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Robin Bullock: Guitar Music from a Magical Place

Dirty Linen, December 2004/January 2005

 by Tom Nelligan

The guitar is a wonderfully versatile instrument, second only to drums in its nearly universal presence within the world's traditional and contemporary musical styles. In Celtic music, however, the guitar is a relative newcomer, taking a significant role only recently. One musician who has played a major role in advancing the cause of Celtic guitar is the much-traveled multi-instrumentalist Robin Bullock, a tall, affable, thoughtful man with a contagious grin who grew up in the Washington, D.C., area and who now lives outside Paris. His recordings and concert performances over the past 20 years -- solo, in various duos, and with the trios Helicon and Greenfire -- have displayed a rare combination of technical virtuosity and emotional nuance. He has a deep appreciation of the power of music to touch people's hearts, and the skills to make that happen when he plays.

Bullock can pick out a ripping jig or foot-stomping reel with the best of them, but he's best known for delicate, captivating compositions that gracefully blend Irish musical themes with touches of Appalachian and new age seasoning, graceful meditations that have been known to leave some listeners in tears. He talked about his music last July during a teaching residency at the University of Rhode Island, where he was among the instructors in an annual multicultural music and dance program called "World Voices, World Visions."

Bullock was born in Washington in 1964, and while he studied classical piano as a child, his first real love was bluegrass. "I knew I wanted to play guitar from the time I was seven years old," he recalls. "I saw Glen Campbell playing guitar on TV, and I thought, 'That's for me!' The first music that I got really passionate about, that spoke to me on a deep level, was bluegrass and American old-time music by way of people like Doc Watson, and later Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe, the straight bluegrass crowd. And that's what I did for most of my teenage years, cut classes and listened to Norman Blake and Ralph Stanley and their old songs, and on weekends I went to bluegrass festivals." Another influence was local icon John Fahey, through whose innovative and often eccentric music Bullock first learned the art of fingerpicking.

Bullock's interest in bluegrass remains strong, and he's a mean bluegrass picker, but in his late teens, his focus shifted to Ireland. "When I was about 17 or 18, I heard The Best of the Bothy Band in a record store, and the same thing happened -- that was it, that's what I want to do. It was the most incredibly powerful music that I had ever heard, and it combined everything I was looking for. There's a sense of tradition, a sense of rootedness, incredibly beautiful, exciting melodies, and a great hard-driving groove. And all of that in music that was several hundred years old and still sounded as fresh as when it was created."

At that time, in the early 1980s, the guitar as a melody instrument was still rare in Celtic music. Then, as now, fiddle, flute, accordion and pipes ruled the genre. "When the guitar appeared," Bullock explained, "kind of as a result of the folk boom back in the 60s, it was considered as an accompaniment instrument, partly because it's a low- and mid-range chorded instrument, and so it was capable of carrying harmonies and support that way, and partly because in a session, if you try playing a melody line on a guitar, you'll get eaten alive! So guitarists tended to play mostly rhythm and chord backup.

"But a lot of us who were taken with the beauty of the instrument, as well as being taken with the beauty and power of Celtic music, decided that there must be a way to use this instrument in this repertoire and have it carry the melody line. And I suppose some of us just got tired of being in the background all the time, letting the accordion players and fiddle players get all the glory. There's quite a few Celtic guitarists out there now in both fingerpicking and flatpicking styles Tony McManus, Chris Newman, Steve Baughman, Duck Baker, Al Petteway, and, of course, John Renbourn. 

"I try to do both, flatpicking and fingerpicking, because I've always done both, and when I discovered traditional Irish music I tried to use those styles and techniques to play jigs and reels." In addition to guitar, bouzouki/cittern and mandolin are Bullock's other primary instruments these days, and he also plays piano, electric bass, and some fiddle and banjo when the situation arises. 

Bullock's professional career began in earnest with the Baltimore-based instrumental trio Helicon, which also included flute/whistle/bagpipes player Chris Norman and fiddler/hammered dulcimer player Ken Kolodner. Named after the Greek mountain that was the home in myth of the muses, it was one of the first "world music" fusion bands. 

"Chris and Ken had an album called Daybreak," Bullock said, "and I heard it and loved it. When I met them in 1986, I was looking to get out of bluegrass and play some Irish music, and they were looking for a guitar player, so we hooked up, and I spent the next 11 or 12 years pretty much full-time touring with the band. We toured like madmen. We accomplished a lot, and it got all of us into the business on a serious level. We got together playing Celtic and Appalachian music, and along the way we decided we liked playing music from other traditions as well. So eventually in a typical concert we'd play tunes from China, Eastern Europe, and South America, and Irish and old-time Appalachian music as well, sort of running through our musical influences."

