Jesse Cobb first burst on to the scene in 2006 as a founding member of the Infamous Stringdusters. Since leaving the band in 2011, Cobb’s extraordinary mandolin skills have been on display in number of settings, most recently as a duo with his brother Shad (who is one of the most in-demand fiddlers in Nashville) and as a part of the all-star line-up of the Noam Pikelny and Friends Band, which includes Pikelny on banjo, Barry Bales on bass, Luke Bulla on fiddle, and Bryan Sutton on guitar. Cobb also found time to release his first solo album, Solitude, in late 2013. Recently he has been performing as part of the online live music series, Concert Window.
Cobb checked in with Honest Tune to talk about some of his favorite musicians, Concert Window, and to share some musical tips and advice for mandolin pickers of all skills.
Honest Tune: When did you first start playing the mandolin?
Jesse Cobb: I switched from guitar to mandolin at about 11 or 12 years old. I played guitar for a year or so before my oldest brother took it from me! The only thing left to play around the house was the mandolin so I picked it up. We had this book called Bluegrass Mandolin by Jack Tottle and I dug in. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up so my dad wouldn’t buy strings until I learned the basic chord shapes, so I’d sit and change chords on the frets while they all played for a week or two before even getting strings. Weird way to start but I guess it worked out all right.
HT: When you first started getting into the mandolin who were your early influences?
JC: The first mandolin I heard was an old live recording from Bean Blossom in 1973. The first song is Monroe doing “Mule Skinner Blues.” I liked the mandolin on that record a lot, Monroe, Jesse McReynolds, and I think a young Marty Stuart. I’d say that influenced me quite a bit, but I gravitated toward a more progressive sound early on. I heard Jethro Burns and was blown away. Jethro led me to this guy that was kind of local named Peter Ostrushko which in turn led me to Sam Bush. Once I heard Sam, I knew that all those things influenced him so I started copying everything about him. So in a short answer, Monroe, Jethro, Sam.
HT: Since first starting out playing a mandolin with no strings you seem to have really refined your style over the years. What advice would you give to someone who is picking up the mandolin for the first time?
JC: As I tell everyone I teach, any time spent listening to, or playing music is better than not. Listen to things you like and they will find their way into your own style. Don’t try to play too fast right out of the gate. I have taught a lot over the years and one consistent thing I see is people trying to go too fast too soon. Slow it down; perfect it, then up your tempo. We’d all like to play Bach Sonatas like Chris Thile, but the only way to get there is to be absolutely consumed with doing that. If you’re not, that’s ok. Be consumed by being good at an obtainable goal and move on from there. Most importantly, get that instrument in your hands every spare minute you have. Practice makes better!
HT: You have played with a number of bands over the years and at some amazing festivals, what stands out for you among all of them?
JC: One of my favorite memories is playing with the Stringdusters at FloydFest in Virginia when Sam Bush and Scott Vestal joined us for Shenandoah Breakdown, a real musical highlight. Also playing the main stage at Telluride for the first time. I was literally moved to tears after listening for so many years to the live tapes of Strength in Numbers and New Grass Revival from that stage. There are so many great ones including playing in an old dungeon in Germany, and a crazy sit in with Yonder at High Sierra.
HT: Are there any songs that stand out for you as being something special whenever you play it?
JC: I’ve been playing this song called “King of California” by Dave Alvin for quite a while now. It’s one of my favorite things we did on the Pikelny, Sutton, Bales, Bulla, Cobb runs. I really like the old time feel and drive we got out of it. One of those bouncy, feel good tunes with an uplifting lyric.
HT: You’re part of the “Bluegrass Roundup: Concert Window Festival.” This features some of the best pickers around such as Jim Lauderdale, Casey Driessen, and Bryan Sutton. What the experience like to be able to bring your playing into someone’s home so to speak?
JC: I really like the idea of playing some tunes at home and having people join me for a casual tune session. It gives me a chance to play some things I don’t usually get a chance to play for anyone. Concert Window has really done a cool thing with this “online festival” concept. In an age where it’s increasingly difficult to sell records, I see this as an opportunity to share music people otherwise wouldn’t hear. What a lineup!
HT: You seem to stay pretty busy with all your various endeavors, what does the rest of the year hold for you?
JC: I’ve recently been working with Billy Hume on some music for an upcoming album of mostly original music with an anticipated August release. We plan on recording in Nashville sometime in April with an extensive tour in the fall. While we’re still in the process of picking material, arranging, and digging in, it’s very safe to say that I am excited to be working with Hume on this. We have worked together on some things with the Stringdusters before and I really like the way he approaches the recording process. There will be more to come on this very soon, but expect some amazing guests and partners on this record. I’m also booking some solo/duo shows for the summer with some of my favorite musicians so stay tuned for announcements in the next month or so.