Christen Blanton Mack’s creative process often involves crafting “something new that feels like it belongs to something very old.”
With a banjo, viola or fiddle in hand, she plays a mix of traditional ballads, blues and dance tunes, putting forth a sound that would not seem at all out of place emanating from an ancient Victrola.
“It’s very much in a folk style, and I do tend to gravitate toward writing for acoustic instruments and a sonic world driven by traditional idioms,” she said.
Mack plays with progressive folk group The Zinc Kings, and is one half of the Americana duo Blanton & Glasgow. She also teaches and leads the Old Time Ensemble at UNCG.
In a recent interview, she spoke about providing instruction during a pandemic, learning the banjo while watching “Futurama” and forcing obnoxious audience members to sing “Wagon Wheel.”
How did you get your start in music?
I’m originally from New York, and I’ve been playing music my whole life. My parents are both musicians, and I went to college at SUNY (State University of New York) Potsdam to become a music teacher and got a degree in music education.
I had a couple of friends who had talked about the music program at UNCG and talked about how great it was, so I moved to North Carolina in 2006 and got a master’s degree in viola performance. I went back to school in 2012 to get a Ph.D.
How have you been able to engage with the Old Time Ensemble during the pandemic?
The most important thing about old-time music is the people. And so, when everything started to switch over to virtual teaching and learning, I had to decide what are the most important things about what people get out of this class. The best times I’ve had making any kind of music is when I have a connection to the people with whom I’m playing, so I wanted to do as much as I could to keep students connected to each other. (I’ve) made a lot of online lessons and tutorials, and I started a YouTube channel. I wanted to have resources where students could still see my face.
But, we’ve started to meet again in the spring semester, and I meet half of them in a classroom in the School of Music, and we learn tunes, and we jam. And half of the class is remote, but they get to hear a group of people all jamming together. I think that was the thing that was missing when everybody was in their little squares. All they were hearing was me playing or one person playing at a time.
Who are some of your inspirations?
When you’re playing traditional music, and music that’s all about participation, you really do get inspired by people that you’re with in that immediate moment.
Our little Piedmont Old Time Society (a group of local musicians that meets regularly for jam sessions) community really led me to push myself and dig deeper into traditional music.
But, there’s also a fiddle player named Laurel Premo, who I really admire. She plays with a band called Red Tail Ring, and I admire her writing and musicianship. She can write these songs that feel like she dug them up out of an archive.
And I wish I could write songs like Joni Mitchell, but nobody can. Only she can do that.
Also, I come from a whole family of musicians and it wasn’t a big deal for my whole extended family to be together with everybody singing.
Of all the instruments in which you’re proficient, what was the most difficult to learn?
The banjo. It wasn’t an instrument I grew up around. I had started out playing fiddle. And I play guitar, and I can play through stuff on a ukulele.
But, I would often say to students, “You’ve got to make your bow do something like this, because that’s how you’ll match the banjo.”
And I kept stressing, this is what the banjo is doing, so this is what we’re going to do on our fiddles ... So, I thought if I want to make it feel real for them, I have to learn the banjo. And I wanted to do it quickly, because I was teaching at a camp in two weeks.
So, I told the guys in The Zinc Kings I wanted to learn how to play the banjo, I wanted to learn how to play bum-ditty, which is the basic banjo rhythm for the clawhammer style. I just needed to learn bum-ditty and a couple of chords. (The Zinc Kings member) Mark Dillon said to put a pillow in the back of the banjo, and just sit there and watch TV until you can play bum-ditty, until you can make your hand do that rhythm without thinking about it, until it’s so automatic that you can laugh at the jokes on the TV show. So, I learned to play the banjo while I sat on my couch watching “Futurama” for hours at a time.
But it was hard, because my instincts were all about fingerstyle guitar, instead of this very distinct motion for playing the banjo. It bedeviled me.
What’s your creative process like?
I’m kind of a slow burn typically. Right now, I can probably think of five little things that could be songs if I could sit down and get it done.
It all comes from trying to find something that feels “fiddle-istic,” and then trying to work everything around a melody. I never write lyrics first. It always starts melodically. I did go through a phase when I was writing everything on banjo, and then adapting everything melodically to my voice or a fiddle.
In The Zinc Kings, we kind of like to spitball lyrics off each other, and throw different things into the pot as far as lyrics are concerned.
If you could open a show for any artist, who would it be and why?
Probably a Laura Marling or an Andrew Bird, or somebody who is a songwriter who’s in that folk periphery. I love Laura Marling. I had tickets to see her in Durham last year, and then COVID hit, and I was devastated, because she doesn’t come to the States a lot. And Andrew Bird, he writes the way I wish I could write, and he does a lot of looping with his violin, and he’s got great musical sensibilities.
Do you sing karaoke or sing in the shower, and, if so, what do you sing?
Every time I have sung karaoke I have sung Celine Dion, who I unironically love. I straight up love her, and not just in a guilty pleasure way.
What’s the funniest or weirdest thing that has happened at one of your shows?
People at our shows will go, “Well there’s a fiddle and a banjo, so you must know (the Bob Dylan tune) ‘Wagon Wheel.’” Sometimes, there’s a fine line between people genuinely requesting that and heckling you. When people request “Wagon Wheel,” Mark, who is our mandolin, guitar, banjo player, will say, “Yeah, we know it, but we don’t know the lyrics, so you have to sing it.”
We have goaded people into actually coming up on to the stage with us. They’ll pull up the lyrics on their phone and start singing “Wagon Wheel.” It’s a great song, but everybody seems to want to request it of any band that has a fiddle and a banjo.
What’s next for you?
I’m looking into different ways to deliver the teaching that I do, launching a new lesson series that I’m really excited about that will go on my YouTube page, but will also hopefully have an Instagram presence. And I have a difficult time separating the musician side of myself from the educator side. Teaching is just sharing what you know about music, and I’ve been phenomenally lucky to be around generous musicians my entire life. So I want to pay it forward.