Chris Stuart, banjo player and song-writer for the Ithaca-based bluegrass band Cornerstone, is a comedian. He'll often jump into a discussion on BGRASS-L, the Internet mailing list devoted to bluegrass, with the schedule of an imaginary conference on bluegrass, a software program ("written in the Key of C") that, when executed, produces bluegrass and happiness, or a cautionary tale about the dangers of allowing a tuba on stage with a blue-grass band. His "Banjo Exorcism" is reprinted in this issue. Doing this interview, I felt like the straight man playing Margaret Dumont to his Groucho Marx.
The straight scoop on Cornerstone: The band's first public appearance was at a wedding in early 1991. Their third gig was at that year's Winterhawk Bluegrass Festival, where they entered the band contest -- and won. "They had to come find us because we didn't have a clue that we'd even be considered." That Fall, Stuart went to the Inter-national Bluegrass Music Association's annual trade show and introduced himself to producer/engineer Bil VornDick, who has worked with Allison Kraus, Nashville Bluegrass Band, and Southern Rail. VornDick called back a few weeks later, and by February 1992 they were recording the first Cornerstone CD, Maggie's Daughter. They played a showcase at the 1992 IMBA show, and the title cut went to #20 on the Bluegrass Unlimited Survey.
Next year, at the Merle Watson Festival Songwriting Contest, Stuart won first place in two categories, bluegrass and gospel. In the Fall of 1993, the band signed with Folk Era and, with a new lineup (Dee Specker replacing Pam Daley and with new guitarist Tim Wallbridge), recorded their second album, Out of the Valley. "Then John Gorka promptly released his latest recording, which is called Out of the Valley," says Stuart ruefully. "Can you imagine how pissed someone would be to order Gorka's latest album, and get sent this upstate New York bluegrass band instead?"
CLINE: Cornerstone isn't a strictly traditional bluegrass band what are some of the other musical styles and traditions you draw upon for inspiration?
STUART: We're basically pretty confused. We like too many kinds of music and we're not very good at any of them, but we do have fun, and that seems at least to amuse people. We do kind of what Bill Monroe does in that we play stringed instruments and we try to squint as much as we can.
CLINE: What's your own background? How did you start playing bluegrass? Did you hear it when you were growing up, or discover it later?
STUART: I started playing guitar in Junior High School in Jacksonville, Florida, but that was mostly Mississippi John Hurt finger-picking. Then I discovered the banjo. Well, I didn't actually discover the banjo I think Marconi did that. I can never remember. Anyway, I could play very bad versions of "Foggy Mt. Breakdown" and "Blackberry Blossom" when I was in high school. At the time, I thought being a mongoloid and sitting on my front porch watching yuppie canoers wash up in my front yard was a dandy lifestyle. Then I went to college (University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee) and learned to play Alto Sax and played in the jazz band there for two years. Our band leader was a guy who used to play with Les Brown and His Band of Renown. Which brings me to my musical influences who are: Jimmie Brown, Junior Brown, Les Brown, Ruth Brown, Charlie Brown, James Brown, and Jackson Browne. But I digress. I moved to St. Augustine, Florida about 1983 and was watching a local bluegrass band one afternoon when I received an epiphany. It came postage due, but as epiphanies go it was fairly cheap. You'll know when an epiphany happens because it's accompanied by a very strong A chord on seventeen trumpets. "I want to play bluegrass," I said, and the guy next to me moved farther away. So I dug out my banjo and started playing with a group called "Salt Run." I wanted to name it "Condiment Creek" but was overruled. That band is still playing in St. Augustine since we never learned how to end a song. In 1986 my wife and I moved to Ithaca, New York for no apparent reason and I started playing with a band out of Syracuse called "The New Down City Ramblers" which is sort of a typically boring Yankee name for a bluegrass band. Have you ever noticed that southern bands are named interesting things like "The Loachopolka Syrup Soppers," but Yankee bands are named things like "Cornerstone"? I also would drive ten hours both ways to take banjo lessons from Tony Trischka in NYC once a month, certifying me as officially crazy. Then Cornerstone happened and I started writing a lot of songs. Again, for no apparent reason, which is sort of how my life works. I expect any minute to become interested in Philippine stamp collecting.
CLINE: Well, I hope we don't lose you to philately any time soon. Cornerstone played a showcase at this year's SXSW conference. What was that like? Did you have a good time?
STUART: We had a great time, and we met a lot of wonderful people who had absolutely nothing to do with SXSW. I got to see Junior Brown and drink a lot of blue margaritas so it was worth spending $600 and travelling 3000 miles. What's the word? Oh yes exposure.
CLINE: You once said "the bottom line is we need more and better videos by bluegrass bands." Has Cornerstone made a video?
STUART: Did I say that? God that's boring. No, no, there's no bottom line in bluegrass. Money is usually the bottom line, but we don't even have that. I guess the bottom line in bluegrass is not losing your capo. If I can get through the week without doing that then I consider myself successful. We have no plans to make a video although I did leave my HandyCam running in the back of the van one time.
CLINE: Your song "Twenty Naked Pentecostals In A Pontiac" is something of a legend on BGRASS-L, partly because the inspiration for it came from the List itself, in a posting by one of members who heard the news story over the radio on the way to work. People agreed it'd make a great song, and you took up the challenge. Will you, in your own words, tell us the story of the Twenty Naked Pentecostals?
STUART "Twenty naked Pentecostals in a Pontiac" pretty much sums it up. There was an AP newswire about a year ago. This is a true story. They started out in four cars going from somewhere in Texas to somewhere in Florida and around Vinton, Louisiana, due to breakdowns they all ended up in the same vehicle, and then someone got the brilliant idea that the devil was in their clothes, and before they knew it they were all naked. The arresting officer said they all got out of the car chanting religious slogans. You can look it up. Some things write themselves. The other night after our show I did have someone come up and say she enjoyed it but that she was a Pentecostal. I think she was just looking for an excuse to get naked, but I am more careful about where we play it. It's not a spiteful or dirty song -- it just basically tells the story.
CLINE: Do you plan to record it?
STUART: No. I'm hoping someone in Nashville with incredibly bad taste will record it.
CLINE: What are you and the band up to now? Plans for the future?
STUART: Learning how to play in tune and in time is pretty much
the limit of our aspirations. We'll be playing at a lot of
festivals in the northeast this summer, so come by and give us
the Cornerstone password which is "Buck Owens Rules!"
Copyright 1995 Cheryl Cline