If you’ve checked out the local bluegrass scene at all, chances are you’ve run across Hank Smith and Pattie Hopkins Kinlaw.
With their band, the Current, the banjo-fiddle duo plays traditional bluegrass with a twist or two. Often, they bring in a classical flavor, stemming from Kinlaw’s formal violin training. But before you picture tuxedos with tails or stuffy ball gowns, consider that they’re equally at ease playing pop songs.
At a recent “Beer & Banjos” show – a weekly showcase hosted by Smith at Raleigh Times, featuring local roots-music artists – they peppered their set with covers of Sting’s “If I Ever Lose My Faith In You,” Otis Redding’s “These Arms of Mine,” and the Temptations’ “I Wish It Would Rain.”
Smith and Kinlaw previously played together in the bluegrass band Kickin Grass as well as the rock band The Morning After. When both groups reached the end of their roads, Smith recalled, “We just sort of looked at each other and were like, ‘Well, now what do you want to do?’ ”
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Bluegrass was the answer. To fill out the sound, they brought in three other musicians who knew the roots but liked to branch out: Ben Parker on guitar, Robert Thornhill on mandolin and E. Scott Warren on bass. Hank, Pattie & the Current’s onstage debut came at 2014’s World of Bluegrass, and two years later they released their self-titled debut album.
This summer brought their second album, “Hold Your Head Up High” (Robust Records), with 12 original tunes showcasing the band’s vocal and instrumental skills as well as various musical influences. One of the highlights is the instrumental “Earl in Vienna” – that’s Earl as in Scruggs, and Vienna as in the city that was home to Mozart and Beethoven. The juxtaposition of classical and bluegrass in that song, and several others (three of them featuring a string quartet) takes old forms of music in an entirely new, modern-feeling direction.
Other songs, however, take inspiration from more contemporary sounds, like jazz and even pop. A spin through the album places occasions to groove right alongside slower, harmony-rich songs that leave plenty of room to think, but the band’s adventurous spirit and a joy in music-making comes through in every style and makes it all work together.
Much of the story of Hank, Pattie & the Current’s sound is set in the different paths Smith and Kinlaw walked to get to it.
“I have no musical background, I have no family members who are musical,” Smith said. “I heard banjo growing up on ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ and ‘Hee Haw’ and stuff, and just thought it sounded cool. When I was in high school, a bunch of my other friends were learning guitar, and I was like, ‘Yeah, but banjo sounds cooler.’ ”
So he set out to learn the instrument, which started with a campaign of pleading to his parents and even self-directed research papers on banjos and bluegrass and folk music. His parents eventually gave in – how could they not? – and bought him a pawn-shop banjo, which he taught himself to play, mainly by lurking outside jam circles and watching the players’ fingers.
“I thought at first it would be a lark, just kind of fun to learn ‘Dueling Banjos’ and play stuff at parties,” Smith said. “But once I got a hold of it and started playing, that’s all she wrote.”
Kinlaw, on the other hand, learned music in a way that she described as “the complete opposite of Hank.”
She had music in her blood and started playing violin at age 4. Her mother is a classical and church organist, and her great-grandfather had a bluegrass radio show in Bertie County in the 1950s. Kinlaw grew up playing classical, but she also had a love for roots music and a dream to move to Nashville to be a fiddle player as soon as she finished high school.
Her parents, however, insisted on college (She says now, “Which I am very thankful for at this time.”), so she headed to East Carolina University and studied violin performance and pedagogy, which has allowed her to connect classical and American roots music both as a performer and a teacher.
Teaching has been and continues to be a large part of both of their musical lives, and each strives to expand their students’ horizons. Smith was recently hired as banjo instructor for UNC-Chapel Hill’s Bluegrass Initiative, a music department program launched last year to steep students in both performance skills and history.
“UNC hired me because I’m different. I’m a little bit more modern and outside the box,” he said. “(Mandolin player and singer Russell Johnson) who runs the program is very traditional. It’s a good juxtaposition to kind of give multiple perspectives on the same kind of thing.”
For Kinlaw, who teaches in Greenville and at traditional music organization PineCone’s Bluegrass Camps and Youth Jams in the Triangle, working with young musicians is a chance to pass along tradition as well as technique.
“As Americans, I personally believe that we should learn our music, these great American genres,” she said. “So I teach my kids how to play a 12-bar blues, they learn how to play a Bach minuet, and they learn how to play jazz and blues and bluegrass and things like that.”
Kinlaw and Smith have performed all around the country, but they see North Carolina as a particularly bright spot for roots music.
“I don’t know, it’s something in the water,” Smith said, with a grin. “There’s a lot of players, there’s a lot of history in this part of the world.”
Kinlaw adds: “And in the state in general. This is the center of the state, and we’re so diverse in our culture and our history and music, as a state. I think that Raleigh is the perfect place for IBMA to nest for a few years.”
Hank, Pattie & the Current is a showcase artist at this year’s World of Bluegrass. Here’s where they’ll be playing this week:
Tuesday: 7:30 p.m. at Raleigh Times Bar (not a World of Bluegrass event)
Wednesday: 7 p.m. at Lincoln Theatre and 11:30 p.m. at Raleigh Marriott City Center
Thursday: 3:10 p.m. on the Convention Center’s Workshop Stage and 9 p.m. at Lincoln Theatre
Friday: 11:45 p.m. at Deep South (not a World of Bluegrass event)
Saturday: 3 p.m. on the Hargett Street Stage during Wide Open Bluegrass