"Know any banjo jokes?" my roommate asks me when I tell him I'm going to see local bluegrass purveyors The Breadwinners on a recent Tuesday night. I don't, but my roomie does. "What's the difference between a banjo and a vacuum cleaner? A vacuum cleaner has to be plugged in before it sucks."
When I tell Breadwinners banjo player Steve Borick the joke a few nights later, he wearily retorts that he left his banjo locked in his car at a bar one night. Someone smashed the window, and when he went out to his car, there were two banjos.
Lame banjo jokes aside, The Breadwinners, with Amos Cox playing guitar, Drew Lyman on mandolin, Candice Miracle on standup bass, and Borick's banjo (with all of them harmonizing vocally), are a rare hidden treasure in local music circles. They're largely unknown; their weekly Tuesday night gigs at The Loft in Tempe are just starting to attract crowds, but their ensemble is one of the tightest around, and they're playing bluegrass music the way it was meant to be played four acoustic, stringed instruments huddled around two microphones, with the players leaning forward to sing almost like it's choreographed.
For more insight into Phoenix's music scene, visit Brendan Joel Kelley's "Ear Infection" blog.
Onstage at The Loft early on a Tuesday night, the foursome engages in some furiously fast picking while they vacillate between three- and four-part harmonies, causing two young dudes to start twirling around the dance floor, one with long dreadlocks and one with a backward baseball cap on. Not what I'd think bluegrass's core audience is like.
There are other purveyors of the genre around town, most notably Busted Hearts and the now-Austin-based Heather Rae and the Moonshine Boys, but none that hold to the traditional style of playing the acoustic strings and the semicircle around the microphone method quite like The Breadwinners.
At 50, Candice Miracle is something of the den mother to the three boys, who're all in their 30s ("I could almost be their mom," she tells me). She's played music professionally (bluegrass specifically) since 1988, and I'm surprised when she tells me there's a small, tight-knit scene of bluegrass aficionados in town.
Via Miracle, the band has had a little exposure to this mountain music microcosm. Cox says they were surprised to find folks like himself throwing down bluegrass music. "We get people saying, 'I didn't know there were people this young playing bluegrass in the Valley.' We played Candice's birthday party up at her house, and a lot of this little bluegrass circle was there. They were shocked that it's such a small circle and they didn't even know we were out there."
It's also a bit shocking to me to learn that within that small circle of adherents, there's a schism of sorts between traditionalists ("where if you play anything that's not how Bill Monroe or Ralph Stanley played it, then it's not bluegrass," Miracle explains) and non-traditionalists (where the music leans toward jam-band-style noodling, sometimes referred to as "newgrass").
I didn't know there was a large enough bluegrass scene to have two opposing camps. "There's not," Miracle tells me.
"It seems like the scene doesn't even require that anyone actually plays," Cox says. "There's traditionalists and non-traditionalists, but there's no scene you overlooked, nobody's playing."
Nonetheless, the bluegrass scene is split to the extent that when Miracle used to book a bluegrass festival at the Pioneer Arizona Living History Museum, she always had two stages, so there could be a traditional band and a contemporary band playing at once, and no one could complain.
The Breadwinners ride the line between the two factions, and they do it remarkably well, though they profess to come down on the side of the contemporary philosophers. "We play a lot of traditional, but we also play what I consider a lot of contemporary and even eclectic bluegrass music," Miracle says. "Steve does the Beatles to bluegrass. The music of the future isn't going to be the same old songs by the same couple people."
It works for me; the sheer speed and harmonic complexity of the music The Breadwinners play makes me wonder why the band isn't drawing larger crowds they've been playing at The Loft regularly since the band got together in early spring. Whether you're a bluegrass fan or not or even if you don't know anything about the music the musicianship the band displays is startlingly impressive.
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But bluegrass is not a genre that tends to attract the younger crowd that's circulating around The Loft and nearby Mill Avenue. "Most of the people I hang out with outside of the band, they don't do bluegrass so much," Cox admits.
I am surprised, though, that The Breadwinners haven't attracted more of the y'all-ternative, alt-country crowd that floods the shows of bands like the Bindle Stiffs and Flathead. It's partially the location The Loft isn't the sort of young country mecca that the Yucca Tap Room is but it's also got to be lack of exposure, because no one, especially other musicians, can fail to be astonished at what this group can do with four acoustic instruments and two microphones.
As the crowds get bigger at The Breadwinners' Tuesday night shows, I'm hoping the local bluegrass scene is changing. Phoenix is definitely not Kentucky, but it's a town that has a sizable contingent of true music lovers, no matter their age or genre preference. Even Miracle's youngest son, who just turned 18 and plays in bands, is into the music. She says with a laugh, "It's a shock when he comes up and says, 'Mom, do you want to do a band with me?'"