There is a certain irony to the fact that David Mayfield has found himself in the middle of a hearty Saturday bill at this weekend's Master Musicians Festival in Somerset.
To many, Mayfield is still a new musical presence, even though he has rubbed artistic shoulders with celebrity contemporaries like The Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons, has performed on bills at the Grand Ole Opry and MerleFest, and hails from a musical family well versed in shaping styles and sentiments to fit the needs of their often genre-busting songs.
But the connection to the Master Musicians Festival is as profound as it is unintended.
The annual Somerset gathering is designed, in part, as a tribute to a musical elder — this year, it is Willie Nelson, who declined to be interviewed — whose inspiration plays into the music of succeeding generations. That pretty much sums up the manner in which Mayfield went about recording his fine new sophomore album, Good Man Down.
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The sessions were cut at two historic Nashville studios, RCA Studio B and the Quonset Hut. The former has produced more than 1,000 hit singles through the decades, including some 200 songs by Elvis Presley. The latter boasted a client list that included Patsy Cline, George Jones and Loretta Lynn.
That's what you call mixing it up with the masters.
"I'm kind of a recording nerd," Mayfield said. "I just really love the old style of doing things and the old equipment that was used. So I've been researching how these records that I love were made by coming across the equipment that was used. And the studios.
"You have to realize that some of these studios have been leveled to the ground. They're gone. But a few of them have been preserved. RCA B and the Quonset Hut are good example of ones that have been completely preserved. The majority of the original equipment is still there — the microphones, the consoles, the piano. The piano that's on all of the Elvis and Roy Orbison records has never left RCA B. And we used that on my record. It's like stepping into a time capsule.
"I sang my vocals into the same exact microphone that Patsy Cline sang Crazy into. I couldn't believe it. I mean, I grew up in the digital age where a lot of the things in the studio are done by staring at a screen. I would hear, 'Well, this looks wrong right here.' Well, it doesn't matter how it looks — how does it sound? That was a really a big thing about getting into these classic studios. It was not just, 'Oh, I get to stand where Roy Orbison stood or sing where Jim Reeves sang. But I got to go through the process that they did and be inspired in that way as opposed to relying on all this technology."
The resulting music on Good Man Down hardly translates into traditional country, although echoes of it sparkle within the wide-eyed chorus of the album-opening Love (Will Only Break Your Heart). There are also such genre-bending entries as From a Dream, on which whispering strings and high, forlorn harmonies sound like a cross between Lindsey Buckingham and The Decemberists; the exquisitely wistful Was It Only Me, on which unrelenting isolation bleeds into waves of violin, cello and trumpet, which, in turn, corrode into a fuzzed-out electric finale; and Superfluous Instrumental, which appears first as a blast of Bill Monroe-meets-Twin Peaks ambience and again as a bluegrass meltdown that seems to fall out of the sky).
"There are different ways you can go about writing a song," Mayfield said. "You could say, 'OK, I love Paul Revere and the Raiders, so I'm going to write a pop song. It's not going to surprise you. It's just going to be a solid pop song. I love that, but you don't have to listen to that kind of stuff. I just like surprises. I like to take people on a journey and maybe throw a twist or a turn in there. But that's always been the problem for me, too: to find the balance and not overdo it to where the music becomes jarring or unpleasing. I just don't like making everything so predictable."
Mayfield's primary artistic upbringing, not to mention his sense of performance etiquette, came from touring the country as a youth in a bluegrass band led by his parents. That also cemented an intensely close personal and professional relationship with sister Jessica Lea Mayfield. He served as producer and co-writer for her extraordinary 2011 album, Tell Me.
"One of the problems with growing up with home schooling and working in a family band is you don't get that social interaction a lot of public- schoolers get," he said. "So Jessica and I were really each other's best friends. It's a very special relationship. We're always very encouraging of each other but also very judgmental when we send each other music. We're hard on each other in that aspect. But it's been real exciting to be there as her career was being launched and then go on tour and sort of chaperone my baby sister. Now I feel, in some ways, she is almost mentoring me."
IF YOU GO
Master Musicians Festival
When: July 19, 20
Where: Somerset Community College's Festival Field, 808 Monticello St., Somerset
Tickets: $25-$55. Available at (606) 677-6000 or Mastermusiciansfestival.com.
July 19: 5 p.m., gates open. 5:30, Too Many Drummers. 6:35, One Way. 7:40, Flint Ridge Millers. 8:45, Big Leg Emma. 10, Bonepony.
June 20: 11 a.m., gates open. Noon, Tommy Minton. 1 p.m., Devious Angels. 2:15, Dirty Grindstones. 3:40, Faubush Hill. 5, David Mayfield Parade. 6:30, Chris Knight. 8, Mountain Heart. 9:30, Willie Nelson and Friends.