B&L: What animal do you associate yourself with (given our ties to oxen)?
Zachariah Hickman: Well, considering I call the band Barnstar!, I feel like it should be something in the barn category. We are strong, and we are reliable. But you guys have already taken oxen. So maybe a horse – but not a sleek, sexy fast horse. We have more weight than that. So maybe a Clydesdale?
B&L: Why music? Why do you seek it? Why do you create it? How’d it come calling to you?
Hickman: I think when you are young, everybody is looking for their superpower. People read comics and watch movies and they dream of being able to do something tinged with magic. For me, that became music. I didn’t grow up in a musical household – but at 12 years old, I started playing the tuba. And I found that I had some abilities. That eventually turned into bass. Then one day, driving to high school chemistry class, I realized I knew what all the chords were in the songs on the radio. THAT feels like a superpower. So I never looked back.
B&L: How and why was Barnstar! born?
Hickman: I’ve always loved organizing groups of musicians to play together. My first bluegrass band was called Stablehorse – and we recorded our record in Portsmouth, at the old Electric Cave studio. That band eventually moved to Nashville and became The Infamous Stringdusters. (I stayed in the Northeast to continue my career playing bass with Josh Ritter.)
After Stablehorse, I would use the name “Barnstar!” as a sort of generic name to put on little bluegrass themed events, usually at the Cantab lounge in Cambridge. One off gigs, you know, where I got to be the MC and shout and sweat, and other folks would do the lead singing. Eventually, this current Barnstar! lineup got together. I got Mark Erelli – who didn’t have any bluegrass experience but could sing higher than Roy Orbison – to learn some tunes… and I created a monster. So we decided to take ourselves more seriously. We made a record and put it out – and people loved it. So we stuck with it.
B&L: What’s the making of a great show?
Hickman: Well there are a thousand correct answers to that. But for me? The content has to be top notch – no faking it. Improvising? Always. But no guess work.
After that? Forget it all, and put your heart into it. Completely emotionally connect. Every show I’ve ever done has been the best show of my life – except for when I’ve let myself down. THIS is the place to be. If a band expects that much from themselves – the audience is always going to get their money’s worth.
B&L: What are you looking for folks to take away from the music of Barnstar! when they place themselves in a position to experience it?
Hickman: Well – these days, it’s easy enough to stay at home and watch YouTube videos and have a glass of wine and call it a night. I get that – I DO that. But when folks come out to see Barnstar! – well, it’s the non-downloadable experience. It’s fun, and it’s sloppy, and it’s aggressive, and it’s good. I want people to think “Wow! That was amazing! Those guys must be exhausted.” And I promise you – we are.
B&L: What’s the state of acoustic music in 2016? People seem to be paying attention. Are they? What does Barnstar! add to the mix?
Hickman: Acoustic music, and “stringbands” of all types certainly have an audience these days. And it does seem to be growing – not only in traditional bluegrass circles, but in many other extensions. And it’s great to be a part of that. When people ask what kind of music I like to play, I like to say “power outage music” – that is, if the power fails, well light some candles and lets keep going!
Barnstar! is a little different than other bands in that we are a song based band. We don’t play instrumentals. And we don’t use songs as a vehicle to show off our soloing prowess. We play songs because they are great songs – with a real narrative. Real lyrical content. Some of these songs we write ourselves. But it’s also reflected in the cover songs we choose. We play a lot of songs outside the traditional spectrum – artists like The Hold Steady, The Faces, Dawes, Josh Ritter, Paul Simon, Patty Griffin… For us, the song is the most important thing.
B&L: I like the dynamic of the father/son mix in the band. Being a band member that gets to witness that musical relationship happening, how does that physical bloodline bolster the music permeating from the band (if at all)?
Hickman: I’m not going to lie – sometimes it is very entertaining to watch how Jake Armerding and his father Taylor relate to each other on the road. There’s like 37 years of history there. I used to announce Jake as “the only person on stage that has been spanked by another person on stage.”
But Jake was a young super talent, and they have been singing together for like 25 years. Taylor – we call him “Old Train” – has one of the highest, straightest voices you have ever heard. It’s amazing. They have many gigs worth of killer gospel duets in their back pocket. And when you add Mark Erelli to the mix – well then Jake can sing the baritone parts. And it’s one of the best trios I have ever heard. Like 1970s Seldom Scene good. I book all these gigs just to stand next to them.
B&L: What’s one tune (or, heck, a couple) that exists out there in the ether that blows you away that you kind of wish you had written yourself?
Hickman: Well – one that comes to mind is the second to last song on our first album “C’mon!” It’s a song called “When My Time Comes” by a young band called Dawes, from California. For me, it’s kind of perfect – there is deep lyrical content. And a lot of words – really telling a story of a guy down on his luck. “Now it seems like the unraveling started too soon. Now I’m sleeping in hallways and I’m drinking perfume.” But a simple, triumphant, wishful chorus – “When my time comes…” It’s killer. And a great groove. I hope we do the song justice.
B&L: What can folks expect when they come out to see you lads perform at the ol’ Stone Church on February 13th?
Hickman: You can expect to see five guys play music like someone is about to take it away from them.
B&L: Speaking of the Stone Church, Charlie, you have a decent amount of history there. I remember you being a serious piece of the initial installation of the Bluegrass Jam that developed there on Tuesday nights back in 2005ish. Do you have any sort of affinity for the venue?
Charlie Rose: I love the Stone Church! I used to be a regular in the house band back then with folks like Steve Roy, Mary Dellea, Amanda Kowalski, Joe Walsh, and Old-Time Dave Talmage, and many other talented players. Some highlights include OTDT playing banjo while walking through the room on chairs and stools, and making videos and recording out on Durham Point.
B&L: How did the spirit of those Bluegrass Jams inspire and/or inform your own path as a musicians?
Rose: It was always really fun. The music was great, and we had fun no matter what. I picked up a taste for musical mischief from hanging with that crowd. I’m happy to help carry on that tradition in Barnstar!
B&L: Question number 12. If you could have a dozen of anything, what would that dozen of something be?
Hickman: Maybe a dozen dozen new folks that want to hear us rip it up at the Stone Church on Saturday?
Rose: Hits… or cookies. Cookies.
Barnstar! will make a visit to the historic Stone Church on Saturday, February 13th. For tickets and more information click here.