Prelude: What does it take to become the national champion mandolin player? Not once, not twice, but three times! Well, you could do what Solly Burton did at the age of nine and have your mom buy you a used mandolin for $50 at a yard sale and have your dad piece it back together and then just start pickin’ and doodlin’ until you become good at it…I mean really, really good at it. Solly is now 27 years old, and lives on a farm in rural Graysville, Indiana where he raises chickens, has a business rebuilding jet skis and helps his dad farm. When I was interviewing him, he nonchalantly picked up the mandolin and starting playing as easily as you and I wake up in the morning breathing. It was the sweetest sound you could imagine.
Was the mandolin the first instrument you learned to play?
I went to Louie Popejoy and he gave me some piano lessons when I was eight. When I was around nine, I got a violin and took some lessons from Popejoy. It wasn’t my idea, and I didn’t like it. Each month, Louie would take some of his students to Pizza City to play in front of people. One time I went and he had some mandolin players up there. I thought that it looked interesting. I liked the way the mandolin looked and the way it sounded.
Later, I got a $50 mandolin at a yard sale across from Boot City. It was a cheap old Kay mandolin that needed work. My dad put a new nut on it and got the bridge adjusted until it was kind of playable. That was my first mandolin. Susan, Solly’s mother: His dad didn’t want him to have it because he thought it was junk. Barney, Solly’s dad: No, it was because we have all of these instruments, a grand piano and violins, and he wasn’t picking up on any of them. Susan: When we went back to the car, I noticed that Solly looked down in the mouth and I said to him, “Do you want it?”, Solly said “Yes!”. So I went back and bought it. I think he sort of bonded to it when he helped his dad fix it up. He started playing around with it, started taking lessons and then wouldn’t put it down.
When you started taking lessons with Louie Popejoy did you learn to read music?
No, he started me with a number system on the piano where each number represents a note in the scale. When I got on the mandolin, I already knew how to play some; it was all by ear. He would play a little bit and at the end of the lesson he would record it on a cassette tape for me at a reasonable speed. When I got home, I would listen to the tape, rewind and play it again until I got the 10-second measure he recorded. He would teach harder and harder songs, and I would do the same thing until I got to where I could play them. Eventually, I started to listen to other musicians like Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs and other bluegrass stuff. I would listen to their recordings and figure out how to play what they were playing the same way I did with the Popejoy recordings…play and rewind, play and rewind.
Can you expand some more on your education?
I went to public school for the first six grades and then I home schooled from the 7th grade on. In the 10th, 11th and 12th grades, I was taking a lot of online classes from Lincoln Trail College, and when I graduated from high school I was already at a sophomore level in college. All of those credits transferred to Indiana State University where I finished my music business degree.
The great thing about being home schooled is that it gave me the opportunity to take a lot of field trips, including many trips to bluegrass festivals. I would take my books with me to stay up with my studies.
About this time in the interview, the bird in a cage behind us started singing. Solly’s mother had rescued a baby starling when it fell out of its nest. Not only is it their pet, but also the family has taught the bird to talk. Its name is Birdie Boy.
Solly’s dad: Did you hear Birdie Boy say, “Get you some fresh water?” They are amazingly smart birds. Most people dislike them, but they make fantastic pets.
(I was totally amazed by this and we spent about 10 minutes talking more about their talking starling.)
You have been teaching music also. Have long have you been teaching?
I have been teaching since I was about 17 years old. I was recently talking to one of my former students, Ethan Batan, who started taking lessons from me when he was 11 years old. We were talking about how when I was taking lessons I learned from cassette recordings, and when he took lessons from me I would record it and burn it onto a CD and send him home with it to practice the same way I did. Now, with all the new technology my current students record me with the video camera on their phone. I have also had distant students who took lessons through Skype. For them, I would send video messages through Skype or email them mp3 recordings. The student who lived the furthest from me was from Australia and I got to meet him in person when he came to visit me this last October.
I don’t advertise that I give lessons; people approach me. I prefer students who are really serious about learning. I’ve had a couple dozen students in the past 10 years but right now I have two students. If they’re excited about learning and working at learning, it is fun for me too.
You started playing the mandolin at nine years old. What happened between then and when you won your first national championship?
I won the National Mandolin Championship when I was 16 years old. Before that, Mom and Dad took me to bluegrass festivals and contests all over Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee. While there, I would meet musicians, pick up stuff by ear and borrow their musical ideas. That’s how I learned to play even more. This is how bluegrass music is passed from person to person, and generation to generation, just like a story would be passed along, so is the music. Sheet music is available, but most bluegrass is passed on audibly in jam sessions and that is where people like to do their personal improvising. You don’t usually play the same the way twice, because that wouldn’t be as interesting and fun. When I’m sitting in a circle in a jam session, we play a song with the original melody and when we play it the second time we add our own personal twist. Otherwise, it would be pretty repetitive.
Most bluegrass songs are pretty short and simple; they have three or four chords. I have also found an interest in jazz, swing and Brazilian music. The melodies are more complicated, and it is exciting for me because it is new challenge.
Who or what has influenced you the most?
When I was taking lessons, I would go to the monthly Pizza City event that my teacher Louie Popejoy organized. His students would meet there and take turns playing on a small stage in front of friends, family and visitors. Each month I would see how the others were progressing, and I wanted to keep up with them too. If it weren’t for me going to Pizza City each month I would playing at home alone and not interacting with other musicians. This was a great motivator for me.
My great grandmother Vera Miller, who lived to be 101, was a great piano player and she influenced me a lot. She could still play the piano when she 100 years old and I enjoyed playing music for her too. My mom and dad have encouraged me a lot through the years cheering me on and helping me meet musicians especially when I was young and just learning..
