Compared to the tribal patterns and exuberantly flowing floral attire of the audience at Beanstalk Music Festival, Iron Horse looks like they just arrived from church.
But really they were fresh off of a flight from Alabama that morning.
And although it was a Sunday, and they wore well-fitted flannel collared shirts atop clean-cut pants and an assortment of leather shoes, they didn’t come to Colorado to sit in pews; they came to perform on stage.
You could classify Iron Horse’s songs as covers, but truly they’re more of a bluegrass-based re-creation of the original. A melodic make over of sorts; boiling the track down to its salty simplicity, unplugging the instruments, adding a lush array of acoustic strings, trimming some fat, but leaving enough for flavor, and enjoying the end product; a uniquely raw and distinctly recognizable rendition. Featuring bands such as: Modest Mouse, Metallica, The Shins, Led Zeppelin, and Van Halen.
The creation of this concept can be traced back to 2003 when Iron Horse, who has an extensive catalogue of original work, was approached by CMH Records to record a couple blue grass ‘covers’. That lead to Fade to Bluegrass, their rendition of Metallica’s classic metal album Fade to Black, which was so successful that they decided to duplicate their full-album approach and create a deep and diverse catalogue of music that melds metal with indie rock till it results in an all encompassing and captivating sound.
Tony Robertson, who sings and plays mandolin alongside band mates Vance Henry (guitar), Anthony Richardson (banjo), and Ricky Rogers (bass), is as polite as he is passionate about making music. His nonchalant and keenly nuanced style of singing and strumming on stage makes him appear like a man who mastered his craft on the white wooden porch of a plantation style home while happily sipping some lemonade and laughing with friends.
He balances being in Iron Horse with a full-time job, and amidst his busy schedule Tony was nice enough to talk with AKcreative about the acoustics of playing in a sold out cave,Metallica playing their covers before shows, and having the best of both worlds.
AKcreative: How’s your Monday going Tony?
Tony: Everything’s rock and roll, I’m living the dream. It’s a typical Monday around here. Today and Friday are always busy days for us, so we just got to survive them.
Have you always had a full time job in addition to making music with Iron Horse?
That’s the way to do it, make a living and then enjoy the fruits of the hobby for a while until you can do it full time. I’ve always enjoyed having the best of both worlds to be honest with you. I’ve been playing since I was seventeen, and I’ve always had a day job then played music on the weekends or whenever I could, so it’s worked out really well. I’ve been able to enjoy something I’m passionate about while making a living too. Not that you can’t make a living in music, it’s just a different way of living.
So after your Sunday afternoon set at Beanstalk Music Festival in Colorado, were you back in Alabama and at work come Monday morning?
Our flight actually left around six Monday morning and we didn’t get here till late that night, so we were back to work by Tuesday.
At Beanstalk your band mate Ricky felt inspired to mention Woodstock and doubted that anyone in the crowd could have attended it because they probably weren’t born yet.
Woodstock was even a little bit before our time, but here’s the thing about Woodstock and places like that. We’ve been to and played a lot of festivals over the years and there have been a lot of really big neat festivals like that, they just didn’t get out of hand and you didn’t have the same caliber of stars that they had on that particular stage. But, we’ve played a lot of nice festivals over the years that have had really big crowds. Bonnaroo up here near Nashville is one that has really exploded, and it’s got lots of different kinds of music and has really bloomed into a huge festival.
Have you ever played Bonnaroo ?
We haven’t, but we’ve had some inquiries about playing it that we just haven’t been able to follow through on. We’re hoping here in the next year or two that we’ll be there. We don’t do too many festivals. We sort of prefer indoor venues, but we like going and playing those one off festivals because those are always neat.
A lot of the bluegrass circuit used to be that you had to go for two days, play twice on Friday and two times Saturday, so we just kind of got burned out doing that to be honest. That’s why we like do those one off things, it’s just more conducive to our schedule and we can put more into one show rather then trying to divide it all between four.
It was Ricky who mentioned Woodstock while you were on stage, and it’s clear now that none of us were in attendance, but do you still see examples of that same spirit and energy being kept alive by Beanstalk and other modern music festivals?
There was some really good talent at the Beanstalk Festival, and tons of talented people who put a lot into it and all the acts we saw were really good. Some festivals that we play, the talent is just ok or not exactly what you would hope it’d be, and as musicians, we like to sit and listen too. We like to be interested in what’s happening on stage when we have a few minutes, and a lot of times that’s hard to get because there’s a lot of people out there doing music right now, but some of it is just sort of lackluster and it’s not all that interesting. But we applaud everyone who does it because you’ve gotta get out there and find out where you’re gonna land. We’ve been doing the Iron Horse thing for fifteen years so we pretty well know where we fit into things and where we don’t fit into things.
