One of our campus’ best-kept secrets may be that once a week, there is a hoedown in Schoenberg Hall.
Enter L.A. BlueGrassHoppers, UCLA’s bluegrass and old-time style music ensemble. Restored five years ago by banjo player and UCLA ethnomusicology alumnus Tommy Stanton after a seven-year hiatus, the group is back providing the sounds of Appalachia to Los Angeles, UCLA and the surrounding Westwood area, and will be playing as part of the Fowler Out Loud series tonight.
The band is now under the leadership of Scott Linford, a graduate student in ethnomusicology who plays the banjo and the fiddle in the ensemble, and meets once a week in Schoenberg Hall for rehearsals. The band also throws the occasional square dance and invites guest artists to lead workshops, both of which are open to the public.
Bluegrass is part of America’s musical history and is a hybrid, taking aspects of its style from jazz, folk music and old-time. The artists feed off each other’s energy, according to Nicolette Yarbrough, the band’s fiddler and a fourth-year ethnomusicology student, in turn creating a frenzy of sound known for its upbeat tempo and dynamic improvisation.
“There is such a high degree of musicianship exhibited in bluegrass performances that it’s hard not to find yourself caught up in the music,” said Rishi Mody, a second-year computer science student who had the opportunity of seeing the BlueGrassHoppers perform. “I really had no idea what to expect going in, but in the end they made a fan out of me.”
The L.A. BlueGrassHoppers’ jovial sound and use of classic folk instruments including banjos, fiddles, mandolins, guitars and basses combines into a whirlwind of tone and sound found only in bluegrass music.
“There’s a certain characteristic of bluegrass music called ‘the high lonesome sound’ which is a piercing vocal quality that is alternately joyful and devastating depending on the tune,” said Linford. “I appreciate many genres of music, but I love string band music because it’s rough around the edges in such a satisfying way.”
According to the band, it is this vocal quality heard in frequently performed crowd favorites such as “Soldier’s Joy/Whiskey Before Breakfast” and “Cherokee Shuffle” that turns many of their performances into impromptu dances.
While the L.A. BlueGrassHoppers are veterans of Fowler Out Loud, having played as part of the series last spring, Linford said that simply playing in a venue like The Fowler Museum ensures that every performance is personal and based on the atmosphere created by those present.
“It’s such an intimate setting, more like playing for a group of friends than for an anonymous audience,” said Linford.
The band’s lineup has changed slightly since it last graced the Fowler, adding two freshmen to the group. As a whole, Doug Morier, a third-year doctoral student in the UCLA department of epidemiology and guitarist for the band, refers to the group as an incorrigible gang of rogues and reprobates.
“This year we have two new members of the band and, with them, lots of new repertoire, though as always we’ll be blending old-time mountain music, classic bluegrass, and a couple of newfangled songs,” said Linford.
Yarbrough expanded on what the new members bring to the band’s sound and group dynamic. Many performances of bluegrass songs feature a rotating series of solos with different members leading the song.
“The new members aren’t as familiar with the genre specifically, but they are talented musicians and bring something new to the table when it comes to their style of improvisation,” said Yarbrough.
It is not necessary to know the background or much about bluegrass in order to enjoy one of the L.A. BlueGrassHoppers’ performances either.
“Everyone can appreciate bluegrass music,” Linford said. “People often start dancing or leaping around at our concerts, not because they’re great lovers of the genre but because they just respond to the rhythm, the energy and the particular blend of instruments. There is subtlety in the music, and there are moments that seem to cut straight to the heart of human experience.”