Our Proud Pickin' Past
and the Very Lonesome Boys Bring Back the Wild West
|Bluegrass is not
a simple music. Its history is derived from a single source more than any
genre, its definition is constantly debated, its economics are cutthroat,
and its playing is physically challenging and mentally dynamic Even listening
to bluegrass is more complicated than you think. That's what I learned last
week over a long, story-soaked lunch at Harrys Plaza Cafe with Santa Barbara's
bluegrass legend Peter Feldmann and one of his Very
Lonesome Boys, David West, also a string-pickin' hero as
a founder of the Cache Valley Drifters. As we ate meadoaf, pork loin, and
the burnt ends of tri-tip that West ordered, the two laid down the past,
present, and future of bluegrass while also explaining what to expect at
their upcoming show in the Presidio Chapel on Saturday, April 7.
According to Feldmann, bluegrass
is "the only time in
And his style-setting ways didn't stop there. When the Blue Grass Boys grew their fame by playing the Grand Ole Opry, they never "clowned themselves up," as did many of the vaudeville-esque cowboy singers of the age. "They dressed to the nines," said Feldmann, who also plays the dapper role, wearing to lunch a blue sport coat, green slacks, and stark white sneakers that match his chops. When Monroe added guitarist Lester Flatt and banjo-man Earl Scruggs, he drafted "the blueprint for the modem bluegrass band," said West, who's learned what he knows about music from Feldmann.
"Peter gave me my first job playing music," explained West, who started his career at age 19 in the confines of the Bluebird Cafe, which Feldmann operated for years. "He was also the first musicologist I ever knew. Back when I was in college, if you wanted to know anything about folk music, you were out of luck"
So these days, thanks to Feldmann,
West - who pays his
"Music that stays the same is dead music." One thing's definitely
stayed the same, though: Making money from bluegrass is still a chore. "There's
at least 2,000 bluegrass bands in America right now?' said Feldmann in his
bard-like voice. "Probably three of them are making money, and the
other 1,997 are doing their best."
So why keep at it? For Feldmann, the answer is easy. After World War II, when he was six, his family moved from Switzerland to Los Angeles. Because he spoke German, the kids on the block called him "Nazi" and popped him with cap pistols. He "had to leam to speak English properly or get shot" The main way he did so was by watching one of his neighborhood's first televisions over root beer and watermelons. Onscreen were bluegrass boys and cowboy singers. "I got into music because, as an immigrant, I had to find put, 'What is this crazy place?'" Feldmann explained. "Through that, I got a feeling of what it was like to be an American." Throw in a guitar discovered in his family's attic a few years later, and he was off.
As for this weekend's Bluegrass, History & the West concert, Feldmann will turn the clock back and play some songs from the westward movement of the 19th century. There'll be a rendition of "The Brazos River" and the flyer features an image of Jesse James, so prepare for some train robbery tunes. "We'll play a Billy the Kid song too," said Feldmann, "just to give equal time to the New Mexico contingent" It'll be a partial departure from the band's normal "neo-classical bluegrass" routine.
It's a good show to catch
because Feldmann's hunger
But he's very focused on the
present, and playing live is
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