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Undiscovered Country : Folk Band Acousticats Sing Little-Heard Praises of Rural California


"There's a story about California that hasn't gotten out yet," says Cyrus Clarke of the Acousticats, a five-piece progressive folk/bluegrass band whose members all hail from the southern half of the state.

"When most people think of California, they think of L.A. or San Francisco," Clarke continued, on the phone from his home in Santa Barbara. "They just don't understand that there are millions of people who live in these wonderful valleys and canyons. . . . There's a part of California that the rest of the world doesn't even know exists, and it's a wonderful place."

The goal of the Acousticats--who'll play two shows Saturday night at the San Juan Capistrano Regional Library--is to give musical expression to the state's underappreciated rural side. "We didn't want to be another California band trying to be a bluegrass band from Kentucky," Clarke said. "We want to be the band from California."

Clarke spent 13 years in an acoustic outfit called the Cache Valley Drifters before it disbanded in 1985. Some of the members joined up with musicians from another group, the Phil Salazar Band, to form the Acousticats three years ago.

The Acousticats' hallmark is a twin-fiddle attack by Salazar and Charl Ann Gastineau, both former state fiddle champs. Rounding out the band are bassist Rick Borella and the newest member, Tom Corbett, on mandolin.

Clarke plays guitar and feels that "while I wouldn't say I'm one of the top guitar players in the world, I can definitely do the job." But he considers himself "kind of a songwriter more than anything" (his songs have been covered by Kate Wolf, among others).

The Acousticats have one album out on Flying Fish Records, a folk label, and until now have played mostly on the state's burgeoning folk festival circuit. Most of the festivals take place away from major cities but still manage to draw thousands of fans--bolstering Clarke's argument that "California is essentially an agricultural place." The festivals, and the music, "fit well with what California really is."

Actually, hailing from a state like California, with its lack of a dominant musical strain, can be liberating for an acoustic folk-based group, Clarke said. "We aren't limited by tradition. There really is not a tradition here. We feel that really frees us--if it works, go for it."


In concert, the group might follow an Allman Brothers song with an old coal-mining ballad, followed by an original tune that blends more than one style. "California is an incredibly diverse place. We kind of can't help but let those influences into our music. I wouldn't say we're anything close to a traditional bluegrass band."

Tradition still comes through, however. At a festival in Kern County two years ago, an 89-year-old woman in the audience approached Clarke after the Acousticats' set and told him the music had reminded her of the country "fandangos" of her youth, not long after the turn of the century.

"The whole image of what she was talking about really struck me," Clarke said--so much so that he wrote a song, "Kern County Fandango," and dedicated it to her when the band returned the following year.

The Acousticats are getting ready to make their first foray out of the state, to festivals in Colorado and Montana. "We're pretty goal-oriented," Clarke said. "We've all been around the block a few times. Our first goal was to play in California as much as possible. For us, that means a lot," because while acoustic folk music has a strong base "on the other side of the Mississippi," that's not the case here.

The San Juan Capistrano concerts, in fact, will be the band's first in Orange County. The Acousticats are planning to return for a concert at the Shade Tree in Laguna Niguel Aug. 13.

* The Acousticats will play Saturday at 7 and 9 p.m. in the courtyard of the San Juan Capistrano Regional Library, 31495 El Camino Real. Admission: $3 at the door. Information: (714) 493-1752.

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