Ventura County Star: Bill Locey interview with Peter Feldmann

Peter Feldmann - Very Lonesome Boys
Mike Nadolson, Tom Lee, David West, Peter Feldmann, Tommy Marton

Night Out: Lonesome Jubilee - August 10, 2001

How long have the Very Lonesome Boys been lonely? Only about four years. But Peter Feldmann, the leader of those ace bluegrass players, has around a lot longer than that, picking away on all things stringed for more than four decades.

On Sunday, he and his Lonesome Boys will play one of those ever-affordable free shows at the Peter Strauss Ranch in Agoura. If you love bluegrass, this is a gig not to miss.

Feldmann got his start in the music world all those years ago after graduating from UCSB. He was armed with a botany degree, but the folk scene in the early '60s seemed so much more exciting. More attracted to country rhythms than city beats, Feldmann got heavily into American roots music, rural style. He learned his craft well from the master himself, Bill Monroe, the originator of modern bluegrass music.

Early on, Feldmann began playing locally in Santa Barbara at Mephisto's. He then opened the legendary Bluebird Cafe, which not only hosted music every night of the week, but employed plenty of the clueless, starving and talented local players. These days, he's chilling in Los Olivos, playing cool gigs like this one.

In addition to Feldmann on mandolin, those lonely fellers include Tom Lee on bass, Mike Nadolson on guitar, David West on banjo and Tommy Marton on fiddle (there's no violins at a bluegrass gig). During a recent phoner, Feldmann discussed the latest.

So just how lonesome are these guys?

Totally. These guys are so lonesome, you would not believe it, and there's a lot of lonesome songs.

So what's the deal on this show?

The National Park Service does a series of summer concerts, and the Peter Strauss Ranch is a neat place. It has a long history which goes back before it was purchased by the actor. For one thing, it has the largest outdoor swimming pool on the West Coast. It's unfortunately not working now, and it's not filled with water. It's so huge, it even has an island in the middle.

So now it's a giant skateboard park?

Well, it could be, but it's all fenced off. We played there last year in August -- it's a shady area and there's a large, open grassy area the size of a soccer field with picnic tables and stuff. There's an amphitheater that's been cut into the side of the hill. There's a stage there and we sort of look up and see all these rows of seats. It's sort of like a Greek play. "Euripides," maybe.

Except with less tragedy and more bluegrass?

Yes. We're doing two sets, roughly 45 minutes each. We play mainly traditional bluegrass, or what I like to call retrograss. I like the really old sounds, even the sounds of the 19th century and combine those with what Bill Monroe tried to do in his bluegrass music. Sometimes it works out really well and sometimes, it's a total flop. All I can say is that I learn from my mistakes, and I'm just trying to keep going.

Why bluegrass and not polka or something else?

Well, it's weird. I'm Swiss and I was born in Switzerland and I got here at a very early age and I hit the L.A. area about the time that television was coming into its own. They had all this time to kill, so they showed all those Hoot Gibson, Ken Maynard and Tex Ritter movies; and a lot of those guys in those old black and white films had a guitar and sat down and sang. That was my first exposure to American music.

Do you remember Spade Cooley? He had a popular, but strange, TV show way back when.

I sure do. I went down to see that show down on the ballroom on the pier one time. Our next-door neighbors were a family of Texans, which was totally impressive to a little Swiss kid because all we ever heard about was cowboys and Indians. So when Texans moved in across the street, it was like having royalty move in. So they were watching those movies and wrestling on TV, then they took me down to see Spade Cooley. It was neat.

Didn't he make a bad career move and kill his wife?

Yeah, he did. He served time in the pen then finally died of heart failure. But he was a top notch Western Swing musician. With that early cowboy stuff I thought I had found something that I could identify with that was real about this country, so I started learning the cowboy songs. Then I got into the music from the Appalachians -- string band music, banjo, fiddle and guitar and some of those weird bands. I started collecting those records and learning to play, and at that time, some of those musicians were still alive and kicking, and I got to meet some of them. So that's how I learned what it's like to be an American.

How did you end up being the mandolin player?

When I was still at a formative age, say in my early '20s, in 1963 I ran into Bill Monroe who was kind enough to show me a few things. Watching him play onstage with his band sort of fused all the elements of the music together. It was sort of like putting a jigsaw puzzle together for me. I got to meet him, hang out with him and I got a few mandolin lessons, and I was fortunate enough to be a friend of his for the next 25 years. I used to produce his shows up here in the Santa Barbara area.

Is bluegrass getting bigger, smaller or staying the same?

It all depends what you mean by bluegrass. The original sound is pretty much constant and consistent and there's a hardcore following that will always do that. Also, there's a lot of new, young musicians that are sort of pushing the boundaries, and there's some really interesting music going on out there. Whether you want to call it bluegrass is difficult to say and that's a long, long discussion.

What advice would you give to wannabe musicians?

Always keep your day jobs.

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