Led by the heart

By Paul Rigg

Muriel Anderson is one of the world's foremost fingerstyle guitarists and harp-guitarists. She is the first female to have won the National Fingerpicking Guitar Championship. Her recent CD 'Nightlight Daylight' has won top honours in 11 national awards and is slated to receive another in October.  

Illinois-born but of Finnish descent, Muriel Anderson draws on a plethora of cultural and musical styles.  
She has performed with Chet Atkins, Les Paul, Earl Klugh, Tommy Emmanuel and Doc Watson, among many others.

She has just finished recording a new project, called EclipseIt’s a CD and greeting card in one, capturing the moments she was playing harp guitar during the full eclipse in Nashville TN (info & pre order here). Anderson is currently on a tour of Europe and the US. Guitars Exchange catches up with her on the Croatian leg of her tour.  

How is your tour going?

Beautifully. We are having a wonderful time as this is the first time we have presented our audio-visual 'Wonderlust' show in Eastern Europe.  

How did this audio-visual collaboration with Bryan Allen come about?

I hired Bryan a few years ago to do the artwork for my 'Nightlight Daylight' CD and in the process of working on it, we fell in love!  

I was originally attracted to his artwork because I was astounded that he was saying the same things about light, optimism and humour that I was. When I hired him I discovered that there was a reason for that, because we have the same heart, and we connected.  

I then thought 'how can we tour together so he doesn't just carry my guitars?', as he is a brilliant artist, so now we travel together as equals. The show offers a combination of still images and video carefully choreographed with the music. We wanted the visuals to complement and help people understand the music. The music comes from all different cultures; so the images also emanate from all different cultures.  

Do you find that the audience respond differently to your music now it is presented with visuals?

I think that my audience enjoy the shows as much or more than they used to, and the friends who they bring along, who perhaps don't usually listen to guitar music, are now also brought into the world. So we think we can touch a greater audience. We see more tears in their eyes.  

When did you start playing guitar?

I started when I was about eight years old. A friend of the family was throwing a guitar away and as we drove down the road I just started figuring out melodies on it, and so they gave me the guitar.  

It was a half-size guitar that was perfect for me. It had nylon strings so it was a little easier on my fingertips.  

What is your favourite guitar model? 

I like a Ladies Parlor guitar with steel strings that is made by David Taylor - a young builder in East Tennessee.  

I first heard it at a guitar festival in Florida and I said 'this is the sound I've been looking for all my life'. But then I wondered how I was going to get it back to Tennessee? David then said: 'I live in Tennessee'. And he continued: 'In fact you might not remember but I went to one of your workshops and I was so inspired that I went home and drew up this guitar. The inlay on the fingerboard was from a rose in my garden that reminded me of you.' In fact that was the first thing that had drawn my attention to that guitar - the rose. But of course I had no idea that the guitar had actually been built for me before I decided to buy it!  

Why did you move over to harp guitar?

I started writing tunes that required low resonating bass strings when I was in college, and so I started looking for that type of instrument.  

Many years later I had Del Langejans build one for me and then afterwards had others built by Mike Doolin, Mike Brittain, and attachable super-trebles by Lukas Brunner.

Do they always have to be custom built?

Today there is a company that makes them but they had previously stopped building them in 1920. In America they were only made for a short period of time, by the Larson Brothers and Gibson. But now Holloway Harp Guitars make them under the name 'Dyer'.  

Who have been your main influences? 

My first guitar hero was Doc Watson, an old country style player. I was  later heavily influenced by Chet Atkins, Pat Metheney, and Tommy Emmanuel. I was also interested in international folk dancing, and I used different rhythms and harmonies from that style in my compositions.

I met Chet Atkins through my mandolin teacher, who was his brother-in-law. Chet started mailing me music to learn when I was living in Chicago, and later I travelled to Nashville to learn from him one on one. But more than the tunes themselves I was inspired by his method of arrranging and his approach to music. He was continually learning from other players and open to all styles of music. He would enjoy working with anyone, from the guy who sold T-shirts from the back of his truck to ex-Presidents. His open approach resonated strongly with me.  

