Missy Raines Interview

Missy Raines Interview

By Big Al Weekley for Country Music News International Magazine & Radio Show

With her latest album, Highlander, bluegrass/Americana icon Missy Raines takes inventory of where she stands at this current juncture in her storied career — this melodic ode to her native West Virginia, which simultaneously serves as an ideal prism of time and space Raines peers through into the unknowns of tomorrow.

“Making this record and having this band has been sort of a homecoming,” the legendary bassist/vocalist says. “I’m at a point in my life where I’ve been able to look back at what I’ve gone through, what I’ve done, and the path I ultimately wanted to take.”

Captured in Nashville, the 10-song LP once again brings together Raines with producer Alison Brown, a bluegrass star in her own right. The record showcases Raines backed by her steadfast group Allegheny, named after the peaks and valleys of Raines’ homeland in the rural depths of Appalachia via the Mid-Atlantic.

“Lately, I’ve realized so much of the music I’ve created comes from personal experience,” Raines notes. “Songs about growing up in a small town, songs about making hard choices when you’re coming-of-age — do I stay in this remote area and try to make a living or do I leave my family behind and face what’s out there on my own?”

Choosing the latter, Raines headed for the bright lights of Nashville, ultimately garnering some of the biggest accolades in the music industry, including 14 International Bluegrass Music Association honors, with 10 being awarded for “Bass Player of the Year.” Raines’ 2018 release Royal Traveller was also nominated for a Grammy Award for “Best Bluegrass Album” in 2020.

And amid this existential quest of sorts for Raines emerges a finely-honed internal antenna within Highlander, one that places her atop this lyrical platform of personal reflection, cultural observation, and artistic cultivation.

“Maybe it’s because I’m an artist, but the best of me comes out when I feel deeply about something,” Raines says. “And I have to choose things that I feel passionate about, which will allow me to reproduce and translate those feelings musically.”

For Raines, when approaching the sacred art of singing, she’s able to visualize the words and emotions put forth through the selections on Highlander — cherished images and vivid scenes from her own continued journey conjured to the forefront of her intent.

“As a singer, it took me a while to find how my voice fits into this music that I love so much,” Raines says. “I try to tap into what I’m feeling, to convey all the energy and the drive that sets bluegrass apart — it’s a personal music, but it’s universal at the same time.”

Highlander brings together some of the finest musicians in Nashville and beyond, including country star and fellow West Virginian Kathy Mattea; fiddle virtuosos Michael Cleveland, Bronwyn Keith-Hynes, Darol Anger and Shad Cobb; renowned bluegrass vocalists Danny Paisley, Dudley Connell and Laurie Lewis; with dobro wizard Rob Ickes and banjo great Alison Brown also making guest appearances.

And though Raines emerged onto the national scene through the ancient tones of bluegrass music, it’s her unrelenting urge to wander down the rabbit hole and immerse herself into other sonic realms that has led to an abundance of lauded collaborations in the areas of Americana, country and folk.

Peeling back the layers of Highlander, Raines returns to her bluegrass roots. Coming into the recording process, Raines found herself, perhaps subconsciously, digging deep into the people, places and things residing at the foundation of her life and career.

Reflecting on the tracks selected for Highlander, Raines found the gem “Ghost of a Love,” a tune by Virginia-based Big Country Bluegrass.  Raines recalls, “Their version was a little different but I heard it with that classic bluegrass fast-waltz vibe that feels completely genuine to me.  It’s the perfect song to feature Dudley Connell, founding member of the traditional iconic band, The Johnson Mountain Boys.” The number also features Raines’ husband, Ben Surratt, who engineered the album, and the inspiration for the ballad “Looking to You” — a Raines original paying tribute to the couple’s almost 40 years together.

“These songs represent both sides of me,” Raines says. “Even though they’re different grooves and different feels, I believe they each fall comfortably within the context of bluegrass — that’s how I see bluegrass, with a wide lens.”

Whether it was being a kid and heading to bluegrass festivals around the Mid-Atlantic with her family or seeing pillars of the genre onstage — Bill Monroe, Stanley Brothers, Mac Wiseman, Sam Bush — each moment remains etched on the walls of Raines’ memory. And although Raines has ducked down numerous other avenues of sound and scope in recent years, she’s never left bluegrass behind.

“I love so many different kinds of music,” Raines says. “But, I cannot describe how bluegrass affects me, and why it affects me so deeply.”

If anything, Raines has always kept the intricate skillset and lifelong adoration for bluegrass in her back pocket amid her adventures into other musical circles. It’s like Monroe said long ago, “If you can play my music, you can play anything,” and so goes Missy Raines further and farther into her purposeful curiosity and bountiful discovery of self.

“I’m embracing bluegrass again, and it’s all been incredibly good for me,” Raines says. “In every sense of the way, I almost can just go back [in my mind] and rely on those intrinsic things I learned as a 15-year-old in a field at a bluegrass festival — tapping into how I felt back then, and how I still feel today about this music.”

With modern-day bluegrass currently experiencing another high-water mark as names like Billy Strings, Molly Tuttle and Sierra Hull proudly carry the torch of tradition and evolution, Raines finds solidarity in the ongoing growth and progress of the “high, lonesome sound” — this fine line between respect and rebellion that Raines has seamlessly balanced since the beginning.

“I watched that first generation of [bluegrass] people doing all that — creating traditional music, then breaking away from it to do their own thing,” Raines says. “And all of it is still surviving and flourishing. To me, there’s nothing more bluegrass than the act of absolute innovation — and that’s what we’re doing, because that’s what Monroe did from the start.”

 

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