One of my favourite bands in recent years has been Crooked Still. This young Boston five-piece put a new spin on bluegrass with creative interpretations of traditional songs and an eclectic line-up of banjo, cello, fiddle and bass (with occasional guitar). With the band on an extended break, I’m taking a keen interest in the various members’ other projects, including The Deadly Gentlemen, already featured at length in these pages.
Cello player Tristan Clarridge is no exception. His band The Bee Eaters includes sister Tashina on fiddle and Simon Chrisman on hammered dulcimer. On a wild blustery night in late January, they played to a packed house at The Cowshed near Marsden, West Yorkshire, delivering a varied and virtuosic performance of mostly instrumentals. Their music has been described as a combination of chamber music and bluegrass, and while it’s certainly “out there”, it’s clear that all the band members have been heavily influenced by bluegrass and old-time music (both Tristan and Tashina are national fiddle champions in the US). The next day the band ran a bluegrass and old-time workshop for a group of students of all ages, with fiddles, guitars and even a clarinettist!
I spent some time talking to The Bee Eaters about touring, music camps and their introduction to playing music at a tender age….
Tell me a little bit about what The Bee Eaters have been up to in the UK over the last couple of weeks. I believe you were part of the Celtic Connections festival?
Tristan: Yes, Simon and I were in Glasgow to play with our friend Jeremy Kittel and his band – so we had cello, dulcimer, Jeremy on fiddle, and there was also a mandolinist, Josh Pinkham. We played Jeremy’s original music which tends to be quite notey and complicated, so we did a bunch of rehearsing. He writes great melodies. We played a performance and also a night at the Festival Club which was very noisy! There’s a lot of after-hours jamming and people watching each other’s gigs. We saw Solas and a great gig by Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas. Also Sam Amidon, an incredible performer who’s one of our favourites. A lot of musicians went to the Holiday Inn lobby and played there too. We actually started off in England earlier in January. We went to a family friend’s house and we played a concert at this very old priory near Derby. And we went and played at the public school in Repton, we did an assembly there.
Tashina: They have a good music programme there…….some students had their instruments with them and about two-thirds of them didn’t. All those guys had little drums with them and stuff. So if you fill an auditorium with young, enthusiastic drummers… it was fun, but it was quite loud!
I try and avoid rooms full of drummers wherever possible!
Simon: It was hard to get the stringed instruments to step out and really play the melody! But I think they enjoyed it and we definitely had a lot of fun.
Tristan: That’s the way those school presentations go. You play for a whole lot of people; say you play for a hundred kids. I think just a few are bored, and really don’t know how to connect with it, and a bunch of them are interested and think it was cool, and fun. Then maybe ten of them remember it and think it was really great. Of those ten, maybe one or two go out and get an instrument and play for a couple of years. If just one person goes on to enjoy music throughout their life, it’s so worth it. But I think what we were teaching at Repton School, more than music, was spontaneity. They have some great musicians there, but they’re not used to having a lack of strict rules. I think it was good for them as an eye-opening experience, as a different way of doing things.
After that we went up to Glasgow and did Celtic Connections, and we took a little side trip to the Isle of Skye for two days and went for a hike up there. It was really great to see the Scottish Highlands, having grown up with a lot of Scottish music. We teach at Alasdair Fraser’s Valley of the Moon teaching camp in California, which is an incredible music camp. The format is that Alasdair teaches Scottish fiddle and he also teaches overall approach to music, and then he brings in two primary stylistic influences that given year. So one year he might have Bruce Molsky teaching old-time, and someone to teach Norwegian fiddle music, for instance.
I understand that you and Tashina run your own music camp as well, Tristan?
Tristan: Yes, between us we run a couple of music camps. One is the Mount Shasta Music Summit in the little town of Mount Shasta in northern California. It’s in July and there’s a whole bunch of concerts and workshops that go on. Tashina also co-runs the Big Sur Fiddle Camp which is at an exquisite spot on the California coast.
Tashina: There’s a different palette of musical styles each year at Mount Shasta. We try and bring in people who are experts and really rooted in the things that they do. There’s a different rotating cast of characters but usually people are there playing Irish music, Scottish music, bluegrass, old time, Scandinavian, jazz, classical….there are compositional elements, all kinds of different instruments, songwriting and stuff.
So how did you two siblings get into playing stringed instruments?
Tristan: Tashina and I have a very dedicated, committed Mom who decided that we should have the opportunity to play music at a young age if we wanted to.
Tashina: I remember it involving a lot of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star when I was two. After a while some other songs came along, but mostly for a long time it was just Twinkle. We were doing Suzuki violin and they start you off with twelve different versions of Twinkle, so my entire two-year old experience revolved around Twinkle.
I can’t believe that you can even pick up a fiddle and play it at the age of two!
Tristan: Oh yeah – and Tashina’s four years older than I am, so I’ve heard a lot of Twinkle, from before I was even born! We had this great teacher named Rob Diggins in northern California. I started going to Tashina’s lessons around the time I was born and then started playing fiddle when I was two. We took lessons from Rob, doing a lot of baroque violin, but he was open minded to a lot of styles and sent us to a fiddle contest when Tashina was about six.
What about you, Simon, did you start out on the hammered dulcimer? It seems like quite an unusual instrument to take up.
Simon: Yes, I did start out on dulcimer. I was ten, so not that young. I like to hit things, you know, I was always tapping on the table, so my parents got me a dulcimer in the hope that I would stop hitting things. Neither of my parents played an instrument but they had a great music collection which we were always listening to as kids. They wanted to encourage each of us kids to try playing an instrument.
I believe that all three of you were home schooled. Do you think there’s something about not being part of that mainstream group that has freed you up to go your own way more?
Tristan: Yes, definitely. Not that you can’t go your own way if you’re in school, of course. Home schooling means all sorts of things for different families, but for us it involved a lot of freedom. I think there’s less pressure to do what everyone else is doing, just because everyone else is doing it.
We’re getting a bit deep here! Tell me a bit about your touring plans.
Tristan: We start in southern California next week and work our way north throughout February, eventually up into Oregon. At the end of the month we’ll go and attend the Wintergrass festival up in Washington State. It’s a great festival and a bunch of our friends are performing there, so we’ll go up and jam for the weekend to celebrate the finish of our run up the west coast. We’re playing all sorts of gigs along the way; a bunch of house concerts, some bigger venues, and for our home town audience where Tashina and I grew up. There’s a big variety of venues, and a lot of little communities. We try to find communities that we like to hang out with!
Any plans to return to the UK?
Tristan: Maybe next year. We’d love to come back and we’ll certainly keep you posted. Maybe a festival or two would hire us!
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Hurry back soon!