Singing And Playing In The Bluegrass With Rick Snell
The man is sitting on a green couch, his black acoustic guitar standing upright between his feet, the instrument’s fret held casually in his hands. He wears a casual black suit and a black hat, which matches the dark mustache and the dark-lined graffiti painted on the white wall behind him. A take-out coffee cup sits on the wood-paneled floor – a cylinder of brown topped with white against a honey-colored floor. The man looks relaxed, his shoulders hunched slightly, his expression one of being in the middle of a conversation while taking a quick break from the rest of life.
That look in the painting sums up much of real-life instrumentalist/singer/writer/composer Rick Snell’s approach to life and making music.
“I’m an improviser. For me, the art is creating melody in the moment, getting the pure, beautiful sound of the guitar – the purity and quality of the music,” he said in between preparing for a show with one of his bands, Only Son, which is currently on the road, touring with Regina Spektor.
“I don’t think I can stay in any one genre,” he said, because “as a guitarist and as a singer, I just love so many types of music.”
Growing up in Rochester, Snell had “a couple of great teachers who played a huge role in my development, musically and personally.” He started out with piano lessons at around six or seven years old, then switching to guitar at age 12, after which “it made all the sense in the world and I immediately bonded with the guitar.”
That first acoustic guitar – gifted to him by his older sister – lasted through years of teenage rock bands, and then a transition into jazz, gospel, funk and the blues, during and after his time studying music, specifically jazz, at SUNY Purchase.
“Basically, I was drawn to any music that involved improvisation, so jazz was a big part of that,” he explained. “When you start playing the blues, you can scatter like a prism scatters light. You can be more academic or you can delve further into the traditional styles of playing. [Then] bluegrass was an obvious thing to get sucked into” later on,” he said.
Wanting a career in music from a young age was, of course, different from actually learning hands-on how to build one. But Snell said that he has enjoyed keeping at it. He credits his ability to improvise, as well as a strong music community in New York City, with enabling him to make a living.
In addition to touring with Only Son, playing in the rock and pop music world, Snell also provides guitar and vocals for the city’s “premier bluegrass band,” Six Deadly Venoms, a Brooklyn-based outfit that has performed at local events such as the Court Street Fair.
Wherever his musical interests led him, though, Snell remained committed to learning everything about it. He counts Doc Watson, Tony Rice, and Tim O’Brien as inspirations, but also said that other musician’s influence on him “is probably less direct now than when I was learning.” Now, he is more influenced by those musicians and people around him, like Nick Reeb, fiddle player for Six Deadly Venoms, who “gives me a lesson every time I play with him.”
“Music is one of those mysterious forces that draws people in ways they cannot possibly explain verbally,” he ruminated. “Once you involve yourself in it and see you have an ability for it, it’s an amazing realization as a young person, so it has a hold on you.”
Still, Snell, now a resident of Park Slope, hopes to one day tie the different genres of his career into “one overarching project that I put my name to.” In the meantime, he said he wants to continue playing “with the best musicians that I can,” continue meeting new people, musicians and composers, keep traveling and connecting with audiences, and continue “this uncertain journey that’s throwing amazing surprises and fodder, musically speaking, my way at every turn.”
If you’d like to listen to Snell on stage or on CD, then visit www.ricksnell.com; check out his second album with Six Deadly Venoms, “The Lucky and the Losers,” in November; his October 24 show with Only Son at the Beacon Theater; or his guitar performance in OBIE winner Ethan Lipton’s one-act play, “No Place To Go,” at the Two River Theater in Red Bank, NJ.
You could also join him at Mona’s in the East Village for his weekly Monday jam session with other players of bluegrass and Appalachian music. “If anyone wants to visit bluegrass, that’s a great place to start in New York.”
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