A brush arbor is a makeshift, outdoor meeting place for religious services. Brush Arbor is a band specializing in what they call "Christian Grass"--a blend of bluegrass and country music with a fundamentalist Christian bent.
About to celebrate their 21st anniversary, Brush Arbor is scheduled to perform at a fund-raising show Saturday afternoon at Rancho del Rey Christian Center, between Oak View and Lake Casitas.
The Center, an interdenominational--but basically fundamentalist--campground, isn't a long drive from Camarillo, where Brush Arbor's founders, Jim and Joe Rice, were born, raised and continue to live.
Locally, the Rices might be best known as co-owners of Forest Construction Co. But that hardly makes them musical dilettantes. Their just-released album, "What Does It Take," was produced by Michael Lloyd, whose previous credits include albums by Shaun Cassidy, the Bellamy Brothers, the Christian heavy metal band Stryper and much of the material on the "Dirty Dancing" soundtrack.
Since 1972, Brush Arbor has released seven albums and toured with stars such as Merle Haggard, Olivia Newton-John, Johnny Cash and the Everly Brothers.
They landed seven singles--including country-flavored versions of pop hits such as Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Proud Mary" and Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again, Naturally"--on the trade weekly Billboard's country music popularity chart between 1972 and '77, and Brush Arbor won two major awards from the Southern California-based Academy of Country Music.
"We were the first country vocal group that played our own instruments and were nationally known," said Joe Rice, the 39-year-old singer, mandolinist and guitarist. "When we got our ACM group vocal award, we were competing with vocal quartets.
"The same year, we were voted Best Touring Band, based on our instrumental work. Groups that played and sang didn't get really established in country music until Alabama got popular."
At the time, the group was combining religious and secular material, said Jim Rice, the 41-year-old lead singer and banjo player. "I remember sitting backstage at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, and Duane Allen of the Oak Ridge Boys was asking one of the other members of our group how we as a gospel group could become as successful as a country act. I don't know what the answer was, but three years later, I was asking Duane how his group had done it.'
Even though Brush Arbor were hardly superstars, Jim Rice said, it all got to be too much. "From 1971 to '78, all we did was traveling. We'd do a state fair in Virginia, and then spend three nights traveling to another fair. We finally decided that there were things in life that were more important to us--Joe's wife was pregnant, and he wanted to come off the road to be with his family. We came back to Camarillo and got involved in the family business."
Forest Construction, which specializes in residential building and remodeling, is successful enough that, Joe Rice said, 'we don't have to depend on the music for a living. That really takes the pressure off of us and our sponsors, whether they be a church, college or a camp like Rancho del Rey."
Like the Rices, the other members of Brush Arbor have families and regular work outside the music business: bassist Dave Rose owns a construction company in Pasadena, keyboardist/guitarist Mike Wilson owns Calendar Glass Co. in Santa Barbara, drummer Kevin Watkins is a paralegal, and lead guitarist Brad Carr is a sales representative for a company that manufactures sound-reinforcement equipment to concert venues.
"In 1977," Joe Rice said, "we were still doing 18 weeks a year in Las Vegas. And all of a sudden, we were making as good or better money at home doing construction as we were on the road. Then Word Records came along and asked us to do an all-gospel album. Most gospel concerts are on weekends, so we're able to keep our regular jobs and play our music.
"We have a little philosophy we call the 'Four M's,' " he said. "When people ask us why we continue with our music when we don't have to for money, we tell them that the first M is 'music,' the second is 'ministry,' the third is 'money,' and the fourth M is ' 'musment' because it's fun."
Onstage, Brush Arbor combines music--which has in recent years taken on a country-rock tinge, more like the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band than traditional bluegrass groups--with comedy. They gently rib various Christian denominations, occasionally poke fun at themselves (Joe Rice kids other acts who sell their records after shows at the same time he's selling Brush Arbor's), and more bitingly parody the kind of preachers and musicians who, they feel, are more concerned with Mammon than with saving souls.
The preaching that the members of Brush Arbor do (other than what's implicit in their songs) is offstage.
"Our group," Joe Rice said, "does believe that becoming a Christian involves a decision. But rarely do we take the time to make a direct appeal to people to make a decision at our concerts. It's more like, 'If you're interested and want to talk more about it after the show, fine.' But as a result of our entertainment, the message of Jesus Christ comes through loud and clear."
* THE DETAILS: Rancho del Rey is located at 655 Burnham Road, one mile off California 33, in Live Oak Acres. Entertainment begins at 1 p.m. Tickets are $10; food and other concessions will be available. Call 649-3356 for further information.