• Nashville Cat Dominick Leslie's been Playing Since he was a Baby

    Hawktail mandolinist has a number of new releases out now.

    Dominick Leslie

    Dominick Leslie may not be mandolin's best kept secret, but his hardcore fans can't help but muse on why he's not better known — yet.

    That may be about to change. Despite the musical mayhem wrought by the current viral crisis — from cancelled tours to shuttered venues — Leslie has been busily building his profile with a number of new releases, including Hawktail's remarkable sophomore effort Formations, which landed in January.

    More recently, Leslie dropped a six-song duo outing, Shrimp Tales, with New Orleans compatriot Ric Robertson and he is featured throughout banjo blazer Scott Vestal's new instrumental album, Bluegrass 2020, alongside Vestal, his bassist brother Curtis, fiddler Patrick McAvinue and guitarist Cody Kilby.

    Fire up "Kentucky Mandolin" or "Shenandoah Breakdown" for a sample of what Leslie can do. "Storm and Desire" offers a taste, literally, of his spare taste and well-considered Gilchrist tone (for the curious, it's #126, from 1982, acquired through David Grisman, and very close kin to both Maddie Whitler and Ronnie McCoury's instruments).

    Hawktail - Formations

    Leslie promises that the effort with Robertson is merely a first glimpse. Inspired in part by Grisman and Andy Statman's landmark Mandolin Abstractions, Leslie and Robertson sat knee-to-knee, meditating with mandolins, and went from there. Brief as it may be, it's often beautiful, often adventurous and always filled with soul. Future editions may feature additions, as Abstractions did, from the rest of the mandolin family, including Leslie's Austin Clark guitar-bodied octave mandolin, which has been providing plenty of lockdown inspiration.


    From the album Formations by Hawktail, the track "Last One on the Line."

    The Colorado-bred, Nashville-based Leslie — who has played in projects as far ranging as The Deadly Gentlemen, The Grant Gordy Quartet, The Brotet, Missy Raines and the New Hip, The Bee Eaters and Noam Pikelny & Friends — attended his first festival at five months old, trailing along with his father's bluegrass band. As his website states, he's been "playing instruments since he was old enough to hold one." From ukulele at age 4, he graduated through a string of fretted fascinations, homing in on mandolin and releasing his 2005 debut solo disc, Signs of Courage, at 15.

    In 2004, Leslie took the top spot — at the youngest age ever — at the home state Rockygrass mandolin contest and followed it up with a 2007 French festival slot with Mike Marshall's Young American Mandolin Ensemble.

    He met Robertson at Marshall and Grisman's Mandolin Symposium, where they studied with the likes of Statman, Chris Thile, Don Stiernberg, Mike Compton and Hamilton de Holanda.

    Leslie further opened his avenues at Berklee, where he enrolled in 2008, pursuing the jazz, classical and world influences that have sparked his unique fusion of tradition and forward motion.

    Hawktail is perhaps the most refined presentation of Leslie's varied talents. He didn't just change the sound of the Haas Kowert Tice trio, he literally changed its name, morphing the band into Hawktail with his additional initial and a few bonus syllables.

    And what a sound! Along with fiddler Brittany Haas, Punch Brothers bassist Paul Kowert and guitarist Jordan Tice, Leslie explores many lands and many moods, with a wide, redolent tone and the big, always-listening ears of a team player.

    "What we're trying to do," Leslie says, "is make music along the lines of our heroes, born out of the sounds that they made, in this sort of new acoustic or progressive string band idiom. It's basically taking traditional fiddle styles and applying modern compositional approaches and devices, I guess."

    The quartet's 2018 debut, Unless, was recorded mostly live, but much of the set list predated Leslie, who, these days, also plays with the delightful Sam Reider and the Human Hands, and his wife's similarly eclectic band, Phoebe Hunt and the Gatherers.

    On Formations, he is an equal in all respects.

    "I was there, for the entire composing and arranging process," he affirms. "We were all in the room together for all of those hours from the ground up this time around. This summer, right now, was really going to be our big push for this album, which looks like it's most likely going to be postponed to 2021, if we're lucky, and we can all be safe and sensible enough to allow that to happen. And you can quote me on that."

    Michael EckAbout the author: Roots scholar and multi-instrumentalist Michael Eck is a respected songwriter, nationally exhibited painter and award-winning cultural critic. A signature artist with Weber Mandolins, he plays with Lost Radio Rounders, Berkshire Ramblers, Good Things and Spancilhill.

    You began as a multi-instrumentalist — what aspect drew you hard to the mandolin?

    Part of it was simply the ability of the mandolin to project and be heard in loud situations, I'm, what, 12-years old, trying to make a sound in these loud bluegrass bands, with some big, burly dude, bearing down on the banjo. Something I noticed about mandolin, versus guitar, was that even with those little hands at the time, I could actually get a bigger sound out of it. That had something to do with it, but the main thing, when I was 13, was seeing Chris Thile play for the first time, live and in the flesh, with Nickel Creek at the Aspen Jazz Festival in 2003. I had heard him on record, which always thrilled me, but to see it happen before my eyes — a group of young musicians who just really seemed cool and edgy and had something hip to say in this world of bluegrass — was just mind blowing.

