Our Proud Pickin' Past  Independent interview of Peter Feldmann, 4/5/07

Peter Feldmann and the Very Lonesome Boys Bring Back the Wild West
by Matt Kettmann

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
musical history when a whole style of music can be attrib-
uted to an individual.  Had it not been for Bill Monroe, no one would ever have heard of bluegrass." Monroe was the mandolin player who, in 1938, founded his band The Blue Grass Boys, a nod to his home state of Kentucky. By mixing up traditional instruments and playing longer, faster songs with improvisational solos, Monroe revolutionized Americas musical heritage.

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
bills by producing at a studio across State Street from Loreto Plaza - has been able to "go back and learn the earlier bluegrass repertoire that I glossed over in my younger years." That mix of old versus new bluegrass is a source of tension in the global community, which is experiencing a bit of a renaissance right now. Purists discount the new stuff, but folks like Feldmann realize that music has to change.


He explained, "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
for history and desire to share it with the rest of us is what makes him so legendary. "My challenge is to make valid music that reflects the past but is influenced by the present," said Feldmann, who says that his music evolves the deeper he digs into the traditions of yesteryear.

But he's very focused on the present, and playing live is
what makes his heart beat. He hopes his crowds literally "pay attention" - not in a monetary way, but in the sense that concertgoers do owe something to the band they've come to watch. "Every member of an audience will change a live performance," he said, quaffing the last of his beer. "It's about being in the moment, in the present. That's what it's all about to me."





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