Morgan Jahnig - Bluegrass Serendipity

Morgan Jahnig Gear

“I had not planned on being a professional bass player. I planned on being an engineer in a studio. That was my path and then this just happened to me and it’s been glorious! It’s a life changing thing and you can’t go back and figure it out because it just happened to you. If I had a cool job in a studio at the time…I probably wouldn’t have joined the band” says Old Crow Medicine Show bassist Morgan Jahnig.

Sometimes you have to, as the saying goes, “go with the flow”. Musicians love saying this mantra but not all truly live by it. In the case of Old Crow Medicine Show, luck was on their side as they would not have found Jahnig had he began working as a studio engineer.

Instead, he joined their ranks and the group’s combustible energy irreversibly expanded the borders of traditional Folk and Bluegrass music. Not only that, the band has amassed an enormous fan base which packs concert halls all over the US, paving the way for newer acts such as Mumford & Sons.

After a four year break, Old Crow Medicine Show released their fourth album this past summer, the stunning Carry Me Back, which debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Bluegrass and Folk charts. Aguilar recently corralled Morgan into a lengthy discussion on the band’s new album, the Bluegrass music scene and amplifying an acoustic bass at rock volumes!

 

When you started playing bass, did you begin on upright?

I did not, actually. When I was 15, a buddy of mine got an electric bass and I was in his house all the time playing it. He was starting to get annoyed with me and finally said, “Dude, go get your own bass! This is my bass”. And so my dad went and bought me a lipstick red Ibanez! I can’t even remember what it was, but I played the crap out of it for about two years.

I was in a couple of bands in High School with some friends of mine and I also played Tenor Sax in the school band, which is actually the first instrument I played. But then, I bought an upright since the bass player was graduating. I just volunteered and I think I took maybe two weeks of lessons to learn how to bow and I learned the Nashville numbering system. That was the first and last time I took a lesson. I must have been 16 at the time. I also played upright in the symphonies throughout school and then I came to New York to go to NYU for music technology and I brought my bass with me and it literally just sat in my dorm for two years! I didn’t touch it. I was just so into production and engineering and there just wasn’t enough time to go play music. But then I dropped out of NYU and went back to Nashville and went to SAE there.

Were you listening to traditional music at that time?

You know, I’m from the South and I grew up with country music and I hated all of it! I was so immersed in the culture that I was eager to run away from it. And then in New York I found Johnny Cash and I found Hank Williams, BR5-49, Jason and the Scorchers - great people who also played traditional music, but then also newer bands that were making traditional music cool. So I started playing on lower Broadway with a couple of bands including JD Wilkes and the Legendary Shack Shakers - I was with them for a time and we would do the 10 pm to 2 am slot three nights a week. That’s how I got back into playing upright.

Morgan's Rig

Morgan Jahnig Gear

It’s great having players like Morgan using Aguilar because it shows off other styles of music that the Aguilar sound fits into. Here are a few words from Morgan about his rig:

"The DB 750 head just screams "POWER!!" Match that with the low-mid voicing of that tall GS 412 cab, and you've got one of the most forward sounding upright rigs I've ever played. It’s also bulletproof! It took a nosedive from 5 feet at a show in NYC and never stopped working."

How did you hook up with Old Crow?

I hooked up with Old Crow in 2001 after the ‘Dot.com’ company I was working for went under! They had formed about a year before that around the Ithaca, New York area but I got with them when we were all down in Nashville.

To fast forward a bit, how did the new album come about? There was a four year gap in between albums.

That was its own little interesting process! We did our first two records with Dave Rawlings producing and it was a great experience and taught us a lot about being studio musicians. Our third record was done with Don Was and it was Ketch, our fiddle player, who brought in 13 songs. We worked them for one week, went out to L.A. and worked it for a week with Don and then recorded 12 of them. From inception to leaving the studio it was four weeks - which was insane! But in the end, I got to work with Don, with Jim Keltner on drums and Benmont Tench on keys!

But this new record was definitely the hardest we’ve ever worked on a recording. I think ultimately, it was a year and a half process. The last record was a month, this was a year and half, maybe even two years! We rented a house down in Sewanee, Tennessee, for a couple of weeks and went down and wrote a bunch of songs and then took them out on the road a little bit to figure out what was gonna work and what wasn’t gonna work. Then we did some rearranging on the tunes but didn’t have a producer yet. So we recorded a bunch of demos - I think we had maybe 20 songs, which is a lot. That was pretty prolific for us to write a whole bunch of songs like that in that amount of time but this was a focused effort.

You also ended up with a new producer this time out correct?

Yes, Ted Hutt, who is one of the founding members of Flogging Molly, and also did records for Gaslight Anthem, Bobby Long and the Dropkick Murphy’s. Ted called us and said he wanted a shot at making our next record. He had this kind of aggressive look at music and we met with him and just said “Ok, Fine. That sounds great. Let’s do that.”

