Thursday, August 20, 2009

Jesse Brock: A Profile

This profile of Jesse Brock was originally published in 2009 edition "The Bluegrass Guide" published by Candi Sawyer, who is also the promoter of the Jenny Brook Family festival, to be held again next year at the Tunbridge Worlds Fair Grounds in Tunbridge, VT from June 17 - 20, 2010.

When Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper take the stage, a fan’s eyes first focus on the famous blind fiddler who’s now been named IBMA fiddler of the year six times. Mike Cleveland’s story is well known and he’s been well recognized for his achievement. After a while, however, as the quality of the entire band becomes more and more evident, the eyes inevitably move to a wraithlike figure of a man moving with lithe grace around the stage, a mandolin in his hands. Jesse Brock, on stage, is a force to be reckoned with. He moves quickly behind Mike Cleveland, his strong chop catching the up beat in perfect timing with Marshall Wilborn’s strong bass down beat. Together they give Mike Cleveland exactly the sort of strong support a musician needs when his only cues are auditory. Jesse then moves quickly, but without hurrying to his right for a mandolin solo, just on time. Jesse Brock’s mobility gives a Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper set a life of its own. His energy and presence suffuse the group with enthusiasm and a love for the traditional music they play that matches Mike’s power and tunefulness. Jesse has been nominated for 2009 Mandolin Player of the Year by the membership of the International Bluegrass Music Association.

Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper

At the age of 37, Jesse Brock is reaching toward the top of his profession. Born in Illinois, Brock attended public school through eighth grade and then was home-schooled through high school. He says his early musical education grew from the school of hard knocks, having hit the road at an early age with his family’s band, The C.W. Brock Family, where he began on fiddle, but also played some guitar and bass. Six years on the road in a family band provides a rich environment to become a virtuoso musician. Jesse says playing in his family band “helped mold me into the core of what you hear today.” He says that family bands taught him how to be more attuned to public relations on the road, to become well-rounded, and to develop as a musician in ways different from more typical musicians. “…just being able to connect to the audience and [working] at the record table present situations that contest players…” never encounter.

Jesse described how he fell into playing the mandolin. His father, C.W., had toured with several bands during the late 70’s. As his children began playing instruments, the idea of a family band was born. When mandolinist Steve Abbey found that touring was interfering with his day job as a college teacher, Jesse stepped up to learning the mandolin and serving as band emcee. He says he wasn’t yet ready, but had to learn because the “void had to be filled.” Like many bluegrass pickers, he listened to the greats on records – Bobby Osborne, Jesse McReynolds, and Doyle Lawson as well as the Dillards. During this period, the band played the SPBGMA circuit in the mid-west and traveled to perhaps 30 states. Jesse was home-schooled and says his parents set high standards of performance for the correspondence course he and his sisters were enrolled in and they took responsibility for filling holes in the curriculum.

Jesse’s first band away from home was called Stonewall Bluegrass where he began picking Monroe style mandolin as soon as he began playing with them in Jaffrey, NH back in 1989. He found himself free to try new things he couldn’t do in his family’s band, mostly because of the new band’s different groove. He next joined the Lynn Morris Band, which he played with off and on for about ten years. Working with top players like Chris Jones on guitar, Marshall Wilborn on bass, Lynn Morris on both Scruggs style and Clawhammer banjo, and, later, Ron Stewart when he joined the band on banjo (and sometimes fiddle) the band jelled into the best Jesse had played with up to that time. He says, “These folks taught me taste, timing, and recording techniques that I carry with me to today.” Marshall Wilborn, still playing with Jesse in Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper says, “I think that with any band Jesse works with, he'll be taking the stage with an uncommon energy and enthusiasm. He loves the music, loves to play, and it's obvious.” He goes on to say, “I think it matters to him how he treats people. He worked with Lynn and me for a year in the early 90s, and then again for several years, from the late 90s through 2003, and there's never been a time when he was anything less than wonderful with the public, and that, in itself, is quite an asset to any band.” That’s high praise from one of the top bass players and warm human beings in the business.

Jesse & Marshall Wilborn

Jesse then joined Chris Jones & the Nightdrivers for a two year stint. Jones, still touring with his own band as well as hosting a regular show dedicated to traditional bluegrass on XM/Sirius Radio has this to say about Jesse’s development, “I’ve known Jesse since he was in his early teens. Even before his lead playing had developed to what it is today, he was a stellar rhythm mandolin player right from the start. Later Jesse and I would end up playing together in the Lynn Morris Band. When I formed my own band, I asked Jesse to join, and he made an important contribution to the sound of the band. Jesse played on the first album I did for Rebel ("No One But You"). Jesse's style continued to evolve during that time, and I watched him just get better and better. I've always allowed a lot of freedom of expression in my band, allowing musicians to let their own personalities shine through in the overall sound of the band, and Jesse did that, and the results were really good. Jesse stands out among mandolin players today for his drive and the excitement in his playing. In an era where many mandolin players sound similar, Jesse is distinctive. To my ear, he combines the sound of one of his mandolin heroes, the late Dempsey Young, with his own unique and powerful approach to the instrument, and the result is pure Jesse. Not to mention that he has one of the best chops in the business! He fits like a glove in Flamekeeper. He's now a very important part of their sound.” Jesse remarks that Jones’ material sparked an interest in him, and Jones also widened his experience by taking him on a European tour. Jesse says that Jones kept him on his toes by not providing a set list, and goes on to say, “Chris was always fair to me….I strive to be level-headed like (he is) and a gentleman as well. I still consider Chris the brother I never had.”

