I often find myself intrigued with the geography of a band and how that may have shaped their perspective and in turn, their sound. When I think of popular hubs for bluegrass music, typically what comes to mind is Colorado, Kentucky, and North Carolina. Well when it comes to rapidly rising string band Fireside Collective, their inception began in the latter.
Fireside Collective is an Asheville-based quintet, who in the last five years have released what’s soon to be three albums, won the Band Contest at MerleFest in 2016, earned an International Bluegrass Music Association award nomination, and most recently shared a stage with heavy-hitters of the bluegrass world, The Infamous Stringdusters.
The band is merely days away from releasing their next album, Elements, and had many a tour date planned, but given the unprecedented global situation we’re in, will have to hold off like everyone else. And if you don’t know, most artists make the bulk of their income from live shows.
It’s a tough time for everybody folks, and it’s times like these where we need outlets like music now more than ever. While it may be hard to support these artists who share their gifts and transcend us with their art, try your best. Without them, the void would not be filled, and the trials and tribulations would hang much heavier.
We caught up with Fireside’s dobro player Tommy Maher a few weeks back (before the pandemic) who talked about the new album, their creative processes, and much more.
Music Mecca: What was your introduction to playing music, and who or what were your primary musical influences growing up?
Tommy Maher: I first was exposed to the guitar through my uncle. He was the first guitar player I ever met. When I was growing up and visiting family during the holidays, Uncle Tim would always be jamming on Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin riffs on his electric guitar. My dad was always listening to Eric Clapton and classic rock around the house, and I didn’t get a real instrument until I was 21- I got an acoustic guitar. I went backwards from my dad’s classic rock influence to find what they were listening to, which was African American blues artists that were inspiring the classic rock guys. I got into Robert Johnson, those old blues guys, and worked my way back that way. Bluegrass came much later, around my mid-20s.
MM: What made you want to pick up and learn the dobro over other instruments?
TM: After I got the guitar and got into blues, I discovered slide guitar and Duane Allman. I was getting into the slide on electric and acoustic, and then when Bluegrass came into my life, which was a mixed introduction from several people (Jesse included), the first bluegrass album I heard was called Old Train. I heard the instrument and had no idea what sort of slide guitar would be in bluegrass, so I did some searching and found that the player on Old Train was playing dobro. It was a mixture of my love for the blues and the newfound discovery of bluegrass, which took over my life right away. The dobro is a perfect instrument for someone already steeped in the blues to go into bluegrass.
MM: Who are your top three favorite dobro players of all time?
TM: Jerry Douglas number one- easy. Then Mike Aldridge, and Andy Hall.
MM: How did Fireside Collective come together?
TM: Jesse [Iaquinto] and I, and Carson [White], our bass player, went to college together back in the day. Jesse and Carson were involved in a jam band in the college scene, and they were in a rock outfit while I was playing blues around town in Greenville, North Carolina. There were lots of open mics and jams. Jesse and I went out once in college, I got to know him, then college ended and we all went our separate ways, but we maintained connection by meeting once a year in the Outer Banks. I would get us a couple gigs during the week they were visiting, and they couldn’t haul their electric stuff, so they would bring acoustic stuff. We would all play under the name of “Fireside String Band”, which was a reference to the college name “Beside the Fire”. We would play in an acoustic ensemble when we would see each other at the beach. We always had our acoustic instruments and would be playing these acoustic bluegrass songs, Grateful Dead songs, Beatles tunes around a campfire and whatnot. It was a very casual and laid-back way to hang out with each other, play, and bond without any major intensity. The Fireside Collective was a way for Jesse to tie together his multiple musical journeys, and the friendship we shared. Now, this is a new formation, and the idea was to “start over” but with the core group. I left Outer Banks, started the collective in Asheville, and then Joe [Cicero] and Alex [Genova], the current banjo and guitar player, they came along over the years and that was that.
MM: So you guys have your new album Elements set for release in a handful of weeks. How does this compare or differ from previous releases?
