• Lost and Found Mandolinist Scott Napier is All Out Front

    Kentucky School of Bluegrass instructor reissues his 2010 solo album and 2016 instructional DVD

    Scott Napier
    Photo credit: Bourbon & Brides

    Cue up Larry Sparks' 2005 album, The Coldest Part of Winter." Take a listen to track five, Scott Napier's "Parkway Blues." Pay attention to the arc of the melody; the way it handles the road, how it holds the corners. Now, consider the fact that Napier wrote the tune one dark night on the Bert D. Combs Mountain Parkway, mandolin in hand, driving the long, isolated stretch back home with his knees.

    It brings a new dimension to the concept of commitment, eh? Napier is definitely committed to the mandolin, as composer, player and teacher. Heck, he's even committed to his actual instrument, a 1939 Gibson F5 that recalls, in key attributes, the storied 1937 "Hoss" of his earliest hero, Sam Bush.

    Napier caught Bush on TNN's American Music Shop one teenage evening and was almost instantly transformed from a self-professed guitar-toting metalhead into a would-be bluegrass picker.

    His family enjoyed music but didn't play, so after acquiring one of Bush's instructional videotapes along with his first mandolin, Napier soaked up Saturday afternoon knowledge at a hometown Hazard, Kentucky music store frequented by experienced, older players like Dial Williams, Buddy Spurlock and Truby Chapman, who introduced the young musician to legendary fiddler Marion Sumner, a strong early influence.

    Scott Napier - All Out Front

    Before beginning a teaching position himself, in 2014, as an instructor alongside Bobby Osborne, Dean Osborne and Virgil Bowlin at the Kentucky School of Bluegrass & Traditional Music at Hazard Community and Technical College, Napier took to the road—hands on the wheel more often than not—with a succession of seminal bands, including rewarding stints with Sparks and Allen Mills' Lost and Found.

    Joining in 1996, Napier spent quite nearly a decade with Sparks' Lonesome Ramblers, touring Japan, playing high profile dates at the Washington Monument and the Ryman Auditorium, and performing on the air with A Prairie Home Companion. With the group, he also visited the studio with the likes of Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski and Rhonda Vincent.

    From Sparks' crew, he jumped into line-ups with the Dale Ann Bradley Band and Marty Raybon and Full Circle, where Napier played a mix of country and bluegrass, appearing on albums like This, That, & The Other and The Back Forty.

    When Napier's friend and mentor, Lost and Found mandolinist Dempsey Young, passed in 2006, Mills asked the mourning Kentuckian to step in. Napier filled some dates, helped complete an in-progress album and then took on the latter's chair in the quartet, which he holds to this day, carrying the tradition on and making his own mark at the same time.

    Original Mandolin - Scott Napier
    This month, Napier, who has also spent time in the Woodsongs Old-Time Radio Hour house band, is re-releasing his 2010 solo effort All Out Front, which includes guest spots from Bradley, Raybon and Osborne, along with Don Rigsby and Josh McMurray. A showcase of primarily original songs and tunes, the disc is anchored by the rock solid band of fiddler Michael Cleveland, guitarist Clay Hess and bassist Kent Blanton.

    He's also reissuing his 2016 instructional DVD, Original Mandolin.

    All Out Front also features a sweet, loping take of Big Mon's "Bluegrass Stomp" that shows off Napier's roots and his exciting stylistic breadth. It's a fitting tribute, given that Napier is married to Monroe acolyte Lauren Price.

    While Napier does occasionally play guitar with the Price Sisters, the Napier/Price duo is just as likely to be having dinner together as picking in tandem. Both, of course, have been teaching from home throughout the pandemic, and Price, in fact, could be heard in the background, chopping along with a Zoom student during our chat, providing perfect punctuation to Napier's mandolin musings.

    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.

    How did that Sam Bush video hit you? I understand you actually started on the second volume first.

    Oh, it just put my hind end in gear. I was like, "Geez, he moves fast." I'm just learning the chords and wondering if I'm tuned right, and he's playing stuff like "Leather Britches." It definitely set forth a work ethic. I spent many nights sitting in front of that TV, with the sound down as low as it could go, putting a blanket over my head to cut the glare down so my parents wouldn't wake up — just trying to figure out how he was doing all of that. It was pretty incredible.

    What was it about the mandolin that turned your head?

    Just the feel, the sound… It just really took me over because it's happy and funny sounding at the same time. But then, so much of bluegrass, Monroe and all that, is so dark and deep, depressing, even. It's yin and yang. Maybe it sounds a little cheesy to say, but it's just the balance of it. I'm still attracted to that.

    Lauren is obviously indebted to Bill Monroe, are you?

