Swing Time: Tennessee Sheiks Mandolinist Don Cassell Talks About Django

There's something rich, but also delicate and sly, about the music of the Tennessee Sheiks, like a jive fox hot-footing it lightly across a cartoon henhouse. It's string-band music, but not bluegrass or old-time. It's mandolinist Don Cassell's favorite kind of music, and has been for a long time. He calls it Parisian swing.

Originally from Virginia, by way of Alabama and Chattanooga, Don Cassell has lived in Knoxville for nearly 40 years, but it's hard to nail him down. He's a businessman in the textile industry, involved in a company that makes cotton yarn, and he's often on the road. We finally caught up with him while he was driving somewhere in North Carolina.

"Django's just an amazing guy," Cassell says, laughing with a sort of head-shaking awe about the inventor of a musical style Cassell has been working at for decades. He's speaking, of course, about Django Reinhardt (1910-53), the eccentric and partly disabled Gypsy guitarist who was all the rage in pre-World War II Paris. Working most often with Italian violinist Stephane Grappelli, Reinhardt applied horn-based American jazz to strings. The result has somehow stuck in the cultures of at least two continents, never dominant, but always too seductive to dismiss, especially in its melancholy moods. Cassell recently read the 2006 Django Reinhardt biography by Michael Dregni and recommends it. He mentions that some Django purists deliberately learn to play with just two fingers, like Reinhardt himself did, of necessity, after his hand was injured in a fire. Cassell admits he didn't learn it that way. "I don't see how some of them do it."

The style has always been on the fringe, and whether by influence or coincidence found its way into the 1930s and '40s up-tempo country and blues styles of Howard Armstrong and a few others. Django-style music is what fascinated Cassell as a youth, and it's what the Tennessee Sheiks have done for more than a decade. "It was challenging at first, just a different kind of music," Cassell says.

They play a few Reinhardt classics, like the familiar "Nuages," but more so Parisian swing variations on several traditional tunes, from "Wild Bill Jones" to "After You've Gone," as well as several songs of their own. Both Cassell and guitarist Don Wood have composed tunes that sound like Django-era classics the first time you hear them.

The Sheiks have caught a fresh wind in the form of a recent Django vogue among younger alternative sorts. A couple of local bands show Parisian-swing influences, and it's not unusual to encounter a college-age street band taking a stab at some Reinhardt riffs.

Cassell acknowledges the trend. "But at the same time, I watch the American Music Awards and wonder what percentage of the population that actually is," he says, laughing. "We're steeped in that tradition in East Tennessee. Southwestern Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley, Western North Carolina—those are still hot beds of this music. We see it more there than in other parts of the country. But in Atlanta, you don't see it at all. But Portland, Ore., and Washington state, especially around Seattle, you see the same kind of thing there."

Cassell says they're all pretty busy with careers and families and long work trips out of state. They play just five to 10 times a year. "We're working to try to be semi-selective about where we play, how much we play."

He adds, laughing, "We're all getting old, Jack."

Certain members of Cassell's other band might scoff. The Chattanooga-based Dismembered Tennesseans, founded in 1945, is older than Cassell is. Fletcher Bright, that band's hard-working fiddler and star, is 82.

But Tennessee Shines, the weekly Monday-evening radio show on WDVX, is a priority for the Sheiks. "We have a lot of history with live radio here," he says. "Tennessee Shines is a good thing for the community. It's a great thing."

The Sheiks' lineup has changed just a little since their eponymous 2006 album. It's still Cassell on mandolin and Dobro and Nancy Brennan Strange on occasional vocals. Cassell has been performing with her in various contexts for 35 years, but adds that their musical relationship "continues to develop." Strange sings with other groups, usually in the jazz idiom, and has recorded with piano legend Donald Brown.

Don Wood still plays guitar, but the Sheiks have since added his brother Ken as a percussionist. Barry "Po" Hannah (son of the late Mississippi novelist) is the other guitarist—they swap leads. The newest member, as seems to be typical in some local bands, is the bassist, Grant Parker. Cassell describes him as the latest in the jazz-bassist factory run by Rusty Holloway and the University of Tennessee's jazz program. "Grant's out of UT, and living here for a while, then probably on his way to somewhere else, like all the great bass players are," says Cassell.

Former Sheiks like Harold Nagge, Morgan Simmons, John Steele, and David Slack are known to sit in at some performances, as does fiddler (etc.) Danny Gammon, on some occasions.

That first album, Tennessee Sheiks, is still their only commercially available recording, though Cassell has hopes they'll record another one soon. It sounds as if we may hear more of them in the next year. A Laurel Theater gig is coming up in the spring, as well as a significant festival date, yet unannounced.