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Confessions of a Mad Mountain Rambler - David P. Lindley

(art by Johan Pap)

The following interview first appeared in the March 1977 issue of the British music magazine "Omaha Rainbow".

Thanks to Mike Gion for making a copy of the article available, and thanks to Johan Pap for the fab artwork.

Berkeley was the place. It wasn’t San Francisco, it was around the University of California and in University towns, especially in Claremont. One of the reasons we lived there was that the air was charged. There’s no stagnation and no Hollywood there. There’s none of that glitter or bullshit there at all. It’s scholarly, new ideas, all kinds of new ideas, new music going on all the time. There’s a folk music center in Claremont run by Charles Chase and he’s the figurehead of Claremont folk music. Up north in Berkeley it was John Lundberg, Campbell Coe was another guy, and a few other guitarists. That was the place. Jesse Fuller, the one man band, lived in Oakland. There was a wealth of music there, the fertile crescent, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Also in San Diego, which had some good places to play in and good musicians. Harry Partch, the 43 tune scale musician and inventor, was in San Diego. So that’s California….. produced a whole bunch of people.

So you met Richard Greene and went out with the Dry City Scat Band, and that continued for about a year. I’ve got a note here that says they went in for nice harmonies and instrumental work.

We had real good three part harmony. The instrumental work was different from most bluegrass bands. We took a lot of chances. We did double banjo stuff like Bill Keith and Marshall Brickman used to do, except that we did it in a very odd harmony. Pete Madlem was an excellent banjo player, we did a double banjo thing and double fiddle. We did very obscure strange songs, we also arranged a lot of traditional songs until they were different, until they were our songs. Like a lot of bluegrass bands do, we dug The Country Gentlemen very much. Eddie Adcock, John Duffy, Charlie Waller and those people.

Why is it that Southern California became such a bluegrass center, while it always seemed to me that Berkeley, and New York and Cambridge on the East Coast did not?

Berkeley had a lot of string bands. They had almost as many as Los Angeles. The thing about Los Angeles that made some of the prime movers in the string band bluegrass tradition was the Ash Grove. They would have Bud and Travis, and occasionally they would bring out people like Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys and Flatt and Scruggs. Through that Ed Black, the owner, would put on a very traditional act with the draw to educate people. He did a very good job. He educated most of my friends and myself as to what was really valid. Also, El Monte was a kind of transplanted Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia area. There were a lot of people who came directly from rural areas back in the south-east, bringing bluegrass with them. Amongst them were The Kentucky Colonels, also known as The Country Boys. That was Clarence White, Roland White, LeRoy MacNees, Bill Ray Latham and Eric White. That’s the first time I ever heard bluegrass. Also, the only worthy banjo repair guy, Walt Pitman, was a good friend of Earl Scruggs, and a lot of those people turned me on to bluegrass. He just sat back and played on his old Gibson Master Tone, and I said, “That’s it, that’s what I want to do.” And that particular kind of thing happened all the time in Berkeley as well. There were people there, older people, who knew this stuff and passed it on to ethno-musicology classes. Yes, it worked out really nice. I learnt a lot and so did a lot of other people.

The most distinctive thing about your playing with Jackson Browne is the slide, which seems different from the stuff you were playing with Terry Reid. How did that evolve? It seems totally different from any other slide player I’ve heard.

The first person I ever saw play in his lap did so with an Hawaiian guitar, rather than a bottle-neck on a regular guitar. A regular guitar is not built for that, a traditional Hawaiian electric guitar is built for that. Freddie Roulette was that first person, a steel player from Chicago who played the Hawiian guitar and sounds like Django Reinhardt. I saw him play it once and said, “That’s what I want to do.” Like that. I knew some dobro and got into tone. I went through a whole bunch of different instruments until I found a few slides that I like. I play a Rickenbacker. One of my favourite sounds is the slide.

In Kaleidoscope you played a lot of different instruments, but no you only seem to play slide, fiddle and guitar on record.

There’s a lot of guitar players, a lot of banjo and mandolin players. The Arabic instruments I began to reserve more for pure Arabic music. I don’t know the correct way to play that, so I don’t play them any more. I’ve got a bouzouki, though. My 5 string banjo I play for myself when I get a chance to dig it out. But those instruments are so close, and the thing that I’m looking for exists in my head rather than in a particular instrument. A lot of the fiddle stuff I play sounds not like a fiddle but a slide. A lot of the slide stuff I play will sound like a fiddle. A lot of electric guitar stuff will sound like a slide of a fiddle. All those instruments are very similar, using the bow technique, playing totally by ear.

