Ben Winship is a homemade musician who has operated for countless years outside of the rush and roar of mainstream music. Operating out of The Henhouse, a studio he built in his backyard in Victor, Idaho, he crafts and curates a curious strain of string music that operates as both homage and adaptation. From skeletal, fingerpicked story-songs to folk-rock landscapes and jam band panoramas, he’s spent decades dismantling genre borders and revealing the underlying rhythmic connections that exist between these different sounds.
And it was here at The Henhouse that his latest project, a sprawling two record offering, first began to come together. Comprised of new material and traditional covers, the two albums, “Acorns” and “Toolshed,” explore Winship’s complicated history with bluegrass, country and rock, finding a place where all these influences converge and mesh into an intricate mesh of historical tones and modern associations. And while his instrument of choice is a mandolin, he’s not afraid to branch out and incorporate various other sounds into his work.
“Both records started out as one giant recording project,” Winship explains. “But as the tunes got written and I saw how many there were, I realized I had to divide them into two camps. I spend a huge amount of time in the studio producing and engineering records for other people, so I’m really comfortable with the tricks and tools of the studio.”
“Acorns” and “Toolshed” comprise a complete musical statement from Winship, as he revels in both intimate moments and those which fill ever-widening emotional spaces. Featuring guests such as Louisiana icon Ivan Neville, bluegrass hero Joe Newberry, Travis Book of The Infamous Stringdusters, Grammy-winning fingerstyle guitarist Mike Dowling, and Stanton Moore, the drummer for Galactic, “Toolshed” acts as Winship’s alt-county/Americana outlet, letting him traverse a somewhat rockier terrain than he has in the past. “Acorns,” with guest spots from musicians such as Canadian artists Pharis Romero and Chris Coole, as well as Northwest guitarist Forrest Gibson and fiddler Rayna Gellert. Both releases feature the talents of artists Brittany Haas, Eli West and Mollie O’Brien.
On recent single, “Tamp ‘Em Up Solid,” a traditional railroad song that dates to the ‘30s, he filters that dust-swept past through the lens of ‘70s country, although the inclusion of tuba and tabla keeps the arrangement feeling slightly more unique than might be expected. It’s a compelling song that conjures empty expanses and pop-up towns, a dusky view of distant history that echoes with the buoyancy of modern Americana’s affection for miles-long melodies and gorgeous harmonies.
"This song has been in my repertoire for years,” Winship reveals, “but I’ve never recorded it and barely ever performed it live. Like many of us, I’m sure my first exposure to it was from Ry Cooder’s 1974 “Paradise & Lunch” LP. I subsequently heard an amazing version by a southern gospel choir in the gospel tent at the New Orleans Jazzfest. Also known as the “Tie-Tamping Song,” this railroad building chant was recorded by John & Alan Lomax in a Louisiana penitentiary in 1934. My recipe blends Cooder’s sublime rendition with some older lyrics from the Lomax’s. I knew I wanted to play mandola on it and sing it with Mollie O’Brien but wrestled with the instrumentation for quite a while. Eventually I settled on the distinctly non-bluegrass rhythm section of tuba & tabla!"