Music Residency Interview

MNA hosts new musician’s residency, with an album on the way

In the woods off Fort Valley Road, a trio of musicians were running on all cylinders last week, molding tunes in the language of the Colorado Plateau.

Chris Brashear, Peter McLaughlin and Todd Phillips brought their extensive experience to the table as they participated in the first residency program for musicians at the Museum of Northern Arizona’s Colton House.

Created in partnership with MNA and Flagstaff Friends of Traditional Music, the participants aim to grow the program in the future, adding to the Southwest’s evolving history. “The Colton House Recordings” wrapped up the second phase — recording — and are set for a late summer CD release with a live concert from the performers following next year. Check in with ffotm.orgfor more.

Based across the country with Phillips in Nashville, Brashear in Massachusetts and McLaughlin residing in Tucson, the old friends crossed paths again at a museum show in 2013. Later that night, libations in hand, a spark ignited.

Relaxing in the same living room Harold and Marry-Russell Colton shared since relocating from Philadelphia in the late 1920s, FFOTM’s Julie Sullivan Brace, Brashear, Phillips and McLaughlin couldn’t shake the idea of how a recording made there would sound.

“The Coltons were huge advocates of the arts,” Sullivan said. “It seemed like they were always entertaining artists and musicians in this place, so there was already that incredible energy with the creativity in music here.”

The architecture of the Colton House is an element the musicians credit as not only aesthetically gorgeous, but conducive to recording.

“Shapes, too, like all those round logs in the ceiling,” Phillips said, pointing up to the thick ponderosa beams and slimmer pine trunks arranged in a chevron pattern. “All that creates the acoustics. Especially spacing a solid tile floor, this room could sound like a gymnasium if that ceiling didn’t break it all up.”

The musicians are not only well-versed in local lore, but steeped in tradition and no strangers to jamming together. McLaughlin is a national flatpicking champion. Phillips is a two-time Grammy-winning producer and acclaimed upright bassist. Brashear is a former Arizonan and sought-after fiddle, mandolin and guitar player.

The proper backdrop secured, and FFOTM acting as the project’s fiscal agent, each musician hopped all aboard for the Colton House a year ago. They lived together in the sprawling ranch for a week, sketching out what would become “The Colton House Recordings.”

With Brashear and McLaughlin handling the lyrics, Brashear said Phillips is the one to polish the product. In all aspects, this residency honors the Colorado Plateau in name, place and benefit as the released CD will benefit the museum, they said.

“It’s so rich in history and personalities and places, the landscape—there’s so much to write about,” McLaughlin said of the material’s inspiration. “One of our focuses is definitely rivers. It’s a chance to get inspired, clear your head and be in wild places. Being on the river, there’s nothing like it. It makes you want to write a song.”

Listeners are drawn in to the trio’s stories of life on the Colorado Plateau, the abandoned Silver Bell mine in Pima County and more topics explored on this record. Each new song mixed of traditional form and instrumentation contribute to the dialogue of contemporary Western music.

“I think this is a way to bring more story-song into Western music,” added Brashear. “I’m not trying to create a new kind of music, but I feel like we’re taking our set of tools and our experience living here and listening to music about the west and giving it our own voice.”

Each agreed to see this sapling of an idea come to life is something truly beautiful — especially in a society that is not known for supporting the arts, Brashear added.

“The resource is unique. I definitely think it should be looked at a project where institutions are supporting a creative art process, which just doesn’t happen that much,” he said, thanking MNA and FFOTM.

Continuing the process, Phillips will get to work back in Nashville, fine tuning the arrangements. He added, “I pull a few weeds and add a few ideas. I see it almost as a sculpture. Sometimes a little dimension, interlude or side trip adds to the story, instrumentally and musically.”

The story will close with a CD release party here in Flagstaff next year. They may live apart, but there’s always a way to play.

“If you live in the U.S., you live in the same place now,” Phillips added. “Southwest and 200 bucks, man we’re neighbors.”

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Praise for Chris

Chris Brashear is one of the finest singers in bluegrass today. With an amazing range and depth, he sings with authenticity and soul and brings you into any song he sings, whether it’s a song he’s written or one of the classics.

- Alice Gerrard

Chris sings in the honest tradition of Carter Stanley and Maybelle Carter.

- Jim Rooney