There’s been a lot written about how hard it is for artists and musicians to get by in Bay Area. For roots music, however, this is a great time to be here. In advance of their show at The New Parish, Oakland Local caught up with Ben Morrison from The Brothers Comatose and Melody Walker from Front Country to talk about the roots scene in the Bay Area from the perspective of two bands who’ve played at festivals and venues all over the country.

How does the [bluegrass/folk/Americana] scene feel from the side of a musician in the Bay Area at the moment?

Morrison: The Bay Area scene is crazy good right now. I think it has been for a while. There was a resurgence back in the ’70s with Jerry Garcia doing Old and in the Way – which was a big influence on Alex [Morrison, banjo player and brother to Ben]. He said he learned a lot about banjo from listening to Jerry Garcia play on those albums. In recent years though, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Fest has had a major influence on the local scene since it started over a decade ago. The Bay Area scene has been growing and I think owes a lot to that festival. With it being free and all, tons of new potential fans are exposed to new bands and loads of good music. I’ve discovered some of my favorite bands there.

Walker: The Bay Area has a really strong roots music scene. Since country and bluegrass are not necessarily the norm for Northern California, we all know one another and support each other. Nobody takes this music for granted since most of us didn’t grow up surrounded by it. If you want to see the state of the local bluegrass scene, just show up to Amnesia in the Mission on a Monday night or to the weekly jam at the Stork Club in Oakland. There’s such a great mix of people who have been playing this music for decades and young folks who have just discovered bluegrass and are so amped to just be jamming with other people. It’s infectious.

Do you think there benefits and costs to playing bluegrass in California versus, say, in Nashville or North Carolina? I imagine there are fewer constraints on style but also less immersion in the genre?

Morrison: I think, being from California, you can get away with a lot more stylistic variation. It’s a lot more saturated out on the East Coast than it is out here. There are definitely fewer string bands around here and California is such a melting pot anyway, it’s bound to have an effect on the music. People are less attached to a traditional bent for sure in the bluegrass world in the west. We like the traditional stuff, but that’s not really what we’re looking to create.

Walker: West Coast bluegrass vs. Southern bluegrass is such a complex debate: on the one hand yes, California may have more freedom from strict tradition, but on the other hand, that makes some people hold even tighter to the perceived rules and regulations because they want to do right by the music. There’s the liberal and conservative musical side of any genre or place for that matter — if you are a Southern bluegrass band out of Asheville or East Nashville you might be playing some really progressive, tripped-out bluegrass. If you are a California bluegrass band from Fresno, you might play straight-ahead traditional bluegrass. As the internet keeps making the world smaller, there are less and less barriers to learning or being exposed to whatever style of music you want to play. A kid in the Smoky Mountains can learn to rip some jazz on the banjo from YouTube, and your dad in Santa Cruz can decide to delve into only fiddle tunes from Nova Scotia. We play bluegrass in the internet age, from a variety of influences and perspectives.

You’ve traveled a lot playing festivals around the country, including some festivals with big artists; have you been star-struck at all, or been excited to meet anyone in particular? Is there someone you’d be psyched to meet and/or collaborate with?

Morrison: I get star struck all the time. I try to play it cool…but that doesn’t always work out. In May we’re playing a festival called BottleRock in Napa and we play the same stage as Robert Plant. Led Zeppelin has always been one of my all-time favorite bands and to play the same stage on the same day as that dude is a dream. My dream collaboration would definitely be to have him sit in on a song with us… probably Going to California. I have no idea how that would ever happen or if it’s even possible, but I could definitely die a happy dude after that.

Walker: Pretty much every time we are backstage at a festival we are trying to play it cool and not freak out that one of our heroes is standing right over there. We were like giddy schoolgirls for the first couple of festivals we ever played. Ok, we still are. (Who am I kidding?) I personally have gotten to meet some huge heroes of mine, including Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss. Both times I had to think for a while about what the heck I was going to try and say that would be somewhat normal yet also get across how much their music has meant to me without totally fan-girling-out on them.

Banjos — notoriously the most made-fun-of instrument in bluegrass (maybe all of music) — what’s the best banjo joke you’ve heard?

Morrison: How come there are no banjos in Star Trek?

… Cause it’s the future!

Walker: What’s the best kind of pickup to put on a banjo?

… A Ford F-150.

The Brothers Comatose and Front Country
The New Parish
Thursday, March 26, 9 p.m.
Tickets: $15

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