For those who missed it here is the awesome article our friend Chuck Poling wrote about us for the October edition of Bluegrass Breakdown, the CBA's monthly newsletter.
by Chuck Poling
Bluegrass music is often described as “traditional” music but I think this label is only partially accurate. Yes, many of the melodies and lyrics of bluegrass songs are derived from ancient music of the British Isles, and the influence of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic folk music is obvious to even the casual fan. But Bill Monroe took these “ancient tones” in a revolutionary new direction by combining them with elements of jazz, blues, swing, and tin pan alley and putting his own personal stamp (or stomp, if you will) on it.
Monroe experimented, innovated, mixed and matched. He was always, as he once said, looking to “come up with something new in the way of bluegrass music.” Paradoxically, he was staunchly proud of his musical heritage but was at the same time constantly striving to transform that music.
Which brings us to the question: is it truer to Bill Monroe’s vision to play his music exactly the way he played it or is it better to honor his spirit of innovation and push some boundaries?
Since the days of Newgrass Revival in the 1970s, there’s been an explosion in using bluegrass forms and instrumentation in new and exciting ways. The gypsy jazz flavors of David Grisman’s dawg grass has inspired a couple generations of bluegrass pickers eager to taek bluegrass in new directions. Bands like Crooked Still bring a coffeehouse/folkie feel, while the Punch Brothers take bluegrass into hyperdrive, with pyrotechnic playing and energized performances more reminiscent of the Stones than the Stanleys.
Not all bluegrass fans embrace the results of this kind of change, but I’ll bet most agree that bluegrass is a living, breathing musical organism and just naturally evolves. Because bluegrass music began as a synthesis of sources and styles, it’s particularly malleable and well-suited as a catalyst for musical experimentation.
Bluegrass music’s elasticity is apparent in the repertoire of Rusty Stringfield, a San Francisco-based foursome that combines serious, pickin’-with-the-pros-in-the-parking-lot chops with a love of rock anthems of the 60s and 70s. Their breakout performance on Vern’s Stage at this year’s Father’s Day Festival delighted the crowd with a set list that had room for everything from the Jimmy Martin classic “Freeborn Man” to the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
Rusty Simon (bass), Russell Ives (mandolin), Matt Lauer (guitar), and Ben Jacobs (accordion) each bring a rich and varied musical background to Rusty Stringfield and share an affinity for mashing up genres.
Many bluegrass acts will add a song from outside the genre as a way to spice up the set list – a novelty. A band might toss in a version of “Sweet Home Alabama” but generally it’s played for laughs, with an exaggerated twangy banjo break and goofy stage antics. Rusty Stringfield takes a different approach by actively mining through rock, reggae, jazz, and other sources to find songs that are readily adaptable to bluegrass. They’ve got the chops to pull it off.
“We’ve all been heavily influenced by bluegrass but we also come from a lot of different kinds of music, so we all bring that to the music as well,” explained Matt Lauer. “Bluegrass has a lot of great energy and a sound that makes it unique – taking this and applying it to different kinds of music is a big part of what we do. It also gives us the freedom to write and play original music because we are not tied to any strict interpretation of any kind of music. It really makes it fun for us and the folks who come to see a show. It’s a world of music viewed through thick bluegrass lenses.”
Given the cumulative weight of musical experience that each member brings to Rusty Stringfield, it isn’t surprising that they would pull influences from other genres into their bluegrass act. Between them, the four bandmates probably play enough instruments to outfit a high school marching band and they’ve played in every type of ensemble from pep bands to reggae, world funk, jam bands and various other projects.
Bassist Rusty Simon grew up in New Jersey with his parents’ oldies and doo-wop records as his soundtrack. He remembers their affinity for ‘bands named after cars. The Cadillacs, the Impalas, the Fleetwoods,’ he laughed. As a child, he performed musical theater and participated in the school choir. As an adult, he’s focused on electric and acoustic bass and pursued a musical education.
“I dabble, like everyone else, on guitar and mando,” said Rusty. “but most of my studying has been on electric bass. I have a bachelors in music with a focus on electric bass jazz performance from San Francisco State. I love picking up new instruments and trying to figure them out. I’ve always wanted to learn tuba as well.”
Like many bluegrassers from who didn’t learn about the music on grandpa’s knee, Rusty was inspired by the classic hippiegrass album Old and In the Way. Something about Vassar Clement’s fiddling grabbed a hold of him and hasn’t let go since.
Ben Jacobs’ musical journey began while he was growing up in Mill Valley and playing various woodwind instruments in high school band and orchestra. He supplemented this experience by absorbing lessons from his friends and neighbors including John Cipollina (Quicksilver Messenger Service), Nicky Hopkins (Rolling Stones, David Bowie), and David Grisman.
“Hanging around the Grisman household opened my eyes for the first time to jazz – that’s really what the players were doing in Dawg’s living room at that point – and also to the possibilities of rolling many different styles into something magical and inclusive,” recalled Ben.
Ben’s focus on jazz got a little sidetracked when he stumbled into what has to be the best case of bluegrass beginner’s luck ever.