After a run of more than ten years, Helicon wound down. "It was a lot of fun, but along about '97 or '98 we all got involved in other things that were more interesting to us individually, and I think we were a bit burned out on Helicon by that time. There wasn't any conscious decision to break up, but we did our last gig, other than our annual winter solstice concert in Baltimore, in June 1998. We still enjoy playing together, but our individual schedules got so busy, it precluded Helicon activity, and I guess we felt that Helicon had said what it had to say. We still do an annual winter solstice concert, and it's been very successful for us over the years." Bullock appeared on four Helicon CDs and has also contributed to the other members' solo projects. 

Following Helicon's halt, Bullock worked briefly with Kolodner and fiddler Laura Risk in another instrumental trio, Greenfire, and among other affiliations he has also played with the Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble and the John Whelan Band, as well as with Washington-area neighbors Al Petteway and Amy White. He released his first solo album, Green Fields, in 1993, a collection of largely traditional Irish tunes played on 6-and 12-string guitar, bouzouki, fiddle and bass, frequently overdubbing two or three lead instruments in the studio for a richly melodic effect. Four other solo albums have followed to date, including his latest, a holiday disc called A Guitar for Christmas that was released this fall. 

As the years have gone by, Bullock's repertoire has increasingly featured delicate melodic interpretations rather than blazing, fast tune sets. That's been the result of a growth process, he said. "I think I underwent something of a life change six or eight years ago now. I was in a very unhealthy, very dysfunctional relationship, as well as some professional affiliations that were not that healthy either. When I came out the other side of all of that, I found that perhaps as a result of the turmoil in my personal life I was drawn to quieter, more intimate things, both as a listener and as a player. So that seems to be the direction I'm going in. And interestingly enough, that seems to be the kind of material that most resonates with my audiences. It hasn't been a deliberate marketing maneuver on my part, but I find that after concerts and I do try to combine the faster things with the more intimate pieces almost invariably the ones that people say really meant something are the quieter pieces like 'The Secret Waterfall' and 'Between Earth and Sky.' So I'm comfortable going in that direction. The world's full of flashy guitar players. There's nothing wrong with that, but there's plenty of other people to do that, and what moves me, what I'm really interested in bringing to an audience, is the sense of beauty and serenity that kind of music brings.

"I've been trying to figure out for a long time who I am as a solo performer and what I have to offer. I think that only in the last couple years I've gotten a handle on that. And it seems that what I can do with an audience at my best is take them to a place of beauty and peace and grace for a while, or rather the music takes us all there. I'm happy with that!" 

Like most contemporary Celtic instrumentalists, Bullock performs a mix of traditional and original material. For him, composition is a combination of focused craft and spontaneity. "It can be sudden inspiration when I'm out doing other things, or it can be sitting down with an instrument and noodling and something pops out, or it can be deliberate effort. From my time playing with John Whelan, and he's a very prolific composer, I saw that you can write on demand. He would write a lot of tunes when he knew he had a recording project coming up. There have been times that I needed such-and-such kind of tune to fill out an album, and I will deliberately write that, but most of the time it's inspiration. It comes from a feeling, generally, that I can't really put into words or even explain very much. 

"I was just reading the Rodney Crowell article in this month's Dirty Linen [#113, August/September 2004], and I really liked what he said about how you have to bypass the brain, let the heart do the speaking, and just get out of the way, because the song is already fully formed somewhere. You just need to let it take root. So that's what I try to do. My wife, who's an actress, calls it walking on two legs balancing the intuitive heart side with the conscious craft side. So when I'm working on a piece, I might get a melodic fragment or two as sort of a gift from the universe, and then I'll call up the left-brain conscious side to figure out how to piece it together with something else or how to expand on it. It's really hard to explain. I don't fully know how it works. But it seems to be a matter of throwing oneself open to the universe and allowing that energy to come in, and then when it comes in, grabbing it and doing something with it with the conscious mind. 

"I've written my share of traditional-style tunes, where it's just a two-part or three-part jig or reel written to sound like a traditional tune as much as possible. But my solo pieces tend to be a bit more complex than that, simply because I want them to have a sense of progression and go somewhere. I might have an A part and a B part in the traditional style, but then there'll be a middle part that goes in an unforeseen direction and gradually wends its way back to the original theme, just because as a listener I find it a bit more interesting for it to be a bit deeper than a traditional jig or reel." 

Many of Bullock's arrangements untilize open guitar tunings, which he feels are an important tool for shaping a mood. "Music in general goes to a very deep place in humans," he said, "but I think there are certain sounds that have a specific impact on the human organism, African drumming being one, drone being another. It's known all over the world in Celtic music, in the Australian didjeridu, in Indian music, in Appalachian old-time music. There's something very powerful and primal in that. And I think the sound of the guitar, the sound of the plucked string resonating against the sound chamber, can hit people in a powerful, physical way, especially if the guitar is in an open tuning, because the guitar resonates more deeply, and the strings are usually tuned lower, so they're more relaxed and deeper-sounding. The resonance creates a real impact." 

