Interview* by Sandra Davidson
Mipso is a band that defies classification. The iconic North Carolina sounds of bluegrass and old-time flow throughout their music, which is equally influenced by the Triangle’s storied indie music community.
Since 2010, Piedmont-natives Joe Terrell, Libby Rodenbough, Wood Robinson and Jacob Sharp have created music that marries the old and the new, bridging traditional rural music expressions with the sounds of urban North Carolina: think Doc Watson meets Ryan Adams. Now touring on their fifth studio album, Edges Run, the band has been named by Rolling Stone as an “Artist You Need to Know.” Equal parts performers and students of our state’s musical heritage, the band is deeply engaged with the transmission of music knowledge. Fiddler and vocalist Libby Rodenbough is a member of the North Carolina Arts Council Board, and collectively the group has incorporated educational visits to public schools while touring to spread the word about traditional music. You can catch them live in concert on Saturday, Nov. 10 at the Haw River Ballroom.
Let’s start with the big question. How has North Carolina influenced your music?
Libby Rodenbough: It’s very likely that we wouldn’t be a band if we hadn’t started in the Triangle and in North Carolina. We were mentored by a lot of people who were working musicians, which is something that was kind of a foreign concept to me [when] I was growing up. I thought you were either someone who played at open mics or you were a pop star, but in the Triangle, there are a lot of people who consider it a craft that they’ll work at for their whole lives. We are also surrounded by great venues and people who go to see live music which isn’t true everywhere else in the country. I think we didn’t even realize how special the scene was here until we started touring. We’ve been in places where people ask us, “How do we get started?” They feel like they have no tools.
Wood Robinson: People often say it must be something in the water in North Carolina that brings so many musicians together and makes so much music happen, but it isn’t the water. It’s the community. It’s the people that have done it before us and created such an awesome path for young musicians to know and come to walk themselves.
Joe Terrell: I love the fact that in the Triangle and North Carolina as a whole, there are so many layers to what the music scene means. So many bands that were really important to different music scenes in the 70s, 80s, and 90s are still around. My very first college class was an 8 a.m. on a Tuesday morning with Bland Simpson, who is an amazing songwriter and member of the Red Clay Ramblers. When he learned I played music he started to encourage me to show him some of my songs and became a musical mentor. That’s just part of the fabric around here.
I think conventional wisdom these days is it’s easy to learn anything you want anytime with the internet. We do watch YouTube videos and have learned a lot from watching other people online, but all the most important things that I’ve learned especially musically have been from older musicians that I’ve met in North Carolina who are part of the community around here and who actually sit down with you and play a song. I just don’t think there’s a substitute for that. It’s felt like part of their mission is not just to play the music but to welcome other people to that. It’s not a competitive thing. It’s a party. It’s a community, and we felt that way from the beginning.
Jacob Sharp: Music is what we can comment on best, but it seems in North Carolina that people integrate anything that’s a craft and made passionately fully into their lives.
Why do you think North Carolina’s musical community is so unique and strong?
Joe: I think a combination of two things. One which a lot of places have: a long history of great musicians coming out of the woodwork. That’s true of a lot of Southern states, but unlike a lot of southern states, North Carolina has also had the sense to invest in itself. They’ve had a lot of governors with vision who decided that public education was important. So not only do we have a rich history, but we have a great infrastructure to kind of remind ourselves of that, and those things play off each other.
Will you talk about how traditional music in North Carolina has influenced your sound?
Libby: I played classical music growing up and was pretty much unaware of the history of folk music and fiddle music in North Carolina. I realized I could have this other level of connection to this state that I had never known about in my 18-years of living here [when I started] playing music with these guys and taking folklore classes at UNC. That makes it a lot harder for me to think about leaving this area. It makes me feel like I belong here. I think a lot of times if you grow up in the suburbs of someplace like I did in Greensboro, you feel like that suburb could’ve been anywhere. I think the way we’ve learned music and tried to situate our own songwriting and our own personal expression within that tradition has made me feel like I’m actually from a place and belong here and have some kind of responsibility to the place too. I’d like to convey that tradition to other younger musicians who like me might make it through their whole early lives without ever knowing that was a part of the place they’re from.
