Bluegrass maestro Dean Sapp and his band Harford Express will be taking the makeshift stage at the 75th Annual Oyster Eat this Friday, so he talked to us about the experience of playing the same gig for more than 25 years running, what the event is like, and what the group is up to.
Bluegrass maestro Dean Sapp plays – and teaches – almost every stringed instrument out there. Sapp and his band Harford Express will be taking the makeshift stage at the 75th Annual Oyster Eat this Friday, so he talked to us about the experience of playing the same gig for more than 25 years running, what the event is like, and what the group is up to.
Q What is the experience of playing at the Oyster Eat?
A This is my 26th year. It’s the most enjoyable job that my band does all year. It is the one job that we can do any song we want to and they just love it. It’s the one job we can really do that.
Q What’s it like playing for a huge group of all men?
A Believe it or not, it’s a lot of fun. Over the years we’ve made really good friends and fans down there, and they really look forward to seeing us come down. What’s funny is about halfway through the night when they get a little whiskey in them they start dancing with each other, and it is hilarious. It is the funniest thing you’ve ever seen in your life.
Q I read that your dad only allowed Bill Monroe, Carter Family and Flatt and Scruggs in the house while you were growing up. Do you still listen to that music?
A Anything else was not bluegrass to him. He was very opinionated.
Oh yeah, I still listen to it. The good thing about me is that growing up in the business my uncles were all professional musicians, so I got to meet all the first generation bluegrass people, like Flatt and Scruggs. Earl [Scruggs] taught me how to play the banjo and Bill Monroe sat with me on his bus many a time.
If you’ve noticed, every time I’m on stage I’m always in a suit. Monroe asked me when I was just a young guy in my early 20s he said, “Dean, I want you to make me a promise. That you’ll always wear that suit on stage.” At the time they were getting away from dressing alike in bands, so he asked me to promise to dress well.
Q Do you still wear suits?
A Still to this day.
Q How have they changed?
A The bellies have gotten bigger.
Q You teach bluegrass and have a business selling and repairing instruments. Has music always been part of your life?
A I was a carpenter for four years. At one time I owned my own construction company, and now I own a music store. But music has always been there. The first time I played on stage I was 13 years old and I’m 62 now. It’s been a while.
Q Will there be any more albums for the band?
A We’re getting ready to do a new instrumental album. It’ll be primarily a banjo album. I promised my grandfather years ago – he made my first banjo for me – I promised him someday I would do a banjo album as a tribute to him. So I’m finally in a position to do that. It’ll be some new stuff, a mixture of that and older stuff.
Q Traditional bluegrass is an older genre. How do you keep it new?
A For a long time bluegrass became stale because nobody was writing new songs. I write new songs, and I write them in the vein of the old standard bluegrass songs, although I do write a lot of gospel songs. We’re to the point now when we record a new CD project about 90 percent of it is new material. The old standards have been recorded so many times it’s almost a waste of time to go back in the studio and do another recording.
Q What do you like to listen to?
A I like ’50s doo-wop and bluegrass. What a strange combination, huh? The harmonies, proper bluegrass, has good tight harmonies and doo-wop is all about harmonies, and I just love it. The Platters, the Four Tops, they both have that.
Q You started in the band playing banjo, and now play guitar. Do you have a favorite?
A I play every stringed instrument you put in my hands. The one you put in my hands at the time is my favorite.
Throughout the course of a show, I’ll pick up a fiddle and do a tune, or if I’m doing a slow ballad I’ll play the guitar, but I’m the switch-up guy. We switch instruments in the band a lot. It keeps the excitement up. It shows a lot of variety and versatility on stage to your audience.