Adam Steffey

AdamAdam Steffey
The Mandolin Master Looks Back On A Varied Career
By Derek Halsey

The first time I heard the phrase “Steffey-style” was in the summer of 2003. I was attending the FloydFest music festival located near the I-70 milepost along the beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway in southern Virginia, and the lineup was ambitious. Back in 2003, the late and great fiddler Vassar Clements was still alive and roaming the grounds that weekend. Also on the bill that year was Acoustic Syndicate, Jim Lauderdale, The Larry Keel Experience, Yonder Mountain String Band, Nickel Creek and many more acts. The star of the festival, however, was David Grisman, who presided over an Old & In The Way reunion as well as a highly-anticipated regrouping of the David Grisman Quintet.

The headlining Quintet set happens on Sunday afternoon and features Grisman, Darol Anger, Mike Marshall, Tony Rice, and Jim Kerwin. As the amazing reunion comes to an end, Grisman has a fun idea in mind for an encore. He decides to create a jam featuring some of the young talent that is still on the festival grounds. One of the pickers chosen is a 14-year-old mandolin player named Josh Pinkham, who is the great grandson of the legendary Texas fiddler Benny Thomason. As the sun begins to set, the show-ending throwdown features the David Grisman Quintet along with guests Jeff Austin, Sarah Watkins, Chris Thile, and Pinkham.

Earlier in the afternoon, Grisman invited Thile to sit in on the encore, yet Chris hadn’t worked out the chosen song, which is the classic instrumental “Dawg’s Bull.” Thile asks Grisman to show him the tune but the old sage is busy. So, Grisman says, “Josh Pinkham will show it to you.” “Who is he?” asked Thile. “He’s a Steffey-style player, like Sierra Hull.” Grisman looks up and over to where Pinkham is standing. “Josh, show Chris the tune,” he says. Pinkham’s eyes light up like it is Christmas morning as he and his hero, Chris Thile, run off to work out the intricate tune. The ovation that Pinkham gets will make you smile.

“Steffey-style,” of course, is the name given to the unique way of playing Adam Steffey brings to the mandolin. His approach to the instrument is distinctive, linear, and melodic. As a result, Steffey has won a remarkable 11 International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Mandolin Player Of The Year awards.

Steffey has been a member of many different bands over the years. Hailing from Eastern Tennessee, he has performed with an impressive array of award-winning groups including Alison Krauss & Union Station, the Lonesome River Band, Mountain Heart, The Isaacs, and the Dan Tyminski Band. Currently, he’s a member of The Boxcars, yet another award-winning outfit of all-star musicians Ron Stewart, Keith Garrett, Harold Nixon, and Gary Hultman. The group’s latest album is Familiar With The Ground, considered one of their best efforts yet. Steffey is also a teacher at the burgeoning Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Studies Program at Eastern Tennessee State University (ETSU), located in Johnson City near his home in Jonesboro.

Winning 11 IBMA awards is an outstanding accomplishment, second only to more wins by Bryan Sutton in the guitar category and Rob Ickes in the resonator guitar category. When I knew I was writing this article, I went back and retrieved some of my previous conversations with Steffey from back in the day. On the afternoon after Steffey won his first-ever IBMA Award in 2002, I spoke to the excited musician about his accomplishment, not knowing the future that was to come his way in the following years.

“I couldn’t have been more surprised if someone had hit me in the head with a hammer,” Adam said 15 years ago. “I had been nominated many times before, and I had never won it previous to last night. When they called my name, I couldn’t believe it. It was just a flood of emotion knowing that many people thought that much of the way I play the mandolin, and that they would vote for me and I could get that award. It’s been something special. I don’t have any children, but that’s the only thing I could probably compare it to. It’s almost like I’ve had a baby or something. Everybody has been congratulating me and they are tickled to death. I’m so proud.”

Now, a decade and a half later in 2017, Steffey is married to the very talented clawhammer banjo player Tina Steffey and together they have a couple of rambunctious twin boys who are now 5 years old. Life has played out in an interesting and fulfilling way for Steffey, and he’s well-aware of it. His thoughts on his long road in the music business have inspired his latest solo album Here To Stay.

On this motivated set, Steffey has taken the songs he has been associated with over the years and has remade them with a topnotch band behind him and a new enthusiasm leading the way. Joining him is bandmate Ron Stewart on fiddle, Jason Davis on banjo, Aaron Ramsey on guitar, Tim Surrett on harmony vocals, wife Tina on banjo and longtime friend Barry Bales on bass.

