Musician Peter Feldmann’s home office looks like a small museum for bluegrass music. Hundreds of old records pack a large shelf, dozens of books on the musical style line bookshelves, framed pictures of musicians grace the walls and guitar cases strewn about. Despite his plethora of bluegrass paraphernalia and his own encyclopedic knowledge of the music style, Feldmann paused when asked for the lowdown.

“Bluegrass is a difficult thing to talk about because it’s still somewhat of an unknown,” he said from his cabin home, located up in the secluded foothills of Figueroa Mountain. “But most people recognize it when they hear it.” Feldmann, a Santa Ynez resident for about 20 years, has become a fixture for bluegrass music in the Valley and has been performing bluegrass, folk and related music since the early 1960s.

The jovial 68-year-old currently performs two dozen times throughout the country and six times a year at one of his favorite venues, the Santa Ynez Valley Grange hall in Los Olivos, with his five-piece Very Lonesome Boys band. The quintet – which boasts a repertoire of 250 songs – will be performing there at 8 p.m. Feb. 13.

Whether with his band or other musicians (he has the numbers of 200 musicians in his phonebook), Feldmann has performed for calf-ropings, weddings, memorial services, fundraisers, rodeos, auctions, universities, wakes, parties and festivals 10,000 people deep.

In 2008, Feldmann and his band released a CD project called “Home On The Grange,” which includes 14 songs and tunes, with contributions by David West; vocals by bassist Tom Lee; Mike Nadolson; Tommy Marton playing the fiddle and more. There is also a bonus track with Feldmann and his wife, Francine, singing “The Bramble and The Rose.”


Origins of bluegrass

A sub-genre of country music, bluegrass was born in the United States but has roots in English, Irish and Scottish traditional music. It also draws from jazz and Blues. According to Feldmann, the genre began in 1939 with the musician Bill Monroe, who named his band the Blue Grass Boys, after his home state of Kentucky, though not for its music but for its grassy areas of bluish-purple buds that appear rich blue when seen in large fields.

“Before him, there were plenty of country folks and a thread of minstrel performers who played the banjos and fiddles,” Feldmann explained. “Monroe took different instruments, mixed them up, produced a faster tempo and incorporated improvisational solos from the Chicago jazz bands he had seen.” “It’s one of the rare examples where we can pinpoint a musical style to one person,” he noted.

A bluegrass band typically comprises a five-piece band that uses a fiddle, guitar, banjo, mandolin and an upright bass. Like traditional country, bluegrass was generally used for dancing in the rural areas but has become show-oriented over the years. Electrical instruments and drums have been traditionally frowned upon. But with every rule, there is an exception.

“Today, there are many bands that are much more jazz-oriented,” Feldmann said. “Some bands have adopted an urban sound, while others have veered more country. It depends on the musician’s background – what each person brings to that music.”


Catching the bluegrass bug

A childhood immigrant from Switzerland, Feldmann moved to Los Angeles after World War II. He was immediately fascinated with American culture, but his assimilation into the society was sped up by the unfortunate circumstance of being a kid with a German tongue during a time of anti-German sentiment.

“The kids were threatening to shoot me with their cap guns because they thought I was a Nazi,” Feldmann recalled. “I had to learn to become an American very quickly.” Feldmann first caught the bluegrass bug when he began watching old cowboy movies on one of his neighborhood’s first televisions. “I learned a lot about U.S. history through the music,” he explained. “Here was something I could sink my teeth into.”

Several years after he first picked up a guitar he found in his family’s attic, Feldmann began studying at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. When he moved to Santa Barbara in 1957, he enrolled at UCSB to study botany. In the daytime, he’d drive up into the mountains looking for samples of pine cones and needles for research; at night, he brought along a tape recorder and went looking for banjo and fiddle players.

Feldmann eventually formed one of his early bluegrass bands called The Scraggs that became a mainstay of Mountain Drive’s bohemian centre. For more than a decade, the trio performed at clubs, folk festivals and concert halls throughout California, the Pacific Northwest and Nevada.

“In Nevada, we did a lot of casinos,” Feldmann recalled, with a laugh. “The owners wanted us to play an energetic show that would eventually usher the audience into the gambling rooms to lose more money.” Over his long career, Feldmann has worked with more than 100 bands. “Being a musician was sort of a passport,” he said. “You’d pass through a strange, new town, and if you got the word out that you were a musician looking to trade tunes, some doors opened for you.”

Eventually, a door opened at a club in Hollywood and it was Feldmann’s idol and future friend, Monroe. “He was such a human dynamo in those days, I was in awe of him,” he remembered. “He was intimidating. He asked me if I played anything, and I said I was trying to learn the mandolin. “He sat me down and wouldn’t let me out of the room until I had the beginnings of the style right,” Feldmann said, chuckling. “He was one of those guys, who, if he insisted on you doing something, you tended to want to do it.”

Feldmann didn’t just rub shoulders with country and bluegrass musicians. One of his biggest influences and good friends is sitarist and composer Ravi Shankar (father of Norah Jones). “He’s able to talk about music in a very articulate way,” Feldmann noted. “And that’s something I try to do when I perform.” (To illustrate, Feldmann proceeded to give a brief synopsis of Henry James, whose name is a song he regularly performs.)

Feldmann’s perennial efforts have been to promote and educate people about bluegrass. In the early 1970s, when he settled down to start a family, he opened the Bluebird Cafe in Santa Barbara, which became a popular stop for traveling performers. He also founded the annual Santa Barbara Old-Time Fiddler’s Convention, which draws thousands of people every October to the Stow House in Goleta for old-time bluegrass music.

And for more than two decades, he produced a weekly show on bluegrass and country music. “It’s funny that me from Switzerland has spent his whole life in the United States here trying to get Americans to pay attention to their own music,” he says.

Although he admits he didn’t have the vaulting ambition of Monroe (“He wanted to be an inventor like Henry Ford. I was content to be a Swiss hillbilly musician out to have a good time.”), Feldmann looks back on his life, proud to have contributed to the growth of bluegrass music.

“There’s an old saying: How do you make a million dollars making bluegrass music?” he says. “You start with two million.” Asked what the future holds in store for him, Feldmann responded: “I feel like I’m just getting started. I wonder what’s around the next corner. I’m having a blast.” For more information about Peter Feldmann & The Very Lonesome Boys, visit: bluegrasswest.com/verylb.htm

jfoster@syvjournal.com