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Four strings attached 

Bla Fleck and Steve Earle collaborator Casey Driessen takes his trio on the road

Driessen spent six months holding his violin.
  • Driessen spent six months holding his violin.

Casey Driessen's influences are all over the map. And some of them like, say, British electronicist Squarepusher and seminal jazz violinist Stuff Smith barely seem from the same universe.

"It's interesting you picked those two guys, because Squarepusher is obviously very rhythmic with his drum 'n bass, and Stuff Smith was one of the most swinging, grooving jazz violinists ever," says the Nashville-based violinist who regularly tours with Bla Fleck and Steve Earle. "When you have those types of people among your influences, I think some of that will come out in your playing."

On record, the Berklee College of Music graduate covers a lot of ground, from his densely layered rendition of the Bill Monroe-popularized "Jerusalem Ridge" to the forthcoming "Green Flash," a droney, tabla-driven track which he says most demonstrates the Squarepusher influence.

The son of a pedal steel player, Driessen was born in Minnesota and raised on jazz, bluegrass and Western swing. He picked up the instrument that would change his life at the tender age of 6. It was, of course, a violin. Well, almost.

"Mine was a cardboard box with a paint stirrer taped to it and a wooden dowel with a little square block on the end," he recalls. "With no strings."

Contrary to the images that may evoke, Driessen was not born into a family of poor sharecroppers who were sitting around waiting for the catgut to cure.

"It was the Suzuki teaching method," explains Driessen, referring to the unconventional instructional approach that also employs violins made from foam. "I'm not sure if they still start students out this way, but for about the first six months, you basically learn how to hold and treat the instrument. You walk around the house with it under your arm. You jump off the bed while holding the quote-unquote instrument under your neck. And after you've demonstrated that you have the ability to hold it and treat it OK, then you get your first instrument with strings."

Something must have worked, as Driessen now tours with artists like Steve Earle & the Bluegrass Dukes and Bla Fleck's Acoustic Trio. In their spare time, Driessen and Fleck also play and record as part of Abigail Washburn's Sparrow Quartet, which he describes as a "strange sort of string quartet with two banjos, fiddle and cello."

The violinist's own trio features a fiddle/bass/drum lineup that allows each player lots of space both sonically and improvisationally. It also gives him a chance to sing on about half the songs. (Driessen says he first got the idea that violinists could sing when he heard Tim O'Brien's solo performance of "Working on a Building," the traditional folk hymn covered by everyone from John Fogerty to the Cowboy Junkies.)

It was his solo project that earned Driessen a 2006 Grammy nomination for Best Country Instrumental. In spite of the silver tuxedo he wore to the ceremony, Driessen ended up losing out to Doc Watson.

Not that he's complaining.

"I don't know if you can beat Doc Watson," says Driessen, who expects the 85-year-old Tennessee stud will keep winning even after he's gone. "Yeah, the old tapes will come out and he'll still win. As he should."

bill@csindy.com

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