~A chat with Michael McCanless (of Hank III)~
March 04, 2002
Imagine a veritable fiddle virtuoso finding himself in the midst of a hard-rock band. What would he or she do? Probably bail - unless his name is Michael McCanless. This guy is just as "at home" playing country standards from the 50's as he is with playing some of the most aggressive in-your-face stuff this side of a fist fight. Sure, it sounds too strange to be true, but read on and learn...
TVCasualty: When did you begin playing fiddle and why?
Michael McCanless: I started playing music when I was 3, started playing violin when I was 7. Both my parents were classical musicians, they raised their children with music the way some kids are raised with baseball. It was an integral part of my daily life - I cannot recall a time in my life when I didn't play music. Why violin? Since my parents were classical musicians, all I heard as a kid were symphonies and chamber music. And the violins get all the melodic leads. They get to do the cool stuff.
TV: Do you play any other instruments?
MM: No, not really. Again, that goes back to my parents. They instilled in me the idea that if you play a lot of different instruments you'll end up splitting your talent and attention between them, and end up being "okay" at a lot of different things. On the other hand, if you pick just one thing and put all you've got into that one thing, then you'll have the chance to excel and be as good as you can possibly be at that one thing. (Not that playing violin / fiddle is all I know, but as far as instrumental work goes, that's my one thing.)
TV: I recall Shelton saying you were from Iowa - is that true? Dare I ask what city/town?
MM: I was raised in Oskaloosa, IA, true enough. No, I'm sure the vast majority of the population has never heard of it. It's a small town, just like all the rest of Iowa, all small towns. For my part, I've striven to rise above my roots.
TV: Do you recall your first big public performance?
MM: No, actually not. I'm sure I was no more than 7 years old. Second grade. I would have been performing as part of a Suzuki group.
TV: How did you get from IA to Nashville?
MM: It was a long, long road. In 1986 I left Iowa in a van, hit the road and kept traveling nonstop for about 2 1/2 years. Lived in my van, doing solo fiddle shows across the Southwest and Midwest, did all my own bookings and promotion, pretty much just living by my wits. Had to know if I could do it. I did it. Got tired of having no plumbing and no phone. Settled down in Boulder, CO because I thought I could make a decent living playing music there. Lived off the ski resort / festival / special event circuit doing bluegrass and "acoustic" music for about 7 years. But while the money was good the work was very seasonal, so three months out of the year you starved, no matter what. And the other musicians there were mainly into easy money, a good party, and nothing that resembled "work". Try to put together a tight show with attitudes like those! So I got out of that market and moved back into the mainstream. Being a fiddle player, that meant country bars. Bleh!!! Lived through bar band hell for the next several years going from a local band, to a traveling regional band, and eventually an opportunity to join a new country artist in Nashville. The bullshit was still pretty extensive, but at least I'd made it to Nashville.
TV: Shelton said (Quote)"It's hard to find a guy who's willing to make noise on a fiddle like that." Is that your normal approach to music - to be on the edge, or do you consider yourself a more traditional player that has a "wild side"?
MM: I certainly don't see myself as a traditional player. I seem to be able to piss off the traditionalists by simply walking into a room. I've always felt like pushing the envelope, combining sounds and styles, trying new things. But there's never been such an opportunity as this to run around out on "the edge" and create new definitions. This gig just seems to be made for me.
TV: What other projects have you been involved in besides III/Assjack stuff?
MM: Well, there's some shameful pop-country bullshit that simply isn't worth mentioning. It's exactly the kind of shit we love to hate now. At the time it represented a step forward in a professional career, moving up towards higher levels of operation. All of which was true, and which brought me closer to my own professional goals. But the music still sucked. One fairly fun group I played with was a sort of Irish-rock band out of Nashville, Ceili Rain. Nice stuff.
TV: When did you join the Damn Band, and how did you get the gig?
MM: There were no auditions for the band. I'd been working in a house band every week for about a year, where Shelton would sometimes come hang out when he was off the road. So we knew each other and had played together a bit before. One night he ran up to me in the crowd and said, "Hey man, are you working this weekend?" I said, "No." He says, "You want to come play for me?" I said, "Yes!" And that was it. I played my first gig with The Damn Band in September of '99. At that time Shelton was going through a rotating roster of fiddle players and drummers. He hadn't found anyone he really wanted to settle on. After my first run with the band they asked if I'd like to be their full-time guy. I said sure, but I was already booked up with a Renaissance Fair every weekend in October, and if I pulled out the musical ensemble would pretty well fold. By the time November came around Shelton had picked up the guy from BR-549 while he was off the road, so I didn't start working as a full band member until about the middle of November, I guess.
TV: Was there another fiddler before you that did the assjack part of the shows?
MM: Hell, Shelton wasn't even thinking of a fiddle player being in Assjack at all, originally. He was going to cut the steel and fiddle from The Damn Band and take a 4-piece rock group out on the road. (That was with Duane Dennison on lead guitar.) I finally found a moment alone with him in the green room backstage at "Late Night With Conan O'Brien", and asked him, "Look, are you going to take a 4-piece or a 5-piece out on the road on this next tour? Cause I really want to play that hardcore stuff. I know there's not much money on the next run. But there are more important things than money. I won't play for free, but as long as you pay me what everyone else is getting, I'll be happy." He said, "Welllllllll, I don't know. We can try it I suppose." And that was it. Sink or swim. Shelton had done only a couple split shows so far, with the hardcore stuff as the second set. But at those he'd told the steel player and I we could just go have a drink, take a break, whatever. Leave the stage. So I'd heard the tunes, but not had a chance to actually play the stuff. The next tour I was asking him about was going to be opening up for Beck. Big shows. Hordes of people. No rehearsal. No tapes to practice to. Just walk out there and act like you know what you're doing and make it work. Or not. If it works, you get to keep doing it. If it doesn't work, too bad. I made it work.
