Ross Holmes, the iconic progressive bluegrass musician

Today’s guest, Ross Holmes, first made his heroic foray into the world of progressive bluegrass music with the band Cadillac Sky. I remember being in Winfield, Kansas for the annual Walnut Valley Festival in 2007. Cadillac Sky played an evening set that was truly unlike anything I’d ever heard. I rushed to the CD table afterwards and bought a copy of their most recent release at the time, “Blind Man Walking.” Although the C-sky boys eventually went their separate ways, their fiddle player ended up in Nashville where he quickly found out there was no shortage of demand for his fiddling. Ross, I’m a huge fan and I’m stoked to be talking to you today. D’you mind to tell us who you are, what you do, and where you’re located?

Thanks for having me – my name is Ross Holmes and I’m a fiddler/composer based here in Nashville, Tennessee. I currently galavant around as a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, but folks might’ve seen me when I spent time with Bruce Hornsby & The Noisemaker’s, Mumford & Sons, Warren Haynes, a bunch of artists and bands I’m fortunate to have made music with. 

JED: Tell us a little bit about your origin story. 

I was born and raised in dear Fort Worth, TX. Mom is a retired nurse and Dad has worked for decades with a company that specializes in circuitry for space and defense programs. I was spoiled with two parents who are a helluva lot smarter than I’ll ever be, and a sister who’s never stopped giving me sh*t since we were kids.

JED: So you had a lot of people around you pushing you towards excellence. That is awesome. What is your dad’s title or profession?

My dad’s title, hmmmm, that’s a really great question I don’t know! I think “Chief of Philosophical Design and Encouragement” suits him, his real title is probably something a little less exciting, ha! He’s a highly decorated pilot whose stories fall somewhere between George Carlin and Paulo Coelho.

Photo by Micah Mathewson.

JED: Ha! The reason I ask is because my mother was also a nurse, but my dad was an engineer. I thought it was uniquely advantageous to grow up with the two polarities of the personality spectrum and wondered if your dad was also a technical type. It sounds like your dad had very strong technical skills as well.

My folks really encouraged our creativity and imagination, music was always floating through the house and trips to concerts were frequent. Some of my earliest memories are of falling asleep to the local classical station when I was still in a baby bed. Wild how those flashbacks still linger after 30+ years, I suppose the melodies were deeply embedded in there somewhere. Melodies and color.

JED: Interesting that you mention that. My brother and I often fell asleep to Beethoven during our elementary school years.

You’d fall asleep to Beethoven? That’s powerful and dramatic music to sleep to, my dude, any nightmares?! Actually, you probably had gloriously colorful dreams. WRR Classical 101.1 was the radio station I’d fall asleep to, I haven’t thought about that in ages. Wow. Ready for a nap.

Anyway, I think I was a typical kid, ha, I couldn’t skateboard to save my life and didn’t have a Gameboy, but I could build a kit rocket and climb magnolia trees with the best of ‘em. Oh, I did excel at fashion – knee high striped socks, dinosaur t-shirts, and thick glasses. Makin’ the ladies turn away since 1984.

JED: Ha! D’you have a picture to prove it? 

Yes I do. Hard.

JED: HAHA! That is fantastic. What made you decide to give up the promising career of a youth fashion icon for music?

I don’t remember a time in life not making music, it’s been a part of my daily existence since I was 3 or 4 years old. Kindermusik was my beginning and piano followed at 5. Fiddle came after my younger sister, Katie Shore (she’s the fiddler and vocalist in Asleep at the Wheel), picked it up at the urging of our Granddad.

Jack Samuel DeBusk, our mom’s dad, was a doctor whose loves in life were healing and the violin. He adored both, but especially the fiddle. His actual instrument had been acquired by his grandfather from a traveler on the Oregon Trail, maybe the most special treasure in our family history. My sister has it tucked away safely.

JED: W O W. Dude talk about a heritage. Not only do you have very high-performing occupations throughout your family history, but you’ve also got several musicians within your family. It is amazing that that fiddle has survived as long as it has. Do you have any idea who made the instrument or when it was made?

It’s an old german factory fiddle from the mid 1800’s, nothing special as far as rare instruments go, but the history and its meaning in our family are priceless. There’s a label inside, that of a luthier from Fairbury, Nebraska, the nearest “town” to my Grandad’s farm. I’ve seen other fiddles made from the same factory, they’re all almost identical, must’ve been copying some particular Stradivari. 

Ross’ family fiddle.

