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Big-City pickin'

Mountain music finds a place in urban settings. Triple Chicken Foot is leading the way in L.A.

February 19, 2012|Jenn Garbee
  • Mike Heinle on banjo, left, Ben Guzmàn on fiddle, middle, and Kelly Marie Martin on guitar, right, at The Echo, in Los Angeles.
Mike Heinle on banjo, left, Ben Guzmàn on fiddle, middle, and Kelly… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

There's an unmistakable old-time twang in Triple Chicken Foot's rapid-fire fiddle and banjo-picking style, the sort of knee-slapping, square dance-friendly music that has drawn veteran mountain music fans to the annual Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest & Folk Festival for more than 50 years.

Only this isn't Topanga. It's around the Lincoln Heights bend and down by the Los Angeles River. Nor will you find a single petticoat among the tattoo-covered crowd gathered on a recent Saturday night behind HM 157, a Victorian house turned alternative art and performance space.

It's a new time for old-time music in Los Angeles. And as old-time music fans might say, Triple Chicken Foot (Ben Guzman, Mike Heinle and Kelly Marie Martin) is leading the promenade back home with its annual Los Angeles Old Time Social festival, bimonthly square dances and open jam sessions for a generation of musicians more familiar with electric guitars than six-string guitjos (banjos with guitar necks).

"Old-time is entirely a social thing, before radio and before music became about individuals," says Heinle, the band's 32-year-old banjo picker. "It's literally about getting together on someone's front porch and playing for fun, everyone all at once."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, February 23, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Triple Chicken Foot: An article in the Feb. 19 Arts & Books section about the old-time music band Triple Chicken Foot misspelled instructor and musician Tom Sauber's last name as Stauber.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, February 26, 2012 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Triple Chicken Foot: A Feb. 19 article about the old-time music band Triple Chicken Foot misspelled instructor and musician Tom Sauber's last name as Stauber.

Unlike in later renditions of folk music such as bluegrass, solo riffs and vocals are typically absent in traditional forms of old-time music, which gets its distinct sound from Southern Appalachia roots. "To get to old-time, you have to go back to Colonial American fiddling, which was really like the rock 'n' roll of its period," says Tom Stauber, an Alhambra-based old-time instructor and musician who has recorded with numerous genre greats, including fiddler Earl Collins. "On the East Coast, fiddling eventually joined forces with African American banjo playing to become old-time music, which then migrated west to California with the settlers."

The banjo-driven genre has a certain appeal for the post-everything generation, whose senses have been ground down by genres such as hard rock and techno. The unplugged style comes from what we often think of as a simpler, less cluttered time and represents a certain sense of community. Recently, Thursday night jam sessions at 1642 Beer and Wine bar near Echo Park have drawn up to 30 musicians, many of them new, younger faces. "That never happened when we started, it used to be the same few guys showing up," says Heinle, who typically takes on the role of lead banjo picker at bar jams.

Guzman was the first old-time convert among Triple Chicken Foot members, becoming a mountain music devotee nearly 15 years ago. "There's a very different kind of laid-back old-time scene in Portland that we don't have in L.A.," says the 37-year-old fiddler, who was a photographer for Portland, Ore.'s Willamette Week newspaper in the late 1990s and covered festivals such as the Portland Old-Time Music Gathering. "I really just wanted to bring that 'hang-out' Portland vibe of bicycles, old-time music and [inexpensive beer] back to L.A.," continues the L.A. native, grinning beneath his handlebar mustache.

In 2004, Guzman and guitarist Martin founded their first old-time band, Old Jitters, with local guitjo player Scott McDougall. In 2005, Old Jitters morphed into Triple Chicken Foot and Heinle joined as banjo picker when McDougall moved to the Northwest (Guzman and Martin married the following year).

Martin says the transition to Colonial-era fiddling was a natural evolution for all three musicians. "We each come from a do-it-yourself music generation, those punk days when you're just jamming together and not overly self-aware about putting yourself out there as an individual," she explains. Martin has played in local and East Coast indie rock and punk bands and done performance art, Guzman cofounded Reel Big Fish, a Huntington Beach alternative punk band, and Heinle, who took up jazz bass during college, first began playing traditional music with the Melbays, a Long Beach-based bar band.

Despite their electric guitar roots, Triple Chicken Foot's founders say their goal is not to create a unique genre of modern mountain music. "Guys like Tom [Stauber] and Walter [Spencer], they're what old-time is all about," says Guzman, who apprenticed under Stauber for several years to perfect his fiddle technique (Spencer is a long-standing old-time musician in Southern California). "For us, this wasn't about changing that [style], but bringing old-time into the heart of the city."

To get there, they first had to encourage younger musicians, including themselves, to pick up unfamiliar instruments. "There was no one under 40 fiddling on this side of the hill," Guzman says. "Unless we wanted to play with 50-year-olds out [in the suburbs] all the time, we each had to learn a new instrument." (Guzman played the mandolin prior to fiddle, Martin and Heinle both played bass.)

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