Tag Archives: Chris Hillman

Track Three: How Shared Space Makes Great Music Possible

The following is the third of nine tracks on an annotated mix-tape exploring the Bluegrass Scene of my home, San Diego County. Click the link and read along.

“Shady Grove”

-The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers (1963)

            Of the many talented and successful San Diego bluegrass musicians to arise, Chris Hillman stands as one of the most influential outside of the region itself. Following his sister’s return from the musically rich Berkeley area, Hillman was introduced to the world of folk and country music. At the age of 15, he began his musical studies on the guitar, before switching to his signature instrument, the mandolin, after listening to bluegrass recordings by Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs. After an influential meeting with The Kentucky Colonels, a popular Los Angeles based bluegrass group, Hillman found himself on a train to Berkeley, where the group’s mandolinist, Scott Hambly, agreed to teach him.

Scottsville squirrel barkers

(The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers, early 1960’s. )

Back in San Diego, Hillman found himself in the company of the Blue Guitar, an important venue in San Diego’s musical history. Started as an alternative to meeting at Frank Emig’s Furniture, the place downtown to buy imported Mexican guitars, the Blue Guitar quickly became the hangout of choice for young musicians in the area. Founders Yuris Zeltins, Ed Douglas, and Larry Murray opened their doors in 1961, and created the opportunity for musicians of all genres to congregate and jam.

By 1962, the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers had formed. Named after Douglas’ hometown of Scottsville, Kentucky, the line up consisted of Ed Douglas (bass), Larry Murray (Dobro), Kenny Wertz (guitar), Gary Carr (banjo), and a 16-year-old Chris Hillman (mandolin). Before long, the Squirrel Barkers became the official house band of the Blue Guitar and soon began playing gigs across Southern California. When the group felt ready, they headed to Los Angeles to record their first album, a 10 track, 18-minute gem called Blue Grass Favorites that sold well in local grocery stores and shops. After a too-brief lifespan of two years, the group split up. Though the group initially had little impact outside of San Diego, it served as a starting point for many careers, with members going on to found bands like The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and The Eagles.

What makes The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers the quintessential San Diegan bluegrass group has a lot to do with their origins. Their story illustrates the critical roles of common space and transplants in the development of the San Diego bluegrass scene. Hillman, a third generation Californian, group up on a ranch in Encinitas. Wertz arrived in San Diego from Maryland when his father relocated with the US Navy. Murray also arrived in San Diego through the military, though only after serving there for a while. Douglas, an ex-police officer, hailed from Kentucky. Gary Carr was a San Diego native, associated with the Air Force base in Miramar. Through their shared musical interest and the space offered by the Blue Guitar, these five men brought the high lonesome to San Diego.

 


For more on the Scotsville Squirrel Barkers, check out Mike Fleming’s fantastic write up over at the North Georgia Bluegrass Chronicle.

The Dept. of Religion and Culture’s Undergraduate Research Day

Undergraduate Research Day

(Sam Winter, Paul Wotring, Chris Youngs, Molly Hilt, and our fearless leader, Jordan Laney)

 

This weekend, four students from our class had the privilege of presenting our research at the Virginia Tech’s Department of Religion and Culture Undergraduate Research Day! With food, speakers, and excellent presentations all around (check out the lineup below), the event was a great opportunity to share our work and get feedback on our research from the community.

Undergraduate Research Day Schedule

(Wow, I feel so official!)

After the keynote and a brief break, Ms. Laney introduced us and we were off! Four quick presentations (Chris, Paul, and Molly knocked it out of the park!) followed by a Q&A session that covered everything from authenticity and bluegrass in other languages to geographically rooted music and the desire to claim ownership of a sound.

Below is my presentation (A.K.A. a brief overview of the reason I haven’t posted anything on this blog for several weeks). Enjoy, and look out for the first few sections of my Annotated Mix-tape in the following days!


 

Thanks, Chris. Hello, I’m Sam, and thank you all for coming out here today.

Traditionally speaking, to become a bluegrass musician, you need inspiration and influences. A big part of bluegrass culture is this idea of roots and the acknowledgement of one’s musical lineage. Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass, had Arnold Shultz and, of course, his Uncle Pen in the dance hall circuit of rural Kentucky. Earl Scruggs, pioneer of the now standard Scruggs-style banjo technique, had Bill Monroe, and the music-loving community of Flint-Hill where he grew up. So sure, you need musicians and mentors to emulate and learn from, but there also has to be a surrounding culture that exists to nurture and support musicians as they grow into their musical maturity. To make it big as a musician, there has to be an audience, and when you are starting off, that audience often takes the form of your hometown.

