Iron Horse Share Less Obvious Sounds Behind “Pickin’ On Nirvana”

The Bluegrass band discuss influential sounds that informed their new album

Iron Horse have just added to a series of “Pickin’ On” albums that takes material from alternative rock artists and filters the songs through a Bluegrass filter. The results of previous issues in the series have seen Fade To Bluegrass: A Tribute To Metallica, and Pickin’ On Modest Mouse. Iron Horse’s addition to this sequence of innovative collections that celebrates the dexterity of the source material and the strength of the original songs is called Pickin’ On Nirvana, and it’s an album of eleven songs from the band who defined Grunge.

Here, Tony Robertson and his band Iron Horse, curated tunes that display the lyrical range of Nirvana, along with some of their most influential musical riffs. Transposed to a bluegrass style a new strength is revealed, as is a high level of musicianship from a band who bend their usual approach to accommodate a world view that, in original form, sat in stark contrast to their own. The results are disarming, engaging, and quite wonderfully unusual.

ARTISTdirect caught up with Tony Robertson from the band, and we asked him to share the sounds that informed his musical upbringing, and the tunes that inspired his journey from one genre to the next. Here’s what he said..

First single I bought…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R80Q_FQGKj4

It was “Hotel California” by the Eagles. While I had bought lots of eight-tracks and LPs, I had never bought a single until I heard that song. I had to have it until I could buy the full album. Money was tight back then for a 17 year old kid and I did what I could to keep the excitement of music moving along for me.

First live show I attended…

It was a Bluegrass festival in Smithville, TN best I recall. My uncles had a band and I was lucky enough to get to travel with them to the event. I was amazed that people could and would walk on to a stage and sing and play like it was nothing. I may have been hooked on the whole experience then and just didn’t realize it until later in life.

First song I learned to play… 

“Wildwood Flower.” My uncles would play the song when I was kid and I thought it was awesome, the way the notes just seem to flow off the neck of a guitar. I wanted to learn to play that way. It was so simple and so listenable, I still play the song today from time to time.

The song that encouraged me to learn my instrument of choice…

The mandolin player in a band called the Dixie Bluegrass Boys played a song called “Arab Bounce” and thought it was the best playing I ever heard and the neatest chord progression. It was so lively and interesting. I wanted play that song if it was the last thing I did, so I learned to play mandolin!

The song that reminds me of home…

A really good songwriter-musician in Nashville named Carl Jackson wrote a song called “Down Home” that was to me the perfect rendering of growing up in deep south. It references all the things that I remember about home from the insect noises late in the evening to the sounds of my parents’ voices calling me to supper. I can’t think of any other song that is even close to that one.

My guilty secret track…

Oh wow…has to be the Bee Gees “Stayin’ Alive.” Something about the way that song moves that just makes me want dance, or something close to dancing. Their harmonies made everything sound big and full but that track was sure enough ear art to me and outside what I would normally listen to.

The song I wish I wrote…

“Wasted Time” by the Eagles. It’s a deep look into interpersonal relationships we can all relate to. I like the way it moves with emotion in the music and lyrics as it sort of drags you along kicking and screaming not feel the content. You don’t even have to really experience the life in the song to understand what’s going on, so to me that’s a well written song and certainly worthy of my envy.

The finest song from my all time hero…

Well I have several heroes but the one that stands out to me anytime I think of well-done songs by one of them is by John Starling of the Seldom Scene and a song called “California Earthquake” (from the New Seldom Scene album) that he did with Linda Ronstadt singing harmony vocals on the track with him. Something about the delivery of his vocals on that cut that just made the hair stand up on my arms. I think Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” would be a close second to it or maybe an equal…Gooooood stuff.

The song I’ve written of which I’m most proud…

I think it would be a song called “Just a Mess.” I wrote it from a view of a guy venting to God about the problems of things on earth, and that he knows what a mess we made of what he gave us. We can’t seem to agree together on how to clean up things we screwed up even though we made the problems together. I’ve always thought we should just solve them together as one people. It’s on my project called Movin On.

The song that should be played at my funeral…

I wrote a song a few years ago called “You’ll Live On” about how the good things we do in life will hopefully carry our time on earth into the future for a ways after we pass on. I really think it’s important to leave some good things behind, no matter how small or insignificant we think they are when we are here. Sometimes doing the best things in situations are the hardest and most inconvenient things we ever do.

My favorite track from my most recent project…

I think from the Pickin’ On Nirvana project, my favorite track is “Dumb.” I like the way were able to build into and out of it. Most songs won’t let you get to them by instrumentally introducing the song before you sing and it be able to blend into the lyric but this one was perfect for that kind of instrumentation. It allowed an instrumental voice to be heard announcing the lyric with the same feel as the singing voice, we rarely get to do that when we transform rock songs to bluegrass; they always have separate spaces.

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