Big Sky Ramblin: An Interview With Jay Stanek and Chris Meier

Jay Stanek and Chris Meier are friends and bandmates.  Emerging out of the fertile music scene of Champaign-Urbana in the mid-nineties, their muse has taken them to stages, studios and points beyond to achieve their goals.

Filtering a ton of musical and personal influences through a shared vision and welcoming a revolving cast of talented musicians into their main musical outlet, The Big Sky Stringband, it is a test of leadership, partnership and musical vision to sustain a working band over the years.

Recently, Jay and Chris took time out to chat with The Barn about their inspiration, the philosophy that they impart on the band and also to project a little about what the future holds.

The Barn: Like myself, you guys have spent some time in Champaign.  What have you taken away musically from that community?  Do you still feel connected to it?

Jay Stanek (JS): The four years in Champaign were great because the musical community was so tightly knit.  It seemed that everybody played in everybody else's band. It’s also where we really got into bluegrass and folk music.  I took a class called "Music 199: Old Time String Band" and it wasn't really a class. We just played gigs. The class was run by a graduate student named Kip Rainey, who is now in a terrific Chicago band called Tangleweed, and we played with Jordan Kaye's Prairie Dogs who are still at it today, and the Bluegrassholes (two of whom—Jeff Austin and Dave Johnston—later formed Yonder Mountain String Band, and another, Ken Wilson, was in Chris and my band at the time), and that's not to mention the other great bands playing around C-U -- Funky Butt Drum Club, the Brat Pack, Cameron McGill’s Neintown -- still.

What was also great about Champaign-Urbana is that you could go see live music every night of the week and see any style of music as well.  That has changed and it's disappointing but I still go see my musician friends in Champaign a few times every year.

The Barn: I am intrigued by Big Sky as a inter-generational band.  What have you learned from having Dick in the band?  What has he learned from you?

Chris Meier (CM):  For me it's been a great opportunity to play with my father-in-law.  We've really formed a great relationship that goes well beyond music.  I've learned a lot about life from Dick, as well as a lot about some great bands of the 70's.  As for him, I think we've turned him on to some new musicians and a new style of music.  He knows good music when he hears it, and can appreciate nearly any style of music.  In many ways that's what makes the band so interesting: you've got people with such varied musical backgrounds, yet somehow it comes together to form some great music.

JS: Dick has really been an inspiration. He's certainly a father figure, but he has a great sense of humor and never seems to take himself too seriously. He was playing in an inter-racial band in the Deep South in the 1960s and 1970s when it was still potentially dangerous to do so.  What could we possibly do to top that?  Also, Dick is an accomplished lead guitarist but for this band he wanted to push himself and play fretless bass.  He's definitely one of the best musicians I've played with and one of the nicest guys I've known.  I don't know what he's learned from us but I know he has a great time playing and that's good enough.

The Barn: I’ve seen you have covered two of my favorite Bob Dylan songs (You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere and Tangled Up In Blue).  What makes a great Dylan song for you to cover?  Are there any others in particular that you would like to try?  Is there an overall philosophy about bringing cover material (by any artist) into the repertoire?

JS:  Chris and I have been Dylan fanatics since high school.  What is great about Dylan tunes is they can be recreated in so many ways.   There's a reason he is one of the most covered artists.  You can hear a Byrds version or a Jerry Garcia version of the same song and they're completely different.  One tune I've always loved and wanted to do was "Tombstone Blues" because it's so punk rock.  Chris and I used to play versions of "Girl From the North Country" and "Love Minus Zero/No Limit."  I'd love to bring those back.

CM:  Our song “Dialog with John” is autobiographical about the music Jay and I were playing in Champaign, and in that song I sing about "Dylan's fake book in the key of C.”  Jay spent like $6 on a Dylan fake book that had chords for everything on “Blood on the Tracks” and “Desire.”  I lived in the Round Balcony Apartments on 2nd Street and we played the frat house across the street for the 4th of July, and “Dialog with John” makes reference to that show, and how we used to sit around on other occasions and play every song in that Dylan book while drinking beers and talking about what we love about music.

Dialog With John: [audio:]

Cover songs, either by Dylan or others, seem to find their way in and out of setlists over time.  “Whipping Post” is a good example of that.  We played it one time by request without having practiced it at all, and then didn't play it again for several months until someone in the band was like, "why haven't we tried ‘Whipping Post’ again?"  We did it that night and it sounded great and stuck in the repertoire for a few months. Who knows, maybe we'll play that again sometime soon.  We did the Dead's “Here Comes Sunshine” two times a few years back to commemorate the Summer Solstice.  It was really good, but I don't think any of us remember the harmony parts, and that song’s a bit tricky to sing if you haven't done it in awhile.

