Tatiana Hargreaves

Tatiana Hargreaves: Fiddle Tunes Faculty Spotlight

Tatiana Hargreaves winces at the word “prodigy,” though it’s a tempting one to apply. At 27 years old, the Durham resident has already achieved a lifetime of accomplishments: expert fiddle player, prolific recording artist, lecturer in UNC-Chapel Hill’s Department of Music, celebrated documentarian of old-time music.

It’s also easy to view Hargreaves through the lens of her childhood accolades. She followed in the footsteps of her older brother Alex by picking up the fiddle at the age of three, and at seven, she blew minds at music camps in her native Oregon. At 13, she became the youngest person to win the Oregon Old-Time Fiddlers Contest—and just the second woman to win Open Fiddle at the Appalachian String Band Music Festival in Clifftop, West Virginia, at the age of 14.

“It’s really cool that the bluegrass and old-time music community is so multigenerational, but the obsession with children who can play well is kind of bizarre,” Hargreaves tells INDY Week over coffee and pastries at Monuts one recent hot August afternoon. “I’m grateful that people have supported me since a really young age. That’s shaped my career. But it’s also made me uncomfortable. There’s this pressure to always stand out: ‘You’re a kid, and you’re so good, so what are you going to do next?’”

Perhaps that’s the driving force behind Hargreaves’s impressive résumé. She’s earned a bachelor’s degree in ethnomusicology and is one year away from finishing a master’s in library science. She’s aced fiery Texas fiddle, learned Cuban violin in Havana, and studied free improvisation with Indian and Pakistani musicians. She’s written four-movement suites based on literary classics and logged long hours at UNC’s Southern Folklife Collection. She’s digitized the extensive archive of living legend Alice Gerrard and even expanded into producing the records of other roots musicians.

None of it was possible, Hargreaves says, until she left her Oregon home—and her history—behind. Heading east, she landed first at Hampshire College in Massachusetts before moving to Durham in 2017 to study and work with Gerrard.

“When I moved here, I didn’t really know anyone besides Alice,” Hargreaves says. “I loved that—I didn’t have anyone expecting things from me. I was able to be myself in a way I’d never been before.”

That self is defined first by fiddle excellence. Whether backing Bay Area icon Laurie Lewis in her The Right Hands band, leading local collective Hard Drive, or locking in with Canadian banjoist Allison de Groot, Hargreaves’s instrumental chops are evident as soon as bow meets string. She can scream through traditional tunes (“49 Cats in a Rain Barrel”), bend uncanny notes into haunting combinations (“Farewell Whiskey”), or evoke lost American landscapes (“Rolling River”)—wowing casual fans and fiddle nerds alike.

Gerrard says she immediately recognized a kindred spirit in Hargreaves, even though they’re separated by 60 years in age.

“I first met Tatiana when she was 15, and I loved her fiddle playing,” Gerrard says. “But what I really admire is that she’s a traditionalist in many ways. We both like to keep one foot in the music itself and one foot in the story surrounding that music. That’s a huge part of our connection. At this point, I feel like she’s part of my family.”

Familial themes course through Hurricane Clarice, Hargreaves’s second full-length album with de Groot, which was released in March of this year. Full of her trademark “shit-hot fiddle” (as eloquently described by The Bluegrass Situation), the concise nine-song record also reveals a more personal side of each musician, mixing audio recordings of their grandmothers with songs about polluted rivers, surrealist authors, Black fiddlers, and supposed witches.

“Allison and I really click,” Hargreaves says. “It’s easy to immediately sync up with each other—I’ve never experienced that with anyone else in a duo setting.”

The two worked on Hurricane Clarice with Triangle-based producer Phil Cook, who, over Zoom, encouraged them to be vulnerable.

“Phil gave us mostly emotional support,” Hargreaves laughs. “He said, ‘Once you’re in the studio, I completely trust you—just go in there and play.’ That’s exactly what we needed to hear. It was my favorite recording experience ever.”

Hurricane Clarice is a remarkable example of the passionate landscape that can exist between two people,” Cook says. “I feel like I’m riding out a storm on the ocean or looking out over the Grand Canyon when I listen to the album; the expansiveness of it humbles me so much.”

The release of Hurricane Clarice also humbled Hargreaves, who was thankful to return to regular touring but also struggled with inevitable comedowns each time she returned home.

“It was the crash of everything you were avoiding on tour,” she says. “All the emotions, all the tasks, the lack of stimulation.”

For now, though, her studies, her ongoing partnership with Gerrard, and her work at the Southern Folklife Collection serve as a counterweight.

“I want to have more balance,” she says. “I find school and the archive work to be emotionally regulating. It’s nice to have something reliable—and someone telling me what to do.”

Hargreaves’s studies have also broadened how she teaches others. “When people come to me to study, they often have a very specific idea about what fiddle music or bluegrass means,” she says. “The biggest part of my studies is wanting to make it easier for people to find stuff on their own.”

That endless discovery extends to every part of Hargreaves’s career. After making her production debut on Daniel Ullom’s recent release The Swannanoa Sessions and helping Alice Gerrard record her forthcoming album—the folk legend’s first in a decade—Hargreaves has big ideas for what she wants to do next: A “Tati Plays Tex” tribute album to fiddler and audio savant Tex Logan and a new recording for Hard Drive, the freewheeling “authentic millennial bluegrass collective” she formed in 2018 with roommates Sonya Badigian, Aaron Tacke, and Nokosee Fields after a spontaneous, wine-fueled six a.m. jam session.

“Tatiana is super busy,” Gerrard says. “She’s smart, she’s grounded, and she excels at everything she does. I just don’t see how she fits it all into her day.”

Hargreaves admits to struggling with more than just a packed calendar. She bristles at the sexist comments she often hears about her full-throated singing—“Like, ‘Wow, how do you get such a big sound out of your little body?’”

She likens it to the “shock factor” sentiments she experienced as a kid. “It’s not about what you’re saying or playing or doing,” she says. “I’ve faced that a lot as a woman in the music industry. People are constantly surprised at what I can do—and that continuously pisses me off.”

Cook believes that fire gives Hargreaves a leg up in the narrow-minded music industry.

“A lot of people still see Tatiana as this child,” he says. “To outgrow an identity that’s been placed upon her—in a genre that hangs its hat on virtuosity and technical prowess—is very impressive. She’s putting out her truth as she is now. To me, there’s no more soulful fiddler in North Carolina.”

Of course, Hargreaves would defer such praise. She admits to a lifelong sense of “little sister” inferiority—literally playing second fiddle to her older brother Alex, a fellow savant who currently backs bluegrass sensation Billy Strings.

“My brother is one of my best friends and biggest inspirations, but it’s definitely intimidating to have him as a sibling,” she says. “I still feel overshadowed by him.”

Her perspective has shifted, however, as her body of work has grown.

“He’s always playing in other people’s bands. Everyone wants him, and I think he’s envious that I do my own thing and have more of my own projects. We have our different lanes.”

Invigorated, she goes further: “I feel very comfortable playing fiddle. I love playing fiddle. I’ve dedicated 25 years of my life to the fiddle.” With a sneaky smile, her humility—her sense of having her feet planted firmly on the right ground as she excavates it for inspiration and education—returns: “And I still don’t know anything.”

This republished story is by Nick McGregor from INDY Press Club.  To learn more about their journalism, check out their site.

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