Living the Mandolin Life, Always, On Road, Stage or Sea
By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
October 4, 2009 - 8:15 pm
Bill Graham is a freelance outdoor writer, photographer, bluegrass musician and singer-songwriter.
It's Thursday in Winfield, Kansas, and Brian Roe is changing his strings as the evening light filters through the campfire smoke.
Brian is here for the Walnut Valley Music Festival, and the mandolin contest nears. He sits beneath an assortment of mandolin and guitar cases hanging on bungee cords from the ceiling of a weathered Airstream trailer. Necessity forces a bluegrass gypsy to develop creative approaches.
Traveling to the next paying gig or music contest is the 20 (soon to be 21) year-old's life's work. In summer, the Roe Family Band caravans in their trailer, with a separate van leading the way. Their winter lodging is a sailboat bound for ports in Central and South America.
But while the Roes may never stop wandering, they did start somewhere: right here.
The Roes are camped with friends in the sea of musicians, together they're celebrating another touring season's approaching end.
"We work a lot of small shows with 50 to 70 people in the crowd," Brian says. "We do plenty of festival work, too."
They might do three shows at a county fair and then drive to another town and perform a double set. Sometimes they anchor the Airstream at a campground and use it as their headquarters. They perform throughout the United States, and their upcoming schedule shows a slate of house concerts in Colorado and Arizona.
Mitch and Vicki Roe decided years ago to live a semi-nomadic lifestyle, originally from a base in Colorado. Brian and his 19-year-old brother, Ethan, a mountain dulcimer player, were home-schooled.
Music blossomed early on. When Brian was about 8, he began playing his father's guitar.
"He had a pre-1940s guitar book that only had picking in it, and the first song he learned was Jingle Bells," Vicki explains.
Friends invited the family to join their camp at the Walnut Valley festival. The Roes loved the festival and the music. They began learning folk music styles and returning each year to play. As a young boy, Brian became a festival wanderer with a small guitar strapped on.
"He'd go around to all the camps and be gone all night," Vicki says. "I'd get worried and we'd find him out there picking somewhere and he'd say, 'Mom, I learned this new song.'"
Later, Brian began playing the mandolin, a lot.
"I'm a better musician playing the mandolin," he says.
The Roe Family Band was formed when Brian was 14. Mitch and Vicki wanted a musical vehicle for their sons. Mitch already played the guitar. Vicki began playing the bass and adding vocals.
A few years back, Brian found himself winning or placing high in some state mandolin contests; ditto on guitar and fiddle. He also plays some banjo and bass. Last year he released a self-produced CD of fiddle tunes—"Brian Roe-Only"—on which he played all the instruments.
But the mandolin is his focus.
At the super-competitive Walnut Valley championship, he placed in the top five in 2005, took second in 2006 and third in 2007. He placed third at the MerleFest mandolin contest in 2008.
The brothers split the revenue from CD sales at concerts, but contest winnings, including prize mandolins and guitars, are a personal bonus. Brian plays the prizes for a while and then sells or trades them.
"For one thing, I don't have a place to put them," he said. "Also, for me, if I'm not going to play it, I trade it."
He's won or traded for various F and A model mandolins and played several on stage and enjoyed them.
But he usually sticks with his go-to mandolin: a slightly oversized, x-braced A model with f-holes built by Colorado luthier Herb Taylor. It has a rather flat top and produces a rich, full sound that complements Brian's use of full scales and melodic riffs.
"It has a different kind of sustain," Brian says. "It's closer to a guitar kind of sustain. It allows me to do some things quality-wise."
People often ask about the mandolin at shows and contests because it looks and sounds unique. So Roe decided to have copies made to sell. However, neither Taylor nor other builders have been able to fully replicate this particular mandolin's sound. It remains a singular combination of wood and glue.
Roe also plays a Herb Taylor Brazilian rosewood guitar with unusual bracing under a red spruce top. The instrument is loud and sweet and cuts with a dry, haunting sound.
Brian is at a crossroads. He's mastered basic melody and speed. Now he's working on beauty.
"I've been making a conscious effort to get out of playing stuff fast," he said. "I've been recently playing Appalachian fiddle tunes in melodic styles, and doing things such as songs in drop D tuning on guitar."
A test arrives on Friday afternoon as Brian uncases his mandolin in the warm-up area at Winfield's Stage 4. Vicki tunes up her bass to accompany him in the mandolin contest.
The multi-song melodies sound like a calliope backstage, as nervous mandolin players and backup guitarists run through different songs all at the same time, trying to defy the tension in the air.
But Brian is cool and calm, smiling, shaking hands with old friends and making new ones.
Vicki isn't quite so reserved.
"I don't care how many contests you do, you never get over the nervousness," she says.
Onstage, all types of players and mandolins make their musical statements.
Contestant Tyler Grant plays a throaty F model in bluegrass style while Maxine Pendleton follows with a delicate minor-key song played on an A model. Nathan Reldelfs leads his entry off with a classical piece.
Today, Brian follows 26 others. An accustomed stage performer, he stands up rather than sits.
"Maple Leaf Rag" flows out of his mandolin, his timing right on the money and the notes true. Brian plays up and down the neck doing all the rag's various parts, in both crosspicking and single-string styles. The audience gives him major applause. Then he launches into "Lady's Fancy"—a fiddle tune—finishes with a flourish, and bows to the crowd.
Soon the five finalists are announced. Brian doesn't make the cut this time.
There's no shame in that. He played great, and this contest is loaded with talent. It's hard to miss, for example, Chris Cerna, a precision mandolinist with speed who performed a super-sweet version of "Limerock." What a distinctive and fine player.
Winner Bryan McDowell of North Carolina played with wonderful technique and musicality. McDowell had himself quite a Winfield by also winning the guitar and fiddle contests. That's the first time anyone has won all three of those in one year, festival officials said. Josh Bailey of Texas and Rex Preston of England earned second- and third-place finishes respectively in the mandolin contest.
For Brian, it was back to camp to rejoin an annual reunion, eat supper and then head off to find his old friends and play music until a new day breaks.
"This has all happened because of Winfield," Vicki says.
But where does she want her son to go beyond Walnut Valley's friendly grounds?
"Wherever his ambitions and talents lead him," she said. "We're trying to give him opportunities and exposure. After that, it's up to him."
I don't consider Brian Roe a young supersonic phenom out to unseat Chris Thile or the other younger pyro players nipping at Thile's heels.
He didn't get to make his first CD in a world-class studio staffed with professional engineers and hot veteran bluegrass stars backing him up, showcasing his licks. And what he produced on "Brian Roe-Only" is pleasant, though very basic.
But there's something to be said for someone who plays our music across our land in small towns and at little festivals and makes a lot of people happy. And never underestimate the potential of a musician with a soulful heart and a no-boundaries approach.
Right now, Brian is living what many players glued to day-jobs wish they were doing: playing music on the road. It's all he's ever done.
"I have no idea what's going to happen," he said. "But music is something I'm going to do the rest of my life."
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