Under the Big Oak Tree has all the makings of a solid bluegrass/folk collective, from dulcet vocal harmonies to mandolin flourishes and a foundational upright bass line. The trio’s latest album Local Honey— released early this year on Mudstomp Records—showcases these elements in a vibrant, lush sonic atmosphere. Find out more about the group in our Q&A with songwriter Simon Fink.
The Deli: Down and dirty: 1 sentence to describe your music.
Simon Fink : Rustic melodies; warm, tremulous singing; lyrics that tilt toward the literary: Gillian Welch, Dolly Parton, and Leonard Cohen walk in to a bar—or onto a front porch, maybe...
The Deli: Give me some background info on Under the Big Oak Tree.
Simon : About 4 years ago, I answered a Craigslist ad from a guitar player who wanted to start a bluegrass band for his daughter, who he said was learning to sing and and play guitar. From the sound of it, I pictured a guy with a 15-year-old daughter who wanted to be Taylor Swift. They turned out to be two of the nicest and most generous people I’ve ever met (Kristin Hamilton and Rocky Cathcart, who moved to Texas). As I got to know Kristin’s approach to singing, her voice became a great inspiration for new songs and arrangements. We added Doug Ward on bass pretty much immediately, who fit right in to what we were doing and helped expand on it.
The Deli: What inspires your music and songwriting? What is your songwriting process? Does one person write everything or is it collaborative?
Simon : I write most of the songs, and Doug contributes too. A lot of my inspiration comes from thinking about the sound and dramatic potential of the group—the voices and instruments. For me it’s all about the meaningful interaction between words and music that, in turn, creates something greater—the alchemy of songwriting. Though I don’t purposely avoid it, I don’t generally write from autobiography. Lyrics, for me, are an heightened kind of language. A lot of my reference points are in (written) poetry, and you can see the names of certain poets who served as inspiration in some of the song titles on the new album.
The Deli: What have been your greatest accomplishments as a band?
Simon : I think both of our albums are pretty darn good, and I’m proud of them. We still have a lot more to explore.
The Deli: Tell us about your newest album, Local Honey . What can listeners expect? What future plans do you have for getting your music out there?
Simon : Expect a genuine singing voice embedded in sweet, rootsy acousticness. People tend to instantly recognize a kind of welcoming wholesomeness in our music. I hope they hear that, and I hope they hear some of the richer, more challenging layers to the songs and ideas as well.
We’re based in St. Joe, but we hope to get the word out and play more in KC and Lawrence.
The Deli: What does supporting local music mean to you?
Simon : I’m not a huge fan of that phrase because it makes it sound like one more grim duty (“Eat your vegetables.”), when, in fact, participating in music—especially “locally”—is essentially joyous and enlivening. There was a well-known ethno-musicologist in the ‘70s who found that worldwide and across cultures, people’s peak life experiences tended to have one thing in common: music. I’m always heartened by the people, especially non-musicians, who feel like they get something out of our shows and recordings.
I do worry that many people don’t seem have a place in their life to really listen anymore. When I read profiles of great contemporary thinkers and doers, their response to, “What are you listening to?” is so often a podcast or audio book. The status of music kind of peaked with the Romantics. In the 19th century, it was considered the greatest and most vital of all art forms. Now, music for its own sake (apart from film, TV, commercials, etc.) no longer seems to fit into our lives so well—and yet that’s exactly why it’s still so essential.
The music industry is a mess at the moment. But every community needs dedicated, local musicians. Individual fans can help by pitching in to ad hoc crowdfunding campaigns, etc., but it’s hard to imagine a local scene of quality and consequence really being sustained that way.
The Deli: Who are your favorite local musicians right now? Non-local?
The Deli: What is your ultimate fantasy concert bill to play on?
Simon : Opening for Bob Dylan. Accompanied by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. On a tour of great American National Parks. Sunrise and sunset shows. Staging by Julie Taymor. Cloud-scape by Vik Muniz. Free admission and snacks. And bourbon.
The Deli: A music-themed Mount Rushmore. What four faces are you putting up there and why?
Simon : Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Robert Johnson, Lou Reed: some of my favorite American songwriters.
The Deli: What other goals do you have for 2016 and beyond?
Simon : Record some live videos of the band; start a sponsored concert series; collaborate with local musicians on a project of new songs about St. Joe, MO; facilitate a collaboration between the KC folk and classical scenes; get an intern; get our music out to as many people as will listen and win you over as a UBOT fan. Yes, YOU, dear reader.
The Deli: Always go out on a high note. Any last words of wisdom for the Deli audience?
Simon : I have tried to write paradise
Do not move
Let the wind speak
that is paradise
-- Michelle Bacon