    I don't think any of us would be playing the mandolin if it weren't for Bill Monroe. He's super important — his speed, his attitude, his creativity. I listened to Monroe before I met Lauren, but living with her, I'm always hearing new stuff emerge, new concerts or an Opry radio spot from '48, and he's playing something different every time. To me, he's important because he played his emotions. They varied and his playing varied, and that is a true artist. He didn't write out a way to play a break, he played it. In outtakes of him in the studio, kicking songs off, he would do new things on the spot, right in front of the microphone, while the tape was rolling. That's like John Coltrane! In my opinion the best way to be like Bill Monroe is to create like him.

    Scott Napier and Lauren Price Napier
    Lauren Price Napier and Scott Napier. Photo credit: Bourbon & Brides

    How does playing guitar effect your mandolin playing?

    I think it brings a fresh perspective to mandolin. I've slowly been playing more and more guitar, through helping the Price Sisters and teaching at school. When I'm on guitar, I just revert back to all those years playing with Larry, and how he approached rhythm and how he drove the entire band. I try to think that way, too. I put the guitar down for a lot of years because I thought it was wasting time when I could be practicing the mandolin. But that's really not the case. It just gives you multiple perspectives of what to do, rhythmically, especially.

    Do you flatpick tunes or just play accompaniment?

    Oh yeah, I love the Norman Blake stuff. Maybe more Norman Blake than anyone. Of course, I love Doc Watson and Tony Rice, but I've never really wanted to work those breaks up. But, fiddle tunes and such … when you know the melodies to all those fiddle tunes, you're naturally going to want to try to put them on the guitar. That's the first thing I would do, start discovering "Arkansas Traveler" and this and that on the guitar. It's really good for your right hand. Because the spacing is different, you're learning new tools of the trade that you can apply to the mandolin.

    Scott Napier
    Photo credit: Grace Van’t Hof

    You were doing a fair amount of remote teaching through the Kentucky School of Bluegrass even pre-pandemic, yes?

    Early on, yes, we were, way before this current wave of virtual teaching. In fact in 2015, the school was already moving to online classes in order to reach a broader audience of students. So right away I started working in that environment. In addition to mandolin and guitar, I'm also teaching songwriting, and within that some basic recording skills. I love the songwriting classes; we've had some really good ones. A lot of non-musicians take those and that's maybe the class I'm most proud of. I just try to mix it up with the students as much as possible and try to be a little bit of a 'think outside the box' type of teacher.

    What's the first thing you teach a new mandolin student?

    Our first lesson is a discussion, basically. I don't always tell them this, but I'm looking to gather three goals for them within our time together. A lot of times when you ask them, they aim really high, so they have to be measurable goals. In some cases, it's simply how to play in time. In others it's reinventing the way they hold a pick. It always changes, and I love that. It keeps it interesting for me. I really don't like a regimented set up; I'm willing to mold and change. One student may want to learn Alan Bibey's break off the first IIIrd Tyme Out record; the next may want to learn the Lilly Brothers. I become what they're looking for. I want to teach them how to discover their own way of playing, within boundaries, of course. It's got to be in time, it's got to be in tune and you've got to learn the real melody. That's why having Bobby Osborne on faculty is so important. I mean, he embodies that old school mentality of you're not playing the song if you don't know how to play the melody. He's a master at that.

    We're not paying for a lesson, but can we still get a free tip?

    Sure! A secret I got from Dempsey Young, actually, is to hold the pick almost completely at the end of it. Very little pick exposure takes away all that stuff that drives musicians crazy — what material is best? What gauge is best? What shape is best? You can sound the same with any pick if you really tap into that.

    1939 Gibson
    Photo credit: Niko Designs

    1939 Gibson
    Photo credit: Niko Designs

    You played a Hutto for many years. What's the tale of the '39 Gibson?

    I have a friend who deals in vintage instruments and one day he had me come down to play through a bunch of really good stuff, unsigned Loars and Ferns and so forth. Then he comes out and says, 'here's a '39.' I left with that one; I couldn't put it down. It was unlike any other mandolin I had ever played. I'm not necessarily saying it was the best, that's very subjective, but it was the most comfortable for my hands. It has a really small neck. A lot of the '30s ones have really big necks and really thick tops. This has a thin top. It's never been touched inside. It's just the way it came out. Everything about it seems a little smaller. Even the peghead is really thin. I never noticed that until I got to compare it with Sam's mandolin, with Hoss. He pointed it out. He's like, 'Hey man, your peghead is skinny like mine!" Sure enough, it's the same. There's just a lot of different stuff about it. I made the right decision. I found my mandolin.
    Jane Claar
    Do you know any of its history?

