On a cool Indian-summer night out on the rolling plains of Missouri about thirty miles west of the Mississippi, four women sat in a circle of wooden chairs playing fiddles, banjo and guitar around a crackling fire of pine twigs and dead oak that perfumed the slow, ambling breeze. The soft, fragrant steam of potatoes boiling on the stove wafted out of the small house at the fore of the large tract of land. As the spindly strains of "Cider" danced like a daddy longlegs into the air from string and voice, a body marveled at the wondrous gifts that some great god had decided to heap down upon it.
"Cider, cider, drinkin' that cider/Goin' to the still, I was gettin' some cider...."
Nights like these were made for sippin' cider, but St. Louie was dry of the stuff. No matter. Stronger spirits were to be found in the brown clay jug being passed around this circle of friends, and I smiled as sweet amber dew from the smoky hills of Kentucky passed between my lips and lit my head ablaze with a rapturous glory. The cold months were on their way and, sure as sugar, this would probably be the last night for song and whiskey under the stars. I aimed to soak up every last drop of these moments, but some enchanted wind must've come down from above and helped the music blow my soul toward a melodious reverie....
Then a cell phone rang and woke my ass up.
"Where the hell are you? Everybody's here," grumbled Colleen Heine through the handset after resting her fiddle in her lap. Bass players: Can't live with 'em, can't deep-fry 'em. After it was confirmed that bassist Andrew Gribble would arrive from work shortly, fiddles returned to chins, hands were re-employed by banjo and guitar, and the opening lines of "Do You Dance a Tobacco Hill?" came to life.
This was no campfire after-party at a Civil War re-enactment. It was a typical Friday night rehearsal for St. Louis' own exponents of old time music, the Black-Eyed Susies. The fire glowed, the whiskey flowed and centuries-old songs poured into the air, occasionally embellished by the call of a nightingale in a nearby maple. When the time came for the band to fortify themselves with a nip or seven, the talk turned to the history of old-time music, which many would be apt to confuse with bluegrass.
Fiddler Megan Greene is quick to point out that bluegrass may be "old-timey," but it's not old-time music in the strictest sense.
"Old-time music predates bluegrass, certainly," says Greene. "Usually when people talk about old-time music, they're talking about American mountain music that started when people first came to this country from Europe. So it sort of had some Irish and other influences blended into it, but it's from one, two and three centuries ago, the fiddle music that people played outside of the bigger American cities. A lot of the Missouri [old-time music] people outside of St. Louis talk about how, 60 to 80 years ago, every house had a fiddle in it. Somebody played fiddle. Every town had at least one old-time band. This was before bluegrass."
"Bluegrass is more showy and commercial for sure," agrees Heine. "It was really [seminal singer and mandolin player] Bill Monroe who took elements of mountain music and brought it to popularity. A lot of it started at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. Bluegrass is more about improvisation, highlighting certain instruments and musicians. In old-time music, people don't really take solos. It's more about getting in that whole, solid groove together."
Just then, Gribble arrives and pulls an upright bass from the back of his Volvo wagon. After darting into the house for a quick, post-work shower, he returns to the fire and jumps into a tune in progress, beefing it up with a thumping bass backbeat. Now that the full band is present, the serious playing begins. While it's apparent that the addition of a token male band member (playing bass, no less) is merely a ploy to get more chicks to come to the shows, Gribble does more than enough to hold his own amid the nimbly fingered counterpoint of the tunes.
Black-Eyed Susies guitarist Catherine Cathers had a few words concerning Gribble's presence in the otherwise all-female band.
"Traditionally, the bass players in old time bands were often female," she says. "We affectionately refer to Andy as our 'boy named Sue.' We're very pleased to have him."
Gribble is a recent addition to the ensemble, freshly transplanted from Lawrence, Kansas, but the ladies in the band have been at it together for a little over a year. They met during picking sessions at the Folk School in University City, an interactive academy for folk-music students of various disciplines.
"About a year ago, in October, I moved back here from Kansas and needed to find some people to play with here," says Heine. "I found the Folk School within the first couple of weeks I was back. I started taking classes there. Megan and Michelle [Burack, the band's banjo player] were in the class with me. We started getting together outside of class, the three of us and a couple of other people, and kinda started making it a regular get-together."
Greene interjects, "Somebody had the fool idea and said, 'Hey, let's start a band.'"
After a few open-mic appearances at Frederick's Music Lounge, the musicians acquired guitarist Cathers to thicken the songs' texture with subtle chord-strumming. Now a year into their life as the Black-Eyed Susies, the group has played art events such as Venus Envy and Artica, and they've played happy hours at the Billy Goat Restaurant and Bar. This is in addition to their steady Wednesday- night gig at the Cabin Inn the City, the tavern in the reconstructed log cabin next to the City Museum that was reportedly built by Daniel Boone's nephew, Nathaniel. It seems likely that the cabin hosted its fair share of old-time music sessions in the 1800s. When the Black-Eyed Susies play there, the tiny room comes to life with conversation and dancing, as if that's what always happened there in the evenings. The cabin is warm, cordial and extremely easy on the ears when compared to the musical offerings of other clubs. Cabin Inn proprietor Bob Rocca serves up hot cider and keeps the log fire outside the cabin stoked, accenting the Black-Eyed Susies music with all the atmospheric trimmings one would expect to find in the frontier days, when old-time music was the music.
"This music is pre-radio, pre-television -- people lived out in the middle of nowhere," says Greene. "What do you do on a Saturday night? You get together, listen to a string band and dance, or sit around and get to know everybody. That was socializing."