TM: The first release was Shadows and Dreams, which were mostly Jesse’s songs where he hired some Asheville pickers to record the tunes. I was on a few. That was the spark, then in 2016, we still didn’t have a banjo player. Life Between the Lines, our second album, we got more into the collective way of thinking. We recorded it at East Tennessee State University on a super budget and very strict timeline. Although it was a good product, it felt stressed time-wise. On Elements, we have Alex, and no more guest musicians coming to fill roles – this is a Fireside only album. Time-wise, we were finally able to stretch out way farther thanks to our Kickstarter campaign. We were able to have more freedom in the studio, and a producer, which we never had. It felt like, in some ways, this was a rebirth. This was the first one that is this band and a representation of this band.
MM: What’s the primary influence or theme behind this album?
TM: It’s lots of figuring things out on the fly, just the four of us, and not having management, a label, or a booking agent. We slowly, over time, especially in the past two years, have been really lucky or open to having the right people come into the team at the right time. Elements is a representation of the different dynamics in the band right now that have come together to play a part in the current Fireside incarnation, and just how it all feels so right. Having Alex come in with his attitude and style of banjo, very musically open-minded and very talented. We’ve also been polishing our sound and trying to figure out who we are, but right now it feels like all the “elements” are in place for the creation of this album. It was very natural, and the musical release from the studio was very positive. This album is a representation of everything we’ve allowed to happen in a cosmic way with all the different people. The difference is what makes it beautiful.
MM: Do y’all have a tour in place in support of the release of the album, and if so, where might you be headed?
TM: We’re kicking off the official tour on the 13th of March at the Pour House in Raleigh, and then Asheville the next day (the band’s home base. Then we’ll be going down to Sewanee, Florida, and then Johnson City. We’ve got a lot of random Southeast gigs, and then MerleFest in Kentucky. Tons of places, we’ll be touring hard until June all over the East Coast, and then out in the West later on in the year. It will be extremely busy.
MM: What’s the songwriting process like for the band? Is it a collective (pun intended) and structured effort, or more loose and freeform?
TM: Jesse is the predominant songwriter for the bulk of the material, and his process is really his own. I will say that the general flow involves us working separately. Everyone has brought a skeleton to the band of a chord progression, melody, or lyrics, but mostly it’s pretty loose. There are no collaboration sessions ala Lennon and McCartney. I would love to experiment with it, but right now it’s rather loose. There’s one song on the album, it’s the last song on the album, and it’s a reprise from the first song on the album (‘The Winding Road Reprise’). That was everyone’s contribution, and it was done live with very few overdubs. That was maybe a step in that direction, which we will probably explore more with the next album.
MM: So not long ago you played a show with The Infamous Stringdusters in Athens, Georgia. What was that experience like, and would you say that’s one of the top tier moments for the band so far?
TM: Oh yeah, definitely. Being able to be on that stage and share in the community that Dave crafted over the years, and the way that they’ve taken Bluegrass to so many people, just like Yonder did before them. In having the connection with Travis, and looking up to his songwriting and personality. Not just musically, but personally, he’s got such a seasoned and wisdom-filled outlook on making a career in music. He’s a wellspring of knowledge, and working closely with him in the studio was fantastic. Coming back together and singing these new songs, knowing that Travis was out there listening, it was a great full-circle moment and a great show. We’re very inspired by their ability to take progressive Bluegrass as far as they have, and we are finding our own inspiration from their journey to figure out where Fireside is.
MM: What’s the ultimate, pie in the sky, yet attainable goal for Fireside Collective?
TM: For me, I feel like every year that the band stays together and plays and touches more people, that’s a win. We all want to spread positivity and make awesome music and have the freedom to live comfortably and have a career in music. That being said, we would love to play Red Rocks. I would consider anything past that bonus points. Red Rocks, to me, is the hallmark venue. Colorado as a state is so integral in progressive bluegrass. Still, I think every show we play where there’s people out there smiling and supporting us, to me, that’s a success. I see this going as far as possible. I don’t foresee anything stopping us as long as people believe in us.