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WHAT HAS NCB BEEN UP TO? 

It has been barely a year since North Country Blue formed, but they have already established themselves as one of California’s distinguished bluegrass bands.  In that short time, NCB has had a slew of highlight performances on stages that usually take much longer to attain: Vern’s Stage at the California Bluegrass Association’s huge Father’s Day Festival; the opening Main Stage act at the spring Strawberry Music Festival; the West Side Theater in rural Newman, California; a couple of appearances at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley, including the Berkeley Bluegrass Festival; sharing the stage with Mile Twelve at The Side Door, Sacramento’s newest venue, and a show at the summer-closing Good Old Fashioned Festival in Tres Pinos that left audience members with smiles as well as tears.  What sets this band apart is not simply their youth, but their creativity, their positive energy, their obvious affinity for one another, their willingness to explore and tackle difficult themes (at 14 years of age) and take on difficult songs, all while still respecting bluegrass music’s roots and tradition. 

NCB started its year in the manner that most bands do, building repertoire from the bluegrass canon and adding in a few more modern tunes.  But they soon began developing their own spin on the classics as well as writing their own material. Ida Winfree confronted difficult themes in her timely “Sacrifice,” her first original song, which explores the challenges an immigrant faces when she enters the United States.  Daisy Kerr demonstrated her respect for tradition while also pushing its boundaries when she wrote “Ruby High,” an old-time tune, which she and her bandmates inventively ornamented with echoing vocals. Megan January’s lush and powerful voice puts a fresh spin on the classic murder ballad “Little Sadie,” and Tessa Schwartz showcases both her sense of humor and her honest bluegrass chops when she finds her best train voice in “Lee Highway Blues.” 

As Fall 2018 approaches, the band is looking forward to another big year.  In September, NCB will showcase in the California Bluegrass Association’s suite during IBMA in Raleigh, North Carolina, where band members were invited to participate in the highly selective “Kids On Bluegrass” program. The following month, the band makes its first appearance at an out-of-state festival, playing a couple of sets at Viva Las VeGrass in Nevada.  (Stay away from the blackjack tables, girls . . .) More musical endeavors are on the way--a CD is in the works, and more concert and festival appearances are sure to come. North Country Blue looks forward to seeing you all down the road, so don’t be shy. Visit (and like or follow) their Facebook and Instagram pages. The band members love to chat.

~August 18, 2018

43rd Annual Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival

Strawberry Music Festival

Newman West Side Theatre

Women In Music features North Country Blue 

This article originally appeared in the March 2018 edition of the California Bluegrass Association's Bluegrass Breakdown.

Bluegrass is full of magical moments -- that perfect set by your favorite band on a starlit evening, or maybe a performance by your own band where the harmonies and rhythm all seem to come together. For young musicians, such moments often come when they get to rub shoulders with and gain some sage advice from their heroes -- we’ve all seen musicians like Frank Solivan II or Rhonda Vincent jam with the hot young pickers, fiddlers and singers at the Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival.  

North Country Blue, the barely-teenage band comprised of Ida Winfree, Daisy Kerr, Megan January and Tessa Schwartz, recently had a whole weekend of such magical moments, when they opened for Della Mae on the Freight and Salvage’s Gallery Stage -- the very band that inspired them to combine their impressive talents -- and then traveled the next morning to Los Angeles, where they were the featured students in a master class conducted by Rhiannon Giddens at Mount Saint Mary’s University (Daisy Kerr was unable to attend either event, as she was in Guatemala with her family studying Spanish). Ms. Giddens is a Grammy award- and MacArthur fellowship-winning classical and string band vocalist, banjoist and fiddler, as well as a TV actress and advocate for the inclusion of groups in bluegrass and old-time music who have been traditionally underrepresented. For a band of 13- and 14-year old female bluegrass musicians, it would be hard to dream up a more inspiring and worthwhile combination.  

Della Mae, the powerhouse, award-winning, all-female band from the East Coast, delighted the near-capacity Freight and Salvage crowd with their creative songwriting, fiery vocals and impeccable instrumental chops. Perhaps remembering their own beginnings, they took the time to recognize their much younger counterparts from North Country Blue from the stage. “How about that band in the lobby tonight?” said fiddler Kimber Ludiker, eliciting cheers from the audience. “You know how baseball teams have farm teams . . . we consider them our ‘Farm Team’ -- you know, one of us goes down with an injury, we can just bring up one of those girls to the big leagues!”  

Still giddy and somewhat starstruck from an evening chumming and posing for pictures with their heroes (“It was awesome to meet everyone!” said NCB’s bassist, Megan January), the girls headed to Los Angeles, where they had been invited to participate in the “Women In Music” Symposium hosted by Mount Saint Mary’s University. The symposium featured female musicians of all types -- Japanese koto players, mariachis, opera singers -- as well as lectures by female music and musicology professors. When MSMU Professor Julius Reder Carlson, who organized the symposium, was able to line up Rhiannon Giddens to teach a master class, he asked CBA members Nate Schwartz -- one of his former students at UCLA -- if he knew of any female string-band musicians who might be suitable candidates for the class. Nate told Professor Carlson about his sister’s budding bluegrass band, and the connection was made. “I thought they would be perfect for this event,” said Professor Carlson. The CBA generously supported the effort with a stipend from Youth Program funds to help with travel expenses. 

And so three of the band members, with Nate Schwartz sitting in on guitar, got the opportunity to play bluegrass for Ms. Giddens and about 150 attendees in a stunningly sunlit room, part of the historic Doheny mansion on the Mount Saint Mary’s campus in downtown Los Angeles. They performed “Sacrifice,” an original song written by band member Ida Winfree, that tells the tale of an immigrant to the U.S. “Awesome!” said Rhiannon Giddens, at the conclusion of the performance, before getting down to work with the band. She provided helpful insight on tightening the band’s groove and rhythmic focus, and discussed with Ida Winfree the challenges of singing with braces. “I had 10 rubber bands in my mouth when I did my college audition,” said Giddens, who studied as a classical vocalist at Oberlin College. She then gave them some longer-term career advice: “Know why you are playing this music,” she said. “The music industry is not pretty. Find your people who are going to work for you, make sure they care about what you want and not what they want for you.” 

It was a weekend that the girls will long remember. “We were so lucky and grateful to be a part of all of this,” said Tessa Schwartz, the band’s fiddler. “Meeting and working with such great women who have had so much success with their music was inspiring and motivating for all of us.” 

From San Francisco, to Berkeley, to Modesto. 

It was a busy weekend for North Country Blue.  They started out performing Friday night at the La Promenade Cafe in San Francisco as part of Jeanie and Chuck's Free Range Fridays.  What a great crowd there was for that, and the girls had a blast performing!  The next morning they did an impromptu appearance at a sweet little girl's birthday party in Berkeley to play her a few songs and eat bean burritos and cup cakes.  After a day of practicing it was off to Modesto and the Barking Dog for a two hour performance.  It was amazing to see so many familiar faces in the audience, as the California Bluegrass Association folks were out in force at both gigs!  Such a fun weekend and look forward to more performances soon!

 

Oh, and in case you didn't notice North Country Blue hit the studio a few weeks ago and recorded a few demo songs.  Check them out over on the music link of the website!

 

 

 

 

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