As a band that ‘covers’ such a wide range of genres, you probably have a pretty motley mix of fans that could consequently lead you to play some odd shows. Over the past fifteen years with Iron Horse, was there a time that you guys got a gig and could tell right away that you definitely didn’t fit in?
Well we’ve played some places without naming some of them, where we would come on at like 12 at night and play till like 2 in the morning, an we don’t fit into those real well. Usually clubs and things get rowdy after midnight, so we don’t really feel like we fit into that. We fit in better when the audience is really interested in this thing that we’re doing.
What’s one of the more memorable and fitting shows that you’ve played with Iron Horse?
That’s a good question right there. We’ve played several that have been really interesting lately. We played The Bluegrass Underground in McMinnville, Tennessee. It was so interesting because we had never played, as I guess most people haven’t, in a cave like that before. We got down there and thought, ‘boy the sound will just be all over the place’, and were expecting a sound man’s nightmare, but it was just a great adventure for us. It’s not that far from us, but we had never been there before, and when we got in there the sound turned out to be a musician’s dream. It was perfect, the acoustics were dialed in exactly as they should have been. I think it holds five to six hundred people or something like that, and it was sold out. It’s just a really memorable place to play.
We’ve also played a lot of interesting weddings. We played one for the Johnson family, of Johnson & Johnson, up in New York a few years ago and our contract was about two inches thick. They may even send someone to kill me now because we weren’t supposed to talk about who was there and those types of things, but they treated us as well as you could possibly be treated when you play a gig. They were very delightful people and we were very honored to be invited to play that wedding. We also did another wedding for the guy who owns the Ruby Tuesdays restaurant chain. His son is a really big fan of ours, so we ended up doing his wedding up in the Smoky Mountains. There was a resort up there and they just rented the whole entire thing. We’ve had a lot of memorable events I guess, I could go on all day.
Have you ever had the opportunity to perform alongside one of the bands that you’ve covered before?
You know we have not, and it is probably our fault because we haven’t pursued that, and it’s sort of one of our bucket list items that we would love to do. Mike Malinen of The Goo Goo Dolls actually put a drum track on The Goo Goo Dolls project that we did when we sent the tracks out to him in California, and that’s probably as close as we have come. We know Black Label Society was really interested in doing it with us, but we haven’t gotten around to them to get that done. We also know Metallica is completely satisfied with what we did with their stuff, and there is something out on YouTube where I think it was Kirk Hammett is being interviewed and they asked him about Iron Horse and he talked about how they play our songs before some of their concerts. It will take a lot to make that happen, but we would like to make it happen at some point.
Has there ever been an original track that you may not initially like too much, but as you convert it to bluegrass and begin to get immersed in it, the track surprises you, and all of the sudden you’re a fan of Metallica or maybe some other band that you wouldn’t see yourself liking otherwise?
We approach things in this manner. We break the song down to where it’s like a songwriter brought us a song and he’s playing a guitar, gives us the lyrics, and says, ‘here you go guys’. That’s how we’ve been successful at changing these things into pretty good bluegrass songs. We keep some of the riffs and some of the stuff that makes the songs what they are in their original form.
I can tell you this, we weren’t metal heads, but we knew who Metallica was and we knew they were big. When we started listening to their music and dissecting it Metallica shocked us. There’s genius in their chord progressions and when you can understand their lyrics, and take the time to read them you see that they are really good writers. We were also surprised at Modest Mouse. When we first listened to the songs we were going ‘wow, this has got some complex chords in it,’ so we were thinking ‘what in the world are we going to do with this’? But the more we listened to it, the more we got interested in the music and we could really appreciate what some of these people have done. Ozzy Osbourne is a really good songwriter, and I like to joke on stage sometimes and mention that Ozzy didn’t know he was writing a bluegrass song when he wrote “Momma I’m Coming Home” or “Crazy Train”.
It’s really made us pay attention to the people who did those songs originally and appreciate them even more.
How do you choose what band to cover?
We started when CMH Label Group out in Los Angeles contacted us about doing the Metallica thing. They had been doing some instrumental versions of some of those songs and said, ‘we want to do a vocal version, but we’re not sure we want to do it, so if you guys could do a couple of cuts, and let us listen to them, then we’ll decide’. So we did the initial cuts that they sent us, and after we did those two cuts we were like, ‘we want to do this now’, and we weren’t sure we really wanted to do it to begin with.
