Some of Dylan McCarthy’s earliest memories involve listening to Breakfast With The Beatles with his dad on Sunday mornings making up songs for his grandmother.
Since then, McCarthy has never looked back. Music has since engulfed his life, and he’s striven to make a life out of his passion. He started with tickling the ivories and learning classical piano at 7, and like almost no one, cut his teeth at Denver bars playing in rock and roll bands at 14-years-old.
After attending Berklee College of Music in Boston for Electric Bass, McCarthy returned to Denver with a newfound love for mandolin and bluegrass music. He’s gone on to achieve accolades including a Heartland Emmy Award for Musical Composition, performing at the 2018 Rockygrass Festival with The Lyons Bluegrass Collective, taking first place in the 2019 Rockygrass Mandolin Championship, and more.
McCarthy is on the precipice of releasing his debut mandolin instrumental album, Lost and Found, on May 1st, and we had the chance to chat with him about it and much more.
Can you talk about your introduction to playing music and your affinity towards bluegrass and roots music?
Sure, so I started playing piano when I was 7 and by the time I turned 10 I started to pick up my mom’s acoustic guitar and taught myself a few chords. It was around 8th grade when I had my first experience playing in a band with other kids and from there I was hooked on playing music. I played electric bass in a rock band all through high school (think Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Cream) and was convinced I would be a rock musician for the rest of my life. It wasn’t until my brother basically dragged me to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival when I was 18 that I fell completely in love with bluegrass and roots music. It was pretty instantaneous.
So what drew you to the mandolin specifically as opposed to guitar or other instruments?
So I brought my acoustic guitar with me to Telluride that first year because my brother was a bass player and had told me that people would be jamming. I thought myself a pretty decent guitar player at the time and figured I would be able to hang. I was very, very wrong haha. I had no idea how to play the guitar in the context of bluegrass and couldn’t keep up in the jams. So at some point during that weekend, I decided that guitar wasn’t going to be my instrument for bluegrass and that I was going to pick another one. I remember distinctly on Sunday, last day of the festival, seeing this band in the pouring rain and being totally in awe of the sound coming from the mandolin. I decided then that as soon as I got home, I’d buy a mandolin and get started. I had no idea at the time, but it turns out that band was the Punch Brothers and I was watching Chris Thile, so I have him to thank for sparking my interest in the mandolin.
I see that you attended Berklee College of Music in Boston. How was that experience, and would you say it was necessary or crucial to your musical path?
Berklee was incredible. It was one of the most transformative experiences for me as a musician. I only attended for two semesters before coming back to Colorado, and I was actually there as an electric bass player. I had just discovered the mandolin maybe a little over a year before going there and until that point in my life, bass had been my main thing. It was a funny time because I would go to class and be focusing on more bass-oriented stuff, and then at night I would take my mandolin over to a friend’s apartment and we would kind of stumble through bluegrass tunes together. I was still just figuring it all out at that time but I was pretty much in full mandolin-mode outside of class. All that jamming, coupled with learning so much about theory and music that I had never learned before ended up making that time a huge period of growth and inspiration for me. I would say, looking back, that it was crucial for where I am today as a musician.
You have your debut record Lost & Found coming out May 1st. Though it’s an instrumental collection, can you talk about inspiration and themes to your musical compositions?
Yeah, so I’ve always been drawn to the instrumental side of bluegrass music. I spent a great deal of time in the beginning just learning all the common fiddle tunes and learning instrumental tunes is still a big part of my practice and development today. I’d say at least 50% of the music I listen to is instrumental, if not a lot more at times. I didn’t really start writing tunes all that much until a couple years ago and that was largely inspired by John Reischman. If you don’t know him, he’s a mandolin player and brilliant composer, I can’t recommend his records highly enough. When I found his music, I just fell in love with his melodies. They are very much in the vein of bluegrass and old-time music but they felt really fresh and unique to me. I kind of had a moment when I heard his music where I was like, man I wish I could write like this! I wanted to write music that would make other people feel the way I felt when I heard his stuff. I wouldn’t say I’ve necessarily accomplished that but a fire was lit at that point.
The inspiration and themes are pretty specific to each tune but I tend to write with my whole body of work in mind. So if I’m working on a tune that is maybe kind of gritty or edgy sounding, the next idea I’ll write will probably be some attempt to balance that out with something more subdued or delicate. A lot of times the inspiration for a tune will come from something I’m listening to or learning. I might hear a tune I really like and then take some element from that and try to write my own “version” of it. It might be a segment of the chord progression or just a particular vibe or approach to phrasing or something. Sometimes it’s the title that inspires the tune. One of the tunes on Lost & Found is called “The Doldrums,” which was just a word that came up in conversation that stuck with me and I tried to carry what that word made me think of and feel through the composition. In general, I tend to approach writing tunes from the standpoint of capturing an overall mood or feeling.
