local venues and festivals. During that period of time Tony also won the New England Flatpicking Championship. His first place prize was a new Bourgeois guitar.
Regarding the time he spent in the Boston area between 1999 and 2002, Tony says, "It's hard to put into words how amazing the group of musicians was that was there at that time, but if you looked at the stages of MerleFest this year, you'd see them all again (in the Stringdusters, Crooked Still, Steep Canyon Rangers, Casey Driessen and Matt Mangano, Uncle Earl, etc.). Although some of the participants came from Berklee or the New England Conservatory, the center of the scene was (and is) The Cantab Lounge in Central Square in Cambridge just a few blocks from the house I grew up in. For 10+ years the Cantab has held an open-mic Bluegrass night every Tuesday hosted by 4-time Winfield fingerstyle runner-up Geoff Bartley. For me, playing the Cantab every Tuesday night for those years was a huge part of my development, as well as jamming regularly with the folks mentioned above, particularly Greg and Rushad of Crooked Still, who pushed me to play better and more tasteful than I ever would have otherwise."
In the fall of 2002 Tony decided to move down south and go back to school. This time he moved to Johnson City, Tennessee, and entered East Tennessee State University's bluegrass music program. Although Tony left the program after only one semester, a productive part of Tony's time there was his involvement with the band Meridian. The band featured female vocalist Megan Gregory and mandolin builder Will Parsons played banjo. The band toured the southeast and showcased at the IBMA convention. In the summer of 2003 Tony moved to Asheville, North Carolina, but continued to work with Meridian up until the time he moved to Nashville in the June of 2004.
By 2004 Tony was ready to continue to pursue his engineering education and entered Vanderbilt, in Nashville, to study Materials Science, with a focus on the study of photovoltaics (solar cells). He chose to attend Vanderbilt because he knew that in Nashville he would be able to pursue both his degree and his love of flatpicking and bluegrass. He has found the music scene in Nashville to be completely fulfilling. He has made a great number of jamming friends, in fact, he rooms with two phenomenal bluegrass musicians, this issue's cover story artist Andy Falco, and banjo great Noam Pikelny. Tony said, "It is an amazing vibrant scene. Every week someone is having a picking party somewhere. I improve most when I'm around people who are better than I am. It motivates me to work hard."
Tony also enjoys the amount of support that all of the musicians in Nashville give each other. He said, "Before coming to Nashville I had an image of the country music scene being real cut throat. But when I arrived here I was surprised and pleased to find it to be a community of supportive people who are great musicians. They are all very positive and support each other's music and career."
Tony Watt has worked very hard on developing his flatpicking skills. He is one of those guys who always seeks new ways to improve his art and is not shy about asking for help from those who he feels have something to teach. In return, Tony is also one of those guys who is very willing to share what he has learned with anyone. He has studied and practiced, and then studied and practiced some more, always seeking new ways to advance his flatpicking skills. He is a talented musician and a talented teacher. This being the case, I felt like readers of Flatpicking Guitar Magazine could benefit greatly by reading some of Tony's ideas about learning how to flatpick. Thus I conducted the following lengthy interview with Tony. After you have read it, I think that you will agree that the information Tony provides is well worth the space we dedicated to it in this issue. If you have any questions about the material presented here, or you want to learn more about Tony, you can contact him through his myspace page: www.myspace.com/theoriginaltonywatt.
I've talked with several of your friends in Nashville about your guitar playing and they all mentioned your tone. How would you recommend someone approach improving their tone?
Learning to listen critically to your tone and to other people's tone is the first step to improving tone. That is, you cannot improve something if you can't hear the differences between tones. For example, if you've never tried it before, try playing a pick that is 0.5 mm thicker than the one you are playing now and has a somewhat rounded point. Play it exclusively for a couple weeks or a month - in jams, while practicing, and on stage if possible. Then pull out your old pick and listen to the difference in tone. It is only with truly familiarizing yourself with a new sound (a process that takes weeks to months depending on the change) that you can compare it with a sound you are familiar with. As an aside, the same thing holds true with guitars themselves in my opinion - I do not believe you can truly hope to understand the sound of a guitar until you've been playing it exclusively for at least a month, and probably two or three. There are a number of other ways to vary your tone which are all summarized succinctly in Tim Stafford's DVD, so I won't go in to them here.
But, I will offer this one powerful exercise for improving your tone...
How would you recommend someone work to improve note clarity and overall fluidness in playing?
Well I'm not sure I can speak to note clarity - as I said above that's something I struggle with myself - but fluidness I have thought a lot about. As Steve Kaufman explained in FGM Vol. 1 No. 1, the difference between intermediate players and advanced players is sustain. Sustain is also the key to making your playing sound fluid. One way to improve sustain is to change your tone to produce longer notes. This is generally done by producing a warmer tone; again, see Tim's DVD for a variety of ways to do this. All of my favorite players have this warmer tone with longer notes and less attack, such as Tim Stafford, Lincoln Meyers, Kenny Smith, Eric Uglum and Scott Nygaard.