Ah, classic Ross tangent. At any rate, Katie started a year before I did, she was 5 and I was 8, not with Suzuki or classical violin training, but rather Texas contest style, a groovy and very salty flavor of the American fiddling tradition. I remember the first time I tried to play, I walked into her bedroom, picked up her little fiddle, and wowed the audience of one with ‘Boil the Cabbage.’

There wasn’t any fumbling or scratchy bowing, I just did it. I’d been watching her practice and suppose I memorized the finger pattern for the melody, how she was holding her instrument, all of the details. It was easier to play the fiddle than anything I’d ever done.

JED: Dude you’re lyin’

I’m not lying! Here, call Sister Bear and ask her about it, if she tells you something different then she’s lyin’ like congress. Look, she was the favorite child and this was my one glorious moment as a child, let me have it!

JED: Haha! Alright, I believe you, enjoy your moment. That is amazing though – I’ve never heard of anyone else having an ‘instant’ ability like that.

My other real passion was/is aviation… my dad encouraged my interest in a possible flying career, but by age 17 I realized it wasn’t going to happen professionally – poor vision won’t get you into an F-16. That’s when music became the focus as a career path. I declined scholarships for classical violin studies and opted to take a year off after high school to dive deep into the Texas music scene. Everything in my career started at age 17 and I haven’t looked back since.

JED: What are some of your favorite albums, and how do they influence your work? 

Well, to be sure, the list of favorite albums is 100 miles long. If I must narrow them down to a quick few that have really been inspiring, I think I’d say (in no particular order): “The Blue Room,” Martin Hayes Quartet, the Vaughan Williams album by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, “Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Vol. 2” by Béla Fleck, and “Nocturne,” by Charlie Haden and Gonzalo Rubalcaba. These have really affected how I approach the fiddle/violin and composition. Maybe even love and compassion. Certainly love and compassion.

Lyrical albums, though, are too hard and too many to list. I mean, one could spend a lifetime with the Beatles alone and never run out of things to learn or discover. If I’m being candid, I’ve been on a Bob Dylan kick lately, I’ve been working on a super cool album and that’s all I can say. I’ve been introduced to a bunch of songs I’ve never heard and my head’s been done in from learning them all. Probably the single greatest and most prolific songwriter of all time. 

JED: Which part of your music career do you enjoy the most – live performance, recording, writing, etc.? 

It’s difficult to say which creative outlet is my favorite… performing wouldn’t happen if there weren’t songs to play, somebody has to write them, and who’s going to know those songs if they aren’t recorded?

JED: I appreciate that dissection of the process.

Photo by Micah Mathewson.

Of course I’m riffing, but they’re all connected and equally important. The human spirit is at the center, it must be the heart of what we say through our lyrics and instruments.

When I’m onstage, every ounce of energy is poured into delivery and presence in front of the audience. In the studio, tunnel vision kicks in and the world falls away for hours. Sitting with a pen and paper or a stack of blank staves allows me to reflect on melody and lyric, to write out honest musings from my heart and life.

They’re tied together and I cannot imagine ever stepping away from any one of them. I think there’s a healthy balance, though, that keeps them all interesting. An ideal year would look like 85-90 concerts, maybe 60-70 sessions, and plenty of time to escape to the woods and write. I’ve been digging this stride.

JED: Who are three musicians that you think are underrated or deserve more notoriety for their art?

There are so many artists who have managed to fly under the radar, but there are a few that will hopefully gain more notoriety as their gifts are deserved of such recognition. Rhiannon Giddens is known, but not like she should be. Everything she stands for and believes in can be felt in her music, we need more artists as brave as she is. Shani Gandhi is an absolute FORCE in the recording world, her producing and engineering skills are masterful. I really believe she’ll become one of the big names in short order. Olivia Chaney is a folk singer from England who Hornsby turned me onto. Listen to her album, “Shelter,” it’s wonderful. Listen.

JED: 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 current setup onstage is very simple – I have two LR Baggs Venue DI’s and two Line 6 wireless units, one for my fiddle and one for my mandolin. Though my pedals are very vanilla, I’m spoiled to have a special collection of instruments.

My violin was made in 1829 by F. Breton-Brevete in France, and is one of my oldest and closest friends. My bows were made by Charles Guinot, 1840 in France, and Tyler Andal, 2018 here in Nashville. I often travel with a composite bow specially made by Coda Bow so I don’t have to worry about old and rare wood entering foreign countries.

JED: Man can you tell me the story of acquiring your violin?

