Music News

Pickin' 'n' Frownin'

It's a common adage in the music business that the toughest gig is in your own hometown. That is especially true here in the Valley, where local pride is no more than a wistful memory that every April the snowbirds take back with them to Wisconsin and New York. In a town where style is often a product of the major media, it's tough for a non-mainstream group of musicians to eke out a living and maintain artistic integrity. It is true that a disproportionate number of successful musicians calls the Valley home, but only because Phoenix has a unique value as a touring steppingstone between Los Angeles and other major cities.

It's also one reason that the Weary Hearts decided to settle in Tempe and Scottsdale two years ago after meeting up on the national scene. Weary

Hearts, a young, self-described "new traditional" bluegrass band since its founding in 1985, has been receiving rave reviews nationally. From contests to festivals to concerts to clubs, this four-piece ensemble (Mike Bub, bass; Butch Baldassari, mandolin; Ron Block, banjo; Chris Jones, guitar) has played a list of venues that measures up against that of almost any established road group. And a road group Weary Hearts is; since January the band has toured relentlessly all over Texas, Missouri, Tennessee, Utah, California, Nevada, and New Mexico, mostly by van.

The group's third release, By Heart, is coming out in August on Flying Fish Records, one of the nation's leading independent labels. The album features some of the hottest session cats in Nashville. Other published work includes three instructional books with cassettes. Then there are the awards. The members of Weary Hearts have won a dozen state and national awards, including the International Bluegrass Music Association's coveted Best Band award and the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America's International Bluegrass Band Championship.

But if you aren't the kind of person who keeps an eagle eye on the bluegrass journals and follows the festivals around all summer like some cholesterol-crazed Ozark quasi-Deadhead, then you probably haven't heard of Weary Hearts. Try as they may, Weary Hearts find that although home is where the heart is, the bankroll is someplace else; it is nearly impossible for them to get a decent gig in the Valley. So after two years of plugging away, using Phoenix as a relatively gigless place to return to from the road, the band has decided that it must take its business elsewhere; in October, Weary Hearts are picking up and moving to Nashville, a place where their kind of music is taken seriously.

"Nashville is more centrally located, driving distances are shorter, and there will be much more work. We're in this to make a living. We have to leave [from Phoenix] for gigs a day in advance because of the distances involved.

"It's a good time for acoustic music right now. Bluegrass has a new Grammy category, and Nashville is the center of the country music industry."

IT'S A SATURDAY NIGHT in April, and Weary Hearts have managed to score a rare gig at the Horny Toad restaurant in Cave Creek. Between sets the band members discuss their plight--not with bitterness, but with the calm tone of musicians who understand the foibles of working in an underdeveloped music scene.

Baldassari admits that his band has all but given up looking for gigs in Phoenix.

"There hasn't been any [radio] support here for bluegrass music in years," adds Mike Bub. "Radio is real important to getting your stuff heard." A graduate of Coronado High School (before enrolling in the now well-known bluegrass program at South Plains Community College in Levelland, Texas), Bub would like to see the band do a few more gigs close to home. But he realizes that would require a compromise that neither he nor the rest of the band is willing to make.

"There is a way to make it here," he explains. "But you have to comply to local standards."

Translation: For a bluegrass band to survive in the Valley it would have to develop the repertoire of a "casual" or party band, playing for the most part country and western hits, plus the mummified pseudo-bluegrass catch tunes--"Dueling Banjos," "Rockytop," and "Orange Blossom Special"--that have become the bane of every true 'grasser who's ever had to play for four hours a night for the pleasure of overlubricated conventioneers from New Jersey.

Recently, the members of Weary Hearts came to the conclusion that they probably would never accomplish this goal in Phoenix. Their most consistent work has been at the downtown "brown bag" lunch hour. And with no more than one or two upcoming shows booked, Weary Hearts are looking ahead to Music City.

Baldassari thinks that in Nashville, bluegrass and Weary Hearts can be accepted on their own terms. "Bluegrass is not really danceable music; it hasn't ever really been taken seriously as a musical form. Part of what we are doing is to get bluegrass as well recognized as Dixieland jazz and blues."

If you aren't the kind of person who follows the festivals around like some Ozark quasi-Deadhead, then you probably haven't heard of Weary Hearts.

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Matt Cartsonis