The other way to increase fluidness is to...
I understand that you have been teaching at various Kids' Academies around the country.
Yes, a big part of my musical career for the past three years has been teaching the "advanced sections" at various Kids' Academies. These "advanced sections" are typically for kids who have been going through the Academies for a few years, have mastered what they have to teach, but are getting stuck in the band or jam context making it sound more adult or professional. This all began 3 or 4 years ago at what is probably the best of all Kids' Academies, the one at Grey Fox run by Brian Wicklund. Here a group of kids were jamming together informally between Kids' Academy sessions, but they had no direction, so they hired me to teach "advanced" concepts about band playing. That summer we covered the basic points like arrangements, fills, harmony, and dynamics. I got to work with some of the same kids at the Boston Bluegrass Union's Joe Val Memorial Bluegrass Festival, where I've taught the advanced section for the past 3 years, and we explored differences in "classic" and "modern" bluegrass. Subjective terms I know, but for example, we listened to and analyzed the song "Another Night" as it was recorded by The Stanley Brothers, Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, and Alison Krauss and Union Station. In general these kids, despite being in their teenage and pre-teenage years, are as well-behaved, focused, interested, pleasant, respectful and talented as you could ever possibly hope for. And as you might expect, working with these kids has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my entire musical career.
Tell me something about what you have been studying at Vanderbilt and why you chose that field of study.
While studying Materials Science and Engineering at Georgia Tech, I read the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, and devoted my "civic-life" to environmentalism. I realized I could do environmentally conscientious Materials Engineering and that's why I went to work for American Superconductor. The Bluegrass band I played in, Meridian, was/is also devoted to environmental awareness, which offered me another chance to pursue environmentalism. We performed and recorded songs with environmental themes and discussed it on almost every show. I am now working on my Doctorate in Materials Science and Engineering at Vanderbilt, where I am researching a new kind of photovoltaic (solar cell) based on nanotechnology. Although there are major hurdles to be overcome, solar energy is in my opinion one of the few renewable resources that will eventually come to dominate our energy supply. Working on this degree is both a chance to further my education and a chance to tackle these issues.
You have chosen "The Cuckoo's Nest" as the song you are transcribing for this issue. Can you tell us something about it?
This arrangement to The Cuckoo's Nest is probably the thing I am best known for amongst fellow guitarists and bluegrass musicians. I wrote most of this arrangement about 10 years ago while I was living in Cambridge, MA and taking lessons from Lincoln Meyers, whose use of floaties influenced this arrangement. At that time I was playing in my Dad's Bluegrass band, True Life Bluegrass, and we would play this one sometimes at shows. But I had a hard time pulling it off live, and one time my Dad said something like, "Tony you've been working on that version for a while now and you're still having trouble performing it on stage, why don't you give up on all that crosspicking and try a simpler version?" Well, he was probably right, because it took me at least another 3 or 4 years to get it to the point where I could hope to pull it off in a jam or on stage, and another 3 or 4 years after that before I could expect to play it cleanly. But, I've been living in defiance of his warning for years, and it's finally starting to pay off!
Bluegrass Now Magazine
The June 2007 issue of Bluegrass Now Magazine contained an article written by Dan Miller, the editor of Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, entitled "The Nashville Brotherhood of Flatpicking". The article featured ten young Bluegrass flatpickers all living in Nashville, including Dustin Benson, Justine Carbone, Chris Eldridge, Andy Falco, Tyler Grant, Cody Kilby, Edward O'Day, Josh Williams, Adam Wright, and Tony Watt. In case you haven't gotten the chance to check it out, here is an excerpt from that article. Thanks to Bluegrass Now Magazine and Dan Miller for permission to reprint this excerpt.
The Nashville Brotherhood of Flatpicking by Dan Miller
The instrumentation of bluegrass music has changed very little since 1945 when Bill Monroe stepped on stage with his mandolin, accompanied by Earl Scruggs on banjo, Lester Flatt on guitar, Chubby Wise on fiddle and Cedric Rainwater on bass. The only significant addition was Flatt & Scruggs' inclusion of the Dobro starting in the 1950s. Although the boundaries of traditional bluegrass have expanded over time, the role that each instrument plays in the band has remained tried and true for over 60 years. The only real exception has been the development of a lead voice for the guitar. Until the mid-to-late 1960s the guitar's role in the bluegrass band was predominantly rhythm accompaniment. During the 1950s there were a few guitar players, most notably George Shuffler and Don Reno, who were playing a few lead breaks in the bluegrass setting, but lead guitar was rare in the early days of bluegrass. It wasn't until the 1970s and into the 1980s that the guitar role as a lead instrument became more common.
