Meet the First Woman to Make the Cover of Flatpicking Guitar Magazine
My guest today is critically acclaimed bluegrass composer, singer and flatpicking guitarist, Rebecca Frazier. Welcome to OpEdNews, Rebecca. I had the pleasure of seeing you perform recently at the Great Bluegrass Women Fall Concert Series presented by American Legion Post 42 in Evanston. There's so much to talk about. Let's start with your obvious love of music. Where did it come from? Do you come from a musical family?
Thanks for having me, Joan! And thank you for coming to our show. The Chicago area has some of the best bluegrass fans we could ever hope to play for, and we had a wonderful time up there. As for the roots of my music passion: I'm digging into memories, and I'm recalling a long car ride. I was lying in the "way back" of my parents' station wagon, singing. At age 5, I realized with full awareness that it made me feel happy to sing, and that I thought I sounded pretty good! I started piano lessons at 5, guitar at 11. But lessons won't truly work over the long term unless a child has an inner drive or passion. Camp Mont Shenandoah in Virginia, where I spent my girlhood summers, was the place where I found this love for creating music. My family is musical, and my parents both love to sing, but they did not pursue music as more than a hobby.
As you were growing up and music became so important to you, did you ever imagine that music would be your career or did you just play and write to please yourself? How did the performing come about?
When I was a kid, I did both. I mostly played and sang for myself though. I've loved the collaborative and social aspect of being in bands as I've become a more mature musician. However, I still think the inner passion and self reflection needs to come to a musician first and foremost.
What kind/s of music got you hooked in the first place? Has it always been bluegrass or did you come to it later?
Like most kids, I got into all kinds of popular music of the day. My first LP was Michael Jackson "Thriller." I loved Guns n' Roses, Madonna, Prince, Tears for Fears. I also sang sacred and classical music in my Episcopalian all-girls' school and my church in Virginia. I was exposed to my parents' generation of music through their record collection, so I knew their '50s & '60s favorites like "Blueberry Hill" and "It's My Party," and the great '70s music like Carole King, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, The Who, Bob Dylan, etc. At my camp, we'd sing some folk music, and my parents took me to a few bluegrass concerts here and there. It seems like I was just listening, singing, and playing all the time. But I was the typical busy kid with plenty of other activities that took attention from music. A funny memory was the time my parents tried to convince me to go with them to see "a great young bluegrass fiddle player" at my own high school auditorium. I was 14, and I said "No thanks." Later, I realized that had been an Alison Krauss concert! I just wasn't that into bluegrass at the time. The real bluegrass obsession happened in my late teens. I heard the flatpicking guitar of Tony Rice and Doc Watson, and I heard the more progressive bluegrass of Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Dave Grisman, and that crew, and I just went berserk. I then dedicated huge chunks of my life to bluegrass and guitar in particular.
I love Alison Krauss! And at your local high school, no less. Oh well, you weren't quite ready for her yet. You say that in your late teens, you "dedicated huge chunks of [your] life to bluegrass and guitar in particular". What does that mean exactly?
That's a great question. My passion for bluegrass hit me so hard, that it was almost as though a decision had been made for me! "Thou shalt do bluegrass full time, henceforth!" In college, I became a music major. I even dropped some classes the last two years, so I'd have plenty of time to play the guitar and learn as much bluegrass as I could from the local heroes. I also attended concerts like it was my job. We had lots of wonderful music passing through Ann Arbor-folk, bluegrass, jazz, classical. I was in a band, and I learned how to play gigs on the local bar and coffee house scene. After I graduated, I wasn't sure how to proceed. A jazz professor told me, "Get a waitressing job at night, and practice all day." So I did. I moved out to Telluride, got a waitressing job and some gigs playing for tourists around town. I practiced every day. I was obsessed! (My skiing didn't improve much, sadly!) As I moved on throughout my early twenties, I continued in this vein--finding mindless jobs to pay the bills, practicing, attending concerts and festivals, gigging, and jamming. I did a lot of office temp work once I moved to Boulder, and I remember sitting at home in my work clothes practicing guitar after work, from 5:30 pm to 11:30 pm. I just had this fire under me at the time. I loved it!
All that practice definitely paid off, Rebecca! Among your other talents, you're a masterful guitarist. I understand that picking bluegrass is different from playing other kinds of music. [I'm not sure of the terminology, but I think you'll get my gist.] Can you explain to us non-guitarists how the styles are different? Also, if you're good at one, do you have to unlearn that style in order to play the other one well?
You are right that bluegrass guitar has its own language. Just as you'd learn the bebop language if you wanted to play in the vein of Charlie Parker-era jazz, you will learn the bluegrass language if you want to play bluegrass guitar. Similar to jazz, there are different styles within the genre. I tend to play more in the Tony Rice & Clarence White spectrum. No, you don't need to unlearn other styles in order to play bluegrass. But it sure helps to immerse yourself in the bluegrass style, if you'd like to be proficient in this genre. For bluegrass guitar, we usually play on dreadnought guitars. Nice, big, loud guitars with plenty of low end for hard driving rhythm. We play with beefy flatpicks that give plenty of tone (enough volume to be heard above the fiddles and banjos--if that's even possible!). We usually play in the "down-up" technique, playing downstrokes on the downbeat and upstrokes on the upbeat. And we usually play melodies and variations that derive from the bluegrass standard repertoire, which includes the Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs classics as well as fiddle tunes of Appalachian (thus Scots Irish) origin. When improvising, we use a style of variation and embellishment that has been developed over the past 70 years in the bluegrass genre. That's not to say there isn't room for innovation--there is! But there's a fine line, if you are wanting to have the "bluegrass sound."
Thanks. That was helpful. Well, I believe you must have been a good student because you have soared as a guitarist, songwriter and singer. You first emerged on the national scene with festival-winning, Colorado-based Hit & Run Bluegrass. Tell us about that, please.