How about the harp guitar? Do you still have that?

Yes, I still have the harp guitar. The harp guitar is a master’s instrument that takes years to learn to play. They still make them in Germany. It’s a beautiful instrument, but a bitch to play. I strung it my own way. The one I have was made by Orville Gibson. Taking it out on the road it got all banged up, so now I have it hung up in the folk music center in Claremont so people can look at it. It really is a very beautiful instrument.

How did your banjo style develop?

I took in a lot of flamenco and Persian music along with some fiddle and classical music and it just came out like that. The banjo’s a very versatile instrument. You don’t have to play Dixieland or mountain music or bluegrass. It’s a feeling you get when you’re playing a banjo. It’s not any particular style, you play as much with the left hand as the right, it just evolved. The closest thing to it is the Van Apps’ style of banjo playing. It’s called the classical banjo, the style of banjo used by the ‘banjo fraternity’ who are in Long Beach, California. It’s more complex than bluegrass.

Do you utilize feedback much, or just on that Kaleidoscope track, ‘Beacon from Mars’?

In a couple of others I did, but with that song I occasionally would take a break and have nothing but feedback. The guitar I had at the time, a white Gibson SG Custom, was perfect for that kind of stuff. Played through two 15” Leslie speakers. They were great guitars. I miss mine.

Could you go over the difference between playing a Fender and an SG?

The Fender scale is longer, and the strings still have to be the same notes, so the tension and the flexibility of the strings is different. That has to be one of the things that makes me play a certain way on the Fender as opposed to a Gibson. The Gibson has a shorter scale and if you use the same strings on it you can bend them off the neck. I don’t play Gibsons very much. I’m trying to learn how to handle the Fender scale so I can make that universal for everything. That’s the closest to an acoustic guitar scale, or the acoustic guitar scales that I use, the Fender scale. The frets are wider apart, so for a lot of the stretches you try to make on a Fender, you can not ordinarily make on a Les Paul. I’m designing some guitars right now that are going to have a Fender scale. A Les Paul Gibson is very difficult to get in tune. I prefer a Fender neck, the bodies I experiment with. I have an ebony necked Telecaster that Jackson plays now….. a great guitar.

The slide I play is a Rickenbacker made out of bakelite, really old, with the strings going through a field. The two horseshoe magnets come from underneath, the strings go between the coil and the upper leaves of these magnets. Gets a very unusual tone. You can’t put that pick-up on a guitar. The old Rickenbacker basses used to have them, but not guitars. The pedal steel will be the end result of all my slide guitar and violin playing. You can play just about anything on that. I love that instrument; I’ve been trying out a few models. It’s an instrument you have to play constantly to learn it properly, and I hope to do that. I know how to play it now but it isn’t monstrous. I sound like a lot of Nashville session players. I would rather go the route of Sneaky Pete. Got to innovate!

The only steel player I’ve heard who didn’t play in a country or a country rock style was Glen Campbell in The Misunderstood.

I’ve met him a couple of times, he still lives in Riverside. He played an 8 string in 6th tuning, usually a Fender. An 8 string is different from either a 6 string or a pedal steel, you use a completely different technique. You have to slant the bar and bend the strings behind the bar to get some effects, otherwise you’re into a Western Swing kind of thing, or pentatonic blues scale if you’re in 6th tuning. That’s would Freddy Roulette plays.

There are some steel players that are coming up, the new generation. There’s a 16 year old kid in Nashville who can play ‘Steel Guitar Rag’ behind his back standing up. This was at the Steel Guitar Convention. Red Rhodes told me about this. He was the fastest player anyone had seen and after he’d been on, no-one else, Lloyd Green and all those guys, would not go on. He was one of those people that comes along every few years, one of those sacred people. I hope it doesn’t screw him up. I was a judge at the fiddle contest in California when there was a 15 year old fiddle player who two years before I had seen take hell out of the fiddle. This time he was getting too cocky about it.

I was in the first one, the first banjo/fiddle contest at Knott’s Berry Farm. The banjo/fiddle contest phenomenon started at the same time as the Kingston Trio phenomenon started. There was the ethnic folk musicians and the commercial folk musicians.

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