It was almost a year later before they came back to us and said, ‘ok, we really dig this, lets do the whole thing’. So we ended up doing the whole project and it just turned out fabulous, and was a good stretch between bluegrass and metal music.
But normally we’ll go back and forth, they’ll throw out some ideas and say, ‘can you guys cover this or would you be interested in it,’ and then we’ll take a look at it and get back to them. So we kind of decide amongst ourselves if it’s a good fit to do it and we’ve been well satisfied with the ones that we’ve done, I think they turned out pretty good.
Not only do the tunes turn out pretty good, the albums also sold really well, especially for being a bluegrass band in the modern music industry.
A good sale for your standard bluegrass album of somebody who’s out their touring and doing it right now would probably be 10-20,000 units, but we have far surpassed that, and I’ll attribute that to being able to open up the markets and not just be stuck to a bluegrass audience.
We’ve got fans that listen to rock when they were growing up and they kind of like bluegrass, and we’ve got people on the flipside of that, who grew up with bluegrass and kind of like some rock, and now they’re all switching back and forth.
We had an interesting post on our website years ago from a teacher at the University of Tennessee who said ‘ I appreciate you guys doing the Metallica thing because my son is a metal head and I’ve always loved bluegrass, but we could never even listen to the radio when we got in the car together. Now we have this one project that we can stick in the CD player and we’ll both enjoy the music.’ It really has been able to cross a lot of open field, I guess you could say, because a lot of people once they pick their brand they kind of stick with it, but this is giving people a chance to kind of look at music a different way and maybe have a different, more lenient perspective.
Not only that but it’s connecting those people, and even creating a bond between a father and a son. Did you ever foresee this potential in Iron Horse?
No, you never could. I would have never dreamed that somebody would post something like that to our website, or that it would happen much less.
Do you ever get recognized in public or treated like a ‘rock star’ of sorts in your hometown?
Well, it’s really funny, a guy who’s a song writer told me the other day, ‘you know I go all over the country and everyone all over knows who you guys are, but you can go into one of the clubs in town and they don’t really know who you are,’ and I said, ‘ that’s because we don’t play there’. It’s kind of like a prophet without honor is his own hometown, you know.
Yet you can repeatedly sell out stages outside of your hometown.
The last time we played The Aggie Theater in Colorado it was sold-out, so we can go that far away and still sell out shows. We don’t even try to play at home because I think when we get back home it’s more like we’re resting from playing out on the road, especially since almost everything we do is on the road. We were in Alaska last year in June, and we’ve also been to Canada and Europe. We’ve just gone a long way with it for some reason, and I don’t know exactly why.
Is it pretty cool to see where music has taken you in life? Especially working a day job and then going to all of those places thanks to being really good at plucking some strings and making music with your friends.
Yea, absolutely, I mean it gets back to fullness of life and asking how can you lead your fullest possible life, and I think you can have the best of all worlds.
We were playing in Belgium back in 2005 I believe it was, and some guys drove eight hours from Germany up to this little hole in the wall in Belgium where we were playing. These guys were so beside themselves that we got anywhere close to Germany you know, and that alone made that trip worth it.
Then we got down to Toulouse France to play a street festival where there were maybe 100 people when this street thing got going at like five in the afternoon, but when we got ready to play there were maybe 250 people and by about the time that we started up on our first song people were coming from out of nowhere and just filled up this town with almost 3,000 people in 15 minutes. We’re just standing there thinking this is unbelievable. You get to see things like that when you’re out doing this, that you would never see at home.
To conclude our conversation, since I know you’re a busy man, what would you like to tell your fans?
We would love to tell everybody that we appreciate you and thanks for listening to our music. Without the same old cliché, we wouldn’t be doing anything if weren’t for the people who listen to the music and can take it for what it is. They don’t have to dissect it or put it into this group of music. We’ve heard so many times over the years, ‘what would you guys classify your kind of music as,’ and really we don’t.
We grew up listening to rock music, we grew up listening to country music, and we grew up playing bluegrass, so we don’t see it all as separate. We’re glad that the people who listen to our music are able to listen to it that way, and that they can just listen to it, enjoy it, and not worry about where it goes or where it belongs. It’s just music, you know.
For tour dates and more information on Iron Horse visit, www.IronHorseBluegrass.com, and enjoy this live video of the guys performing Metallica’s “Enter Sandman”.