Where did you record it, and who was involved in the process?
I recorded it in Longmont, Colorado, just about 15 minutes from my house at my friend Eric Wiggs’ studio called Vermillion Road Studio. Eric played guitar on everything in addition to engineering, mixing and co-producing. He sort of encouraged me to do this project and had a big hand in all of it. Bradley Morse played bass, Sam Armstrong-Zickefoose played banjo, Allen Cooke played dobro and both Natalie Padilla and Justin Hoffenburg played fiddle. All of the musicians are friends I’ve known from the Colorado music scene, we’ve been picking together and playing in various projects together for years. When it came time to decide who I wanted to play on the record, these folks immediately came to mind and I’m so glad they were willing and interested in being a part of it!
Of course we’re in the thick of this dreadful pandemic and it’s no secret it’s hitting independent artists especially hard. How do you plan to maintain momentum for the release?
That’s a great question haha. I think a lot of musicians and independent artists feel like they’re sort of sailing into the unknown right now, I know I do. All of the support I had lined up for this release, radio appearances and the album release show, have obviously been cancelled with no way of really rescheduling until we know more about what’s going on and get closer to having this thing under control. Once things start to recover, it’s likely live music and being an independent artist might look different than it did before. I’m personally trying to use this time to reflect and take solace where I always have, in music. It’s disappointing to lose out on those live events but I’m actually glad to be releasing music during this time. I think music is really important to a lot of people and I’m happy to be able to contribute something new for the people that need it.
Do you have tentative music-related plans like a tour once this may blow over and life resumes in some form or another?
It’s all kind of a big question mark right now. I also play mandolin in an acoustic band called Thunder and Rain, and one of our biggest events of the year was a 3-week UK tour in May that had to be cancelled and unfortunately can’t be rescheduled until 2021. I’m hoping to keep some of the shows I had planned for the end of June and July but as it stands now, it’s likely that those will be cancelled as well. Whenever this all subsides, I’d love to have the album release show that I had originally planned for May 1st and hopefully I can get some more shows beyond that lined up if people are digging the music.
Who are some of your mandolin heroes?
Oh man, that’s a hard list to narrow down. Two that immediately come to mind that are huge for me are Sam Bush and David Grisman. Each one is so instantly recognizable with their tone and style. They each have such a distinct voice on the instrument and I’m constantly inspired and blown away every time I hear them. Ronnie McCoury is also big for me. He’s rooted in tradition but so innovative at the same time. John Reischman is worth mentioning a second time. Matt Flinner is also a big inspiration as a composer. I love Joe K. Walsh’s playing and approach to the mandolin. Of course Bill Monroe belongs in the list, he’s without equal. In a similar vein, I’m a big fan of Jesse McReynolds, he really blew the doors off what I thought was possible with the mandolin.
What do you think makes Colorado so special as far as its roots/bluegrass/Americana community compared to other places?
Well, the Colorado scene is really the only bluegrass scene that I have a lot of experience with, so it’s hard for me to compare it to others. But I think part of what’s so special about it is just how vast it is. For better or for worse, there is just a ton of pickers and music lovers here, and part of what’s great about that is it’s not too difficult to find where you fit in. No matter what level you are at or what your musical interests are, there’s a community for you. There’s an open jam nearly every night of the week here, sometimes more than one. For me, that was huge for my development early on when I was getting started. Having so many opportunities to jam and play with people who were better than me and learn from them, that went a long way for me. On top of all that, people just love live music out here!
What is your ultimate yet attainable goal as a musical artist?
My goal as a musical artist has always been to play music that I love with musicians that inspire me. I feel lucky I was able to get a piece of that with making this album. I hope to be able to keep pursuing that. I’d like to continue making music I’m proud of, and if anyone wears out my music the way I’ve worn out David Grisman or Bela Fleck or John Reischman records, I couldn’t ask for much more.
What have been some of your pinnacle moments as a musician in your career so far?
One of the biggest moments was winning the mandolin competition at Rockygrass last year. Rockygrass has a big place in my heart and it was a huge honor to receive that award. Some people might think that if you win something like that, you might feel like you have proven yourself or something. But for me it was almost the opposite. It really lit a fire for me as a mandolin player to continue to push even harder. I remember thinking, “Oh man, it’s time to get to work!” Another pinnacle moment was also at Rockygrass the year before when I played the gospel set on Sunday with the Lyons Bluegrass Collective, with my wife on bass. We ended the set by bringing a bunch of the behind-the-scenes staff who make the whole festival happen out on stage and leading a sing-along of “I’ll Fly Away.” Everyone in the audience was standing up and singing. It was a really special moment.