    You were raised in the festival sphere, yes?

    Absolutely. I feel so thankful for that, to have grown up around the music, in a really organic environment. To me, music was all about fun and celebration, and connection and inclusivity; the lifting up of people. I'm just so grateful to come from a background where music is an essential part of the culture.

    Something key you learned from mentors in situations like the Mandolin Symposium?

    Dominick Leslie

    Oh man, there's so many good ones. Something I learned from Thile was a deep, deep work ethic. Just the idea that you have to keep diligently chipping away at this craft every single day to really get good at it. To stand out and have a voice, you have to actually be obsessive, which most people wouldn't recommend. Being obsessive about anything is not a very well-balanced idea, but, ultimately, I think that's what it takes, and it might include certain sacrifices along the way.

    How do you get into a relaxed state to play?

    I struggled with stage and performance anxiety for a long time — as long as I can remember. A lot of people do. Most of my friends and heroes have some degree of it, and I'm constantly amazed by that. It's a little scary yet encouraging at the same time. Something that's really helped me is the Alexander Technique. I've taken a handful of lessons on it, but Julian Lage has gotten really deep into it. He sort of pitched me on the idea when I was at Berklee. I cherry picked just a few basic concepts, thoughts, exercises and tricks that I still use to this day when I'm performing or even just practicing. It's about using your body with maximum efficiency, and not wasting energy, and being aware of posture. It's something I'd like to go a lot deeper into, but even what little I've worked with seems like really golden information, in terms of relaxation.

    You play with your eyes closed fairly often — Is that just getting lost in the music?

    Yeah, it has a way of allowing you to get into your internal space, getting into the zone, so to speak. The more I perform and the more I play, the more I realize the importance of that, of working from a centered space. All the sound, all the vibrations emanating from you are offering hints and clues, which are directly related to where they're coming from. If you're in an agitated, uncomfortable space, that's going to influence what's coming out, and there's a good chance the music is going to sound like that.

    Talk a little bit about your right hand, it looks nicely loose.

    Well, obviously, we mandolin players are thinking about that all the time! Maybe we should, maybe not. I feel like it's been quite a journey for me in the right hand, and, for a long time, I was just a Thile disciple, trying to mimic his style. But there's only one Chris Thile, and I considered that I might actually be imposing limitations on the craft — technique should be there to serve the music, rather than the other way around. I realized we all have different hands, different joints and different ligaments, so I can take the advancements he made, and study them and practice them, but the ticket for me has been to ultimately take them with a grain of salt, and allow what comes naturally to me to come out.

    What one piece of advice would you pass on to somebody, today, about the right hand?

    I would say, again, do what comes naturally, while at the same time listening to the advice of your teachers, and practicing that. There's this idea that we have to be totally loose and relaxed all the time, but man, listen to Bill Monroe. When I hear stuff like that, it makes me realize that there is some amount of tension there. I almost hate to even use that word, but it's just enough tension to be playing with intention. There's just that little bit of muscle in there for you to drive it where you want it to go. This idea that you're just totally loose and feather-like, you're not going to be able to get a very forceful, dynamic, or driving sound like that. It's sort of a paradox, a yin yang situation. Not to get too esoteric on you, but maybe it's the dot within the yin.

    Released May, 2020

    Is the bluegrass chop dying, or just taking a rest?

    Good question. What I look for in a good bluegrass chop is having a subtle amount of the tonality of the chord in there, rather than just a toneless thump. For a long time, I only concentrated on the rhythmic aspect of the chop. The more I listened and studied, the more I realized tone is actually a major component of what makes it work. It's almost equal parts, rhythm and tone. Obviously, rhythm comes first when we're talking about groove, but the tone has a lot to do with it. When you have a full, toneful chop, a la Sam Bush or David Grisman, it interacts with the bass much better, because it has a little bit of that low-end, or at least as much as we can muster on the mandolin.

    I'm also tired of this idea that you have to only chop all the time when you're playing bluegrass. If you listen to Bill Monroe, he was as free as the wind, and as musical as the birds. I'm a fan of the way that he would mix his rhythmic textures when playing backup. He would only use the chop when necessary. I love the idea that it was originally invented simply to keep the band in time, because in the early days, they were traveling around, and didn't have enough money or space in the car to hire a full-time bass player. So, they get the local yokel, so to speak, and Bill Monroe starts chopping on the mandolin to give this sense of authority, and to say, 'Hey, this is where the groove is.' But if you listen, he's not always doing that. It comes in and out. He can be very open and strumming with it sometimes, doing more of an Old-Time thing, sometimes just playing fills, but like a fiddler.

    Dominick Leslie
    Photo credit: Nicki Gell

    Even playing closed chords, you get a really magnificent open sound — how?

    Part of it is the idea that the tone is actually coming from the left hand as much as the right. They're teaming up. As a mandolinist, you think of the right hand like you're a drummer, in a way. That's the rhythmic dictator in the sound you're making. Of course, so much of your tone does come from there, but a lot of it actually comes from the left hand, too, more than I think we're aware of. Just focusing on the feeling in the left hand, I think, is really important. I don't think we have to press as hard as we think we do a lot of the time. There's sort of a golden zone, again sort of a yin yang thing where you're putting just enough pressure to make things happen, whatever it is you're going for.

