Student Profile: Eric Robertson
Mandolinist Eric Robertson was about to start his junior year of high school and considering a conservatory or a liberal arts school when he met rising-star fiddler Nate Leath backstage at a show in the summer of 2006. When Robertson learned that Leath was studying bluegrass at Berklee, his college choice became clear.
"This is the only place I wanted to go," he says.
One year later Robertson was in Finland, performing with Leath on a Berklee International Network annual visit to the Pop & Jazz Conservatory in Helsinki—a rare treat for a first-semester student. A year after that, Leath was helping Robertson produce an EP for his new band.
Barely two years after Berklee instituted an acoustic strings principal, the college has become a hotbed for bluegrassers.
They're attracted in part by the college's illustrious alumni, who play with festival headliners like the Infamous Stringdusters, Tim O'Brien, Steep Canyon Rangers, Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet, and Old School Freight Train.
"Berklee, for younger players, is a really cool choice," Robertson says, now 19 and in his third semester.
In fact, his new band, the Boston Boys—named after a Bill Monroe tune—is composed entirely of Berklee students and alumni, some already well-known in the bluegrass world: first-semester bassist Sam Grisman, Nick Falk '06, Leath '07, and fourth-semester guitarist Stash Wyslouch.
Before becoming a Boston Boy, Robertson was a North Carolina boy in Greensboro, studying classical guitar from the age of 12. But he turned off the paved road and onto the dirt two years later when a family friend who collected mandolins "just gave me a mandolin off the wall," Robertson says.
That was that. Playing the instrument "made sense and felt right," he says.
Berklee mandolin professor John McGann says Robertson's expressive playing "has an authority that belies his relatively short amount of years on the instrument."
He gained that authority in part by going out to small towns "where you find a lot of the original backwoods players" plus festivals where he met Grisman (son of mandolin master David) and many other impressive young pickers. At home, he formed a band called Beaconwood and "started gigging every weekend," Robertson says. "I never had to have a job in high school."
He thought that coming to Boston would slow his pace—that he'd get into jazz and let some of the bluegrass action rest. But no. "I actually gig more."
In fact, the city practically drove him to it. "The majority of people playing bluegrass here, gigging bluegrass here, are really young" and brewing up a lot of excitement, he says. "I couldn't ask to be in a better music scene."
The bluegrass scene specifically at the college has given him such notable opportunities as traveling to Helsinki, studying with McGann and cellist Eugene Friesen, and performing in a bluegrass ensemble under Dave Hollender "with some of the most talented students at Berklee."
Still, Robertson is exploring interests beyond the blue. He's been performing with string jazz quartet Dr. Magpie at venues as illustrious as the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
And then there's the Boston Boys.
Considered by traditional criteria, the EP he recorded in the spring "turned out to be not really bluegrass at all," he says. He describes it instead as "contemporary roots-rock" performed by old-time and bluegrass musicians, adding, "It's sort of a group effort to branch out." He envisions someday playing both mandolin and Wurlitzer in the band.
McGann calls Robertson "amazing," adding that his strong bluegrass roots branched into "earthy funk and contemporary sophistication."
Neither staying true to a genre nor hewing a new path troubles Robertson at this point—especially as his focus shifts somewhat from playing to creating. Currently a performance major, he's considering switching to professional music in order to incorporate production and songwriting courses.
"I feel like if I keep writing [songs] I'll keep playing the music I'm supposed to be playing," he says. "It's going to come out new no matter what. . . . Music doesn't have to try to change."
Those songs hooked Leath when Robertson played them in their Helsinki hotel room. He signed on to record and produce the album.
"Eric is a very talented writer, and I think he's a very talented bandleader, but he doesn't know it yet," says Leath. "I have a lot of faith in the project."
Robertson's hoping the EP will bring the Boston Boys to the forefront. The band played a showcase at this fall's International Bluegrass Music Association conference. (Berklee president Roger H. Brown gave the keynote address.) The Ossipee Valley Bluegrass Festival nabbed the band far in advance for its 2009 lineup.
"There's a lot of excitement in the air," Leath says. "People don't know Eric Robertson's name yet but they will someday."
Still, for the time being, this Boy is prioritizing Boston. "Everything's around school at this point," Robertson says. "I definitely want to get a degree, and I definitely want to get a degree from Berklee."
Eric's Top Five Albums
- Bela Fleck, Drive
- The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
- The Band, The Band
- John Hartford, Aereo-Plain
- David Grisman, Hot Dawg