Later I was influenced by Les Paul. I remember that I was playing a tune called 'Nola' on WGN Radio in Chicago. It was about midnight and they told me that there was a caller for me, and that it was Les Paul. He called from New York and said 'I am listening and if you are ever around in New York please come and play with me'. So one night I called by and he invited  me on stage. Later I invited him to one of my shows; he was in his nineties but he was still playing great.

How has your guitar based music changed in the last 50 years?

I always played what was in my heart. I've played bluegrass, classical, finger style Doc Watson, but I would never let one style completely die. If there was one tune I loved from a previous style I would continue playing it. Now I am trying to explore music from different countries. I have been very influenced by Tierra Negra, a flamenco duo, so after playing with them my music has a flamenco flavour to it. And in the future, from travelling through places like Hungary and Czechoslovakia, I am going to include Eastern European flavours.  

Have you faced particular barriers as a woman to being a guitarist?

I don't think so. I don't think of myself as a 'female guitarist', but simply a guitarist, and anything I have not been able to do was related to my style of music, not me being a woman.  

How did your collaboration with Woody Allen come about?  

That was fortuitous. He was finishing the Vicky Cristina Barcelona movie and needed another tune with a Spanish flavour. Their editor knew a friend of mine and I was recommended to him. I sent them a Catalonian folk song and it was included.  

How did your music end up being played on the space shuttle?

That was fun. I had done a national TV show and somebody from NASA saw me play and so they contacted me and I went to play for them. One of the astronauts, Susan Helms, bought one of my records at that time and thought 'this would be good music to watch the earth go by', and so she took it up with her and sent me some photos. I was inspired by that to write 'View from Space', and that is now part of the visual show.  

You set up the charity the Music For Life Alliance (MFLA) in 1998 to make music accessible to young people. How did that come about?

There were a series of thefts and break-ins in my neighborhood involving young people seeking money for drugs. When I looked into it I found that only wealthy schools in the area still had music education. I thought 'these kids have emotional, spiritual and social needs but they find drugs much easier to come by than a guitar or a saxophone'.  

Many times as a musician I have heard people say that they were profoundly touched by music or that music helped them through a difficult time, or that a charity donated an instrument to their child and it gave them new hope in life. The guitar transformed my life so I wanted to be a part of offering that same experience and opportunity to others.  

The MFLA supports established grassroots organisations. One organisation from California, for example, found that the percentage of students in a class that went into crime was very high, around 40 or 50%; but the percentage of students who went into crime from those who played music was 1% - there was a huge difference. If you give people something that is so encompassing of the heart, there is something that music - playing music yourself - triggers. It can really change lives.   

What is the purpose of the All Star Guitar night?

It is to celebrate the guitar, raise funds and bring guitarists together as players. A lot of us are friends, so that was the primary reason we started it. 

We started raising money for a cancer support group but then decided to do something more direct around the guitar. So that is how the MFLA started, to give a greater meaning to the show.
The show is usually at the same time as the national music show NAMM. We were doing it twice a year in California and Nashville but often now it is just annually in Nashville, because I am touring a lot. Sometimes we also have a smaller guitar night at another location if it is requested.  

I can see that many who play have a name as a guitarist - but could someone from Guitars Exchange, for example, call you up and say 'can I play with you'?

Sure they can! 

They can contact us through Allstarguitarnight.com or the 'About' section on my website. You have to have a unique sound or be the best at what you do though!  

I would like to give your readers a special link: www.murielanderson.com/nightlight  - that takes you to a place where if you like you can get a free bonus track emailed to you.

The interview closes with Muriel Anderson getting up from her big wooden table to go and have lunch. She tells me how important food and culture is to her, and I mention how unusual it is to find a section on 'Recipes' on a musician's website.   Music, supporting disadvantaged young people, impacting visuals, and great food - it is clear that with Muriel, all these elements are led by the heart.    

(Photos: ©Bryan Allen)