Partially losing his hearing hasn’t stopped Alex Meredith from pursuing his passion for bluegrass
By Dolly R. Sickles | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Seven years ago when Alex Meredith was 15, he woke up and could not hear in his right ear.
“It was like an echo,” Alex says. At first, doctors thought it was an ear infection caused by a virus. “We went to see specialists, and they tried to do a bunch of stuff to reverse it – oral steroids, injections into my ear drum – but nothing worked.”
Within days, Alex’s hearing went away completely, and he joined a list of musicians with hearing loss, like Ludwig van Beethoven, Pete Townshend, Will.i.am, Ozzy Osbourne, Chris Martin and Neil Young. At the time, he’d only been playing mandolin for about a year and was still so new to the instrument that he never put much thought on the before versus the after.
“Not a lot has changed in the way music sounds to me now,” Alex says, “except my hearing is mono now. It’s hard for me to pick out distinctive sounds, like bass or guitar. I hear an amalgamation of sounds. Other than that, as long as I can hear out of my left ear, I can hear what’s going on by myself.”
Alex graduated last month from UNC with a bachelor’s in applied mathematics and has a keen interest in environmental issues. In April, he received the 2022 Director’s Award in recognition for his outstanding contributions and musicianship through the six semesters Alex played with the Carolina Bluegrass Band. Russell Johnson, director of CBB, describes Alex’s mandolin-playing skills as “blistering” and says Alex exceeds his three T’s – taste, timing and tone.
Alex, who has played two stage shows at the International Bluegrass Music Association in Nashville, Tennessee, releases his first album this summer with his band, The Bathtub of the South, a reference to Bluegrass Hall of Famer John Hartford.
Born in 1999 in Colchester, England, Alex moved to the U.S. at age 4 and grew up in Siler City with his parents, Annette Meredith and Theodore “Ted” Cannaday. He inherited his proclivity for music from his parents: Annette, a master gardener who publishes her own series of children’s nature books, plays guitar, while Ted, an application developer and a pilot, plays the claw hammer banjo. Alex’s three older siblings are also talented, accomplished artists.
“I grew up going to old-time jams with my parents, where they played old-time Appalachian music,” Alex says. “I started learning guitar, but that wasn’t for me; then the fiddle, and that wasn’t for me, either. But when I picked up mandolin, I heard bluegrass music for the first time and knew that was what I wanted to play.”
PLAYS WELL WITH OTHERS
After graduating from Chatham Charter School in 2018, Alex attended The Swannanoa Gathering at Warren Wilson College. “It widened my entire view of the mandolin and bluegrass music landscape. After that week, I got my first taste of playing with other musicians,” he says. “It was a pivotal moment in my music journey. Without going there, I wouldn’t be doing the music I am today. I wouldn’t have wanted to write instrumental music or record my album.”
Daily workshops and evening jam sessions spoke to his heart. By the time he got to UNC and started working with the bluegrass program, he was steeped in the tradition.
In 2019, Alex joined UNC’s prestigious Carolina Bluegrass Band. “It’s been an enlightening experience for me,” Alex says. “I never really played in a band before playing with the CBB but playing with a group for the first time changed my perspective on playing music. It made me want to get better, faster.”
The same year, Alex and his college roommate, Holden Ruch (guitarist and lead singer), formed The Bathtub of the South. In 2021, Sophie Nachman (fiddle) and Caleb Schilly (bass) joined and this year, Aidan Buehler (mandolin) rounded out the band.
The band’s first album, which is untitled, was recorded with Jerry Brown at the Rubber Room Studio in Chapel Hill, is slated for release this summer.
“It features all the people in my band,” says Alex, who wrote the music for the album, “but also some other musicians I’ve come to play with through the years.” It has a mix of Alex on mandolin and a variety of featured musical probability pairings, ranging from mandolin-guitar and mandolin-fiddle to dual mandolins to just Alex solo.
“Alex is a real talent and a magnet for other musicians,” says David Brower, executive director for Pinecone, a nonprofit organization in the Piedmont that has served as the local host for the IBMA’s Bluegrass Live! festival since 2013.
“There are lots of young people playing bluegrass and old-time string band music,” David says. “The cool thing about bluegrass is that it is very approachable music. When you hear it, it sounds like something that’s playable.”
PLAY IT FORWARD
The kinetic energy of bluegrass is mesmerizing, and Alex believes it’s come a long way since it was originally pioneered by Bill Monroe. Today’s iteration of the genre incorporates jazz and other styles. “Progressive bluegrass is a lot cleaner than it was before, and it’s based on levels of musicianship,” Alex notes. “Also, the recording software they had then wasn’t as good as today’s.”
For the last four years, Alex has shared his talent and love of music as a mandolin instructor with Shakori Hills Junior Appalachian Musicians, which offers traditional music education for kids in Chatham County. He’s also worked in Shay Garriock’s Violin & Fiddle Shop in downtown Pittsboro and with the late Tommy Edwards, a founding member of The Bluegrass Experience.
“What I love about music is playing it with other people, not the performative factor,” Alex says. “I love playing with other musicians and seeing what they can do.”
When Alex listens to bluegrass music, he leans toward New Grass Revival, a late ’80s band with a bluesy, jazzy genre- bending style. Or Chris Thile, who Alex says, “revolutionized bluegrass playing, with his incredibly clean and perfect style. It’s kind of otherworldly. You can hear a major difference in his playing, and so many mandolin players try to emulate or pull his style. He’s my No. 1 influence, but I also find inspiration from Sierra Hull, John Reischman, Jacob Jolliff, Dominick Leslie, Ashby Frank and Sam Bush.”
It may come as a surprise that Alex’s favorite music isn’t necessarily bluegrass.
“I play bluegrass primarily, and that’s mostly what I listen to, but that’s mainly because I’m playing along with it. My favorite music is probably ’80s rock music, and my favorite band is Journey. It’s hard to beat “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “Faithfully” or “Lights.” I think Journey is a fantastic band.”
This summer, Alex and his bandmates plan to play their music and celebrate the launch of the album. “I’ll probably take a year off to try other stuff rather than going into grad school, but the ultimate plan is to keep music on the side,” he says. “I think of music as a fun hobby, a fun pastime I can have and share with other people. It makes me happy.”