Bands To Watch: Emerging Northwest Stringbands at Oregon Country Fair 2011
I have been dreaming of going to Oregon Country Fair for years, and when I finally arrived this summer; the dream did not disappoint. I could likely write a short novel about The Country Fair Experience, but instead I’m just going to share a sliver. Specifically I’m speaking of the amazing emerging stringbands, some new to me and some old friends, that performed at OCF.
The Blackberry Bushes- Olympia, Washington
I have been friends of Jes Raymond and “Famous Jake” Jakob Breitbach for several years and also a fan of Kendl Winter and Joe Capoccia, of the band Southern Skies, for a few years now. Yet Somehow, hearing the full Blackberry Bushes band live had eluded me for years because of gig conflicts. After hearing their 2010 release, a Little Bit of Grace, at Seattle’s Empty Sea Studios (where it was recorded and produced by Michael Connolly and Matt Sircely), I was very excited to hear the band live at OCF.
What a treat it was! My ears were engrossed in catchy original tunes, smooth harmony, and amazing instrumentation. An extra treat at the Friday performance at The Shady Grove stage was to see Eli West sit in with BB’s on mandolin. They had me enthralled with their versions of traditional tunes, Kendl Winter’s strong and yet delicate banjo stylings, and Jakob’s robust fiddle. Apart from the straight-out-of the opry antics (playing low to the ground, jumping, etc) this band has that genuine kind of fun on stage that you just can’t fake.
Pandi: I heard you play a song at Oregon Country Fair you wrote to the tune of ‘Salt Creek’, what is the intro you said before you played? I just love that song.
Jes Raymond: I call Salt Creek my feminist response to bluegrass music.
Here is a video of The Blackberry Bushes, Salt Creek:
Pandi: How did the Blackberry Bushes form, how did y’all meet?
Jes Raymond: The Blackberry Bushes met (in Olympia) in the back of the Blue Heron Bakery, or at the Tequila Bar open mic, I don’t remember which came first. We were a group of girls learning bluegrass tunes together and then we brought in the boys. Berries in the Bushes.
Pandi: Cute. How long have you been a band?
Jes: The current band has been together since 2009.
Pandi: Can you name 3 major influences for your band?
Jes: 3 major songwriting influences are Michelle Shocked, Gillian Welch, and John Hartford. I freaking love how Natalie Manes sings. But, like most people, my greater influences are folks no one would know, my teachers (friends), some official and most unofficial who have helped me grow as an artist, and as a person, which I guess is really the same thing.
Pandi: Could you share one or two of The BB’s most memorable experiences?
Jes: Once on a long drive across Wyoming a car passed us with “show us your …” written all over it. We have two mannequins in the car for tee shirts so we raced to catch them but we couldn’t get Vandolf fast enough. Wyoming doesn’t have many rest stops so we thought we might see them again. Sure enough they were there. We pulled up with the manequin in a red sweatshirt and flashed them in the parking lot. We all had a pretty good laugh over that. We also once found a pickled hand in the dirt cellar of an abandoned house.
Jakob Breitbach (fiddle): now that’s a news flash!
Jes: But really, there have been so many shows that have been such high experiences, when the music is there and the crowd is full of magic, those shows are why I tour. Strawberry Music Festival was like that. The whole time was just wonderful. Our last set was Sunday Morning Revival Slot that Tim O’Brien usually does. We had been told he has a tradition of jumping in the lake, so at the end of our set we had Kendl and I sing “Down to the River to Pray ” and all the boys took off their clothes and jumped in the lake and the crowd went crazy. That was fun. It was snowing.
Pandi: Any hopes or things coming up for the BBs in the future?
Jes: My hope for this band is to keep touring and [for myself to] keep trying to grow as a musician and a performer. We are a pretty dynamic group, and we all have lots of personal goals, but for me it is all about the live show. I will keep working my butt off to be a better performer because I think that it is truly important and people need the music.
Pandi: I have to say it is really cool for me to learn all these things about you. This has been a real joy for me about writing for Victory…it kinda prompts me to have conversations with my friends and musicians I admire…that I might not have a way of initiating otherwise.
For me it is really important to try to keep myself out of the way and make sure I am really trying to serve the people. And we see such a wide spectrum of lifestyles with this music, it is really something to see our show move people who seem so different on the surface. I am pretty humbled by that.