We'll play a fairly unknown song like “If I Had Known” by Greg Brown in the same set as the widely known Old Crow Medicine Show song “Wagon Wheel.”  We like both songs so it's a win for us and the crowd tends to eat both up. I guess the philosophy behind all this is that we want to keep it interesting for both the band and audience.

Tangled Up In Blue: [audio:]

You Aint Goin' Nowhere: [audio:]

The Barn: I assume you guys are both from around the Chicago area, yet your originals have a bit of folk and country to them.  How do you explain your inspiration to write bluegrass-inspired acoustic-based music with lyrical content about trains, rivers and such?  Have you ever or would you ever write in different styles or genres?  Do you have a particular approach to songwriting?

CM:  We have a few songwriters in the band, and while each has his own unique style, there are some common threads.  Jay and I have always appreciated the simplicity of acoustic-based music and in some ways the lyrical content follows. The instrumentation of the band lends itself to a certain style of music, but we don't allow this to control the style of music we play.

Q: As a lifelong Chicagoan, I can't help but smile at your tune "Hat's Off To Rick Koz".  Where did the spark for that one come from?

JS:   Me and a few friends were sitting around drinking and decided to create a list of funny stuff from the 70s and 80s that we saw on TV.  The chorus is "Rock a bye your baby," which was a line from "Harry Schmerler...your singing Ford dealer.”  Then I threw in "Harry Schmerler is not afraid,” a nod to the Lenny Bruce reference in REMs "End of the World as We Know It."

Rich Koz: [audio:]

Other bad commercials like Victory Auto Wreckers, Celozzi-Ettleson Chevrolet made the cut.  Of course, no Chicago-centric song about pop culture would be complete without Rich Koz's "Son of Svengoolie.  If you're from Chicago, you get it.  If not, you don't.

Q: There are some inspired improvisational moments in some of your shows on  How much of an influence do jambands like Grateful Dead or Phish have on your stage show?

JS:   We incorporate improvisational moments in each of our shows.  Like the Grateful Dead, some Big Sky songs like “Grandpa's Groove” or “Slow Train” are better suited for improvisation than others.  We tend to group songs in a set so that you might get a bluegrass mini-set, a jammy mini-set, and a straightforward rocking/countryish mini-set.  We're also always tinkering with songs in practice, during sound checks or even during the shows themselves.  We had been playing our song “Della Vane” for at least a year before we added a key change in the middle of the song on the fly during a show at Reggie's in Chicago.  Everyone liked it so it's been in there ever since.

Della Vane: [audio:]

CM:  We have a lot of diverse influences like the Dead and Phish have, so those influences find their way into our shows. We're closer to the Grateful Dead stage show than the Phish show. Phish has a tendency to pull some pretty cool and random surprises on a fairly frequent basis, but the Dead just played their music -- warts and all -- and hoped that fans liked it.  Neither of those approaches is better than the other, but we just feel more comfortable with the Dead's approach; it lends itself more to our sound and our personalities.

Q: Who are the contemporary acoustic bands and artists that you admire?  Why?

CM:  I mentioned Greg Brown earlier.  He’s a singer/songwriter from Iowa who puts out some great albums.  His lyrics are incredibly smart, and can paint such a vivid picture.  Plus his voice is incredible, once you hear a song of his, you won't forget.  The Avett Brothers is just starting to break as an up-and-coming band, and they put out some great albums and EPs.   Their newest album is outstanding, and I think their songwriting is underrated, they write some great, great songs.  Josh Ritter is another artist I've been listening to lately.  He, too, has some great songwriting skills.

Q: What are some of the goals for the band in the short and mid-term?

JS: As you know, the Brixie's show is our last club show until at least August.  We'll take time off in June to gear up for a busy festival season in July which includes Sheffield Garden Walk, and multiple set shows at Barrington Brew Fest and the Crystal Lake Lakeside Festival.  We've got some material demoed now and we've been playing these songs out live to break them in.  Basically, we like to see what sticks and how things evolve.

CM:  Big Sky's been around for about a decade now and that's saying something in the local scene and the current musical climate.  There are only a handful of bands still playing that were getting their start at the same time as we were.  Cornmeal and Backyard Tire Fire come to mind.  Both those bands have done a lot more touring and it shows when you look at their following and the great music they're producing.

For Big Sky, we've spent a good deal of time working on the music, and balancing that with our family commitments. While we've played shows in Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin, we haven't played as extensively outside of Chicagoland and Illinois, and that's by design.  I guess the questions for the band now is, where are we and where might we go from here. We've started to talk about these questions as a band and we'll see where this leads us.  We're getting older, but our tunes still appear to resonate with a lot of people, so I think we’re all proud of what we’ve accomplished and the music we’ve produced.

We look forward to seeing you at Brixie's on Saturday.  Tickets are still available at Brown Paper Tickets.

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