Interview - Nick Dear

October 2005: Nick Dear (Vol.1 No.5)
Interview recorded by S.Kenan on 18/09/05

Nick Dear plays mandolin and fiddle, and sings tenor and lead vocals. Chris and Nick combine to form a new high lonesome sound for the band. Fiddlin' Nick is well known as a great instrumentalist with a hard-driving sound and penchant for Jeeps and Jimmie Martin numbers.

Q. When did you start playing the fiddle?

A. Probably about 1982. I would have been about 22 years old. I played guitar first. I am a carpenter by trade and I was always told I couldn't play the fiddle because I was a carpenter, my hands were too rough. I was loaned a fiddle for three weeks and I nutted out a tune. 'The Boys of the Lough' I think it was. It could have been 'Old Joe Clark' or something like that. Then I thought, I can have a go at this. My grand parents had a golden Wedding back in the U.K. and I went back for that and I bought myself a fiddle in Bristol. After I had my own fiddle I worked pretty hard at it. One of the biggest helps for me was Mike O'Rourke. He was a great guy and we tried to set up fiddle sessions and old-time sessions in Fitzroy. He taught me Port Arthur Blues and I still play it the way he taught me. Yarra Junction was just starting. (Yarra Junction Fiddlers Convention.) The first one I went to I knew just six tunes. The fiddle has got me into a fair bit of trouble.
"Bluegrass kind of won me over in the end."

Q. What like?

A. Well I just learned 'Midnight on the Water' and a young lady asked me if I knew it and that's my wife Janet. And the same tune I played in New Mexico at the Las Vegas Oldtime Texas Fiddle Contest in 1990. I was being a bit cheeky really.

Q. Were you a mandolin player before taking up the fiddle?

A. I played the mandolin last. Guitar first, then double bass. I wanted to learn jazz bass and I went to a teacher and he ended up teaching me classical bass. I ended up playing in these orchestras, it was not what I really wanted to do but it was a very interesting exercise. I played with the Melbourne Youth Orchestra, the Zelman Foundation Orchestra, the South Melbourne Symphony, the Frankston Symphany. I was an apprentice carpenter at this stage and I think I was playing in five orchestras, two jazz bands and a bluegrass band. Bluegrass kind of won me over in the end. I like harmony singing, I used to sing in choirs in the U.K. Bluegrass music is one of the only forms of music where you have everything on the plate. You've got musical dexterity, singing, harmonies, you have got the whole lot. For me it is a very fulfilling form of music even though I enjoy playing traditional fiddle styles as well.

Q. I enjoyed the fiddle workshop you gave at this year's Yarra Junction Fiddle Convention. You said bluegrass is about the songs. What is it about the songs?

A. The singing is the key in Bluegrass. You have got to have a good song and you put the melody and the licks in around the song. A lot of people approach Bluegrass from the point of view of learning it out of a book.. That is not really the way to do it. I mean it's helpful. I think one of the biggest things in my Bluegrass fiddling or whatever, on my twenty-first birthday I was given a Bill Munroe tape of his early Columbia recordings. If I like something I just keep it on. The tape was in the car for three years till it blew up one day. Just listening to the same thing so much just impregnated into the mind, and that's the way you would have learnt in the traditional style. Most of the players learn aurally. O.K., you can't call up Bill Monroe or Kenny Baker or any of them but you can listen to them.

Q. What other fiddle styles besides Bluegrass do you play?

A. Old Timey and Cajun. I recently had the fortune to play with Ray Abshire, a fantastic Cajun accordian player who was out here for the National Folk Festival (Canberra). Myself and Andy Baylor played fiddles and that was a beautiful experience. Cajun is another style of it's own but very strongly related to Old Time and Bluegrass. If you are going to learn Bluegrass, I say you are better off learning Old Time first and understand where it comes from. It is like the root of the tree. Then you can branch out into Bluegrass. If you are just going to learn Bluegrass licks you don't really understand where it came from. You are better off starting off at the bottom of the ladder. Dare I say it , the worst way of learning Old Time music is out of a book. The left hand in Old Time music is always fairly simple and it puts a lot of people off because of the simplicity. Where it is very tricky is in the right hand, in the bowing hand. It is a very complex bowing style, you have got to listen to the recordings to pick up on the style and the feel. It might take you twelve months or more to really understand what the hell they are doing with their bowing styles. So I tell people you are best off putting it on in your car and listen to it all the time just like you have gone round to their place of a night time and listened to them play, that's how they learn. That's how the tradition is carried on.

Q. Do you play in other tunings?

A. One of my fiddles has geared tuners that I bought at the Galax Old Time Fiddlers Convention in Virginia. There was a whole table of them and I wish I had bought the whole lot. Most Cajun boxes (accordians) are in the key of G or C so what you do is tune the fiddle down a tone to DGCF. Geared pegs were available around the time of the Civil War, they are really old, mine are ivory.

Probably the most extreme tuning I would use is called 'dead man's tuning'. That's where you tune the G down to a low D, like a cello note. So it's DDAD from low to high which is pretty low, so you have got to have a pretty specific fiddle to handle those low frequencies.

Q. The band and yourself are always well presented. Why do you stress presentation and costume?

A. I think any form of traditional music should be presented with respect because it represents a lot of people. It's not just you, you're representing a whole bunch of people and a whole style of music. A bit like Bill (Munroe) we wear the suits and the hats. It's a great backdrop to the instruments and it's a show. People don't laugh at Bluegrass music in America and say it's hill-billy music, that's the last thing they say.

Q. If someone wants to learn this style, where is a good place to begin?

There are Old Timey sessions in Melbourne run by Headbelly Buzzard and Craig Woodward. He's a great Old Time fiddle and banjo player and we go back a long way together. Learning fiddle is about getting the music in your head. If you can sing it, hum it, tap it and come in any part in that tune, then you are ready to learn it. It has got to be part of your person.