There are ghosts that live in the walls of the cabin in which guitarist Bill Mize lives.
It’s located in Pittman Center, just east of Gatlinburg against the border of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and it’s been in his family for decades. His grandfather, in fact, used to own a sawmill and worked for the National Park Service when the Smokies were first brought under its umbrella, Mize told The Daily Times recently.
“He got out and go a hold of some of these old chestnut logs; he had a planing mill, and they planed the boards, and when my dad was a young teen, he helped him run the boards through the planers,” Mize said. “I’ve been here a long time — since the early to mid 1970s — but for the last 10 years, I’ve been splitting my time between here and Montana. And the last few years, being in Montana a lot, I’ve really started reflecting more and more about this place and my history here.
“People like to say don’t look back or live in the past, but I do. I love the past. It’s got some great memories, and I visit them a lot. A lot of the songs off the new CD (“The Back of Beyond”) were directly inspired by that, because being away from here, it really makes me appreciate it even more. The feeling of nostalgia is strong.”
A past winner of the National Fingerstyle Guitar Competition in Winfield, Kansas, Mize (who performs Friday night at the Clayton Center for the Arts on the Maryville College campus) is a member of an elite cadre of musicians whose work and techniques are admired by other musicians as much as they are by fans of fingerstyle guitar. There are members of that club whose names might be higher up on the marquee, but few have a style of playing that can compare to the understated elegance of Mize. It’s a difference Mize himself acknowledges, and one he’s just fine with, he said.
“Tommy (Emmanuel) and players like him, they impact you; the force of their playing comes right at you, where as I’m a lot more subtle,” he said. “I think with my music, I’ve heard people say it draws you in. I think that to write a guitar piece that stands on its own, that’s probably why it takes me so long to do it.”
As a craftsman, Mize is methodical in his song construction. Composition isn’t difficult, he said, but arriving at the final destination with a piece of music often can be. There is no singular process, at least not one that’s become a comfortable routine, by which Mize creates his music, he said.
“You’ve got to do three parts — the base, some melody and the writing,” he said. “I think I’m pretty strong on melody, and I try not to let myself get too comfortable with writing a tune and say, ‘This will suffice.’ When I get to that stage, that’s when I really go to work on it. I might say, ‘This is a nice chord, but what can I do there to give this chord more of an identity?’
“Composing isn’t hard; you’ve just got to really be consumed by it and live with it. I’ll work years on a tune usually before I feel like it’s really finished. As far as how I do it, that’s a question I was trying to answer one time in preparation for a workshop, and my wife said, ‘Bill, you channel these songs.’ It’s not like I have great power, but I put myself in that place.”
Of course, it helps to have roots that run so deep into the East Tennessee soil. It also helps to have the sort of talent that carries with it a certain amount of prestige — Mize won a Grammy for his collaboration with David Holt on the album “Stellaluna,” and he’s been featured on guitar samplers by such boutique labels as Windham Hill and Narada.
“I just think I kind of channel them and just put myself there,” he said. “It’s definitely a right-brain kind of thing, the way I compose.”
And it’s steeped in the ghosts of his house and home. In the past several years that he’s spent more time in Big Sky Country (by contrast, he refers to East Tennessee as “Little Sky Country”), this area has served as a muse, of sorts, and the spiritual nature of his connection to the land manifests itself in his music.
“Some of my tunes, to me, are just like spirituals, I think,” he said. “I don’t know if anybody else will feel that way, but they are to me. When I moved into this old cabin in 1973 or ’74, I was needing some direction. I got here, and I just went back to basics. I had electricity, but that was about it. It was a cold winter, and I had to cut my own firewood; I bought some hiking boots, and I just started hiking. It was one of the smartest things I ever did, I think, just realizing the wealth to be had in the Smokies. The Southern Appalachians, and especially the Smokies, are just so special.”