There are few events that are more fun to me than going to the Nashville, TN Society For The Preservation Of Bluegrass Music in America event. Every first weekend in February (almost always on the weekend of the Super Bowl) the event takes place at The Music City Sheraton hotel. I have made innumerable friends and musical acquaintances at this event over the 10+ years I’ve been attending it. One of the more recent friendships I’ve made is with today’s guest. A few SPBGMAs ago (this acronym is usually pronounced “spig-muh” and refers to the event) I was wondering around the hotel and ended up meeting a banjo player with the thickest southern accent I’d ever heard. We ended up playing some music that weekend and actually just got through playing some music this past weekend at the same event! Mikel I’m really glad to have you with us today. For those that haven’t met you, tell us who you are, what you do, and where you’re located?
My name is Mikel Laws. I’m just an old mountain boy. I am a full time student at Southwestern Community College in Sylva, NC. I graduated this past spring with an associates degree in Civil Engineering Technology and an associates in Geomatics technology. When I can, I play the banjo. Bryson City, North Carolina is where I call home. It is in one of the most beautiful places in the world: The Great Smoky Mountains.
JED: Tell us a little bit about your beginnings. Your origin story, so to speak. How did you get into music, and what made you choose this path over others?
Growing up, my dad always listened to bluegrass and bluegrass gospel music and I had always loved mountain music.
JED: Who were some of the artists your dad liked to listen to?
Some of dads favorite artists were The Country Gentlemen, Tony Rice, Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, and Alison Krauss and Union Station.
JED: Sounds like your dad had good taste. You grew up listening to some gold-standard music.
When I was 16, my uncle had said that he was thinking about getting a banjo. My papaw, my uncle and I was listening to different banjos on the computer. I then realized how much I loved that certain sound. I was like a moth to a flame, I couldn’t get enough of it.
JED: Who’s playing really drew you in?
Jim Mills playing is what really drew me in. He played so clean but yet so powerful.
JED: Couldn’t agree more man, powerful AND smooth is a hard combination to come by on any instrument, but Mills delivers on that front!
I then told my parents I wanted a “banjer.” My dad asked me if I was sure it was something I was gonna keep doing and not just lay it down and I answered yes of course. My parents ended up buying me a “banjer.” My dad taught me cripple creek and then I just took off. I am self taught and I have learned everything by ear.
JED: So your dad plays banjo as well? Is your family musical?
Dad plays banjo, guitar, mandolin and bass. My dads side of the family was very musically talented. My grandpa plays guitar, my great grandpa played guitar, mandolin, and fiddle. My great uncle was one of the founding members of the Inspirations Quartet. His name was Jack Laws, they called him “The Old Bear Hunter.” My grandpa on my moms side of the family played mandolin as well.
JED: What are your favorite 5 albums, and do they influence your work? If so, in what ways?
5 albums that have and still do influence me are Jim Mills’ Bound to Ride, Hide Head Blues, and My Dixie Home album. The other two would be Jason Davis’s Album Second Time Around and the Highland Travelers’ only album. Jim Mills is really the one responsible for making me want to play. On each of his albums, he displays his hard-driving-yet-clean, right hand. The song I listen to most by him when I first started was Sledd Ridin’ on his My Dixie Home album. Jason Davis also gives a hard-driving yet clean representation on his Second Time Around album and the Highland Travelers album. All of these albums encourage me to play with drive, cleanness, and timing.
JED: Which part of your music career do you enjoy the most – live performance, recording, writing, etc.?
The part that I love most about my music career is live performance. Playing on stage is a dream come true every time I get the chance to. I just recently started trying to write some songs. It is difficult since I am new to it but I feel my abilities will increase with time.
JED: Writing is a real challenge. It is really hard to put your thoughts to music in an honest way that is interesting to listen to. At least for me it is. Some folks just seem to be naturally awesome at it. Who are some of your favorite writers?
Some of my favorite song writers are Dan Tyminski, Tony Rice, and a great friend of mine BJ Taylor.
JED: What are three musicians today do you think are underrated or deserve more notoriety for their art?
I think that Zachary Alvis, Jacob Greer, and Jacob Metz are three musicians that are very talented and underrated.
JED: We actually just recently interviewed Jacob Metz. He’s really a fantastic dobro player. Tell us a little bit about your current rig – what does your “rig” consist of? What instrument(s) do you play, pedals, mics, etc.?
My rig is a 1964 Gibson RB-250 Bow tie. It has new tuners, amber tuning pegs to match the aged binding, a new demo head, a new clamshell tailpiece and a Sullivan maple roasted 5/8 inch bridge. I like to use GHS 140 Light gauge strings. To me, it has the sound I have been looking for for a long time. I am blessed to own such a good instrument.
JED: Man how did you find your bowtie?
I have a friend that mows grass in Robbinsville, NC. He mows grass for this old man and he said that he had an old Gibson banjo and guitar for sale. My buddy called me and told me about the banjo so I decided to go look and see what it was. I kind of had doubts that it was anything worth going to look at. The next day I got to the mans house and he said “it’s over there under the couch son go look at it.” I went over there and drug out an old worn out case. I opened it up and knew exactly what It was. It had probably been laying under that couch for fifteen or twenty years. I ended up buying the banjo from the old man. I took the banjo to Don Bryant and he cleaned it, put some new parts on it and set it up. It’s what I have been looking for for a long time.
JED: Man that is awesome when you can find a deal like that. Those deals are becoming harder to come by as time goes on. If you were given a $100,000 budget for an album production to record your dream album, what would it look like?
If I was given $100,000 dollars to spend on an album, here is what I would do. I would find the best recommended studio for bluegrass that I could. I would try and write all new original songs to record. I would hire my favorite musicians and singers to sing and play on it. Then I would find the best person I could to mix and master for the best finished product.
JED: I like that you’d write all original material. Who would you want to play and sing on it?
I would have myself play banjo, BJ Taylor play mandolin, Jeff Partin play bass and dobro, Josh Hicks on guitar and Jamie Harper on fiddle. I’d have my dad Michael Laws, Mark Cable, and myself sing on it.
JED: What are you currently working on?
Me and my friend BJ Taylor are currently working on trying to form a band and eventually play some shows and make an album. We have been trying to do this for a while now but it is tough to find people who want to play like we do. It is all in Gods timing though.
JED: Man outside of music what are some ways you like to spend your time? I feel like I remember you saying you were an avid hunter.
In my free time I like to hunt. Bear hunting with hounds has been in my family for many years. I also like to hunt deer and turkey. I also like to lake fish, fly fish for trout and also tie flies. I also like to camp and ride horses. Most of all, I like to go to church.
JED: Sounds like you’ve got pretty solid hobbies Mikel. Man it has been great to get to hear more about your story and your music. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. I hope we’ll see you again soon!
Stay up to date with what Mikel is doing on his Instagram page. Featured article photo by Hilary Bumgarner.