Stephen Bennett is a guitarist who can play equally well on instruments as diverse as a 1930 National Steel, a standard 6-string, and a harp guitar. He has traveled the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, and Japan winning the hearts of listeners everywhere he goes. Stephen is the founder of The Harp Guitar Gathering that converges on Williamsburg, Virginia each October. The Harp Guitar Gathering attracts players, scholars, and luthiers from all over the world. However, my main reason for interviewing Stephen had little to do with his accomplishments. Although I enjoy his playing, I especially like his sense of humor!
When did you decide to become a professional musician (or did it just sneak up on you)?
My career as a professional boxer wasn't going so well and since I did a little guitar playing on the side, I figured heck, why not give it a try?
Seriously, back in 1981, I was out shopping for a guitar one Saturday and was invited to teach at two of the music stores I stopped at. I took that as a sign of some sort and through a combination of teaching lots of lessons and playing in various musical settings in Southeastern Virginia, one day it dawned on me that I was in fact a professional musician. Everything after that has just been variations on the theme.
Although you went through a physically difficult time in 2008, you seem to have been in a very creative time as well. What has been your inspiration?
Although I did in fact go through a rough patch last year - which by the way, turned out very, very well once I got my kidney transplant - yes, I did manage to accomplish some musical tasks. Early on, I got into the studio and recorded some new harp guitar tunes - most of a CD actually - because I wanted to get them in the bank, so to speak, before my operations began. (My kidneys were removed in March, I was on dialysis for a couple of months and then had the transplant in May.) It’s a good thing I did so, because at this point I have largely forgotten the tunes and will have to relearn them at some point.
Additionally, I worked out transcriptions of many of my tunes, a slow and laborious task, but one which needs to be done. I will be offering three new compilations of transcriptions in January, if not earlier. Two of these are for harp guitar and one for six string guitar.
Also, I spent a good deal of time working on an orchestral arrangement of “Powhatan Suite.” This was released on my music from Tsenacommacah CD in 2003 and featured music inspired by reading about the early interactions between the native Virginians (the Powhatans) and the English settlers who showed up here in 1607. The conductor of the Virginia Symphony has expressed interest in the work and who knows - maybe something will come of it. If I don’t wind up with a live orchestra performing it, I will record it digitally with a software library of samples from the Vienna Philharmonic. They use this for movie scores, so it’s quite good.
Your CD, Alert the Authorities, takes an unusual turn. After recording several (19, to be almost exact) instrumental CDs, what made you decide to do vocals?
I figured the guitar thing just wasn't’t working so well, so why not try singing? Actually, people have have been after me for some years to do this. Misguided people yes, but still....
I am happy to report that nobody has died as a direct result of this CD.
“What a Wonderful World” is one of my favorites.
Thank you very much. You need to get out more....
Were there any particular challenges to recording vocals as opposed to instruments?
I’m not a very good singer. But the machines they have these days can fix that right up. Actually, there is no pitch correction at all on this CD.
Is there a project that you have particularly enjoyed doing?
I have a love/hate relationship with recording. It stresses me out, but I am always pleased when it’s over and after some time passes and the music still stands on its own.
I suppose the Nutcracker Suite for guitar orchestra that I did nearly 20 years ago would be one that I particularly enjoyed doing.
Was there any sibling rivalry while recording with your brother?
No, once I made it clear that I was in charge and he had to do exactly what I wanted him to, everything was fine.
What do you think of that Craig Dobbins guy?
Oh right, Craig Dobbins. Craig is a great guy and I am happy to call him my friend. That’s not what he calls me, but still....
What I like about Craig’s playing is that it is rock solid dependable and tasty. He’s not particularly flashy, but everything is right there nonetheless. Craig is a joy to play with and I greatly enjoy the Beatles sets we have done - and hopefully will continue to do at CAAS with Joscho Stefan.
How did you get started performing at the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society convention?