What are some of the interesting experiences you have had as a mandolin player?
I’ve recently made two trips to Europe. I knew that bluegrass music was big in the Czech Republic and that there were some famous mandolin builders there too. When I was in Germany, I emailed a gentleman named Miroslav Vana, who is a famous Czech mandolin builder. I told him that I was a mandolin player from the United States and wondered if I could come by to visit him and see his shop. About an hour later, he emailed me back and told me that there was a big jam session in Prague that night. “You need to come to this,” he wrote. He told me not worry about having a place to stay. “There will be somebody who will put you up,” or he would, he wrote. When I got to Prague, there was this smoky bar and they were playing bluegrass music inside! I knew all the songs that they were playing but I couldn’t understand the lyrics because they were singing in Czech. The Czechs were the nicest people you could meet. I told the first person I met that I was looking for someone named Yan. He said, “I am Yan, you must be Solly. This is good, this is good, and you will stay with me. I will call my friend, and he will bring a mandolin for you to play.” I think at first, the others would not offer me one of their mandolins to play because they just saw me as the young American, but after I played for a while they all started offering me their mandolins to play.
The next day they took me to meet Miroslav, the mandolin builder. I think he is one of the best mandolin builders in the world. He didn’t have a mandolin available because he had sold them all, but fortunately, he was working on one. In the two days since I had first talked to him, he hurried and got it ready to play. It was still in its unfinished “white” condition, but he put strings on it so I could play it. Then he had his friends come over, and we all jammed at a local pub late into the night.
Tell us more about the contests you have won.
I have won the Walnut Valley National Mandolin Championship in Winfield, Kansas three times. I was 16 when I won it the first time. Once you win, you have to sit out for five years before you can enter it again. The interesting thing about this competition is that you have no idea who the judges are and they have no idea who the contestants are. The judges are in a trailer where they cannot see who is playing, the music comes to them via a speaker in the trailer.
I won mandolin competitions in multiple states and have also won the Bluegrass Band contest at the Indiana State Picking and Fiddling Contest in Princeton, Indiana, in 2007 with two friends. (Just like his first time at the national competition, they entered into this competition just for the fun of it and they won, beating out a Chicago bluegrass group that wasn’t very happy about getting beaten out by a group of teenagers.)
I also won the 2013 RockyGrass, Colorado mandolin contest the first time I entered and this contest is limited to winning only once. Sam Bush presented me with the mandolin I won.
How are you using your degree?
I graduated in Music Business from Indiana State University. I don’t really use the music part of my degree, but I do use the business part for my personal business. I buy, rebuild and sell jet skis and part them out on eBay and Craigslist. So far, the mandolin playing doesn’t really pay enough to make a living, but the jet ski business does. I sell jet skis to people as far away as Missouri, Kentucky, New York, Iowa, Michigan and Ohio It’s amazing; people will drive 12 hours just to save a hundred dollars. I also help my mom and dad with the farm business keeping up with the bookwork and helping with the labor.
I saw all of the jet skis when I drove up to your house. How did you start that business?
I wanted a jet ski when I was 19. They looked like fun and I really like water sports and skiing. I bought one, but it didn’t run so I rebuilt the motor on it and I ended up selling it to get a bigger one. I have had about every make and model made between 1990-2005. It is fun to ride them all, and it is especially fun for me to hear something run for the first time that has sat idle for 10 plus years. I take my customers to see them run and to test them on a private lake. It’s a fun business that I really enjoy.
What are your goals as a mandolin player, or music businessperson?
Most of my goals that I have set, I have accomplished. No real goals musically; I just enjoy playing. I like to go on trips and it is easy to meet new people as a musician. This summer I went to Europe with my cousin for a month. We travelled from Spain to Lithuania traveling through 8 countries. When I was in Poland, I met an accordion player. He could not speak English and I could not speak Polish, but we played music together for hours and had a great time. My new goal is visit new places and see new things. I spent most of my time on the farm prior to this trip and when I broke my neck when I was 25 years old in a truck accident my thoughts changed. I was thrown out of the truck when it rolled over and when I woke up in a corn field, I heard Jethro Burns on the radio playing the mandolin from my truck radio, and I wondered what happened. Fortunately I only had to wear a neck brace for three months. After the accident, I thought to myself I needed to go to places and experience some new things.
I have this really dumb pipe dream that nobody likes but me. I want to drive my car from here to the tip of South America. I want to get to Argentina, sell my car, and then fly home. There are probably about five people who do this each year. If I can get through Mexico alive, then I’ll probably be okay. When I’m awake late at night, sometimes I read about other people who have made this trip, because it is really interesting to me.
What about your musical goals playing the mandolin?
I have made recordings with some other folks, like Brent McPike, who is an amazing guitar player. Brent and I have been playing at gigs together in the Terre Haute area for the past 10 years. My favorite kind of recording session is a live recording. I do some studio recordings, but live recording at gigs are much more relaxed for me.
I like to play at home for my own entertainment and especially like learning new songs and exploring new ways to play them. I like to play for family, friends and people who enjoy listening. I like to play for the elderly residents at Miller’s Merry Manor, the Assisted Living Facility in Sullivan, Indiana.
I also play for hire at weddings, special events, private parties and charitable events. Sometimes I’ll play in local pubs where I’m getting paid, but usually people aren’t listening, unlike the pubs I played in Europe where everyone listens intently to the music.
I really enjoy meeting new people through my music, so who knows what that will bring!