Jesse then played with a variety of bands of increasing national prominence. He completed two stints with the Lynn Morris Band. According to him, “The Lynn Morris Band honed all that into a polished piece.” He says that now takes what he learned earlier and applies it in new situations while continuing to develop with each band he’s in. “It really helps to play with stellar musicians.” Marshall Wilborn, the great bass player and Lynn Morris’s devoted husband has this to say about Jesse, “I think it matters to him how he treats people. He worked with Lynn and me for a year in the early 90s, and then again for several years, from the late 90s through 2003, and there's never been a time when he was anything less than wonderful with the public, and that, in itself, is quite an asset to any band.”

Everyone who plays with Dale Ann Bradley talks about the experience of playing next to someone who has perfect pitch and the opportunity and challenge that represents. Jesse says, “Singing with Dale Ann really opened my voice up, and playing mandolin (for her) was a dream. My notes seemed to flow so easily, and it was the first time the music (seemed to come more easily.)” He says the Bradley experience opened his mind to try more challenging licks and melodies. Bradley reciprocates the admiration, saying, “Jesse is one of the absolute best to ever hold a mandolin! His energy on stage is contagious! He can lift the quality of bands music 100%”

An interesting interlude in Jesse’s career came when, in 2006, he moved to Bulgaria to play with a band called “Lily of the West,” organized by singer/guitarist/songwriter Lilly Drumeva. Archie Warnock, who is the American contact for this band and who also reviewed one of her CD’s for Bluegrass Unlimited magazine, commented, “It's a long way from Bowling Green, KY to Sofia, Bulgaria, and I'm not just talking about miles. Lilly's music is a much wider range of styles than the straight bluegrass that Jesse normally plays, so I think playing in the band with her made him think about how to fit the mandolin into other types of music. Much of what she does - other than bluegrass, of course, of which she does a lot - is Irish-flavored, with some country and folk. She has a small number of traditional Bulgarian folk songs she does, too. These come off surprisingly well in the acoustic band environment and are always a sure-fire crowd pleaser when she does them here. The time signatures are quite different from bluegrass (things like 7/8 time), so Jesse had to adapt to both hearing and playing differently. He did it masterfully, of course.” Archie commented that, because there are so few bluegrass pickers in Bulgaria, Drumeva “often recruits local musicians and teaches them to play bluegrass. They tend to be quite talented but just unfamiliar with the bluegrass traditions. Jesse really helped make her band better bluegrass players by bringing in his familiarity with the music and contributing his good "bluegrass ears."” Warnock suggests that the opportunity to play for Mike Cleveland drew Jesse back to the U.S., along with the difficulty of making a full-time living as a sideman for an American mandolin player in Bulgaria. Jesse says that one of the important lessons he learned from Drumeva was to focus on the business side of music as well as the musical side. “Whether you are running your own band, helping run a band, or just being a sideman, you should take care of it as if it were your own.

Jesse Brock returned to the U.S. to join Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper. Cleveland released his first album with Flamekeeper in 2004, and they have been building a reputation as a hard charging traditional touring band ever since. Cleveland is the six time IBMA fiddle player of the year, and his band has established a notable reputation. With its recent changes, many people believe it is its strongest version yet. Jesse Brock has been with the band since 2007. He has added his unique level of energy and enthusiasm to this fine band. Michael Cleveland says, “Jesse Brock is one of the most incredible mandolin players I've ever heard. His chop is right in the pocket where it needs to be at all times, and he comes up with solo's that blow my mind. I like to call him the human metronome. It is a privilege to play with him every day.“ Jesse declares that all members of Flamekeeper “put forth the effort the band needs to succeed….We all want to be the best in the business.” Jesse sees himself as a supporter both on and off stage. On stage, he moves behind Mike Cleveland to use his great mandolin chop to under lay Cleveland’s powerful fiddle voice. Since Mike is blind, he needs the additional auditory cues. Jesse’s mobility, possible because his mandolin is miced, also adds animation to an otherwise rather stationary line of musicians at microphone stands. He asserts that the addition of Darrell Webb to the band’s lineup has “brought the band to a new level that we have been trying to achieve from day one.” He views the current makeup of Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper to be the combination every band leader looks for.

Jesse has recently relocated his base from Kentucky to a home he has bought near Portland, ME where he is engaged to be married to Hilary Spring Kang. His success with Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper, together with the new center in his life, suggest he’s reaching toward a new maturity as a person and as a performer. For a man coming into his professional and personal prime, this must be an exciting and fulfilling time.


  1. Ted

    Just wanted to say that this is one of the best written bluegrass profiles I've ever read. Over the last year I've enjoyed your site, including your book reviews and hope you continue.

    Dale Desmuke

  2. I second Dale's comment on this profile, and look forward to having some more. Not only does it help the fan have more insight into the musician and the human being, it also helped me, at least, understand more about the dynamics of playing in a bluegrass group. I know you have a lot on your plate right now, and perhaps a full length profile such as this might come along every month of so. It's much appreciated.

  3. Great article Jesse. Check out this footage of the CW Brock family band playing at the Berkshire Mountain Bluegrass Festival.

    The gals in the band are great too. I wonder what happened to them?