Brittany Haas ’09 is a fiddler’s fiddler. Over her decade-long career, she has recorded with bluegrass heavyweights like Gillian Welch and Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin), played in the house band for NPR’s Live From Here (formerly A Prairie Home Companion), and composed pioneering folk works for her many “chamber-grass” band projects, including the groups Hawktail and Crooked Still.
The past few years have brought Haas continued professional achievement (a tour with Live from Here, an Americana Music Award nomination for instrumentalist of the year in 2018). But it’s also been a time for reflection and new beginnings. PAW spoke with Haas in New York on the eve of a Carnegie Hall performance last year.
Where do you see yourself fitting into the Nashville music scene?
I’ve really fallen in love with old-time fiddling, which comes from the southern Appalachian mountains. Bluegrass is more about taking turns playing solos, with everyone else backing you up. Old-time music is more about playing for dances, and everyone plays the melody together.
My band, Hawktail, plays all original songs. When you’re playing an old classic song, you know that it’s good because it’s stood the test of time. So it’s been a challenge to create something that doesn’t already exist. There are only so many notes. It’s cool when you find something that’s new and feels like your own thing.
How did you end up pursuing fiddling professionally?
I was fiddling seriously in high school. I went to Princeton because I wasn’t ready to only do music. I thought of college as a time to learn other things and figured that I should devote myself to actually being in college rather than touring a lot.
Music professor Dan Trueman is really into Norwegian fiddle music, which comes from this weird fiddle-ish instrument called a Hardanger fiddle. Each week, we would each write a tune and then show the other. We ended up recording an album in Taplin Auditorium. And then I joined Crooked Still my junior year, and toured with them during breaks and weekends.
I just started grad school — I’m getting my master’s in social work. I’m not yet sure if it’s a career change. Part of it is just being a little bit burnt out from the touring lifestyle. It’s been 10 years, and it’s been crazy and awesome, but sometimes you feel like you don’t have a home. There was one year when I just didn’t — my stuff was in storage — and then other years I’ve been on the road maybe two-thirds of the time.
I don’t want to actually quit music. I’m still working a fair bit, just with most of the gigs on weekends. But I’m trying to figure out how to travel less, and so far, it’s been great. Interview conducted and condensed by David Walter ’11
LISTEN to Brittany Haas ’09 play at bit.ly/haas-video