Man, Oh Mandolin
ORCHESTRA PUTS FRESH SPIN ON CLASSIC INSTRUMENT
Everything old is new again.
The Nashville mandolin Ensemble is one of the freshest sounds on the instrumental landscape, but its basic concept is 100 years old.
"The real rage for mandolin orchestras was around the turn of the century," says NME founder Butch Baldassari. "By 1925 the craze was over. Mandolin orchestra music is 'lost' music. It was recorded on 78s, but it has never been reissued. Most mandolin players have seen pictures of the old orchestras in catalogs, but hardly anybody today has heard one."
The mandolin hails from Italy. In the 1890s Americans began forming mandolin clubs.
"My mission is to take that turn-of-the-century concept and make it modern," says Baldassari.
The NME averages a concert a month. It has performed on Riders Radio Theater, on local television, on a George Ducas country CD, at parties such as the reopening of Hatch Show Print, at festivals such as Summer Lights and on the soundtrack of the Wild West TV documentary. Baldassari reports that virtually everyone who has heard the group's rippling sound loves it.
The problem is getting people to listen. Most people have no point of reference for mandolin orchestra music, so popularizing the NME has been an uphill fight.
"I had to borrow the money to make our album. We mailed the tape out everywhere; and everybody turned us down. Finally, CMH Records picked it up.
"But after this we're free to sign with anybody else who might want us. We're interested in going on the road as an opening act. We're trying to get on Prarie Home Companion. We'd love to do a Christmas record, but we can't get anybody to pick up the financing."
One listen to Plectrasonics, the debut NME CD, should convince any skeptics. The act's dazzling abilities are showcased on a repertoire that includes both the Beatles and Bill Monroe. Composers ranging from Charles Mingus and David Crosby to Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli are represented. The act is also capable of ripping into Johann Sebastian Bach, Duke Ellington, John Philip Sousa or the theme from Star Trek.
The Nashville Mandolin Ensemble is the end result of a long and winding road for most of its members. Baldassari, 43, didn't become a professional musician until he was 35 years old.
In 1990 he attended the Classical Mandolin Society of America convention in Louisville and saw a mandolin orchestra in action. When he returned to Music City, he put up signs soliciting players for the NME.
Among those who responded were mandolinists Rob Haines, John Mock, Fred Carpenter and Richard Kriehn, mandola players Charlie Derrington and Walter Carter, mando-cello player John Hedgecoth, guitarist Gene Ford and bassist David Spicher. Conducted by Paul Zonn, these 10 are the core of NME today.
"Everybody loves this group, from kids to people who are 80 or 90."
Robert K. Oermann is a free-lance music feature writer for The Tennessean and appears Fridays on TNN's Country News.