Louisville's 23 String Band describes their music as "bluegrass attack fueled by high-octane rock-n-roll energy and triple-distilled old timey roots." They're one of the bands performing later this month at Owensboro's ROMP festival. Rose Krzton-Presson spoke with 23's bass player T Martin Stam about this young group's efforts to teach others about this old time music.
The 23 String Band recently toured in some new places east of Kentucky. How was that?
It’s always exciting and interesting to go somewhere where nobody’s ever heard of you or heard of your music; and with our group, it’s kind of weird because we do bill ourselves as a bluegrass band, but our music is very abrasive to the ears of people that are expecting straight-ahead bluegrass. That’s something with our group, sometimes we rub people the wrong way, I guess, but then other times people receive it really, really well. I think that that’s a good place to be, actually, even though it’s a little bit divisive.
You guys will be playing at Rockygrass in Colorado this summer, right?
Oh yeah! We’re doing Rockygrass. That’s exciting because we’re trying to develop a different approach, like an educational angle. Wherein, we’ve done some of these band workshops or “master classes,” if you will. We did one in St. Louis at this folk school. In Johnson City, Lee Bidgood is a professor of bluegrass at East Tennessee State University. Just meeting him and talking to all his friends and talking with them about the educational aspect of the way The 23 String Band does their thing. The opportunity to do something like play a club show one night and then do a master class the next morning is something that I’m really, really excited about. My buddies who I went to college with, grew up with in North Carolina are in a hip hop group called The Beast. They do exactly the same thing. They play a show and then they’ll do a lecture-type thing where they explain about the roots of music and how hip hop, R&B, and gospel has come to its current form and where it came from. If we could get to do something that’s on that level, that would be so awesome.
Most of you guys in the 23 String Band did the ROMP workshops last year. You and Paul Kowert of Punch Brothers led the bass workshop, right?
Yeah. We did. I, personally, had such an excellent experience doing that. I’d never done anything like that. I’d never met Paul before. It just ended up being a really cool, improvised experience. Such a great guy. Such a killer player. I probably was as much an attendee of the master class as leader of the master class.
What are these workshops like from the perspective of the performer? Are they stressful at all to know you’re going to walk in and have questions coming at you?
No. I love that type of thing! I’m obsessed with playing the bass and all things that are related to it. So I love talking about that type of thing. I’ve been playing for basically my whole life. Whether it’s teaching a private piano lesson or doing a bass master class, I love to see in their eyes that a huge light switch just got switched on. I just love being a part of that. It’s awesome. That’s why I love learning and I love music so much. Pretty much every time I pick up my bass, every time I pick up the guitar, every time I’m playing music or something, I’m trying to kind of search around and dig for that way that I can understand something in a new way or I can play a lick in a way that is easier under the fingers or sounds better a certain way. It’s just so much fun- like figuring out a puzzle. Even in a group setting, if I can facilitate that or be a part of making that happen, it’s such a joy.
T Martin Stam will give a bass workshop June 30th at 2:30 at ROMP in Owensboro. Next week, we'll continue our series of conversations with musicians appearing at ROMP and in workshops. We'll speak with Stam's bandmate, fiddler Scott Moore.