Hooked on Bluegrass

Topher Gayle

My mom started me out on piano, when I was a little kid. I didn't like practicing, but I loved to sit at the piano and make up tunes, or take tunes I knew and alter them somehow (changing modes, usually, though I didn't know that I was what I was doing, back then). She also had us kids sing in the church choir, which was fun, because it was much easier to screw around there than when sitting next to mom. After a while I started getting my piano lessons from the church organist. And then I kinda got tired of it for a few years. But those early experiences gave me a sense of music and especially harmony that has served as a good foundation ever since. We also had a couple ukuleles that my brother and I would play El Kabong with, and sometimes strum. The plastic Arthur Godfrey uke didn't survive, but the old wooden is still in my Armada of Music.

In high school, my pals were playing music on guitars and writing funny songs. And some of them had girlfriends. So I joined in. They showed me a chord or two, I got a guitar, and soon we were playing things that resembled Green Onions, and Sunshine of My Love. We were listening to the Beatles, BB King, Tom Lehrer, Taj Mahal, J. S. Bach, and Monty Python. Meanwhile, I was also singing madrigals and glee-club music, and studying classical music composition. So my tastes very quickly became (and remain) broad. But as yet, there was no bluegrass in the mix.

During a year off between high school and college, I started exploring other instruments. I was given a ukulele banjo, which I retuned like a low-pitched mandolin (as it still is, in my Armada). I borrowed my sister's flute and tried to learn it. A friend and I played folk songs, thinking the girls would flock to us. That aspect was a terrible failure, just as it had been in high school. But the playing was fun.

Then I went to Boston University to continue my studies of music composition. I kept playing home-made funny songs with my friends, and jamming blues and rock and roll. I didn't finish the music degree, and transferred to engineering. But kept playing music.

I got a job at AT&T in 1985, and after a few years, found some folks who met at lunch to play music. They were playing contra-dance tunes - old-time and Irish fiddle tunes. A couple of folks from this group splintered off to play bluegrass. At about the same time, I first heard David Grisman and The Austin Lounge Lizards and I thought - "Hey this is pretty cool." So we started playing this kind of thing. I started teaching myself to play mandolin. When I started poking around related musics, I found that the more mainstream bluegrass music was more familiar to me that I had anticipated. Of course, I had heard The Beverly Hillbillies and Rocky Top on the radio when I was a kid, but I also found that some of the common bluegrass fiddle tunes were tunes my mom's generation had sung when we were small - tunes like Arkansas Traveler, and Turkey in the Straw, and Red Wing. Some of the contra-dance tunes also crossed over - Whiskey Before Breakfast, Soldier's Joy, and others. About that time I was also re-introduced to a mandolinist who I'd heard when I was a kid as half of Homer and Jethro. Only now I found he was a heck of a great mandolin player!

So here I was, playing all kinds of music on guitar and mandolin, and just having a ball. In 1997 my wife and I moved to California and a day or two later I met folks who were gathering weekly to play bluegrass. They had met at a Jack Tuttle Bluegrass Jam Class at Gryphon Music. I learned lots more tunes from them. A year later, this jam group spun off my first West Coast band, Briarwood. And my list of bands has expanded ever since... and the Armada has continued to grow as well.

The music scene here in the Bay Area - not just bluegrass, but particularly bluegrass - has been exceptional and I am very glad to be part of it! Now my wife is playing bluegrass fiddle and we are jamming together with friends and having more fun than ever.

(posted 2/18/2008)

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