A Q&A with Noah Wall
Of The Barefoot Movement
By Geoff Gehman
The four members of The Barefoot Movement like essential elements. Harmonies that ring, rhythms that zing, songs that sing. Stories about love, loss, legacy. Playing ballads, reels and hoedowns barefooted, around a single microphone, in places as far flung as the Albino Skunk Festival in Greer, S.C., and an African center for women accused of witchcraft.
The Barefooters, who all hail from southern states, will perform elemental, essential Americana on April 23 at the Mauch Chunk Opera House as part of the 40 Story Tower revue. In the conversation below Noah Wall—North Carolina native, fiddler, lead singer, chief songwriter, reluctant dancer—discusses her tobacco-farming heritage, her ride on a sacred crocodile and her jones for the Wizard of Ozz.
Q: I read along the way that your mom helped make you a musical split personality, a fan of both Doc Watson and heavy-metalsmiths. Are there any heavy-metal tunes among your desert-island picks?
A: My mother loved folk and rock music; she loved Led Zeppelin and America, bands that had an acoustic sound. There was a great public radio station with a weekend show, “Back Porch Music,” that we always listened to, and this being North Carolina, of course Doc Watson was huge. I remember hearing him play “Tennessee Stud” at a young age and I grew to love him through the years. So while I was growing up it was definitely folk music on the weekends and heavy metal during the weeks [laughs].
I still love heavy-metal bands; I love Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. I recently bought Ozzy Osbourne’s “Blizzard of Ozz” and it’s become one of my favorites. One of my favorite heavy-metal bands is Type O Negative. I always listen to them around Halloween; they play a lot of Halloween material.
Q: Has heavy metal’s heavy attitude rubbed off on your music making, your music thinking?
A: I’m not consciously aware of an influence, although I like heavy metal’s honesty. Honesty is something I like in all music; there’s a lot of honesty in folk music, too. When I write I’m just trying to get across what I feel. I like to be pretty clear about what I’m going through, but not in a completely blunt way.
Q: How about one of your recent songs with a pretty pointed point of view?
A: I wrote “Some Day” when I was feeling pretty devastated about a band lineup change, when we replaced guitarists. At one point I say: “I look around and all I see are things tumbling down.” I really didn’t filter it much; the truth just came out. [The departure of original guitarist Quentin Acres] was kind of a surprise but all things happen for a reason. We love things the way they are [with guitarist Alex Conerly].
Q: You and [mandolinist] Tommy Norris have been musical partners since you were seniors in high school. Have your band roles changed significantly over a decade?
A: Tommy started playing mandolin in college and has become a really wonderful player. When I met him he was definitely a rock and roll guy. Although he‘s never delved deep into folk music, we’ve spent the last nine years doing our homework on the folk-music side. As far as I’m concerned, I’m pretty much trying to do the same thing as when we met. I’m writing songs, drawing from as many inspirations as I can.
I can definitely say our business roles have changed since the band has grown. Tommy is our full-time accountant. For a long time I was our booking agent before we finally got a booking agent. Now I communicate with the booking agent. I also do our tour scheduling. I put the dates on everybody’s calendar on their phones; that kind of day sheet is really helpful. Our bass player [Hasee Ciacco] does merchandise and promotion for shows. Our guitar player [Conerly] handles all our media stuff, the Web and audio things that people send us. I’m pretty much the point person for interviews.
Q: You guys had a very momentous 2014: you settled in Nashville and you had a very eventful tour of Burkina Faso as a U.S. cultural envoy. What did you take away from performing for, and interacting with, those women accused of witchcraft?
A: They were the best because they were so grateful to have people perform for them. They don’t take that stuff for granted. I also think they are some of the hardest working people I’ve ever encountered. I was really impressed by their resilience. They really had nothing. They had shelter but no running water and very little access to anything. But they were so peaceful. They all wanted to share their music with us.
Everywhere we played they wanted to play, too. They had us walk around in a circle and do this dance. We didn’t know what we were doing but they didn’t care; they were just so happy we were participating. They just wanted to give us something for the gift we had given them.
We met a lot of hard-working people in Burkina Faso. We didn’t get asked for money but a lot of people asked us to buy stuff they made; they didn’t want something for nothing. They just wanted to have some kind of living. It was hard to keep saying no because we wanted to support them; unfortunately, we had only so much room in our suitcases.
Q: And was riding a sacred crocodile a once-in-a-lifetime adventure?
A: I was a little disturbed because they take live chickens and wave them around to make the crocodiles chill out: “Oh yeah, I’m going to eat that!” But the live chicken.is part of their culture, and it’s also a tourist thing. It was amazing to be so close to this wildlife but not that fun to watch chickens gobbled up in one bite
Luckily, the crocodiles didn’t move. If they had moved, that would have been terrifying. When you get back, you think: Now that thing could really have eaten me.
