Published: July 11, 2023
Chances are you tapped your foot to the melodic but solid mandolin lead weaving through “I’ll Fly Away” in the 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou. The film’s producer T-Bone Burnett needed that authentic, rural musical style to evoke pure Americana, and so called upon Mike Compton to provide his unique and signature mandolin style and give the Soggy Bottom Boys their rootsy sound. That project won a Grammy Award Album of the Year and sold seven million copies, igniting an international renaissance in old-time and bluegrass music. Less known — unless you follow Compton on Facebook — is his connoisseurship of hand-painted, vintage ties, the classically designed examples from the 1920s-40s (even the ‘50-‘60s) that epitomize the Golden Era style. On a recent Zoom call sandwiched in between his busy touring schedule, Compton explained his sartorial collecting adventures along with his love of old-time music that is both timely and ageless.
How and why did you begin collecting ties seemingly as wide as the Mississippi River?
It was a pastime on the road, basically, when I was working with the Nashville Bluegrass band, I had a few ties around, just for whenever I needed one, but me and Stuart Duncan, fiddle player and multi-instrumentalist in the band at the time, we would stop on the road and run into antiques stores, basically just to have something to do and to pass the time. Then it got to where the ties started piling up. At first it was 1960s ties, not the wide kind, but narrow ties. You could buy them back then for a quarter or 50 cents apiece, and whenever we would come into some little town, we’d look for antiques stores and just ran like a bat out of hell to try to get out in front of each other to see who could get in there first.
How many do you have in your collection? And how do you store and care for them?
[Gets up, opens a closet and brings out a hanger draped with many ties]. I probably have about a 100-150 here, all manner of stuff, some hand painted, I don’t really know what all is in here. A little of everything. Just in this closet there are 10 hangers of ties. I’ve got stuff in there that I’ve been buying since the mid-1980s. I still buy one occasionally if I see something that’s good. At this point in time, I think I have between 1,500 and 2,000. It makes my eyes happy. To get that bold a statement in a long, skinny format — people are really brilliant when they want to be.
Do you now seek out the high-end stuff, silk examples and the like?
Silk ties, for the most part, tend to be lighter weight in my experience. It’s just like not having anything on, you just can’t feel it at all. If they get out of shape, wrinkled or dirty, they’re a little bit harder to wrestle with and get them back to where they look good. Rayon seems to be the most durable. The fabric comes in different weights, too.
Do you have a preference in their design, for example, an abstract with bold colors versus a patterned design?
I’ve almost always been interested in colors and shapes. That’s me in a nutshell. I started to get more interested in the 30s-40s versions because they were bolder. The fashion after World War II when everybody was tired of holding back and deciding “Well, we just been through a major war, it’s time for us to let loose and have some fun.” And the clothing went with it. I ended up having about 250 of the narrow ties. I met a guy online. I believe he had a store in Texas that mostly sold the narrower ties and I had gotten to the point where I wasn’t wearing them anymore. I just put them all in a box and sent them to him. In return, he sent a gallon of some kind of steak rub. The real early wide ones, from the 1920s that have a pattern sewn into the fabric, most of those don’t have linings in them. In the 1930s I think they started putting a lining on the inside. But I hadn’t been wearing those and had probably about 100 of those. I just within the last couple of months mailed those to a lady who comes to the mandolin camp. She makes quilts. I sent the ties to her along with a bagful of quilt squares that my daddy’s mother had made.
You are also an influencer of the denim overalls look. How did that come about?
I wore them when I was a kid growing up in Mississippi, when I wasn’t wearing shorts. I went through a period of time when I was wearing pleated pants and trying to look like some kind of GQ guy. I was standing in front of a mirror one day and I just looked at my clothing and thought this doesn’t look like me. So I just got rid of that stuff and went out and bought some blue jeans. In some ways, it’s paying tribute to all the men and women of my grandparents’ age who from the early 1900s on through that saw so many changes in this country and helped build it into what it is now.
Tell us about your friendship with the Father of Bluegrass Music, Bill Monroe, and why you choose to interpret his signature mandolin style.
When I was about 15 or 16, I began hanging around a fellow that I met at a bluegrass festival who told me I should follow Bill Monroe because he was the foundation of all this music we were playing, and after you learn that, he said, you can move on to some other stuff you might want to do. I didn’t realize what a job that was going to be. At that point in time I was listening to a lot of Top 40 — Gordon Lightfoot, Cat Stevens, Creedence and BJ Thomas. When I got to listening to Monroe, he always sounded out of tune compared to those others, but my interest at that time was to play “hillbilly” music. I got a mandolin for Christmas when I was 15. Bill sounded easier than everybody else. He was a very straightforward individual, very emotional back in the day when it wasn’t considered usual for a man to cry in public. His music is all about heartbreak and hard times. I became a fan of the blues content of his music.
I have to ask you about your curation of oddball official days. What’s coming up that we shouldn’t miss?
They’re all on the internet. You can look them up. Today is International Body-Piercing Day and National Tapioca Day. Tomorrow is National Handshake Day, National Waffle Iron Day. The last day of the month is Drive Your Corvette to Work Day.
Recently in concert with fellow brother duet musician Joe Newberry, you played one of your own compositions, a hauntingly powerful song called “Death and Blues.” Where did that come from?
That was written by myself and Thomm Jutz, singer and songwriter in Nashville, who I met in 2019. He and his wife came over one day and were standing around in the garden. I told him that my granddaddy plowed with a horse and about some of the things he used to say. And Thomm said, “We ought to write that song.” And I said, “I don’t know how to write a song.” He said, “Well, you know, think about it. We can give it a try some time.” All of a sudden Covid hit and I had absolutely nothing to do, had to stay in the house like all the rest of us. About the same time a folder full of family history came to me from a relative in Texas. It was all about people I mostly knew or grew up around. I started writing songs about all that stuff to pass the time. My mother and her husband got Covid about Thanksgiving 2020, and Mom died on the second day of 2021. I couldn’t for the life of me shake it. I kept seeing this image from blues songs — “Blues come walking like a man.” I felt like Death had crept in and grabbed my mom and just kept going. The Blues was still there. The only way I could wrap my brain around it was to imagine those two, Death & Blues, as being two dark figures that walked into town one night, did their business and then left. The song is recorded but hasn’t been released yet.
Living so close to Nashville, you must be in demand as a sessions musician.
I just did a session for T-Bone within the past two months, a bunch of pre-records for a movie that they’re going to do, a crime thriller, Rivals of Amziah King, starring Matthew McConaughey that takes place in rural Oklahoma. Apparently, he’s supposed to play mandolin in this movie and it’s the first time he’s done any singing parts. I basically made some iPhone video lessons for him, keeping in mind that he doesn’t play that much. Doing stuff for T-Bone is always interesting because there’s no telling what it’s going to be. He does a lot of soundtrack stuff. The thing that I did for him prior to that was a rerecording of a song that [Bob] Dylan did. I basically went in and it was Dylan and T-bone and a bunch of other people that I really didn’t know that were already on the track and a couple of guys from Nashville. I just sat in a chair in the middle of the room and listened to the track and played along with it.
What‘s your next big project?
I’m currently transcribing all of Bill Monroe’s recorded output. I’m only midway through the “I”s. Bill has more than 500 songs in his recorded output.
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