I did a workshop with Duck Baker in Charlottesville, Virginia in probably 1995 and he told me I should go to CAAS sometime. Apparently he spoke to the convention president, Mark Pritcher, about me because Mark invited me to perform at the 1997 CAAS convention.
It’s good to see that you'll be back in 2009, by the way.
LOOKING FORWARD TO IT!
You are strongly associated with the harp guitar, but is that your main instrument?
I don’t consider harp guitar my main instrument, no. My show consists of standard guitar, slide guitar and the harp guitar. I think I have something to say which nobody else is saying on all three of those varieties of guitar. In other words, I don't think anyone plays a 6-string quite like I do, or slide, or harp guitar either.
However, I will grant that because it is so visually distinct, not to mention sonically so, that perhaps I am most publicly connected with the harp guitar.
Hmm... Looks like an opening for shameless promotion of the Harp Guitar Gathering....
Ah yes, The Harp Guitar Gathering... this is a convention for harp guitarists, builders and enthusiasts which has gone on for six consecutive years now. The seventh is scheduled for Williamsburg, Virginia next Halloween weekend 2009.
You do a great deal of traveling and performing, but you also have a significant amount of recordings and materials. Do you have a preference between live performances and recording?
I love them both when they are going well and hate them both when they are not. There is nothing like the joy of a well played and received show. There is also nothing like hearing from people that they continue to enjoy a CD of your music for years on end. I have heard of people entering and leaving this world while listening to my music, and everything in between.
You have traveled to Europe, Japan, and Canada as well as across the United States. How have your instruments managed to survive the airlines?
Dumb luck, I suppose. They have sometimes been lost, cracked and occasionally, worse, but they always show up eventually.
Ralph Emery once said of Jerry Reed that he was the most married man he knew, referring to Jerry’s devotion to his family. I think that you fall into that category as well. Does your family get to tour with you?
There are lots of musicians who have been married more times than me, so I am certainly not the most married person around. That said, yes I have been with the same woman for coming up on 33 years. Some people just don’t learn, I guess. My wife, Linda, is a university professor and research scientist so she has a very full life of her own. Occasionally she will accompany or join me when I am playing somewhere, but it’s not very often. Back in 2001, I had an invitation to play near Bordeaux, France. My wife and son were quite happy to join me there. Not sure why....
Musicians always have interesting tales to tell and I have enjoyed the ones you have told in your concerts. Do you have one that is your favorite?
In 2004 I was playing at a guitar festival in Australia, near Melbourne. Good Morning Australia (or it’s equivalent on another channel there) sent their weatherman down to do a story on the festival and report the national weather for the day from there. I was featured and had my harp guitar and so Grant - the weatherman - asked me a few questions about it and then asked me to play something. I launched into a a version of “What A Wonderful World.”
After a bit, the screen switched to a map of Australia and Grant started reading the day’s weather over my playing. He paused for a bit and I jumped in, saying “That’s not the lyrics!” He looked surprised, then chuckled and went on with his task. He got to another pause and I jumped in again saying, “That’s not the lyrics - sing the weather!”
Remember, this is live on national television and spontaneous. I don’t know if I had maybe had two beers on my wheaties that morning instead of one, but whatever - Grant could have been really mad at me. However, what he did was to sing the rest of the weather report to the melody of “What a Wonderful World” - and in a Bill Murray bad lounge singer kind of way. It was hilarious. They inset the anchors of the show up in the corner of the screen - laughing hysterically at the sight of their weatherman singing the day’s weather. Apparently they asked him to do it again the next day. He was a really good sport!
Were you named after the Dobbins' son, Bennett Dobbins?
This is the most interesting story actually. No, I wasn't named after Bennett Dobbins originally. I only changed my name to his after he was born. Before that I went by the name Bob Finkelstein.
Actually, I have been asked if we named Bennett after you. When I told them he was named after his father they looked rather confused. I hope I didn't start any rumors.
Mum’s the word, Julie.
Copyright © 2008 by Julie S. Dobbins.
Visit Stephen Bennett's website.
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