Foggy Mountain hoedown
The history of bluegrass is a rambling tour through 20th century sounds. Catch a sampling this weekend at Bower’s Mansion.
When Joe Craven isn’t busy recording, touring or teaching, he’s making musical instruments out of stuff you throw away.
Bed-pan mandolin, cookie-tin fiddle, tomato-can banjo and the “gas-olin,” a mandolin bass made from a gas can, are just of few of Craven’s favored instruments. He also plays traditional violin, mandolin and percussion instruments.
Fittingly billed as Joe Craven and the Do-It-Yourselfers, his band (Sam Bevan on bass, Sid Lewis on banjo and guitar, and Sean Feder on percussion) will be playing the Bowers Mansion Bluegrass Festival on Aug. 14. In keeping with Craven’s affinity for makeshift instruments, Feder will keep the beat on a banjo mounted on a snare drum stand.
The festival lineup lists seven other acts plus a series of workshops on instruments like the claw-hammer banjo, bluegrass banjo, old-time fiddle, dobro, guitar and mandolin.
This year’s festival, the 20th annual, is being treated a little like a class reunion. Northern Nevada Bluegrass Association President Don Timmer booked performers who used to play at the Depression Deli, in what is now Big Ed’s Alley Inn on Fourth Street. The festival fills the bluegrass-venue gap that was created when the deli closed.
Members of another Joe Craven band from the Depression Deli era, Buzzard’s Roost, plan to reunite for the festival. Bassist Joey McKinney of the High Strung Band will join original members Robert Urlich on fiddle, Steve Davis on banjo, Charlie Edsall (who currently plays with local groups Within Tradition and the Back Forty) on guitar and Craven on mandolin. Craven was a Reno resident back in the Depression Deli days. Since then, he’s gone on to play in the David Grisman Quintet and in Psychograss. He’s recorded with Stéphane Grappelli, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and the Alison Brown Quartet, and he’s released three CDs under his own name.
Since Craven’s music is generally too eclectic to fit nicely into a bluegrass festival context, he assembled this quartet especially for the Bowers Mansion festival, which will be the group’s first “but hopefully not last” public performance.
The quartet won’t be playing selections from Craven’s recent Django Latino, a disc of compositions by Django Reinhardt and Grappelli.
“We’ll be steering shy of the jazz vernacular,” says Craven.
Instead, the group will be playing originals, covers ranging from Jimmie Rogers to Greg Brown, and songs from what Craven calls “the American folk songbag.”
Besides bluegrass, the band incorporates elements of blues, old-time dance music and American folk ballads.
In other words, though Craven’s set will include many songs much older than bluegrass, a relatively new form, he’s unlikely to be mistaken for a traditionalist.
But what is a bluegrass traditionalist anyway?
“Bluegrass” is itself a somewhat nebulous term. Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys pioneered the sound in the ‘40s, but it took another decade for the term “bluegrass” to catch on. It was music rooted in hillbilly string-band music of the ‘20s and ‘30, but with a few defining characteristics. Bluegrass bands are typically small ensembles using only acoustic string instruments. They use alternating instrumental breaks (like in jazz bands), a high level of virtuosity, fast tempos and close harmony singing.
From the beginning, bluegrass players have ignored some or all of these guidelines. “Newgrass” players ignore the guidelines more often than not, freely adding percussion and electric instruments and elements of rock and jazz.
Most of the groups playing at this year’s festival occupy points somewhere between bluegrass and newgrass. But, according to Craven, bluegrass is continuing to splinter into more sub-genres, much like its older cousin, jazz.
If something “truly is an art-form, it will continue to grow and evolve,” he says.
One band that took bluegrass in new directions is South Loomis Quickstep, a California band that formed in the late ‘70s.
“We started the same year as the Eagles, and we’ve been together longer than the Beatles,” says bassist Rob Bonner.
Though their appearance at the Bowers Mansion festival is billed as a “reunion,” the group has been playing occasionally since 1994. Over the years, the band has had numerous members, including a 16-year-old Mark O’Conner. (Now one of the world’s foremost violinists, he’s recorded with the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, Wynton Marsalis and Stéphane Grappelli.) The current line-up is a stripped-down four-piece consisting of Rob Bonner on bass, Allen Hendricks on banjo, Ted Smith on mandolin and fiddle and Brian Cuttler on guitar. Former member Craven will be joining the band for at least part of the set.
Besides playing traditional songs, South Loomis Quickstep borrows elements of jazz and contemporary music. Bonner cites the Grateful Dead as an influence and notes that the band covered Bee Gees songs at a time when inspirations from pop weren’t yet widely embraced in bluegrass circles.
“We’re all from California, and didn’t want to sound like we were trying to sound like we’re from Kentucky,” Bonner says.
In the ‘70s, the band opened for Cheech and Chong. Bonner says that when the band finished the set, the musicians walked off the stage to a standing ovation.
“Tommy Chong said, ‘Hey man, get back out there and do another one. You’re the first band to not get booed off the stage.'”
Any band that can hold the attention of Cheech and Chong fans must be doing something right.
“Our motto is ‘bluegrass and beyond,'” says Rick Sparks, banjo player in Homemade Jam, one of the few local bands to play the festival this year.
Not a group of purists, Homemade Jam list Beatles songs in their repertoire, play straight country as well as bluegrass, and (perhaps most shocking of all) feature a percussionist (Kenny Scott). The band also features Ron Spina on guitar, Tom Dose on bass and Jim Buehler on fiddle and mandolin.
“We’ll do some traditional songs and some originals,” says Sparks.
Mountain Laurel, a band out of Grass Valley, Calif., uses the traditional bluegrass instrumentation (with dobro instead of fiddle) to blend traditional and new styles with contemporary folk music.
“Instead of a hard-driving bluegrass, it’s a little more laid back,” dobro player Kathy Barwick says of the band’s folk influence.
It’s not all laid back, however. The band also plays fast banjo tunes like the original “Timmy in the Well,” inspired by the ordeal depicted on the TV show Lassie.
Further over on the traditional end of the bluegrass spectrum is High Country, together for over 30 years and one of the West Coast’s top traditional bluegrass bands.
High Country, whose first records were released on Raccoon Records in 1971 and ‘72, play classics by Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers and originals that sound a lot like early bluegrass.
With all these bands and more—plus open jamming for audience members and the Sutter’s Stompers cloggers from Sacramento stomping up a storm on the dance floor—the Bowers Mansion Bluegrass Festival looks poised to offer a veritable history lesson of bluegrass in all of its forms. All its forms so far, anyway.