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Peter Feldmann
Bringing the Sounds of Appalachia to S.B.
Peter Feldmann's Bluegrass Bash at the Miramar Hotel

BY CHIPP WINSTON

The Barn is always bustling Friday nights in Rosine, Kentucky. People from all over rural Ohio County file in for the weekly jamboree. They come for good cheer after a long week's work. They come for the bourbon, smooth and sweet as molasses. But more than anything else, they come to hoot 'n holler and raise their hats high as the music from the hills, the old-time sound, floods the barroom like, rushing Appalachian - mountain water. More than anything else, they come for the bluegrass.

Kentucky is bluegrass country, In both senses of the word. The music is as much a part of the land there as the bluegrass on which it's played. Folks in Kentucky-and throughout the southern highlands, for that matter-would have no problem describing the sound. 'It's bluegrass," they'd say. 'You know it when you hear it.'

Elsewhere, the music seems to defy such simple labelling. From concert halls in Nashville to lounges in Hollywood, people are talking about the recent bluegrass surge, but what they're saying is anything but the same' Some say it's nothing more than modern folk music. Some call it country jazz. Last Wednesday at Cold Spring Tavern, a local hot-spot for bluegrass, someone said, "Hell, it ain't nothin' but hillbilly music with soul."  And that was a compliment. One thing's for certain, if you could fully explain what bluegrass is, you'd never have to hear a note of it.

I recently hashed this out with Peter Feldmann, the man who has all but defined bluegrass and folk music in Santa Barbara for the last 36 years. Over a plate of Polish sausage and a few pints of German beer, he said, "There just ain't no way to explain it."

He took a bite, then leaned back and shrugged. "I could talk to you for several months and we could go through a couple of cases of Polish sausage and we'd probably never figure out what bluegrass music is."

He's probably right. Some things can't be explained. Bluegrass, for one, simply needs to be heard. For 36 years, Feldmann has been playing it. And for 36 years people have listened. This Friday, May 8, at the Miramar Hotel Convention Center, the old-time pyrotechnics continue with Pete's Bluegrass Bash. Joining Feldmann and his latest band, the Very Lonesome Boys (Tom Lee, Mike Mullins, and David West, all members of the Cache Valley Drifters), will be three-time national champion fiddler Byron Berline of Guthrie, Oklahoma, touted as one of the top bluegrass fiddlers fiddling today. Flatpicker's flatpicker Dan Crary, of the bluegrass band California, will also be around for the jam.

THE ROOTS: If you had to choose one word to describe Peter Feldmann, it would have to be 'cool.' He's tall. He's intelligent. He's mellow. But, most of all, he's cool. He's so cool he punctuates his sentences with the very word: 'cool.' If you were to apologise to him for something, anything, he wouldn't say, "that's okay" or "not a problem." No, he'd smile a smile that dwarfs the rest of his face, and he'd drawl, "It's all cool." And that "cool" would roll off his tongue in a drawn-out brogue, inflected with two syllables. Now that's cool.

As it happens, coolness and bluegrass have much in common. The best bluegrass musicians are always cool, Take for instance the late Bill Monroe of Rosine, the man who single-handedly sired the bluegrass genre back in the late 1930s. His legacy, the high lonesome sound, has come to be known as a universal epithet of sorts for bluegrass. He was the first musician to take the mountain music from which bluegrass has evolved, a music traditionally played en masse and add an emphasis on individual virtuosity, an improvisational jazz break, if you will. Yes, Bill Monroe was cool. Saying his name, "Bill Monroe," is like tacitly inviting coolness over for a drink.

Feldmann and Monroe used to hang out together-because the cool do that sort of thing. Feldmann first met him in '63, down in L.A. It was like getting hit by a truck, the way he remembered it. "I had been playing guitar a bit, but when I saw him on the stage, there was something that hit me in the stomach, one of those accidental little nudges that life gives you."

Monroe played mandolin, and his fingers moved nothing short of Mach I about the frets. Feldmann compared the effect to putting an oversized motor in a regular car. "Boy, that thing would take off," he said. Monroe's mandolin playing had so much power, in fact, that the first time he and Earl Scruggs played on the Grand Ole Opry radio broadcast, they had to play the same song three times because people were in disbelief over what they were hearing.

Nevertheless, Feldmann asked Monroe, the patriarch himself, to teach him how to play mandolin. And within moments of picking those first licks, Peter Feldmann's bluegrass career had begun. Since then, he's added seven other string instruments to his acoustic quiver, including the fiddle and five-string banjo. He founded Santa Barbara's Bluebird Cafe in the early '70s. He spearheaded the city's Old Time Fiddlers' Convention, now in its 26th year. He cut I5 albums, including his most recent, Good Fellow, released last week. He played in innumerable bands. Suffice it to say, with no uncertainty. Peter Feldmann, Santa Barbara's folk and bluegrass guru, is every bit as cool as Bill Monroe.

THE ROOTS INTERPRETED: We ate quite a bit, Feldmann and 1. We ate and we drank and we talked music; or rather, he talked music. To call Peter Feldmann voluble would be an understatement. But, it's all cool. The man has a lot to say.

"Music and food go together," he explained. 'Traditional music is like whole grain bread. There's something very real to it, lots of nutrition in it and a lot of variation."

That "real" element, that down home honesty is the single greatest quality in his music. You can virtually feel him cling to the old and true ways by the tip of his pick.

"Honesty is important to me," he said. " ... the music that I find speaks best to me is bluegrass and country blues."

And what it says to him, he, in turn, says to others. Although he's not a songwriter per se, he considers himself a music interpreter, He's too lazy to write a song, he says. Every time he thinks of a topic he can think of a dozen songs that have already done it well. But he often builds the lyrics for his own interpretation out of two or three or even a dozen different versions of a particular song. 'It's a time-honored folk tradition. "They're almost like pebbles in a stream that have been washed down a hill" he exclaimed of the lyrics. "They're all smooth from having gone through so many different places and changes."

Every single one of these changes is significant. They reflect the musician. They reflect the era. They reflect the culture. "A lot can be learned about the United States by listening to its music," Feldmann said. "That's one of the things that I like about this country."

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May 7, 1998 The Santa Barbara Independent


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