An Interview with Walt Michael by Rebecca Juliette
Artists Work is a BmoreArt interview series that explores the work that artists do to make a living while they work on their ‘real work’ – their art.
Name: Walt Michael
Walt Michael’s various incarnations, including Bottle Hill, Michael, McCreesh & Campbell, and Walt Michael & Co. have spanned 40 years and taken him from the coal camps of Appalachia to the White House to the Closing Ceremonies of the 13th Olympic Winter Games.
Considered to be a virtuoso of tremendous influence in the revival of the hammered dulcimer, Walt’s wide repertoire ranges from old-time Southern Appalachian, to Celtic, to breath-taking original compositions. As a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist and he has recorded fourteen albums and instructional videos, appeared at the Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and toured extensively throughout the US, Canada, Europe and the UK. His music has been heard on ABC-TV, NBC’s Tonight Show, Broadway, BBC, TNN, CBC, OLN and PBS.
Walt has composed and performed collaboratively with both the Pilobolus Dance Theater and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. He was the musical producer, composer and recording artist for the Outdoor Living Network’s documentary, Cowboy 101, which premiered in October 2004. In 2005 he collaborated with 5-time Tennessee State Fiddle Champion Jim Wood to produce two instrumental albums featuring his signature hammered dulcimer artistry. His music figures prominently in the feature length movie “The Last Blast” in which he also plays two roles: a punk rocker and a G-man.
Walt is the Artist in Residence at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland, as well as founder and Executive Director of Common Ground on the Hill, now in its 20th year, an international arts organization which seeks to promote interracial harmony through the traditional arts. www.commongroundonthehill.org
Description of Art You Make:
I am a traditional roots musician and recording artist concentrating in Celtic, folk, Bluegrass, oldtime and original string band music. I am perhaps best known as a hammered dulcimer virtuoso as well as a multi instrumentalist and singer.
I am artist in residence at McDaniel College as well as executive director and founder of Common Ground on the hill in residence at McDaniel College in Westminster Maryland.
Hours per week at work:
Depending on the season anywhere from 30 hours to 80 hours per week.
Hours per week in studio:
It all depends on the amount of performances I have on my calendar. At this point in my career I am performing more than woodshedding.
Duties or tasks performed at day job:
Overseeing the operations of common ground on the hill, a nonprofit arts organization. This includes arranging two annual festivals, two concert series and two separate weeks of workshops in the traditional arts.
Best thing about your day job:
My day job allows me to be creative and to enable the work of other artists.
How does your day job enhance or detract from your studio practice?
Although my day job is entwined with my studio and performance work, I do wish that I had more time to record and perform and to promote my personal artistic work.
Favorite job ever:
This is my favorite job ever and I have been doing it for 22 years. I suppose it could be said however that being a touring musician is my favorite job ever, which I continue to do on a more limited basis.
Job you couldn’t wait to leave:
The one that comes immediately to mind is a summer job I had working on a propane gas delivery truck.
Is it your goal to become a full-time artist? Why or why not?
I am a full-time artist and I maintain that goal at all times. It is not easy to be a full-time artist in the midst of a society that doesn’t value the arts as much as it should. Figuring out how to survive has to do with your next project and its implementation.
What advice do you have for young artists just out of school, in terms of balancing your work and studio practice?
Practice makes perfect. We live in a new era where social media can exaggerate our achieved skills. I recently listened to recordings of one of my live performances from 40 years ago. It was a painful experience! The point is that as artists we are always working to improve ourselves and to be fearless in that endeavor. Great results do not necessarily arrive quickly. Work at your craft as much as possible and be open to change. Remember that there are many who went before you from whom you can learn.
What’s coming up next for you as an artist? What projects are you working on or looking forward to?
My next creative project is to go through a number of studio and live recordings that I have on file and produce a CD or two. As well, and more importantly, I am looking forward to upping my touring schedule. I do not feel that I have made my best music yet.
You can see Walt Michael and his hammered dulcimer in action at the Common Ground on the Hill festival this weekend, Saturday and Sunday, at the Carroll County Farm Museum. Two days of roots music and dance. Click to see the full lineup.