Arnold Shultz

(The bold text represents slide transitions. I’ll include some pictures and captions here. This one is the only known photo of Arnold Shultz, Bill Monroe’s mentor and friend.)

 

So when I started looking into a path of research within bluegrass music, I immediately went back to my own roots, back to my hometown, which, fortunately for me, has an incredibly rich and diverse bluegrass history. I’m speaking, of course, of Southern California. More specifically, San Diego County.

San Diego Map

(I was going for the shock value here. “Just LOOK how far away San Diego is from Kentucky!”)

 

Yep, San Diego. With it’s white beaches and surfer culture, its yoga studios and urban sprawl, it’s about as far away from the rural hills of Appalachia, the locale most commonly associated with bluegrass music, as you can get.

And yet…

swami's beach

(My hometown: Encinitas, CA. “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home…”)

 

What’s great about the studies conducted in the department of religion and culture, is that they encourage the mapping of commonly held conceptions and stereotypes before turning right around and tearing them down to get a little closer to the real story. Here, in the first bluegrass class to run in the history of Virginia Tech, we do this sort of thing everyday. So far, I’ve learned that bluegrass music started outside the boundaries of the Appalachian Mountains, that it has more in common with contemporary jazz than it does with contemporary country, and that the “High Lonesome Sound,” the primeval music of the Scotch-Irish settlers, is in fact younger than Mick Jagger.

commercial bluegreass

(Roy Acuff, Grand Ole Opry, 1939. Bluegrass was commercial from the start.)

 

FGL

(I may have made some enemies with this Florida Georgia Line jab, but it was worth it !  >:D  )

 

So what does San Diego have to offer in terms of bluegrass? Well for starters, it’s had a thriving bluegrass community since the late 1950’s (right around the time people started using the word bluegrass to describe the sound), and been home to a broad range of country and folk venues as well as festivals. It has not one, but two bluegrass associations in the county, and has giving rise to the likes of bluegrass legend and pioneer of the country rock genre Chris Hillman, and more recently, the members of the Grammy Award winning Nickel Creek. The fact that so many bluegrass artists have come out of San Diego and the surrounding areas is testament that such a culture exists.

Scottsville squirrel barkers

(Chris Hillman and the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers, San Diego, CA)

 

This semester, I’ve researched this culture to put together an annotated mixtape that explores the key components that made a bluegrass scene possible. Briefly (because you’ll soon be able to read and listen to the whole mixtape on my section of the class blog), those components involve a steady stream of immigrants (Okies, Navy families, college students, etc), the existence of public musical spaces, and the success of local musicians.

encinitas ranch hands

(The Encinitas Ranch Hands, 1930. Photo Courtesy of the San Dieguito Heritage Museum)

 

So what do you gain when you look for bluegrass, and find it, in a place you’d least expect? Well when you start looking at a place, when you really start digging, it’s amazing what begins to emerge. What you find is a more complicated and nuanced picture of what that place really is. I found such a picture coming here to the mountains of Southwest Virginia, through this class, through Appalachian Studies, and through my own experiences in the region. Out west, I found a story of displaced people that all wound up in California for one reason or another. It’s story of people connecting over a music that brings them closer to home, dipping into feelings of longing and nostalgia, loss and loneliness. I found stories of underground scenes and hole-in-the-wall venues that played host to a wealth of local artists and even the likes of Bill Monroe himself. Talented musicians and festival organizers, basement newsletter publicists, record store owners and folk record collectors. All these people, and more, working to build a community around a music that somehow manages to find an audience no matter where it travels.

 pizza jam

(NCBFC Today’s Pizza Jam, Encinitas, California)

 

I would like to leave you all with a quote by San Diego Troubadour columnist, Dwight Worden:

“If bluegrass grows on your heart, then this is a great time to be in San Diego. In my humble opinion, we are living in the “golden age of bluegrass” right here in San Diego.”

Thank you.

