O shoes, where art thou?
Barefoot Nellies 'ain't your mother's all-girl band
By Matt Kramer
Thursday, the first Bluegrass Gold show of the year gears up at the Sweetwater Saloon in Mill Valley with two Bay Area string bands marking the occasion. Opening up the local series' 2007 schedule are the Barefoot Nellies, an all-female quintet (stand-up bass, fiddle, banjo, mandolin and guitar) that features fantastic two- and three-part harmonies. Though they may sport skirts and dresses and sing like angels, they can play like the devil: This ain't your mother's all-girl band. Steeped in traditional bluegrass influences such as the Stanley Brothers and Flatt & Scruggs, the Barefoot Nellies also mix into their music aspects of honky-tonk, Texas-style fiddling, Western swing and Balkan singing (a la Kitka). The result is topnotch traditional and original music that has gained a loyal following. Throughout 2006, the Barefoot Nellies played free Bluegrass Monday shows at Amnesia in San Francisco's Mission District on the fourth week of each month, and they're continuing that standing gig this year. For the third year in a row, these ladies' hard-driving music will be included as part of the San Francisco Bluegrass and Old-Time Festival that runs February 1 to 10 at various venues throughout San Francisco and the East Bay. You can get an earful of a few live tracks on their site.
The first Bluegrass Gold headliner of the year, Homespun Rowdy, also appears regularly at Amnesia's Bluegrass Mondays and, like the Nellies, is scheduled to return to the San Francisco Bluegrass and Old-Time Festival. These Rowdies, a string quintet like the Nellies (only with four fewer females), feature a Marin-raised mandolinist who, I like to think, is one reason they're Bluegrass Gold favorites. The fact that they crank out high-energy traditional bluegrass may have something to do with it, too. Clustering around a single microphone for vocals creates classic-sounding harmonies that balance well with the more modern material in the band's repertoire. On its Web site, the band has a generous amount of mp3s available, as well as some video footage from last year's spring session of the Strawberry Music Festival. The self-titled CD from 2005 opens up with the toe-tapper "Heart Don't Get Me Started," and contains crowd favorites such as "Tear Stained Letter" and, one of my personal faves, "Have a Drink on Jesus," a water-into-wine tale whose title sounds more irreverent than the song really is. Homespun Rowdy knocked me for a loop the first time I saw them. They were opening for a nationally known band, and I showed up early, expecting the opener to be little more than background music for the post-dinner pints I was looking forward to. Since then, I've preferred that more and more of the music I listen to live (and at home) be both homespun and (somewhat) rowdy.
For a look at the "virtual" 2007 North Bay Bluegrass Festival, now in its fourth year, check out the listings on the site. You'll see this Sweetwater show included on the early side of the two-and-a-half week run of down-home acoustic music.
If you're a beginning bluegrass musician interested in jamming with other like-minded folks, Dave Zimmerman and Nicole Solis (the mandolinists from Homespun Rowdy and the Barefoot Nellies, respectively) co-host the third Monday bluegrass jam at Amnesia each month. Here in Marin, the long-running Marin Bluegrass Jam takes place on the first and third Thursday each month at the Marin Lutheran Church in Corte Madera.
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This page updated 12/2/05