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Karl Shiflett: the Texas, yes Texas, bluegrass boy makes good

By John Lupton, January 2001

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"I've always felt that I had something to offer. It's just whether people are ready to accept it or not, and the music seems to kind of go in cycles, you know. The traditional music always comes around at some point or another."

For Shiflett and Big Country Show (Shiflett on guitar, Lyle Meador on mandolin, Jake Jenkins on banjo, Kirk Brandenberger on fiddle and Karl's son, Kris on bass), getting the hard-edged, traditional bluegrass sound of the 1950's down stone cold wasn't enough, and it wasn't even enough to look the part (they are among the sharpest-dressed bands on the bluegrass circuit, though).

Shiflett also wanted the ' audience to experience the thrill of watching a five-piece acoustic band working live before a single microphone, a performance art form that had virtually disappeared with the advent of multi-mic sound systems plugged into 16-channel mixers.

Doing "single-mic" was tricky and to work it close enough to allow each instrument and voice to be properly balanced without feeding back required exquisite timing and judgment from each band member.

Shiflett was convinced it could still be done, but others weren't so sure, and he held off trying it until bluegrass icon Doyle Lawson and his band Quicksilver started doing it around 1996.

"I'd always wanted to do it, and Doyle Lawson was the first to do it, and immediately when he started doing it I started doing it, 'cause I'd always told everybody it could be done...I already knew him, and I called Dale Perry, the fellow that had played bass for Doyle at that time...he was the one that was doing all of it, so he was the person I talked to for technical advice."

Watching Shiflett and Big Country sliding in and out, back and forth around the single mic suggests a specialized brand of choreography, but Shiflett says they had actually been doing it for some time.

"Before we started using one microphone, I was using a similar type of choreography on stage, I was using three microphones on one stand to sing out of, and a mic down below for the guitar...but we would move in and out to sing, basically the same way that we do now, so we're just basically making the same moves we were making when we were using the other system, so it came real natural to us to do it that way, to go the one mic."

For longtime fans of the music, of course, the standard for this type of showmanship is Flatt and Scruggs and their legendary band, the Foggy Mountain Boys, and Shiflett readily tips his own Stetson in their direction, while admitting that it's not as effortless as they make it look.

"I have some old video clips of their television shows, and that was real helpful for us, and of course, I watched Doyle Lawson when he was using his...but basically, I just made it work for us, and I don't think we've ever had a collision on stage. That's what I hear people say, 'Well, I'm afraid to use one mic, I'm afraid we'd run over each other and kill each other,' but we've always been able to do it real smooth."

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