By Greg Cahill
This electro-pop artist is steeped in bluegrass. Who knew? Dillon Hodges is a popular singer, songwriter, and guitarist whose recent album firekid (Atlantic) is the vanguard of a stealth campaign to bring bluegrass music to the masses. The soft-spoken, 25-year-old native of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, who sometimes creates music on his Gameboy, recently stopped by the AG office in Point Richmond, California, without his firekid band, to tape an Acoustic Guitar Session, playing solo acoustic with a Gibson J-45 in hand. He flatpicked his way through three original pop songs, while displaying an impressive command of bluegrass and even jazz. That bluegrass connection is not incidental: in 2007, at age 17, Hodges became the second youngest person to win the prestigious National Flatpicking Championship at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas.
I sat down with Hodges after the session to talk about his guitar playing.
Fans that know you from the electro-pop-oriented firekid project might be surprised that you’re steeped in bluegrass.
“Yeah, these days, I don’t have as many Americana fans as pop fans. The pop fans hear me playing my guitar live and say, I thought you were playing a banjo.’ I just say, That’s bluegrass music that you’re hearing.’ The fact is, most people don’t know what flatpicking is. That was the whole goal of the project, to expose more people to flat picking.
How did you get into flatpicking?
I was 11 years old and wanted to play guitar. My parents weren’t so sure about that, but on my 11th birthday my uncle gave me a guitar he’d bought at a year sale. A neighbor offered to give me free lessons. I wanted to learn to play Nickelback or Creed [laughs], so I brought a book of their music to the first lesson. He threw it in the trash and said,’ I play bluegrass and if you want to take lessons from me that’s what you’re gonna learn.’ So I had no option. But I’m so grateful to him. He took me to bluegrass festivals on the weekends and started entering me in flatpicking competitions. By the time I was 17, I’d won the National Flatpicking Championship at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas—the big one. It became a life’s goal for me, to take the message of flatpicking my peers.
What did your friends think of your accomplishment?
I came back from Winfield to my high school and told people, ‘Hey, I won the national Flatpicking Championship” All the girls said, ‘What’s flatpicking?
How did preparing for the competitions motivate you as a player?
It made music a sport, in all honesty. It’s one thing to sit in your room and write songs that maybe only your mom hears and it’s another to be thrown head-to-head with adults who are the best in the business. It definitely makes you a better player. I mean, for five to six years straight I played eight hours a day. I would find ways to play at school. I would bring the guitar in the car. I played at the dinner table. I played while I did my homework. And in front of the TV.
Bluegrass can be a blood sport, can’t it?
It’s like a speed race sometimes. Playing in the contest world made me so serious, that it sort of took the fun out of it. I was doing it to win, to kick somebody’s ass and to feel good about myself. That’s opposite of what I really felt and wanted out of music. But I’ve now gone in the opposite direction and taken the elements that I love from bluegrass and the elements I feel are universal and I’ve brought those over to the music I make now. The melodic side, some of the lyrics. We use those elements on the album a lot: “Magic Mountain” [the first single from firekid] is about the Magic Mountain theme park, but it has this rootsy sounding thing and we’re singing about a mountain still. And the melodies really came out of old folk songs and blues. Pop music unintentionally draws from that anyway so it wasn’t too much of a push.
What about the jazz side?
Growing up in Muscle Shoals I was exposed to the music of WC Handy, the father of the Blues. There’s a festival there in his honor every year and it has a jazz camp. I had wanted to take lessons and learn to play rock ’n’ roll. My parents responded that they would send me to jazz camp. [laughs] I was already playing with the high school jazz ensemble and have since sat in with a few professional jazz ensembles. It’s not my strong suit—I’m definitely a bluegrass guitarist, but I can find my way around an archtop. And I love it. It’s like speaking two languages, like being bi-lingual to be able to play bluegrass and jazz. The jazz side raises its head during my live solos.
Incorporating those elements must have proved challenging.
It was tough because there’s so much material to drawn from in jazz and bluegrass and pop. It’s like sifting water through rocks to come up with something and pick the elements that are the most universal. At the same time, it has to sound cohesive and sound like art.
We settled on something I think is special.