Casey Driessen: where bluegrass meets technology

Technology allows Casey Driessen to become a 'one-man orchestra'. Picture: Sandlin Gaither
Technology allows Casey Driessen to become a 'one-man orchestra'. Picture: Sandlin Gaither
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“The singularity” is one of those terms which comes freighted with ominous implications.

In cosmology, it relates to black holes and that hypothetical point in space-time where all matter could be “spaghettified” into an infinitesimal volume, while science fiction writers use it to invoke the possibility that the runaway development of artificial intelligence could overtake human intelligence, with catastrophic results. It can also, of course, simply mean the state of being singular, which is one reason contemporary bluegrass fiddler Casey Driessen has titled his third, solo album The Singularity.

Driessen uses digital looping to become effectively a one-man orchestra. “There’s that element of the technological side as well as the human side to it,” he explains, “so there are a few layers for me in the title”.

There seems little risk, however, of the technology hijacking Driessen’s music, as audiences at Edinburgh’s forthcoming Fiddle 2014 festival will discover. Armed with five-string fiddle, effects pedals and trademark red shoes, the man from Ashville, North Carolina builds up his percussive and harmonic accompaniments in layers, sampling and looping on the spot, before the melody sounds out on those plangent bluegrass strings. As his extraordinary take on Michael Jackson’s Billy Jean demonstrates, this can work with potent effect, and without sounding contrived.

When he reverts to tradition and hollers out Working on a Building over some nitty-gritty double stopping, the 35-year-old musician returns to being essentially a powerful bluegrass fiddler who regularly plays with such luminaries as Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, Steve Earle and Darrell Scott. I had the pleasure, some years ago, of hearing him in the company of dobro ace Rob Ickes and banjo maestro Noam Pikelny at Leith Folk Club. They tore the place apart.

“I still think of myself as a bluegrass fiddle player, in my heart and at the core of the way I approach the instrument,” says Driessen.”I still go to jam sessions; I still play traditional bluegrass gigs with other people. I enjoy making all different types of music, but I love bluegrass and appreciate all it’s done to help me develop musically.”

Driessen’s father is a self-taught musician who plays bluegrass banjo and pedal steel guitar. “My parents got me started on the fiddle because it comes in small sizes, manageable for children,” he chuckles. “I think it was a fairly good fit because I’ve stuck with it.”

Steeped in bluegrass from the outset, while attending Berklee College of Music in Boston he took on board elements of jazz-influenced “nugrass”, R&B, funk, bebop and more. “There is so much good music out there that I can’t resist trying to learn something from it, whether it’s an emotion, a scale or a technique,” says Driessen. “I grab stuff from everywhere.”

When not playing solo or with others, his other ongoing project is Fiddle/Sticks, which sees him working with various percussionists – to date, world music explorer Jamey Haddad, legendary Nashville drummer Kenny Malone and Roy “Futureman” Wooten of the Flecktones.

His appearance at Fiddle 2014 (where he’ll also give workshops), when he shares the bill at the Queen’s Hall on 22 November with Michael McGoldrick, John McCusker and Matheu Watson, is his second visit to Scotland in a matter of weeks. He recently toured here then spent a week teaching at the Blazin’ in Beauly fiddle school. “Bluegrass has many different elements, but a lot of our tunes and regional variations definitely have Scots, Irish and English origins,” he says.

“It’s exciting for me to travel here because you have such a deep and rich history of fiddle and traditional music, and at the same time I’m bringing my own take on it back to Scotland. I’m very aware of that.”

For further information, see Fiddle 2014 runs from 21-23 November, see