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 manufacturing business.

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 Warren.

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 cartoon.)

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."

Bodega Sessions: $15.95
includes postage in the USA. International orders will have postage added.

about the tracks | about Rick Shubb | about Bob Wilson | about Charlie Warren
liner notes by Paul Shelasky | liner notes by Rick Shubb | gear

read the reviews: San Francisco Examiner | Dirty Linen Magazine | Bluegrass Breakdown
Listen to some of the music: Avalon: (MP3: 2.8 MB) | Sherlock Holmes: (MP3: 2.6 MB)

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