Still pickin' after all these years

1/10/97  -  Santa Barbara News-Press


NOTE: This article appeared in January, 1997 introducing a special "35 Years Of Music" concert featuring Peter and his friends at Santa Barbara's 600-seat Lobero Theater. It was an enthusiastic sellout. Peter's next show there will be Wednesday, Nov. 4th, 1998.

Peter Feldmann didn't set out to play music as a career. He thought he was going to be a scientist. He earned a degree in biological sciences from UCSB, spent a couple of years in the botany department at Chicago's renowned Natural History Museum and worked as a teacher's assistant while doing grad research in plant life at UCSB. 

But then the folk boom arrived. In the early '60s, Feldmann, who had picked up his first guitar only three years earlier, formed a folk duo with Santa Barbara native Jim Griffith and landed a gig at Mephisto's, one of several music coffeehouses in town at the time. ``It was a little Bohemian cafe in the basement of what was then the YMCA building on the corner of Chapala and Carrillo,'' Feldmann says, launching a trip down memory lane from his home in the Santa Ynez Valley, where he moved in 1992. ``We were the Mission Canyon Fret Benders, playing Woody Guthrie and Carter Family songs, and some early blues." 

 That was in 1961. Now Feldmann has scheduled an evening to celebrate what turned into a career in music. ``Peter Feldmann: 35 Years of Music - From Ballads to Bluegrass'' takes place Wednesday at the Lobero Theatre. More than a dozen ``musical friends'' - people who shared a stage with Feldmann at various points during his last three and half decades in town - are expected to show up to join the multi-instrumentalist for two long sets of stories and songs, including fiddle tunes and banjo breakdowns. Some are coming from as far away as Oklahoma and Montana, a testament to the man who for many years has defined the traditional folk sound in Santa Barbara. 

Feldmann largely taught himself guitar (``There was only one guitar teacher in town back then, and he only knew jazz chords,'' he recalls.) as well as fiddle, mandolin and a whole host of other acoustic instruments while immersing himself in almost every facet of Santa Barbara's musical scene over the years. When the folk movement metamorphosed into folk-rock and beyond, Feldmann stayed the course, digging deeper in to American roots. ``I wanted to find out more about the history of the country through the music,'' he explains, alluding to the fact that he came here from Switzerland when he was 5.``The music made me an American. I've always been more attracted to the raw, traditional sounds from the country rather than the smooth, musically-sophisticated sound of the city. I guess it's just personal taste." 

Even before he graduated from UCSB, Feldmann discovered the community above East Mountain Drive, Santa Barbara's legendary social experiment. He lived there in a rented trailer and eventually organized a band to provide music for the frequent community events. ``We were a musically-challenged group at first and everything up there had to be done with panache and flair,'' Feldmann recalls. ``So we were the Scragg Family." 

 As it grew in stature, the group toured in an old school bus painted red, white and blue and eventually recorded an album before several members departed for Montana. 

Feldmann then embarked on a solo career and joined a variety of bands, including The Floyd County Boys, a country-bluegrass outfit still based in Santa Barbara. Feldmann also played with Byron Berline, the three-time national fiddle champion and former member of Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys, who Feldmann once booked into a concert series at Montessori Center School. That's also how he met bassist Bill Bryson and Cajun singer Jon Dubois, all of whom are expected for Wednesday night's concert. But by 1971, Feldmann had married and started a family, and he wanted to come off the road to be close to home. That's when he turned his connections into a coffeehouse of his own, the much-loved, long-lamented Bluebird Cafe. ``We had music every night,'' he recalls. ``The rent was low enough in those days that we could get by charging 50 cents at the door for local acts, maybe two dollars for great big national ones." 

The cafe was open from morning until late night, and it became a place for musicians to hang out. ``Some of them even worked part time as janitors or cooks or waiters. We actually supported a fair portion of the musical community in town." 

In the meantime, Feldmann was teaching guitar, banjo, fiddle and mandolin to a host of hopeful musicians. The desire to find a more permanent form for his lessons led to the formation of a record company, Sonyatone Records, which put out his own instructional LPs and records by Griffith, Floyd County and John Wilcox. Tom Ball & Kenny Sultan recorded ``Barnyard Dance'' for a children's record, and Feldmann produced their debut LP. The record biz took so much time that eventually Feldmann sold the Bluebird, which closed a couple of years later. Running the label also inadvertently led Feldmann to another career, one that took him from music for almost a decade.``It was in the early years of the IBM PC, and I got a computer to do the accounting,'' Feldmann says. A letter-to-the-editor of a computer magazine discussing a piece of software was published as a review and netted the author a hefty royalty. ``I realized, maybe I should look into this as a source of income." 

 Before long, Feldmann was writing reviews of software for every major computer magazine. In 1986 he was drafted to be marketing director of a start-up computer company, becoming its president two years later. The hefty time requirements forced music to take a back seat, with only the occasional guest appearance to satisfy his performing appetite. (And, of course, running the Old-Time Fiddler's Convention, which celebrated 25 years in 1996). 

By the end of 1991, Feldmann had grown disgusted with the high-tech world and missed pickin' for a living. He searched for a re-entry point. A revival of the Bluebird at the site where SOhO now stands proved a financial disaster - ``Rent was 10 times the old days,'' he says wistfully - so the music man contented himself with booking an old-time music series at the Veterans Memorial Building and playing a few out-of-town festivals and guest shots. Now, Wednesday's concert seems as much a coming-out-again party as it does a retrospective, Feldmann says. ``It was hard to leave performing and it's difficult to come back. But I've always had a hard time considering myself a grown-up. There's something not quite right with creative people like musicians. We either take it too seriously or not seriously at all." 

Feldmann claims the instigation to re-launch his performing career didn't come from professional jealousy of son Misha, bassist with Santa Barbara pop band Summercamp which signed a lucrative record deal with Madonna's Maverick Records last year. But he's noticed how things have changed from his day. ``They've spent five weeks in the studio coming up with three songs,'' he chuckles. ``I'd go nuts. I've already recorded half a dozen songs (for a new CD) in one afternoon." 

The format of the concert is an attempt to re-create the atmosphere of an early country music radio show. ``The entire cast used to lounge around on stage waiting for their turn to come up to the microphone,'' Feldmann explains. ``I'm inviting all these friends from various genres to come together. People like longtime folksinger Stan Tysell and Gilles Apap, gypsy violinist and Santa Barbara Symphony concertmaster. There'll be a format, but it's designed so that things will happen on stage that weren't planned." 

And if his performing career doesn't ignite after Wednesday night? There's always botany.``Hey, I've done things with my degree,'' Feldmann protests gently. ``I love going for walks. I identify all the trees and plants." 

Steven Libowitz is a Santa Barbara-based free-lance writer.



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