Interview and story by Don Wilcock
Prior to 1993, Amy Gallatin was organizing horseback riding programs for a dude ranch in Montana, but Connecticut’s bluegrass scene was sucking her in like sugar takes to black coffee.
“We lived in the middle of nowhere. I drove back and forth with my dog, my gun and my Ford Econoline Van. I did the back and forth, back and forth, and back and forth for a couple years. Finally I flew into (Hartford) to go to Grey Fox (Bluegrass Festival). I’ll never forget. That plane landed, and the stewardess said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Hartford.’ OK, Hartford is Hartford, but this is musical home for me, and if you’ve ever been granted something you’ve wanted all your life or you made that happen, that plane landed and I was here. I’d made my final trip from out there to here.”
Gallatin has never looked back. Well, maybe once when she had a band called Amy Gallatin & the Hot Flashes, but that’s another story. She headlines this weekend’s Upper Hudson Bluegrass Festival at Ski Bowl Park in North Creek with her band Stillwaters. She’s released six CDs including Long Way Home with guest stars Valarie Smith, Iris DeMent, John Hartford and Dolly Parton. It was produced by Nashville vet Rich Adler. “He and I would stay up and drink whiskey,” recalls Gallatin, “and he’d smoke pot and just tell me stories.”
The band has also represented the United States as the featured performers at the European World of Bluegrass convention in the Netherlands. Their most recent CD Everything I Wanted to Be features duets with her dobro player Roger Williams. He’s been with her off and on since 2000, and together they sound like blues belter Sue Foley taking on country’s careworn vocalist Merle Haggard. Yeah, this isn’t your daddy’s style bluegrass. This is criss-crossover.
Until he hooked up with Gallatin, Williams had only occasionally sung as a young man onstage when he performed Johnny Cash’s “When Papa Played the Dobro.” His back story is even more interesting than hers. His mother and father wore buckskins and played in a hillbilly band called the Tennessee Champions. They split up when he was born around 1950, but as a young teenager he asked his dad to teach him how to play the dobro. “He showed me how to hold the bar, how to put the picks on, and he played ‘Wabash Cannonball.’ He said, ‘This is how you do it. If you can’t figure it out in six months, forget it.’ So within six months he pretty much invited me down to sit in with the Lilly Brothers.”
The Lilly Brothers had been playing bluegrass in West Virginia and Tennessee since the late 1930s. Everett Lilly played mandolin for Flatt & Scruggs in the ’50s, and together with his guitarist-brother Bea Lilly, they became a fixture of the Boston folk scene in the 1960s. I remember being shocked at how wonderful they sounded in 1964 as the house band for the Hillbilly Ranch, a very sleazy Boston hangout for sailors and prostitutes. It was here that Williams earned his creds.
Gallatin couldn’t believe she had convinced a dobro player the caliber of Williams to join her band in 2000. But she almost fired him on the first gig. “We laugh about it now,” she says. “Roger can play anything, seriously, just like without even hearing a song. (He has) a certain innate ability that comes from just knowing how songs go.
“Anyway, I didn’t really know the guy that well. So he was supposed to be at the Strawberry Park Music Festival. I’m like a rehearsal gal. Rehearse it, rehearse it, rehearse it, rehearse it. Then there’s this whole other world of musicians who, yeah, rehearsal’s great for arrangements and stuff, but they have the ability to just sit down with a song and play it. Well, I’d never had a guy like that in my band ever, certainly not to Roger’s degree. So I wanted a full rehearsal before this show at Strawberry Park, and he was late.
“At that time he came all the way down from New Hampshire, a three-hour drive, and I was furious. I was fuming. Who does this guy think he is? I wanted my rehearsal, and his intent was to go on stage and play. I hear him backstage running off an original tune he wrote called “Picking in Holland.” He’s running this tune with my bass player, and I’m fuming. Then, we get on stage, and we have no choice but to just go. So, he’s set to get up there and play along with these tunes, and I have to say, it was flawless. I’d definitely forgiven him by the end of the set.”
Fourteen years later, things in some ways are different and in some ways just the same. In our phoned interview I asked Williams if he now rehearses or does he still come out with six-guns blazing.
“Oh, my God,” interjects Gallatin.
“We rehearse occasionally,” says Williams.
Gallatin, “No, we by God rehearse now!”
There seems to be a dichotomy in the way the two look at this.
“No, you know, we – and I hope Roger will agree – really, the value in rehearsing is not in how I used to do it which is just hammer the same songs over and over. You rehearse to arrange. People hear the difference between a presentation that is arranged, not stale, and we don’t overdo. We don’t over rehearse because there is a danger in that, too, but you want to know who is playing when and not people looking at each other on stage with what I call the deer-in-the-headlights look. I hate that! Who’s playing here? I hate that!”
WHAT: 11th Annual Upper Hudson Bluegrass Festival
WHO: Smokey Greene, Remington Ryde, Beartracks, Zinc & Company, the Atkinson Family, Higher Mountain, Washington County Line and many others
WHEN: Today-Sunday (August 15-17)
WHERE: Ski Bowl Park, North Creek
HOW MUCH: $60 all-weekend; $25 today only; $15 after 5pm today; $30 Saturday; $15 after 5pm Saturday; $15 Sunday