Q: Do you think you’ll write songs triggered by your African experiences?
A: Maybe, although right now it’s hard to verbalize what we encountered. People ask “How was it?” and I say it was just so huge that it’s really hard to narrow down. Once I really get started, I could probably talk about it for two weeks. For a while it was all a little unreal. We went straight from Africa to teaching at a [bluegrass] camp [for children] in Wyoming. It happened so quickly we had to sit down and think: Wait a minute, we actually went to Africa.
I have to tell you that I love the Toto song “Africa.” We listened to it before going to Africa, while we were in Africa, and after we got back from Africa. I’m addicted [laughs].
Q: You’re descended from tobacco farmers, a lineage you trace in the song “Tobacco Road.” Has your personality been shaped in any way by the heritage of growing and processing tobacco?
A: Actually, I’m related to tobacco farmers on both sides of my family. In North Carolina it’s deeply rooted in the culture; everybody’s related to somebody who farmed tobacco. My dad’s dad farmed tobacco; [mandolinist] Tommy [Norris]’s parents grew up farming tobacco.
My dad brought [the legacy of tobacco farming] to my attention when he remembered about spending his childhood going to his grandmother’s house. He would talk about the fresh butter milk that he just missed drinking. It made me think that tobacco farming was much more than the crop itself; it was a way of life that was so hard and so special. Today, it’s not practical for a lot of people to grow their own food or make their own buttermilk. But there’s something natural and powerful about being self-sufficient, something that doesn’t really leave you. I wrote the song thinking that my dad was kind of feeling lonesome for those days.
Q: Did you have a recent revelation, some long-elusive epiphany, that’s made performing live easier and better?
A: The biggest thing for me is just being prepared. I would not describe myself as a spontaneous person; I even write stuff to talk about on the set list. I’ve found that being prepared helps me open up and not be so nervous. It gives you more freedom to respond to all the natural things that happen in a show that are unique to each venue.
Q: Can you point to a recent on-the-fly response during a show to something that flew in from left field, or the cosmos?
A: We were in Florida when someone came up to the stage and wrote on a $20 bill: “Do something you don’t ordinarily do.” It was this person’s [wedding] anniversary and he wanted the experience to be unique. The crowd was really laid back and interactive, so we were free to pull things from our back pocket. I did “Blue Bayou” the way that Linda Ronstadt did it; she’s one of my favorite singers. Alex did “Sunny Side of the Street” as a Louis Armstrong tribute. He made trumpet noises with his mouth; he did a really great Louie.
We want to entertain people, so when someone opens the door, it gives us a chance to do something that we like.
Q: Why do you share a microphone? I know that playing so closely together creates a nice sonic envelope, a vibrant vibe vortex.
A: Having one mike just feels right. It helps us really hear each other. It’s important to be more in charge of our dynamics; when you’re individually miked, you’re at the mercy of the sound guy. At this point it’s just part of our show. It’s also part of an old tradition in bluegrass. It’s there for a reason. It’s stood the test of time because it works.
Q: How would you like to improve musically? What strengthens need strengthening; what weaknesses need weakening?
A: It’s all a progression of getting tighter, especially with rhythm and harmony. Singing harmony is my favorite thing to do, and it just feels better when we hit a harmony and it really resonates well. At the same time you have to give yourself a break when you’re performing live. You have to know that what’ s happening now won’t be 100 percent perfect. You hear old recordings when they didn’t have Auto-Tune and you know that while they weren’t perfect, what makes them special is that they were natural, not fake.
Q: Over in Africa you danced more than you ever had danced in your life. Does that mean you’ll be dancing more in America?
A: No [laughs]. I used to do theater and I could perform Broadway choreography but now I can’t dance at all. I do appreciate it as an art from and I like watching Hasee do some basic Appalachian flat footing. She did some of that in Africa and they went crazy for it. So, no, dancing is definitely not on my to-do list. But if Hasee felt like doing more of it, well, I guess we’ll go along with her.
Noah Wall: The Scoop
Simon & Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” was her first truly meaningful song. “I can remember listening to it in my living room with headphones on, thinking “This is the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard.” So I asked my mother: ‘What‘s the most beautiful song you ever heard?’ And she said [incredulous at her youngster’s maturity]: ‘I don’t know.’ What can I say? I was feeling all philosophical.”
At East Tennessee State she minored in Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Studies.
She interviewed musicians she met on tour while hosting the Knoxville radio show “Highway Companion.”
Her song “Tobacco Road” was featured on the Outdoor Channel show “Huntin’ the World: Southern Style.”
Her father bought The Barefoot Movement’s van, a 1995 Chevy recently retired with around 220,000 miles, a bad transmission and the nickname El Tigre de Blanco (The White Tiger).
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He really digs The Barefoot Movement’s rock-skimming, hula-hooping, lickety-splitting version of the traditional bluegrass song “Bowling Green.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.