The Whiskey Chasers
Another band that I was turned onto at OCF was The Whiskey Chasers from Eugene, Oregon. This performance was one of my most memorable fair experiences. Their Friday set took place in on the Kesey Stage in Energy Park where audience members were solicited to ride bicycles on stage that channeled electricity to power the PA while the band played. After I got over the initial thrill of the scene on stage, both band and bikeriders, my Stanley/Louvin/Everly loving ears were on cloud nine hearing Kevin and Gracin Whiskey sing high lonesome harmony. The band (who appear to be a family of sorts, all going by the last name Whiskey) has the kind of driving sound and repertoire of by-gone days. Their self-description is “a delightfully rambunctious mix of barrel aged bluegrass and ol’ time country.” I’d agree and say from my experience they have an authentic sound that only comes from a lot of love and listening to music in this style.
The Whiskey Chasers playing Jimmy Martin’s ‘Hold What You Got’
Pandi: How did the Whiskey Chasers form, how did y’all meet?
Gracin: Kevin and I moved out here (Eugene) from Delaware together. We didn’t really ever intend to be a band. We were on a camping trip once and started playing together. It was really easy and fun, and sounded good. So we started playing a weekly open mic in town. The rest of the band sort of found us from there, we started playing shows and that’s The Whiskey Chasers that you see today.
Pandi: How long have you been a band?
Gracin: The current band has been together about a year.
Pandi: Can you name 3 major influences of your band?
Gracin: Bill Monroe, and I’m sticking to that! There’s a band called The Wilders that I first saw at The Walnut Valley Festival in Windfield, Kansas, where I’ve been going with my dad for years. That was a turning point–they opened my eyes to the band idea. And of course, Hank Williams.
Pandi: Can you name a couple memorable experiences as a band?
Gracin: Well, Country Fair of course has been amazing. There was a gig we got hired to play at a resort once. It was really special because we had our friends and family come with us and just had a great time, hanging out and playing music with everyone.
Pandi: Any future plans for the band?
Gracin: Just to keep playing and doing what we’re doing. We aim to release a record some time in the near future.
Here is The Whiskey Chaser’s new take on traditional, ‘Banks of The Ohio’
The last two bands I saw at OCF, The Shook Twins and The Bucky Walters, are also competed against my band, The Gloria Darlings, in this year’s Northwest String Summit Band Competition.
The Shook Twins
I have been a fan of The Shook Twins for at least 3 years now. I remember a friend forwarding me a video on youtube, saying their music was reminiscent of my own and wondering if I knew them. At the time, they lived in Sand Point, Idaho and I was overjoyed when they moved to Portland and were in closer proximity so I could see them live. Aside from the sisterly love, ethereal harmony, and plain cuteness, these ladies have unique lyrics that make you think. Their motto is “two women, one sound,” and I concur. No one sounds like The Shooks, they have a sound of their own. And to top it off they might just be the sweetest and kindest gals in the industry (which I can say confidently as they were The Gloria Darlings competitors in the Northwest String Summit Band Competition this summer).
Here is one of my favorite songs from their 2011 release; the title track, Window:
It’s been amazing to watch their music grow over the years. Their Country Fair performance was complete with looping pedals, and awesome effects like wah-wah banjo, a telephone microphone, and a giant egg shaker. The Shook twins play music that oozes imagination.
Here’s another favorite from the new album, Long Time:
The Bucky Walters
The Bucky Walters hail from Arcata, California. They call themselves “a young acoustic ensemble who started their bluegrass infused escapades in the hills of Humboldt County, California. Their music is a frenetic, foot stomping mix of all genres past and present, expressed through a collection of acoustic string instruments and one wailing harmonica.” The Bucky’s (also competitiors in The 2011 NWSS Band Competition) definitely live up to their self description. I have had first hand jam experience with the Buckys and their extensive repertoire. Their Oregon Country Fair appearance was chock full of intricate solos from all, Kat Fountain playing the heart out of her harmonica, and Niko’s catchy tongue-in-cheek songs like, “Take off Your Dress.”
Here’s a video of The Bucky’s set at Portland’s White Eagle in June 2011:
And another showing The Bucky’s fun side, a stringband cover of Blackstreets, No Diggity:
As I finish this month’s column, I am just overwhelmed with the talent I continue to discover and am surrounded by on my musical journey. I cannot wait to see these bands develop and continue to watch them innovate the roots music I love so.