After all these years --
Rick Shubb and Bob Wilson release new recording
by George Martin,
published in "BlueGrass Breakdown" April 1999
Through the 1970's Bay Area acoustic music fans were privileged
to hear at least semi-regularly some of the most wonderful,
eclectic and tasteful music on the planet when the Shubb-Wilson
Trio played the Freight and Salvage Coffee House.
Rick Shubb and Bob Wilson played bluegrass and old country
songs and wonderful jazz; not the percussion-crazed jazz you
hear a lot now, nor the far out squeaks and squawks of the "progressive"
wing of the jazz players of that time. They played jazz like
the late Stephane Grappelli would have done it; first the melody
fairly straight, to sort of demonstrate to the audience what
the song was written to sound like,then variations, increasingly
fanciful, musical quotes from other songs as written, and finally
a nifty closing riff often featuring parallel harmony lines
on banjo and guitar.
Their material was endlessly inventive. Shubb was one of the
early exponents of melodic style banjo, which he could integrate
seamlessly with the Scruggs-based licks and chord-based leads,
and Wilson was all over the map: octave leads, Django Reinhart-style
single string stuff, even a sort of Travis picking that he did
by holding a flat pick in the normal fashion for the bass and
playing the melody notes with is third and fourth fingers.
Wilson's playing reminded one of Grappelli's Quintet of the
Hot Club of Paris guitar sidekick perhaps more than one would
expect due to the tonality of Wilson's guitar, a 1930s Selmer
Macafferi not unlike the one Django played.
The Shubb Wilson Trio made one vinyl album in 1976 that was
recorded live at the Blitz Music Festival in Portland, where
Shubb was living at the time. In those years, Shubb had an ambition
to be a full-time musician. However Wilson had a good job, a
wife, children and a house, and wasn't ready to chuck the whole
thing to go on the road.
And it wasn't long before Shubb invented the Shubb 5th String
Capo for banjo, then the compensated banjo bridge, and eventually
the guitar and banjo capos that have resulted in a life in the
So the Shubb-Wilson recording career went on hiatus, though
the two friends continued to play for their own enjoyment. Now
they have completed a self-produced compact disk, "Rick Shubb
and Bob Wilson: Bodega Sessions," accompanied by bassist Charlie
The record grew out of the occasional but intensive music sessions
the two longtime friends have had together over the years. "Bob's
a teacher, so we'd get together on school holidays," Shubb explained
one day in late February in the office portion of his industrial
building in Valley Ford, in west Marin County. Shubb has a large
"office," partly devoted to the usual desk and such, but the
rear portion has a banjo and a couple of guitars and a Macintosh
computer and a ADAT digital tape machine set up.
"For instance," Shubb continued, "every winter, one or two
days after Christmas he'll come over and stay until almost New
Year's." Besides their love of music, Shubb and Wilson share
a fascination with old movies, serials, radio dramas and 'B'
westerns. "You couldn't exactly call it nostalgia because most
of our favorite stuff is from before we were born," Shubb writes
in the liner notes for the CD.
But their days together include a lot of music-making, too.
"Bob and I both have kind of an uncommon attention span for
a given song," Shubb said. "Even if we are just practicing,
recording or not, we'll stay on a song longer than probably
anybody you know and not get bored with it. You could do that
in a studio but you are even aware of the engineer's attention
span when you stay on a song that long."
Shubb said he and Wilson may only play together four or five
times a year, "but it's pretty intense. We'll sometimes take
only two or three tunes, and play those. Not to the entire exclusion
of other tunes, we'll hit some other tunes once, just to keep
in shape, make sure we remember the arrangement. But if we've
got something in progress, where we're trying to get an arrangement
we like, we'll do one song for three hours sometimes."
That aspect of their musical relationship led Shubb to buy
the recording equipment and do the CD himself, rather than going
into a commercial studio.
"(That was) to buy myself the luxury of time," he said. "So
that I didn't feel like I was under the gun when I was in the
studio, watching the clock and watching the pocketbook. The
guitar and banjo we did at home on the ADAT (Warren added the
bass tracks in a Van Nuys studio). That gave us the opportunity
to very leisurely do retakes if we weren't happy with what we
had, or to get ourselves into the proper frame of mind, whatever
it took to get us to feel comfortable about recording."
In selecting material, Shubb and Wilson mostly picked songs
they've been doing together a long time. A few were resurrected
tunes that the pair had played years ago but hadn't done recently.
"We had worked up 'Lover, Come Back to Me," years ago, and,
I think, never performed it, "Shubb said. "I think we just made
a tape of it. When we started assembling material it just seemed
like that one would fit in nicely, so we went back and learned
it from our old tape."
As it happened, the CD pretty much ignores Shubb and Wilson's
country repertoire. "We used the more jazzy material for the
sake of continuity," Shubb said. "There was some stuff we'd
been doing for a long time we could have put on there, and some
that we actually did record and not use, that was a little countrier.
When we put the package together some of the countrier things
didn't fit as well. So what we might do is record another one
where they fit in better," he said.
The CD starts with "Take the Freight Train," which is a medley
of train songs: a few bars of Elizabeth Cotton's folk classic
"Freight Train" kicks off the track, then Shubb and Wilson segue
into "Take the A Train," detour with a guitar break on "Chattanooga
Choo Choo," touch base again on "A Train," then the "Atchison,
Topeka and the Santa Fe," back to "A Train," and then fade out
with another few bars of "Freight Train." All this is put together
seamlessly with a wonderful sense of musical fun.
Four of the fifteen tracks are vocals. There is an amusing
"Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson," an obscure novelty song written
by lyricist Johnny Mercer and composer Bernie Hanighen for the
1934 movie "Gambling." Then Wilson does "Wrap Your Troubles
in Dreams" and " I Cried for You," while Shubb adds, "The Old
Man of the Mountain, the title of which makes it sound like
a country song, but it isn't. (It's actually a Cab Calloway
song Wilson and Shubb found on an old "Betty Boop" animated
Such other 1930s and '40s standards as "Lullaby of Birdland"
and "Ain't Misbehavin'" make up the other tracks.
"Bob and I have been to varying degrees a hot issue or a lukewarm
issue or a non-issue depending on when you plugged into the
scene over all these years." Shubb said. "But we still take
pretty much the same approach we always did to music. At one
time it probably seemed radical to people.
"Some people in the world of bluegrass tend to think you only
do this a certain way, and if you don't, you are my enemy. That's
pretty much gone now, and what we're left with is what we always
were. Not particularly wanting to be iconoclasts, but playing
the music in the style that we hear it, and exploring what we
feel is a unique combination of our two playing styles. It's
still unique...We're proud of it."