If you have ever tried to hold mercury in your hands you can relate to my next guests. Meet Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer. Cathy and Marcy are known as one of the most accomplished… and renowned folk duos around. Commonly thought of as folk and bluegrass artists, if you spend five minutes with them it’s apparent that their act and music really defies description in large part. After all, to assess Cathy and Marcy, you have to ask which instruments they are playing that night, to whom they are playing to (child or adult or both), and what hat (performer, recording artist, teacher or engineer) they are wearing at any given time. However, when you consider that they play dozens of instruments, have music which caters to virtually any age range, and, that they are pretty much a self-sustaining artist it’s hard to put them in any one category hence my reference to mercury.
Many people will know the duo for their multi-Grammy winning ways (2004 and 2005 for best musical album for children), but there is way more than that. I could go on but let’s talk to the artist. If you want to learn more please visit their website at www.cathyandmarcy.com. I’ll say this much, on a good day they perform, record, songwrite, and engineer their own act and on certain days, you might see a rope trick or two as well. Beyond the accolades, Cathy and Marcy have worked with other performers and artists like Riders in the Sky, Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, Si Kahn, Brave Combo, Mariachi Los Camperos, Mike Seeger, Patsy Montana, Pete Kennedy and Ysaye Barnwell and by my account that has led to producing over 60 recordings. One final note, Cathy can really offer some sound business advice when it comes to the music business so, I guess I have to keep repeating myself and just say mercury and you’ll know what I mean.
So, without any further delay here’s my discussion with Cathy Fink which came on the heels of the duo’s release of their new CD release entitled, “Rockin’ the Uke.” (2011, Community Music, Inc.)
K Bo: Tell us about the genesis of your amazing musical partnership and some history leading up to that.
CF: We met in July of 1980 and we started casually playing music together but it was in 1983 that we decided to start playing music together. We decided to dedicate ourselves to being a duo. Before that I did some solo work and some duo work in Canada. Marcy was pretty much the same although she worked with some bluegrass bands as well as an all-time string band in Michigan. So even before we committed to one another we had a lot of experience and viable careers.
K Bo: What do think convinced you both to commit to one another?
CF: Just spending time together and performing with someone else. We just had a great musical connection. We also had enough musical direction that we wanted to explore and that also made it interesting.
K Bo: By far the most overwhelming aspect of your act is trying to understand what genre you guys are considered and frankly, there are so many that you cover it’s hard to pick one. Do you see it that way too?
CF: It’s so hard to do a short description so the best way for me to describe it is to call it eclectic roots music. Underneath that our music is steeped in tradition of country music, classic jazz and swing, and many other styles. All of that contributes to the music that we play.
K Bo: How about formal training?
CF: Neither of us had much formal training at all believe it or else. We pretty much learned by ear. Marcy’s family had some musical experience which helped but she was lucky enough to get a guitar at a young age. In my family although my mother played piano we did not spend much musical time together.
K Bo: I find that surprising that for all the instruments that you both play—and we’ll cover that in a moment—that there is not a lot of formal training in both of your backgrounds. That probably is encouraging to a lot of musicians.
CF: I think the definition of “formal training” is typically taken from a teacher who uses a book. We “trained” very very hard but it was just in a different style. For example, if you take someone like Doc Watson or Ralph Stanley or the younger up and coming people in blues and bluegrass, these people have all learned from the oral tradition. Under that method there is no less time and effort put in so, rather than reading what someone has wrote out for you, you listen to those notes and vocals and you put yourself in a position to emulate it and play it back. You’re skipping the written page that’s all and it takes an equal amount of training and effort to do that.
K Bo: From your vantage point today, would you have done it differently, in terms of training?
CF: No. Would it have been easier to have read music? Yes. But, for example, I specialize in playing the five string banjo. Now, there’s lot of classically written music for the five string banjo but I specialize in the claw hammer banjo and there are over sixty ways that it can be tuned. For written music this can become very confusing because with each tuning the note on the page would be fingered at a different spot on the banjo. Additionally, although I can read tablature, it’s much quicker for me to play stuff by ear.
To be continued…stay tuned!