“I wasn’t particularly interested in bluegrass at the time,” said Ben, “but I went to Strawberry Music Festival in 1989 or 1990. Someone told me the best jams were in the campsites. So I wandered around at night until I thought I had found what I was looking for. I heard some pretty good music coming out of a tent and just kind of let myself in and quietly sat down amongst a half dozen or so pickers having an intimate session. I remained completely spellbound, with none of the players paying me any attention as long as I was minding my own business. In particular, I couldn’t stop watching this banjo player sitting next to me who was just doing the most unbelievable things on his instrument. Only the next day I came to realize I’d been sitting right next to Earl Scruggs for an hour!”
Ben also plays keyboards with the popular Americana band Poor Man’s Whiskey and is purported to have been in 422 to bands to date. (The Bluegrass Breakdown Office of Fact Checking and Rumor Mongering is running that one down for verification.)
Guitarist Matt Lauer hails from Cincinnati and now lives in Bernal Heights – San Francisco’s hillbilly district – home to more bluegrass and old-time musicians than any other hill or vale in the city. Growing up just across the Ohio River from Kentucky, Matt grew up hearing a bit of bluegrass along with classic rock fare. After graduating from college, he moved to Chicago, where he was introduced to the influential Old Town School of Folk Music.
“I grew up going to bluegrass festivals in Kentucky, lots of Bill Monroe, Ricky Skaggs, pretty traditional stuff I think,” said Matt. “The Old Town School is where I learned about Doc Watson, Tony Rice, and then from there got into Old and In the Way. The thing that drew, and still draws me to bluegrass how ‘open’ it is. It’s very inviting. The people and places where this kind music happens has always felt welcoming and warm to me. It’s very social and encourages interaction been the players and those listening.”
Originally from New York, Russell Ives has lived in the Bay Area for 20 years and has built an impressive musical resume since childhood.
“I played trumpet in the school band from fourth to eighth grade,” said Russell. “I was also in a number of musicals through grade school and had leading roles in Damn Yankees and HMS Pinafore. I studied piano for four years, beginning when I was eight years old. I started playing guitar when I was twelve years old and that was my main instrument for many years, and I was always singing.”
Moving on to more exotic paths, Russell delved into funk reggae, and various strands of world music, and added guitar, mandolin, bouzouki, and various African and Latin percussion instruments to his arsenal. Even with all this whirlwind of world music, he somehow circled back to one of America’s great folk art forms.
“I was originally introduced to bluegrass going to Northeast bluegrass festivals in New York and the New England States” Russell explained. “I really fell in love with the genre when I started going to the Strawberry Music Festival in 1989. I saw New Grass Revival at that first festival and was hooked. I love the musical interplay and between the instruments and juicy three-part harmonies.”
How four guys with such diverse musical histories came together is a testament to the power of bluegrass. Russell, Ben, and Rusty played together a the world fusion band Wig Salad, and Matt was a friend of Russell’s through the jam band scene. One thing led to another and next thing you know – there’s a bluegrass band hanging around.
“Rusty Stringfield got its start at a weekly Wednesday night jam at the Sycamore, a tiny little place in the Mission District,” recalled Matt Lauer. “We had a great time until the neighbor finally kept calling the police and we had to end it. From there we just started picking up gigs and because three of us have families, we were looking for ways to play music and be with our families too. When we travel it’s like a herd of turtles. That’s why festivals like Strawberry, the Redwood Ramble, Kate Wolf, are perfect environments for us. Russell Ives, turned us all on to Strawberry and that kind of scene is something we have gravitated towards whenever we can find it.”
As they played together they discovered how much they all liked playing classic rock songs bluegrass-style. Though there’s obviously novel value to this strategy, the guys are careful to select songs which work well with their instrumentation and give them a chance to show off their gasket-tight harmonies. The band has adapted the motto, “No Song is Safe.” Consider yourself warned.
Last March, the members of Rusty Stringfield joined with the CBA’s Ted Kuster to produce an evening called Britgrass Invasion at the Chapel, one of San Francisco’s premier performance venues. A capacity crowd of 400 roared with applause to the sounds of Rusty Stringfield, members of Hot Buttered Rum, Belle Monroe and Her Brewglass Boys, and other great local acts as they performed the hits of the Fab Four with a bluegrass twist.
The success of that show has led to a second Britgrass show at Slim’s scheduled October 23, which will include many of the artists listed above, plus the T-Sisters and Beauty Operators. The Beatles connection is a big draw to a lot of folks who wouldn’t ordinarily be interested in a bluegrass show. But once they’re there, they get a pretty good taste of what bluegrass has to offer.
Though traditionalists may scoff at the notion of mixing Monroe and the Mersey Beat, I’ve always maintained that any bait is good bait if it hooks ‘em. Some people are automatically attracted to the strongest, rawest, gnarliest early recordings of the Stanley Brothers – others may need to have a few sips of Hot Rize or Alison Krauss before hitting the hard stuff. Either way, I think it’s important that each pilgrim finds their own path in their own way.
Rusty Stringfield is a great example of a group of adventurous musicians with an incredible range of talents who find common ground and uncommon joy playing the music they love the way they feel best expresses themselves. Now, I don’t think Mr. Monroe would have a problem with that at all.