Jacob: Totally. It’s easy to think of old-time and bluegrass as stodgy genres that were only relevant in the past, but it’s important to remember that they were radical in their time and happened for a reason. They were well placed within important historical lessons of immigration and how it is that we as Americans pull from many different places to create a unique thing. I think that is really evident still in those forms and why we listen to them and in some ways emulate those genres still.
Wood: Outside the history of string music, there’s a great history of jazz music born and bred in North Carolina, and a lot of it is continued on by university education. Part of keeping that music alive is well funded public education that can boost all kinds of music and boost all kinds of art.
Joe: Wood grew up a jazz guy. His dad loves jazz, and he started learning jazz bass. I was in a bluegrass family, but I happened to be from High Point which is the home of John Coltrane, so early in my life I was invited to the John Coltrane jazz summer camp, and I kind of went just for kicks. I got into John Coltrane and learned a ton of jazz, so one of the first things we connected on before we were in a band together was John Coltrane.
Wood: It’s a similar thing that Libby is talking about. Recognizing that someone as immortal as John Coltrane was born and bred less than 30 miles from where you were born is as much as a touchstone on how you relate to the place that you’re from as anything I can think of.
You have done some educational programming while on the road. Will you describe that and why it matters to you
Libby: Not long ago, we did an education program in Tallahassee where we went to elementary, middle, and high schools and talked about some basics of string band history. There were kids in the audience who had never seen a banjo before who found that very exotic. Folk music can be really exotic if it wasn’t a part of the landscape of your upbringing. Teaching reminds us why that type of music is special and how it relates to the story of America and the story of immigrants which is an important message for the times.
There isn’t a super stark and clean divide between commercial and vernacular music, but you could say that music that is made primarily with commercial purposes in mind is probably going to seek to be encompassing rather than specific. I think there’s more space in vernacular music for specificity. Stories about actual experiences. Stories that are specific to geography and time. It would be a shame to lose those in a flattened landscape of pop music. I think both of those realms of art are really important. The vernacular music by nature of not being commercial is more at risk, so that’s where the public funding has to go.
Why does public funding for the arts matter?
Libby: I have a little anecdote from my personal life. When I was in college, I helped put on this music festival called Convergence at UNC that was very small but took an incredible amount of work and was just run by college students. It was a festival of Southern music, and it was completely funded by grant funding. Some of that came from within the university some of it came from arts councils and the humanities council. Little projects like that just wouldn’t exist without public arts funding.
Wood: People equate public funding with huge installments like the Kennedy Center and Lincoln Center. Those places in major urban areas are going to be fine. Smaller funds are so much more important for making sure that arts are not a product to be served to the elites.
Will you share a story about how the arts have impacted the way you see the world?
Jacob: I’ve learned lessons through touring and playing music that [shape] my notion of my identity as a North Carolinian and Southerner, and more broadly as an American in a time as politically and socially chaotic as this one. I’m really grateful for the way I could connect with tiny communities across the country that I don’t necessarily have much in common with on the surface. We do commune over the experiences and emotions that we’ve been encouraged to express through our music, and though it’s easier to highlight the differences we have with one another, we’re a lot more similar than we believe or that we’re told that we should believe.
Joe: All of us went to public schools. Public education was really important to us, but I think the most important things in terms of who we are, and how we relate to each other, and what our community means…I really got to the heart of it through writing and through music. It’s incredibly important for a community to produce something, and to pave the roads, and to be economically vibrant, but I hope we can keep in mind that at the end of the day once you do have food on the table... part of the point of all of us being here is to ask each other why are we here, and what does it mean to be in a community together, and what does it mean to be alive.
*This interview was edited and condensed for clarity