    I found all the records, the shipping details and everything. It actually shipped in '41, because at the time, the mandolins were almost all gone. It sat in the factory for two years, basically, but it went to Julius Music House, in York, Pa., on July 10, 1941. A lady named Jane Claar bought it. She was in a country and western band called Jim and Jane and The Western Vagabonds. They were quite popular in the Pennsylvania/West Virginia/Maryland area. They played on the radio, had songbooks, all of it.

    I've accumulated tons. I have old calendars from the early '40s with the mandolin on it. There are two 78s they did and it's on there. Patsy Montana was Jane's sister-in-law so they're rubbing elbows with all these people. The mandolin even played on stage with Hank Williams — I would love to find a photo of that! They managed a place called Valley View Park and Hank played there twice. At the end of the show, they all got up on stage together.

    Talk a little about your personal playing and picking style.

    I try to be as consistent as I can with the pick angle. I've changed my right hand several times over the years. I've developed different right hands that I can pull out, that I can use for different purposes, like the fist grip for instance. I can be like a machine gun in terms of volume with that, but I think it squishes the tone. It's just this big, aggressive, loud sound. Early on, I used to brace. I think it was because Sam Bush did it, to be honest, and Eric Clapton, too. They laid their hand down. If that works for you, that's the way to go, but by working through right hand techniques, I started coming up with things that I couldn't quite do with that grip. Your forearm is just too tight.

    So I started taking my fingers up little by little, mostly from watching Dave Apollon, seeing film footage of him with a closed, yet not really a fist, grip. His fingers were up and he floats. I started trying to do that. I don't think I ever went as far as Apollon or mastered it, but I have some kind of hybrid way of doing it to where it's loose enough; I hold the pick very loose.

    Scott with Sam Bush
    Photo credit: Lauren Price Napier

    What's your best and worst mandolin trait?

    My best trait is that I can find ways to stay youthful on mandolin, and it's not always by being more technical, more advanced or playing harder stuff. It can just be simplicity. Sometimes I can really pull off some good stuff, with the specific intent to never play it again. That's just a personal challenge, but I think it's a good thing to try to do that. The worst trait would probably be that time driving and playing. I'll never live that down.


    In the studio, Napier prefers a Neumann KM184 on the Gibson and employs an Audio-Technica PRO 37R onstage — "but this mandolin sounds the same on an SM57 as it does on the Neumann," he says. "It doesn't waver. It just cuts through. I love that about it. It's simplified a lot of what used to be problems for me." For strings he uses GHS Pure Nickel strings which he helped the company develop. For picks he's a long time Bluechip endorser with a gaining interest in casein picks.

    Scott with Larry Sparks Band in Japan, 1996. Photo credit: Scott Napier

    Additional Information

    Scott in high school
    Comments 14 Comments
    1. AlanN's Avatar
      AlanN -
      Terrific read about a terrific player.

    1. mingusb1's Avatar
      mingusb1 -
      Enjoyed the interview, thanks! And how bout Sam's t-shirt?! I want one.

    1. William Smith's Avatar
      William Smith -
      Great article! Scott is one of my favorite players, whatever he plays is seriously tasteful. It was real nice meeting him and playing a bit on his 39, its a great mandolin.
    1. withfoam's Avatar
      withfoam -
      Cool interview. Really like that he's tracked down some history on that '39.
    1. addamr's Avatar
      addamr -
      Enjoyed the article. Enjoy Scott's picking.

    1. KevinM's Avatar
      KevinM -
      Scott a terrific player who seems a very thoughtful, likeable guy and I need to check out his playing on that great ‘39. Classic. Thanks for sharing all the info!
    1. Steve Mead's Avatar
      Steve Mead -
      Great article, great player, great guy!!
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      The story of Scott's leather case.

    1. Andy B's Avatar
      Andy B -
      Please keep the interviews by Michael Eck coming! The Scott Napier interview is another in a series of interesting and rewarding reads. The narrative introduction was informative and very well written and the questions insightful and knowledgeable. It was just plain fun to read; an interview worthy of its great subject.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Noting the anniversary of this feature interview.
    1. Bluegrasssubvet's Avatar
      Bluegrasssubvet -
      Is Scott Napier releaed to Bill Napier?

      Gary Vernon
    1. grassrootphilosopher's Avatar
      grassrootphilosopher -
      There´s a video (cassette...) of Larry Sparks playing a concert with Scott Napier. I watched that a long time back while on a tour through the Netherlands in a home that we were invited to. Great memories.

      We need more Scott Napier visibility?
    1. grassrootphilosopher's Avatar
      grassrootphilosopher -
      It should read: We need more Scott Napier visibility! (no question mark)
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Noting the anniversary of this feature.