“It’s a boy!” (or how we gender instruments here on the fourth floor of West Ambler Johnston)

This week, I had the pleasure of reading Murphy Henry’s (founder of the Women in Bluegrass magazine) keynote address from the 1998 IBMA Trade Show. In the process of describing the successes achieved and the remaining obstacles faced by women in the genre, she touched upon the idea of gendered instruments, something I’d never really thought about in the context of bluegrass.

harp

(I’m not going to say  I’ve NEVER thought about an instrument as inherently feminine…)

In her talk, she expresses her frustration with the author of the liner notes for The Essential Bill Monroe boxed collection over his unnecessary and unfair gendering of a bluegrass origin story involving the mandolin.

“You know that Bill Monroe was the youngest of his family, so when Birch took the fiddle, and Charlie took the guitar, Bill Monroe was left with the mandolin. Well, there’s nothing gender-related about that story. But this author chooses to inject gender into this little story. He points out that if we look at family band photos from that era, that the mandolin is usually being played by a kid of girl. And the way this guy has written this up, it’s like nothing could be worse— the mandolin is a girl’s instrument— isn’t that awful?” -Murphy Henry

Henry goes on to describe how this particular author describes the creation of bluegrass as Bill Monroe’s attempt to create a masculine music on an inherently feminine instrument. Needless to say, Henry (and I) had to disagree with that particular interpretation of events, but it got me thinking about instruments and gender.

(That is NOT what I meant! Though it would make an interesting study in performativity…)

So what’s the most feminine instrument? With the help of some hall mates from the fourth floor of West Ambler Johnston Hall, I brainstormed a list:

  • Flute
  • Violin
  • Tambourine
  • Harp
  • Clarinet
  • French horn

This list is in no particular order (except for the order I wrote them down in), but I’ll tell you that when I asked what the most feminine instrument was, the answer was overwhelmingly harp. When I asked what the most feminine bluegrass instrument was, the answer was a resounding “violin” (not fiddle, interestingly enough). Though I’m not sure this is exactly what they meant, Lindsey Sterling certainly does make a strong case:

(Fun fact: Did you know that “fiddle” and “violin” have separate Wikipedia pages?)

I kept bothering my friends and produced the following gender assignments for a traditional bluegrass lineup:

  • Fiddle- Feminine
  • Upright Bass- Masculine
  • Mandolin- Non-gendered (or “asexual,” as one person put it. Maybe Thomas Adler was on to something…)
  • Banjo- Masculine
  • Acoustic Guitar- Masculine

From my very small sample size, I noticed a few interesting breaks from what I would have expected. The fiddle, the “devil’s box,” long associated with dancing and other sinful behavior, is now considered the most feminine of bluegrass instruments! (at least here on the fourth floor of West Ambler Johnston)

Satan and his fiddle

(Note to self: Blog post exploring the fiddle’s long association with Satan and Co. ?)

Another interesting point to note is that the upright bass, an instrument often associated with women in bluegrass (thanks largely to Bluegrass Boy Bessie Lee Mauldin) was denoted as a masculine instrument, and the supposedly feminine mandolin was deemed non-gendered.

(Food for thought: is a non gendered entity perceived as more feminine in a male-dominated culture?)

But the more I think of it, the more I realize that the mandolin is pretty evenly split in the bluegrass scene (as even as it can be in the bluegrass scene).

So here is a montage of some fantastic female mandolin players:

(Sierra Hull! Can we forgive her amplification? Yes, yes we can.)

(Ashley Lewis picks pretty good…for a HUMAN BEING)

(Even the New Queen of Bluegrass plays the mandolin!)

And here is a montage of fantastic male mandolin players:

(Yeah, he went to my high school. No big deal.)

(What’s with San Diego and mandolin prodigies named Chris?)

(Does this song give anyone else the chills?)

But the mandolin isn’t the only bluegrass instrument being played by women. Not by a long shot.

(Insert literally any Della Mae clip here)

As a final thought, I’d like to address Rosenberg’s claim that the banjo is “the only instrument in American tradition which has not been feminized.” Despite the long list of women in and outside of bluegrass playing the instrument, I think he might be right (no, not because Della Mae leaves it out of their lineup!).

Unfortunately, I suspect this stereotype (and it is a stereotype, like all gendering of inanimate musical objects) comes from a more deeply held image: that of the banjo as the instrument of the poor, white, uneducated hillbilly.

(My point is, there’s a REASON Kermit’s playing a banjo, not a guitar or a mandolin)

But that’s a topic for another post.