So he came up for ten days and helped us to hone everything and did some major changing on arrangements and songwriting and then we took those out on the road and then came back and spent a month in Sound Emporium, the studio that Cowboy Jack Clement built, and made this record. There was a lot of firsts for us this time: first time playing to a click track, first time not playing live, not playing with everybody in the room. Ted made some major, major changes. The result is the biggest, most live sounding record we’ve ever made. It’s funny; to make it sound live, we didn’t play live!

I would have never guessed that! It just sounds like there were a couple of mics in the room and you guys gathered around it and banged out the tunes!

Well, that was one of the things with our first three records; the comment was always “boy, it is really hard to capture that band’s live sound in a studio”. And you know, we`ve also been out with Mumford and Sons and some other great bands who all got this gigantic sound with fewer people! And we thought “we should definitely be able to do that.” So that was our goal - to make a big-sounding record and Ted really came through.

And the energy of it is just unstoppable! You have been able to make traditional music with a more contemporary feel.

You know we really tried to take the traditional music and just elevate it and then bring it to a new place. And with traditional music there’s always the worry that you can kind of be hokey with it or you can be purist about it or you can lose the soul of it. And so for a long time there were a lot of bands that were very traditional - you know; that’s what you would expect if you go to a Blue Grass Festival. But right now, with Mumford & Sons and with Edward Sharpe, with The Lumineers and a bunch of other bands that are sort of bringing traditional elements and doing new things with them, it’s all happening. And in the folk world, at least in the South, you know, the Country and the Folk and the Bluegrass world, it’s an interconnected feeling - you wanna go and play with other people. There’s not a lot of ego about “This is my set, we’re gonna do our hour-long set, and you go do your hour-long set and maybe we’ll have beer afterwards.” But in the Folk world it’s like “Hey, you wanna play, come on and play!” “We need drums on that. Sure. That’d be cool.” We’re just people playing music.

Morgan Jahnig

That adds a sense of community to everything.

It’s so great to have and I hope it just keeps going and going and going, because that’s how some of the best music gets played, it’s not necessarily that you spend a year working on it. It’s these disparate elements that came together and made this magical thing and then they all went their own separate ways and went back to their worlds.

And how did you capture your bass tone on the record? It sounds great!

It was a combination of a Neumann M49 on the bass and then the pickup straight to the head. That’s what I do in my studio; I’ll dump most of the high end and boost the low end and get the natural sound from the mic and then get the beef from the head. We ended up running two channels and I think it ended up being about 50/50. One wasn’t really preferred over the other.

What about the challenges of amplifying the upright at loud volumes?

Well, getting an upright bass to sound loud and good is one of the most challenging things I’ve ever had to do. The upright is a big resonant box. A lot of players, including me, will stuff the F-holes with foam. So it’s finding out what’s bad in that room, or on that stage, if the stage is right on top of the subs - figuring that out and being able to dial that back on stage. I mean, that’s the first thing you need to do and then, if you’re playing steel strings or if you’re playing gut strings, if you’re playing, you know, nylon strings – on an upright that has such a huge effect on the character of the note, obviously. As a bass player, you kind of have a job that you need to do. You might get this great bass sound but once you start playing with people, they can’t hear the attack of your note or there’s no body to it. You may think it sounds awesome but they are not getting what they need - especially if you don’t have a drummer. Live, we don’t have a drummer, so the guitar player and I are the rhythm section. I definitely spend a lot of time making sure that there is a good “thunk”, there’s a good “click”, and that there is evenness across the strings.

How about your live sound?

Live, I’m using the DB 750 and the GS 412. I use a K&K Bass Max Pickup in my bass, which is a wing bridge pickup - a single transducer on the bass side. And it’s terrible for jazz I’m sure; but it is a brute-force pickup! It is my favorite slap bass pickup because it doesn’t have a lot of top end at all. You just get a really good thump and a bunch of low end without things getting out of control.

You need to start with a good sounding bass, a good sounding pickup and then you can just tweak from there. So when I was redoing my rig a few years ago that was what happened: I knew that I had good strings, I knew that I had a good bass, I knew that I had a good pickup, but I really didn’t like the amp that I was using at the time. Our front-of-house guy and I went into Soundcheck in Nashville and went through their whole roster of bass heads and cabinet combinations and we set everything flat and when we hit that DB 750 into that GS 412 it was like “Well, that’s the best starting point that we’ve had yet!” And then we kept moving on, and kept coming back to it - it was just no contest! And it’s definitely a testament to the quality of everything to get 90% of the way there with a flat rig!

You were on the road all summer - what’s next for you?

Well, we are gonna do a couple of shows in the fall and then pick back up next year in Europe first and then back to the US. Ketch and I both have 1-year-olds right now and we wanna be home with them as much as we can be so we are going to stagger our touring.

Thanks Morgan for chatting with us and giving us the low-down! Congratulations on the band’s continued success!

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