Songs of Water weather adversity, draw inspiration from bluegrass legend

by Ryan Snyder

Songs of Water will perform at Greensboro’s Hester Park this Sunday at 5:30 p.m.

Ricky Skaggs provides more than eggs and coffee for Songs of Water’s sophomore album. (courtesy photo)

It’s hard to be creative when you’re grieving.”

That’s a rather incisive abstract by Marta Richardson, violinist for Greensboro-based experimental world and folk ensemble Songs of Water, of the time between the loss of bandmate Israel Sapolus and the creation of their second release The Sea Has Spoken. Sarpolus contracted cancer before finally succumbing in September 2007 and the band basically floated for months afterward; not looking to simply replace a musician — though Richardson described his guitar playing simply as “beautiful” — but the spirit and personality that Sarpolus brought to the group.

“We had to work through losing our friend. He was our friend as much as he was a band member,” said bandleader Stephen Roach. “We kind of took a little break to find out where we were going and if we were finished, or if there was something else to do.”

After over six months of inactivity, Roach was introduced to Luke Skaggs through a series of connections, who was invited to play a showcase with the group in Charlotte. The show was a shot in the arm for the drifting group, as Skaggs remained on despite no official invitation to join.

Skaggs joked, “It wasn’t until about six months in that I was like, ‘Am I actually in the band?’” while guitarist Jason Windsor echoed the communication gap. “The whole time we were thinking, “Do you think he wants to be in the band?” With new life breathed into their music, Roach said they started writing more and the what came out of the collaborations went to a whole new level. They weren’t going to be beholden to the first album’s sound — which he compared to sort of a junior high photo — but didn’t want to go so far afield from it that they could’ve just renamed the band altogether either.

“We had sort of this duality that we had to deal with where we wanted to stay true to the original one. We had pretty much a completely new band,” said Roach. “So it created a big space for everyone else to come in and write. There’s not really a principle songwriter, whereas on the other one had two principal songwriters. Because of that we had this huge variety of sound.”

A huge variety of sound, indeed. The group could open a music store with their collection of instruments alone, but it’s the refined talents they all possess that form the bedrock for their seamless marriage of Celtic, bluegrass, African, Gypsy, and folk. There’s a cultural exploration are practically every track as tempos change abruptly, and volume escalates and drops on a whim. The primarily instrumental album is a dense and complex work, but also one that is accessible and engrossing, with a veritable mountain of material that wound up on the cutting-room floor.

“We approached it sort of like a sculptor with this big square block and just started chipping away until we saw an image,” Roach said. “The biggest thing was trying to figure out what was the appropriate song list for this album. In hindsight, we see that the album just kind of constructed itself and we just stewarded where it was supposed to go.”

They weren’t alone in the endeavor. Skaggs famous father, bluegrass icon Ricky Skaggs was on hand for much of the recording offering anything from the guidance of when to stop or keep going to a homemade breakfast — phenomenal eggs and some of the best coffee we’ve ever had, as described by Roach. Sometimes, his most important offerings came as a more sentimental brand of encouragement. Roach, who comes from famous stock himself as the cousin of flatpicking master Tony Rice, added that the elder Skaggs saw a part of himself in what they were doing and became a father figure to everyone in the group. That feeling is echoed throughout everyone’s individual experiences.

“When you’re at 30 minutes of trying to record the same part and Ricky Skaggs looks you in the eye and says, ‘You’re a good musician,’ you’re going to be able to play that right,” said Windsor. “He let me play the guitar that his parents owned when they got married, it was their only possession. I’m sitting here playing this 75-year-old Martin. It just never stopped and I don’t think we’ll ever be able to pay that back.”