“I started getting the idea for the album about three or four years ago when people would come up to me who were familiar with my history and who I played with, and they would ask for a song I did with Alison or one I played with Mountain Heart. And, there is a turnover rate when it comes to people who may have just gotten into bluegrass music in the last two or three years who may not be aware of who I played with and where I come from at all. These songs are new to them. I don’t have an Alison Krauss record or a Mountain Heart record to sell them. So, if I just put the songs I get regular requests for on the album along with four or five new ones, I’d have a complete record. That’s how it boiled out.”

Steffey has always tried to work within a band setting, although his solo albums definitely have his name front and center. It’s a fine line for the mandolin star. “I never wanted the album to be considered a ‘greatest hits’ record because I don’t feel like I’ve had any of those. I have songs that people associate me with, but I’ve only had near misses instead of hits.”

One exception for anyone that’s been paying attention to Steffey’s career is the song “Mountain Man.” It’s a great melody that surrounds a still-timely story about rural people who have lived on their land for generations only to have the government come and take it away by eminent domain for whatever new project is the idea of the day. The Brumley Gap (Virginia) fight to stop the building of a dam by the local people is a classic example of resistance which took place in 1982 not far from Steffey’s childhood home in East Tennessee.

“‘Mountain Man’ was one song that I knew had to go on there. That one and ‘No Place To Hide’ (which some call ‘Mudslide’) and ‘Cloudy Days.’ The latter two I did with Alison Krauss. I’m really happy with this album. I knew I wanted to just go in there and not completely rearrange these songs. I didn’t want to feel like I was competing with the original versions, yet I didn’t want to go so far out that people didn’t recognize the songs. I originally wanted to name the album after one of the new cuts called ‘The Space I’m In,’ which was written by Eric Gibson of the Gibson Brothers.”

What the album (on Mountain Home Music) does bring to the table is the muscle of the musicians brought onboard. There are songs on this project where the band is rocking, with Stewart’s fiddle sawing hard and Davis’s banjo leaned close in to the microphone. “Ron usually plays banjo with The Boxcars, but I wanted to get him on there with the fiddle. I wanted to get Jason on the banjo because I’m a huge fan of his playing. He is powerful. Jason and his new wife used to live here in Johnson City; she actually graduated from the music program at ETSU, but last fall they moved up to Galax, Va. But, when they were here, they used to come over all of the time to jam. We would have picking sessions, and Jason would come over to the house, and I became a huge fan of his and just knew I wanted him to play the five-string on the album.”

The rest of the musicians on Here To Stay are also good friends. “Barry Bales is one of my oldest friends, whether we’re playing music or not playing music. I’ve known Barry since I was about 14 and he was about 11 or 12. He’s one of the best bass players ever. And, I brought in Aaron Ramsey, who is one of my favorite young musicians; although he’s not that young anymore as I think he might be 30 years old now. Aaron could have played any instrument on the recording and would have been great, but I love his guitar playing. He’s another one that’s been over to the house a good deal and has jammed a lot. I love the way he feels rhythm. I knew with that crew in there, this album would almost cut itself. They knew the songs and knew I wasn’t going to do anything crazy or funky with the arrangements. The songs didn’t cut themselves, obviously, but we kind of went in there and picked the tempo and decided what key we were in, and we took off.”

Tina was a force on clawhammer banjo long before she met Adam. Her influence has opened him up to the modern old-time music world. Since then, Adam has been a proponent of the movement to combine the two closely-related Appalachian roots music genres of bluegrass and old-time, as heard on his excellent 2013 album New Primitive. On Here To Stay, Tina and Adam join forces yet again on the classic fiddle tune “Hell Among The Yearlings.”

Like many musicians, Steffey would have gone in a different direction had music not presented itself as a viable profession. When asked about what day job he would have pursued if he had taken a different path, his answer foreshadows his current life in 2017. “In the early to mid-1980s, I was going to college here at ETSU trying to get my teaching degree. I was planning on teaching English and Literature at mainly a high-school level. The main angle on that was making it so I could have a couple of months off in the summer when I could go pick some music. That was my thinking, totally. Then, I got busier and busier with my playing. The Lonesome River Band was the first professional group I traveled around with back in 1987. In 1988, I left the Lonesome River Band and went back to school. Then, we put the group Dusty Miller together with Tim Stafford and Barry Bales. Subsequently to that, we began to get out further and further away from the Tri-cities area and that’s when we met Alison Krauss. We got to know her a little bit and she was fixing to have a change in her group and that’s when she asked us to hook up with her. That was in early 1990 and I was with her until 1998.”

