How a Philly kid is mastering the art of bluegrass
By Michael Somerby EBS STAFF
BIG SKY – When I first saw Zander Chovanes play guitar, his nail bed was bleeding, caking the tip of his pointer finger.
Chovanes had just finished the first half of a set with local mandolinist Ben Macht, a founder and fixture of Big Sky favorite Dammit Lauren and The Well, when I asked him at the bar how long he’d been playing.
Ten or 11 years—the figure, a mere decade, flies in the face of the 24-year-old Philly native’s abilities. If anything, his sound, his deft movements up and down the neck of his guitar, was that of a leather-faced back room regular.
With Chovanes on lead vocals, the duo had ripped through bluegrass, folk, blues and jam favorites from artists like Clapton and The Dead with remarkable fluidity and chemistry, and with a warm sound to boot.
So when I noticed his blood-covered finger wrapped around the neck of his beer and realized he hadn’t until I pointed it out, I understood that when Chovanes plays the act transcends the physical.
The next time I saw him play was at the Outlaw Partners Christmas Stroll party, where his capacity for the acoustic was yet again on full display, only to see him a few hours later shredding an electric guitar, from his back, on the sticky wooden floor of the Broken Spoke.
Yep, Chovanes wasn’t a one-and-done. I sat down with the young, promising artist to learn more about his journey as a musician.
M.S.: What kick started your pursuit of music and playing guitar?
Z.C.: I didn’t come from a family where people played instruments, but I had a good friend growing up that was a really good piano player. When we were 13, he asked his parents for a drum set for Christmas and I asked my parents for an electric guitar. I ended up getting this Squier Stratocaster, the cheap Fender line, and an amp. And then we started a band with a bass player, playing through high school together.
M.S.: Do you think starting out, immediately, in a band helped carry that passion?
Z.C.: I can definitely attribute sticking with it to having someone to play with. The most important thing about playing music is playing with other people, no matter how good you are. That’s what music’s about—communicating with other musicians.
M.S.: Describe your style for me.
Z.C.: The older I get, the more I focus on putting my voice on the way I play guitar. There are so many great guitar players out there, even in this town, that can play faster and technically better than you, so it’s all about finding what you do differently. I think what I’m trying to go for is like a rootsy, broad folk music sound that includes a bluegrass and Tedeschi Trucks Band kind of sound. But most people definitely think of me as a flatpicker.
M.S.: Which other artists and influences do you draw inspiration from?
Z.C.: “The Pizza Tapes” is one of the main albums that really got me into bluegrass, with Tony Rice, Jerry Garcia and David Grisman. Definitely the Grateful Dead, too. But, to be honest, I’m really bad at discovering new music because once I’m introduced to something I kind of just latch onto it for a long, long time. For example, I recently went through the YouTube rabbit hole with Jason Isbell, and now I’ve made a personal connection. Derek Trucks is another big one, he has such a creative way of playing, and Luther Dickinson is another slide player I really like. On the bluegrass side, I really like Brian Sutton and obviously Tony Rice.
M.S.: How has playing in the American West influenced your style?
Z.C.: When I lived in South Carolina, I was around a lot more acoustic, folk and bluegrass music sounds, so I eventually got into flatpicking, the traditional bluegrass style of playing guitar. When I moved out here that really picked up steam because everyone plays that style in Montana. It’s exposed me to an incredible living music scene, with many incredible flatpickers like Kevin Fabozzi and Tom Murphy.
M.S.: What’s it like playing in Big Sky?
Z.C.: I feel very fortunate to be able to play here. There are a lot of great musicians, and tons of opportunity. I like the variety of venues, different avenues of expression—I can play late night at The Spoke and lay on my back and shred the electric guitar, or I can be Scissorbills [Saloon]with Hanna [Powell] and do a rocking set, or me and Ben [Macht] can be at Spanish Peaks and play to that calmer vibe. And no matter what, even if you’re not playing their favorite style, there will always be someone dancing.
Chovanes plays regularly around the Big Sky area with a number of local artists, including a newly minted bluegrass band, Fringe Bikini, with Chovanes on guitar, Powell on vocals, Macht on mandolin and Brian Stumpf on standup base.