    You leave lots of air in your playing. Is that a conscious decision?

    One of the things that you notice when you listen to music that's not bluegrass, I guess, is the concept of space between the notes. I think I've been especially aware of it after playing with Hawktail so much in the last couple of years, where every little note and texture and sound and gesture has weight and meaning to it. At least that's what we're going for. There's a lot less mindless strumming and that sort of stuff. I'm more conscious of every little pick stroke after playing so much with those guys and thinking more about that concept.

    Dominick fills in for Ricky Skaggs for a time when Ricky had injured his shoulder and lays down Monroe's "Rawhide" in fine form! Click image below to start Facebook hosted video.

    Pickers run scales to build speed. Are there any exercises you do to leave room?

    Not in particular, but something really helpful in achieving that is establishing the connection between your ear and your fingers. That can mean singing along with what you're playing in the practice room — just sort of bridging the gap between the two. That way, you're much more aware of what's coming out and therefore playing with intention, and, thusly, having more of a vocal element in the phrasing. If you're singing along with what you're playing, naturally there's going to be more poeticism, more space, more breath in there, because you're hopefully going to be using your breath, too.

    How important is tremolo to your style? It doesn't seem you employ it a whole lot, but it's there and it's strong.

    Something I realized a ways back —and my brother Ric Robertson was really helpful in reminding me of this, as well as Andy Statman and so many of my heroes — is the tradition of tremolo on the mandolin, and also this sort of greater musical idea that it's important and healthy and liberating that we embrace the strengths of our particular instruments. Tremolo is something that mandolin does incredibly well, and it's something that many other instruments don't have to offer quite as easily in their repertoire or in their wheelhouse. If you go back in time to learn about the roots of this music, you'll find that all of the greats — all of the masters — had their own unique tremolo techniques. It's been really fun for me to study and try to emulate all the different ones.

    Dominick Leslie
    Photo credit: Russ Carson

    Anyone in particular that you look to as a prime example?

    Yeah. I mean, if we're talking tremolo and I had to pick a favorite, I'm just going to go ahead and say the Dawg. Mr. David Grisman has just the sweetest, most delightful tremolo. It'll slap you in the face and then turn you around and give you a big old hug, all at the same time and everything in between.

    Dominick Leslie Links

    Comments 10 Comments
    1. mingusb1's Avatar
      mingusb1 -
      Nice interview. I appreciate fundamental questions about the right hand, tremolo, and chop chords. Inquiring minds!

    1. Don Stiernberg's Avatar
      Don Stiernberg -
      Great. Great player, great conversation, great interview, great ideas. All great.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Late addition. Typically don't do this but a full MP3 track from the new Hawktail album arrived after the publish date so I've inserted it into the article. This band is tasty plus! Our opinion.
    1. AlanN's Avatar
      AlanN -
      Good article on this fellow, touches on all of the cool areas. He has a very stylistic approach to the mandolin.
    1. Brandon John Foote's Avatar
      Brandon John Foote -
      Thank you for this lovely feature! Dominick has been a personal favorite over the last few years as he is truly brilliant and endlessly inspiring.
    1. John Soper's Avatar
      John Soper -
      Good selection of notes, great tone & feel in the groove. And great interview.
    1. Chris Gray's Avatar
      Chris Gray -
      Good interview! I wish he talked about his Gil a little bit though.
    1. Mando Mafia's Avatar
      Mando Mafia -
      I came to the cafe today to see about posting a message about Dominick Leslie guest hosting my radio show, and saw this article/interview. I had asked him a few weeks ago if he was interested in being a guest DJ on my show on WTJU Charlottesville, and he said 'for sure' and we finally nailed down the date today - it will air live friday sept 4th, 4-6pm US EST. WTJU broadcasts on the web and also archives shows for two weeks after original airing on our website, so it will be available anywhere there's decent internet service. Dominick will be zooming in from Nashville and I'll be playing his playlist from our studios in Charlottesville. He's picking all the music..his favorites, influences, anything he wants to showcase and so on.

      Here are the details:
      Name of show: Sunset Road
      Air time: Friday Sept 4th 4-6pm US EST
      Website: https://www.wtju.net
      Archived version of the show after it airs: https://www.wtju.net/recent-shows/#2020-09-04 ...Look for 'Sunset Road'
      Archived version of show will be there until 9/18/20 at 4pm US EST
      Folks can also ask their smart devices to just 'play WTJU, 91.1FM'

      During the pandemic, I have occasionally reached out to other artists to guest host the show while they are unable to gig..Fiddler Rayna Gellert was my 'guinea pig' on the first one of these, and bassist Missy Raines will be on on Sept 11th.

      All the best
      Pete Marshall
      Host of Sunset Road
      WTJU Charlottesville
      Founding member of Mando Mafia
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Noting the one year anniversary of this feature interview.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Noting the anniversary of this feature interview.