In addition to his solo work, Bullock is involved these days with two duos based on opposite sides of the Atlantic. One musical partner is French flute and whistle player Michel Sikiotakis, with whom he released a delicate, evocative duo album called The Irish Girl in 2003. "I met him through mutual friends when I moved to France," Bullock said. "He said, 'There's a session this Saturday, come on down.' So I walk in and it's ten or twelve people and he's in the middle of it, and I thought, what an incredibly beautiful, solid player. He was one of the best flute players I ever heard, and I knew that from across the room. And it wasn't that he was particularly flashy; it was that everything he did was so perfect. He had just the right groove, just the right lift, completely controlled and relaxed. Once I got settled in town, we started getting together and played the odd gig, and we decided we had a really nice chemistry, both musically and personally. So we did the one album and a bit of touring, and we'll see where it goes." Unfortunately, Bullock added, current United States visa regulations affecting foreign performers make an American tour with Sikiotakis unlikely in the near future. 

Bullock's other current partner is California fingerstyle guitarist Steve Baughman, with whom he released a collection of intricate guitar duets called Celtic Guitar Summit in 2002. "That's the performing context I'm really most excited about these days," he said with a smile. "Steve and I met at the Swannanoa Gathering there seems to be some sort of magic vortex there! We sat down to play a few tunes, and the next thing we knew four or five hours had gone by, because what happened was, when we first played together, it sounded like we'd played together all our lives. This is one of those mystical things that happens sometimes when you play music. And it was unexplainable because there was no particular effort on either of our parts, and we have very different playing techniques. But for whatever reason there was this groove that we both fell into naturally and effortlessly. So we thought this is something truly magical, and we need to document this. The next thing we knew, Acoustic Guitar magazine had picked Celtic Guitar Summit as one of their top CDs of the year. And that gave us the kick in the pants that we needed to start taking it more seriously. 

"We're touring as much as we can, given the fact that he lives in California and I live in France. It's been very interesting to watch the audience reaction, because people are responding to the music on a really deep level. The things that people say to us after concerts, and the energy that we feel in concerts, indicates that it's going far beyond just a pleasant evening of entertainment. We seem as a duo to be touching something really deep in people's emotions through the sounds of two acoustic guitars playing this ancient Celtic repertoire. It's almost like it's a calling, that we have to pursue this duo because it's so deep, so special, so magical. I haven't felt this way since Helicon that I'm part of something bigger, that's very important, that needs to be out there."  

Aside from performing, Bullock also teaches his craft, primarily at music camps and workshop programs. "I've been doing these camps in the summer for about ten years now. I enjoy teaching, and if there's any particular strength I bring it's that I approach the music as an oral tradition. I try not to write things down. I make my students learn the tunes by ear because that's the way the tradition works. There's nothing wrong with writing things down, but in the last twenty years or so there's been a worrisome trend in teaching and learning traditional music. We live in the information age, and there's tons of books and videos out there. That's great, but the danger is that I see more and more people learning exclusively from tablature or written sources, and I don't feel they're really getting at the heart of the music. 

"A written source doesn't carry the whole story. It gives you the notes, but it doesn't tell you how it should be played how to give it lift, how to add your own variations. I see people taking tablature too literally. So I make people learn by ear, and if they're really tab-addicted it's rather a violent awakening! And along the way we discuss the way the tradition works, how it changes and evolves from one person to the next." 

In the summer of 2000, Bullock moved to France to join the woman who is now his wife, and they live in a country village about 60 kilometers outside Paris. "She's an actress, and her career is based entirely around Paris, whereas my career is based on being on the road, so it didn't matter where I lived. It's been interesting, musically. When I first got over there, I thought I was going to have to start all over again with the career and build it up from ground zero, so I played with anybody who would call. After a while, I realized there was no reason I couldn't still have a career in America even though I was living in France. There's the Internet to communicate with, and it's an eight-hour plane ride every once in a while. So it's really the same as it's ever been." 

Bullock will tour in the northwest United States with Baughman in November, followed by solo gigs in December in support of his new holiday CD. "I've been spending my Decembers mostly in the States," he said, "because I've been doing more and more Christmas concerts. I've always loved the Christmas season and the music that goes with it, and I think it sounds beautiful on guitar. So I started doing Christmas concerts to see if anyone was interested, and it has grown and grown over the years. I love the music too bad I only get to play it one month of the year. But maybe it's better that way. It becomes more magical and ritualistic." 

Meanwhile, Bullock continues to enchant audiences with the simple charms of solo guitar. "At this point in my life, I'm just not interested in playing loud, thrashy music...except once in a while to blow off steam," he said with a laugh. "I'm more into seducing the listeners and taking them to a magical place. Just last week at the Swannanoa Gathering, I spent some time in the company of [fiddler] Martin Hayes, who's just my hero in Irish music these days, and I saw what he does onstage with an audience. He doesn't try to sledgehammer them; he seduces them and takes them to a really magical place that they couldn't get to otherwise. And watching him play, I thought, that's what I want to do with the guitar."

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