Aubrey Haynie has been a hero since I started playing, I’m very grateful to count him as a dear friend. He’s owned a bunch of fiddles over the years, but he’s kept a few special ones for his own use and collection. I’m not sure how he acquired the Breton-Brevete, known as “The Grand Marnier,” but I was really needing a much better instrument years ago and he was incredibly kind to pass it on. It quite literally changed my life when I walked out of his house with The Grand Marnier, kind of like when Harry Potter found his wand at Ollivander’s and the winds blew and light shone down from on high. Well, not that dramatic, I think I went straight home and changed the strings. Hahaha!

I’ve used this fiddle on hundreds of albums and it’s been my main touring companion with Cadillac Sky, Mumford & Sons, Bruce Hornsby, Nitty Gritty – everyone since 2009. You know, every instrument sounds differently in each players hands, this particular fiddle is magic because it sounds great when ANYONE plays it. Wanna saw on it for a bit?!

Photo by Micah Mathewson.

JED: It would have to be magic to sound good in my hands. I can’t play fiddle at all. I wish I could.

My main mandolin is an A style made by Lynn Dudenbostel in 2005, maybe the most even, dark, and bell-like tone I’ve ever heard come out of a mandolin. I have a special experimental A made by Collings Guitars in Austin which I’ve been traveling with for about a year now, it’s tone is very close to the Dude and I really love the way Collings feel in hand. I also have two wonderful F style mandolins, but I’ve become such a fan of these A buddies, I only use the F’s in the studio or locally when I wanna fit in with the cool kids.

JED: If you were given an unlimited budget for an album production to record your dream album, what would it look like?

I’d love to present an album of collaborations with world-renowned musicians and singers that celebrates diversity, inclusivity, and the beautiful heart of humanity. All proceeds would go to local hometown charities and organizations for each of the musicians on the album, children would be the main recipients of the hard work we’d pour into its creation. 

When you release an album, you’re leaving a bit of yourself inside notes and sounds that will continue to be heard long after you’ve departed this plain. Leaving behind this kind of “musical gift” with so many incredible musicians would be a genuine statement of love for, hopefully, many years.

JED: What is your favorite album or recording that you’ve made to date?

I’m grateful for every recording I’ve been a part of, it’s been an honor to contribute to hundreds of projects for other artists and bands, but it’s a toss-up between an iPhone recording I made inside the Alamo and a recording during a 30 minute break between sessions at Oceanway. I’ll share that latter, the Alamo story is a book of a story.

A friend of mine, Austin Atwood, was lead engineer in studio A for a scoring project, and after the orchestral players left for lunch, I asked him if he’d mind turning on the mic tree for one attempt at recording the solo violin overture to my “American Fiddle Suite.” Several very powerful life events had transpired in the days leading up to this sesh and I suppose the glowing energy from these moments provided some level of focus I wasn’t aware was inside my head and heart.

I played through the 15 minute arrangement once, we did a very quick mix, and that was that. It’s my finest recording and the piece I am most proud of. The track has been mastered and is patiently awaiting a release when the time is appropriate and the stars align. Hopefully it’s soon, I really cannot wait to share this with everyone.

JED: Do you have any idea as to when you’ll want to release it and how? 

Well, with the world on lockdown and people at home listening to music, I’m thinking about a release in not too long…maybe this spring?! Since COVID-19 began its assault, all of us have had our gigs and sessions cancel and streaming music has become the real medium. Maybe I’ll skip a Carnegie Hall premier and simply release it online, I’m sure I’ll ask a few friends to share it on their social media accounts.

JED: What are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on several varied projects, the first being a lyrical album, “Fly On, Little Liza,” which is a heartfelt and colorful foray into the last few years of my personal life. Beyond sung and spoken prose, I’ve been composing “The American Fiddle Suite” with my dear friend and genius collaborator, Aaron Malone. This work is incredibly personal and includes 13 movements for solo fiddle and large orchestra. Additionally, I’ve just finished writing melodies and themes for an instrumental project I hope to create with a certain ensemble here in Nashville. Can’t say who just yet, but I’ll be over the moon if the dream comes together.

Photo by Will Cornfield.

JED: Man pleaaasseee let us know if and when that happens. We’d love to hear about it. Ross seriously man, thank you for joining me to talk a little bit about your music and your story. Keep in touch and let us know when you’ve got new music coming.

Thank you so much for the wonderful conversation, we’re all in this together and the joy of making, and enjoying, music is a gift to be shared with everyone. I mean that from the bottom of my heart. All my love to each of you, sending you light and peace from Nashville.

Keep up to date with Ross’ latest and greatest at his website, Instagram, and Twitter.