Nowadays, Steffey teaches at the ETSU Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Program during the week while still hitting the road with The Boxcars on the weekends. “Teaching now at ETSU is really neat,” says Steffey. “I started as a part of the adjunct faculty for a good number of years, teaching mandolin lessons and working with some of the bands. They have a variety of different student groups in the program, from Celtic bands to bluegrass, which is the majority. Then, several years ago, I thought, ‘Well, I better finish up my degree.’ I only had maybe 20 to 30 hours left to finish up my bachelor’s degree. I ended up finishing it and then about two years later, they had a position open up for a lecturer in the program. I applied for that and went through the whole process and for the last couple of years, I’ve been doing actual classroom instruction. I teach a music business class that meets a couple of days a week that takes the students through all of the behind-the-curtain kind of things that you have to think about if you’re considering doing this as a profession. It’s not about just playing G-runs and loading up and going to the festival. If you don’t keep an eye on things, ten years will go by and you’ll be sitting there in worse shape than you were when you started.”

Steffey finds that working with motivated young people can be extremely rewarding. “Now at ETSU, they have a thing where you can do what’s called a Performance Scholarship and if you qualify for that, you get to pay in-state tuition even if you’re from somewhere else. People come to the ETSU program from all over America. That’s where I first met Gary Hultman, who now plays resonator guitar for The Boxcars. He was a student there. Gary is a fantastic player and a hard worker who is just totally consumed with it and focused. It’s a lot of fun to be around that, and it’s a kick in the pants to be around people that are that fired up about the music. It doesn’t keep me young, but it makes me feel younger because it gets me excited when I see that same fire I used to have when I was 18 or 20. It gives you a great deal of satisfaction to see how they progress and to watch them go out and become successful in their own right.”

The desire to be a teacher and a mentor has been in Steffey’s head and heart for a very long time. When I looked back at my interview with him in 2002, the day after he won his first IBMA Award, I found this gem. “I always try and have time for people,” he said back then. “I was pickin’ with a young lady back here that was 11 years old a while ago that absolutely can tear a mandolin up. Anytime I can sit down with kids or folks that are just starting out, regardless of what the age is; I’ll try and do it because I was real shy and didn’t want to bother people when I was younger. But, anytime that I could take the opportunity to learn from somebody that I admired or I could sit and watch them really close and watch how they did things, it helped me. I always want to be accessible to folks and not be the kind that would slam a mandolin case shut, and I disappear and be gone. I love meeting with folks and just hanging out. Anytime anyone asks me ‘How did you do that?’ it’s just flattering. Especially with teenagers and young kids that are taking it up because I took the mandolin up when I was about 14.” The 11-year old that Steffey mentioned back then was none other than Sierra Hull.

Then, in 2012, I interviewed Steffey after yet another of his IBMA wins, and he mentioned how happy he is that the now-older, 21-year old Hull is finally nominated in the mandolin category. “Sierra is one of my favorite mandolin players, if not my favorite one,” he said five years ago. “I love her style. I love the ideas that she comes up with, and I love the way she approaches it. I feel like it’s just a matter of time when she will win a hundred Mandolin Player Of The Year awards. She is just that good. Ever since I first heard her play probably ten years ago, I said the same thing. I said, ‘That girl right there is something else. She’s going to be a legend in this business.’ It means that the music is going to keep rolling on. You want to see young people like that who are ate up with it like I was when I was their age.” Last fall, at the 2016 World Of Bluegrass in Raleigh, N.C., Sierra Hull won her first-ever IBMA Mandolin Player Of The Year award.

As for Steffey, he has a growing family to feed, new students to teach, and a topnotch band to work with in The Boxcars. And, on the side, he’s able to produce his own solo albums that help to keep the mandolin fresh as a prominent instrument in the bluegrass world. “I just play and I enjoy playing. If I had never been nominated or had never won any of those awards, I’d still be doing exactly what I’m doing now. But to have those honors along the way makes you feel really good and proud and happy to do what you do. You’re doing things that people enjoy, and it gives them some kind of pleasure and happiness. That’s cool. That’s what I like to do.”

Steffey is a musician who has met many of his heroes, from Bill Monroe to several others along the way. Looking back, it was Dempsey Young of the band Lost & Found that inspired him to take up the mandolin in the first place. Now, he wants to keep the tradition going for current and future generations.

“I am way beyond blessed. The Lord has taken care of me and He has given me all of this stuff. I’m beyond compensated for any effort I’ve put into it. I just do what I enjoy. Playing music is a guilty pleasure for me because I certainly wasn’t planning on it. It just kept going and going. I looked back after 15 or 20 years or so and I thought, ‘Well dang, I guess I’m doing this for a living.’ I’ve enjoyed it and I’ve enjoyed all of the bands I’ve played with. It isn’t always easy, and anybody who says it is is telling a tale. It’s a tough business and things can get tougher all of the time. But, it’s what I have done and as long as the Lord will let me, it will be what I do.”

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