TV: What was the first III/DB/AJ show like for you? Was it what you expected?
MM: My first show was a blast, as has been nearly every one since then. It was a case of pay attention, listen close, when it's your turn play your ass off, and when it's not your turn get the hell out of the way. The steel player, (and the guy who knew all the parts), at that time was Big Jim Murphy, or Murph. Murph was truly a country-western master from the Old School. He played with Ray Price, Johnny Paycheck, Loretta Lynn and I don't remember who all else. He had a style and approach to the tunes was was awesome. It was like big band swing, with ensemble parts and lines that alternated with improvised solos and fills. I like that approach, I understand it. So I listened close, learned the lines he was playing and joined him with a harmony line. Suddenly we had an instrumental "section" working together instead of just some guys playing on stage at the same time. I learned a lot from Murph. A lot of the lines we play on the tunes today I got from him. He had a lot to do with me learning the tunes initially.
TV: I didn't see your name on the "Risin' Outlaw" CD credits, but just to be sure - did you play on that record?
MM: Nope, that was recorded well before I joined the band.
TV: What songs from "Lovesick.." did you appear on? Why was there another fiddler used in addition to you? Curb's politics again?
MM: It was bullshit, it was politics, but it wasn't Curb. The record's producer wanted to bring in "his" guy, so he cut my parts and replaced them. But Shelton is no longer working with that guy, so f*** him.
TV: Do you appear on the "Live in Scotland" disc as well as both of the "bootleg" CDs?
MM: Yes, those are live recordings from when we were on tour. That's all me.
TV: Have I missed any other recordings with III that you appear on?
MM: I'm on "Atlantic City", which was first released as a cut on Badlands, a musical tribute to Nebraska, on the Sub-Pop label. And I'm on "Long Gone Daddy", the Hank Sr. tribute that Mercury put out recently.
TV: Let me back up a bit - Who are your influences musically, and in particular on fiddle?
MM: Oh man, that could be a long list. Initially I sought out all sorts of jazz violinists - Stuff Smith, Stephane Grapelli, Joe Venuti, Clarence Williams and others. And jazz music in general - Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Maynard Ferguson, Chick Corea, on and on and on. Then there was the acoustic folk side of things. For years I was a devout fan of the Prarie Home Companion radio show on NPR. I'd tape broadcasts of the show, and learned lots of their tunes. Peter O'Strushko was their house fiddle player and mandolinist, and he wrote a lot of good stuff. And there's the specifically Irish stuff too, with bands like Planxty, The Bothy Band, Clanaad, The Tannehill Weavers. And Kevin Burke, the consummate Irish fiddler. He's truly inspiring.
TV: Let's talk about your equipment a bit.. What amplification do you use?
MM: I use Polytone amps. Always have, for the past 19 years. They just get the closest thing to a true violin tone that I've ever heard. That, and a Pendulum pre-amp do the trick for me. I've tried other amps from other companies when I had to. When we were over in the UK I used a couple Hi-Watt combos that surprised me with how good they were. But still the warmth of the Polytones is the better. I've tried various Peavy and Fender stuff. They make good amps for guitars, but on fiddle? Forget about it.
TV: For most fiddlers, I guess the setup would consist of a fiddle and an amp, but your setup is pretty wild - what sort of pedals do you have to make all those sounds?
MM: I use all sorts of stuff, anything I can get my hands on that sounds interesting. It's a odd beast working out effects for the fiddle. Most pedals are set up to work with the frequency range and tone of a guitar, since that's what most players will be using them for. That doesn't always make for a good sound on the fiddle though. A lot of pedals I can't use because they simply howl with feedback on a fiddle. What I've got, (so far, for the moment), is - - - Ratt distortion, Morley wah, Boss phase shifter, Digitech whammy pedal, Z-Vex Ooh-Wah, (love that thing), and a Quadraverb for flange, delay, an occasional touch of pitch detune, a bit of chorus and a bit of reverb.
TV: Tell me about that fiddle - it seems to be the only one I've ever seen you with, and it looks like a rather custom piece.
MM: I made that one myself. When I first started playing with an electric pickup, I just put one on the bridge of my acoustic violin. I had terrible problems with that set-up, because it was prone to lots of feedback. I could never turn up the volume enough to be heard without it starting to howl. Then one day I got the idea of cutting away the body, thinking that removing the resonant surfaces would remove the cause of that resonant feedback. So I got an old piece of junk from my mother, (she repaired stringed instruments then), and started in on it. Did the carving myself, with a Dremel tool and then by hand. Took it to an auto body shop to be painted, wired it up, and bang! there you are. I made two more after that, one I sold and the other was stolen. (If you ever see a bright yellow fiddle like that, let me know.)
TV: Moving on - Do you guys tend to write songs on the road, or does Shelton usually bring some material and you guys all jam on it a flesh it out?
MM: Shelton usually teaches his new material to Joe the drummer first, gets him to the point where he can rage on it, then shows it to us during sound check. Least for the hardcore stuff that is. For his new country tunes he may show me the chord progression one time in the back lounge of the bus, then start playing it during the show as one of the fiddle / guitar bits in the middle of the set. He tells the other guys to take a break, and cuts it down to just he and I on stage.
TV: Had you ever heard of the Misfits before you got in with Shelton? What did you think about doing those songs?
MM: Well certainly I'd heard of the Misfits before joining Shelton, but I didn't know their tunes. To tell the truth I'd never much thought about learning their material. Even now I don't really play fiddle parts on those songs, just scream the lyrics. Fiddle playing on Misfits tunes? No, their material is much too sparse for that to work well.
TV: Thanks Michael, for some great info!
No portion of this website may be reprinted without permission.