The new Nashville acoustic supergroup, Helen Highwater, will be at the Legs on Wed., Nov. 6. TFP writer Casey Phillips caught up with the group’s mandolinist, Mike Compton, to discuss the band’s origin.
Like the creation of a perfect storm, the circumstances leading up to the birth of a musical supergroup sometimes require a catastrophic breakup of multiple iconic bands or some other equally rare scenario.
For newly minted Nashville ensemble Helen Highwater Stringband, all it took was a phone call last summer between mandolinist Mike Compton (Nashville Bluegrass Band, John Hartford Band) and longtime collaborator David Grier (Guitar Player Magazine’s Artist of the Decade).
“I was talking to David … and he said, ‘I’ve got this gig that could work, but they don’t need a duet, they want at least four people. Who do we get to play with us?’” Compton recalls. “I said, ‘Well, we can call Shad and Missy.’”
Despite hectic schedules born of being among Nashville’s most celebrated instrumentalists, fiddler Shad Cobb (The Osborne Brothers, Steve Earle, John Cowan Band) and Missy Raines (Claire Lynch Band, The New Hip) were available.
“It was that simple,” Compton says, laughing.
In addition to sharing the stage with many marquee acts, the members of Helen Highwater collectively can claim 15 awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association — seven for Raines as Bassist of the Year — and a handful of Grammy Awards and nominations.
After working up a quick set of bluegrass standards, the quartet made their debut at Larryfest, a bluegrass festival in LaFarge, Wis., last August. Since then, the group has taken the stage about a half dozen times and will tack another to that list with an appearance at Barking Legs Theater on Wednesday, Nov. 6.
Compton says the band long since has ditched performing covers in favor of collaboratively writing about 90 minutes’ worth of original music combining elements of bluegrass, progressive acoustic music, folk, country and Americana.
For Compton, a mandolinist who is well-known for preserving the bluegrass traditions established by Bill Monroe, Helen Highwater has been an opportunity to test himself.
“It’s a chance to stretch out a little bit and learn to play some songs that I haven’t felt were previously within my reach,” he says. “We’re trying to not have the fences be so rigid around me because I’ve spent so much time trying to be academic and preserve some of the older stuff so people could hear how valid and virile it is.”
To those who are only familiar with their instrumental wizardry, Helen Highwater is also serving as a surprising proving ground for their vocals. That’s something the band mates are still feeling out, Compton says, but it was a necessary evil, and the results thus far have been encouraging.
“People don’t identify with instrumentals as much as they do songs,” he explains. “It was necessary to get it done. It’s just a matter of developing the confidence and pushing the sound through.
“My partner, Heidi, is an opera singer, and she has helped us a little bit on voice control, and it seems to be working.”
Contact Casey Phillips at email@example.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.