BLUEGRASS BY CANDLELIGHT: When I sat down with hometown folk hero Peter Feldmann, I asked him how he was, to which the septuagenarian, having just come from the doctor, happily replied: “Well, I’m going to live.” It was good news; it meant he had more music left in him.
If you’ve ever wondered why Santa Barbara seems to have such a fondness for bluegrass, you might find an answer in Feldmann. One of the early architects of the S.B. music scene, Feldmann has made a life of turning on listeners to the sweet sounds of bygone American folk music. He started shaping the city’s soundscape with concerts like his lively “hootenanny” at Orpet Park in ’62, his radio show Bluegrass Breakdown on K-TIDE KTYD (broadcast high up from a Granada eighth-floor office on Sunday mornings), the Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention & Festival, and his band the Scragg Family. He also organized a student organization at UCSB, the Old Time Music Front, which sponsored concerts. “I wanted to be subversive, to subvert the minds to get them to listen to this American music they hadn’t heard before,” he said.
It seems to have worked. Many students, he said, still email to thank him or reminisce about a memorable concert. Santa Barbara’s bluegrass spirit continues to live on this upcoming Saturday, February 27, with Peter Feldmann and the Very Lonesome Boys performing a night of Bluegrass by Candlelight at the Presidio Chapel (123 E. Canon Perdido St.). Rounding out the lonesome crew will be record producer and Cache Valley Drifters co-founder David West, on banjo; fellow Cache Valley Drifter and Bluegrass Cardinals member Tom Lee on bass; and master fiddler Blaine Sprouse.
The crew of world-renowned musicians will be illuminating the candlelit chapel with music done mainly in the vein of traditional bluegrass made famous by legends such as Bill Monroe, who popularized the genre in the 1940s. “I tend to always look backward,” said Feldmann, who is clear to demarcate his musical lineage from more progressive bluegrass or “new-grass” acts. “I’m regressing.”
Many in town know Feldmann for founding the Bluebird Café, where traveling folk musicians took refuge and where many a hoedown was hoofed. It’s also where Lee and West fatefully met and formed their Cache Valley Drifters, well-known staples of the Cold Springs Tavern stage. It makes sense that a man so interested in history would have a way of influencing S.B.’s music history. He first picked up a penchant for old-time music as a youngster, when his Texan neighbors would watch a lot of cowboy movies. “I saw cowboys with guitars singing, and this caught something in me, especially when they were too embarrassed to sing to their girlfriends, so they would sing to their horses — I thought, wow, this is something real,” he recalled.
Feldmann is drawn to the way American history is continually passed down and reconfigured through the hands of incredible players and the sagas and sorrows of which they sing. Be they the Cherokee fiddle-playing fertilizer seller he met in Bakersfield or the 72-year-old African-American bluesman-sharecropper from Texas, the old-time music and the musicians who play it teach “lessons that are usually not found in history books,” said Feldmann. “It’s a connection to the past, and it’s a way of learning about this country,” he said. “I’m just always staggered by the amount of variety that exists here. This is one of our biggest assets: people who have come from all over the place, immigrants; each group has contributed music.”
Feldmann said he hopes this year’s concert is one of many more to come. “I feel like one of my heroes, Uncle Dave Macon,” he said. “I just want to keep playing until I can’t play anymore.”
Peter Feldmann and the Very Lonesome Boys play by candlelight Saturday, February 27, at 8 p.m. at the Presidio Chapel (123 E. Canon Perdido St.). For more information, visit bluegrasswest.com.