If players like Shuffler and Reno were the pioneers, the "heroes" of the lead guitar style in bluegrass were performers like Doc Watson, Clarence White, Dan Crary, Norman Blake, Larry Sparks, Charles Sawtelle, Russ Barenberg, and Tony Rice. These "flatpickers" brought the guitar out of the rhythm section and, because of their work, the guitar began to be recognized as a lead instrument with its own voice and unique contribution to a bluegrass band's sound. The heroes' contributions were followed by contributions from second generation bluegrass guitar players like David Grier, Tim Stafford, Kenny Smith, Bryan Sutton, Wyatt Rice, James Alan Shelton, Jim Hurst, and others who built upon the strong foundation laid down by the heroes. As time passed the guitar's role became more and more prominent in the bluegrass band. But even in the 1980s, when many of the second generation players were getting their start, there were still as many bands that did not include a lead guitar player as there were those that did. Slowly, during the 1990s, that percentage began to change as more and more bands required their guitar player to take solos on at least a few tunes each set.
The growing numbers of lead guitar players in bluegrass bands during the 1990s has lead bluegrass guitar into a new era. The young players who now hold the guitar positions in some of the most prominent bluegrass bands in the country have grown up in an atmosphere where nearly every bluegrass band includes a lead guitar player. This "next generation" of young players consists of those who have reaped the creative benefits of the generations who have come before them, and they have begun to make new innovations of their own. These young guitarists have also grown up under the influence of hearing guys like Tony Rice and Russ Barenberg incorporate jazz lines in bluegrass solos. They have also been exposed to the new acoustic music of the David Grisman Quintet and the bands the followed Grisman's example. The new millineum flatpickers are using Rice and Grisman as their starting point. For the most part, their ideas about flatpicking have no boundaries in terms of genre, or the melding of various musical influences and ideas, or the mixing of electric and acoustic guitar techniques.
In addition to being more musically open-minded and versatile than the average flatpicker of the past, many players in the "next generation" era are also more musically educated. In an interview with Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, Chris Eldridge, who has a college degree in music said, "The new standard is to be educated. Three generation back, guys like Clarence, Doc, and Norman were all intuitive players. They next generation, guys like Tony and David Grisman, knew a little more about theory. Today the younger musicians are getting more educated and taking it further. Chris Thile thoroughly knows his theory and he is setting the standard for the next generation. The approach is changing." Things are indeed changing and at the core of this change is a close-knit group of flatpicking friends who are all living in Nashville and taking the bluegrass world by storm.
Bluegrass guitar's chronology entered this "next generation" era shortly after the turn of the new millennium, and its geographical center has become Nashville, Tennessee. During the first four or five years of this new century young bluegrass guitar players from various locations around the United States started synergistically moving to Nashville. There are now nearly a dozen of them living in the Music City and they fill some of the most prominent guitar positions in bluegrass music—Cody Kilby with Ricky Skaggs, Josh Williams with Rhonda Vincent, Chris Eldridge with the Infamous Stringdusters, Andy Falco with Alecia Nugent, Tyler Grant with Drew Emmett, Edward O'Day with Daybreak and Adrienne Young, Justine Carbone with Special Consensus, Dustin Benson with Larry Stephenson, Tony Watt with Cages Bend, and to round it off, the 2001 National Flatpicking Guitar champion, Adam Wright. They are all living in Nashville, they are all good friends, they all play music together, they are all about the same age, they all have great respect for each other, and they are all tremendously supportive of each other's music. For them, it is an amazing time to be a young bluegrass guitar player.
While Tyler Grant and Andy Falco perhaps made the boldest moves to Nashville, since they each moved from a long distance away and had no job prospects lined up before their move, Justin Carbone moved from Pennsylvania directly after securing a job with Special Consensus and Tony Watt moved to Nashville from Boston to attend graduate school at Vanderbilt University. Justin said, "For me it was the perfect set up. I didn't have to worry about work. The move to Nashville fell into my lap. I was amazed how easy it was to draw up a jam with just a few phone calls. That is something that didn't happen in Pennsylvania." Although Tony came to town to work on his doctorate in Materials Science, his choice of Vanderbilt University had a lot to do with the music scene. Tony said, "When I arrived here in about June of 2004 there was always someone having a picking party somewhere. I improve the most when I'm around people who are better than me. It motivates me to work hard. Before I arrived I had an image of the scene being cut throat. I was surprised and pleased to find a community of supportive people who are great musicians." Since moving to Nashville, Tony, who rooms with Andy Falco and banjo player Noam Pikelney, has been the organizer and host of many of the bluegrass jams. Many of the other players stated, "Tony has the best picking parties!"