Going Up On the Mountain with Sharon Gilchrist

By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
May 15, 2008 - 6:45 am

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Bill Graham
Bill Graham is a freelance outdoor writer, photographer, bluegrass musician and singer-songwriter.

Sharon Gilchrist was once like the rest of us, looking up at the mountain that the true stars of our music dwell on.

She camped at festivals. Played her mandolin all night at jams. Performed professionally in bunches of bands and learned several instruments on the side, such as bass, to keep her show biz career in the bluegrass/newgrass world going.

Years rolled by and she recently earned a stint on that mountain, and a spot in the music's history that no one can take away.

But not without a climb.

I first noticed her in the late 1980s at the Walnut Valley Music Festival in Winfield, Kan. She was part of a group of young people hanging around Stage 3 in jeans, t-shirts and dusty cowboy boots, looking like they'd been playing night and day and just couldn't be happier about it.

Youth's unstoppable energy and optimism is what I saw in them. And I also envied their confidence in their musicianship.

She played the Winfield festival a few years later with Blue Night, a band that included her brother, Troy Gilchrist. But the show I remember was even later when she played mandolin and sang with "Danger In the Air," a throttle-to-the-floor band.

Gilchrist then drifted off my radar but not out of the music business, on a long road from her musical roots in Southlake, Texas, to her current home in Santa Fe, N.M.

But one day on the Cafe I read the news about Peter Rowan and Tony Rice shuffling the quartet and adding Gilchrist to the stage, with their veteran bass player Byrn Davies.

Rowan and Rice are multi-dimensional musical legends, who for various reasons, have earned a place on the Mountain, high up, close to names such as Monroe, Stanley, Flatt, Scruggs, Martin, Osborne and McReynolds.

Gilchrist is out of the quartet and working on new endeavors now.

But she, too, has notched a permanent place in bluegrass history because she earned a spot on stage with two legends and recorded some classic songs with them for the Rowan and Rice Quartet album.

What's it like up on the Mountain?

"There have been moments on stage where I can recognize the tones and sounds from listening to both artists for many, many years," Gilchrist said. "These are tones and sounds that have shaped the history of bluegrass and the genre itself. It's certainly surreal at times to hear myself as part of the mix whether live or in the studio. Then, there's just the music—regardless of who it is on stage. It's the best of singing and songwriting and instrumental work."

Gilchrist started playing on stage with the quartet in January, 2005. They recorded the album in February of 2006, and it was released in January of 2007.

I like her mandolin playing on the album because it's clean and clear, always adding to the music but never interfering with Rowan's singing or Rice's lead and rhythmic-fills guitar work.

She's a player, with players who prefer spontaneous improvisation rather than rehearsed sameness, and they have the talent to pull it off.

"Peter and Tony kept me on my toes at all times," Gilchrist said. "There were never set lists or rehearsals. I met Tony onstage at my first appearance with them. Even though a lot of the material is repeated, there's always something new. Tony once told me he never minded playing the same songs because he always finds something new to play. Peter seems to reinvent the music every night somehow. That spontaneity is one of his greatest strengths as a musician and performer."

Now, envision yourself walking on stage with Rowan and Rice, your mandolin slung over your shoulder.

There's a small percentage of our Mandolin Cafe readers who wouldn't feel a bit of pressure or nervousness.

But the rest of us?

"I accepted the challenge gratefully," Gilchrist said. "The pressure was there. Eventually, it would come and go as I became more comfortable. Regardless, it's uncomfortable.

But that discomfort is a positive sign of change and growth.

"The temptation is to think there is a right or perfect way to play. I learned what to me is a more true form of musicianship: not thinking about it, and instead really listening and playing what I hear in the moment.

"Once you are thinking about what you are playing, you are lost. By simply listening and playing what I hear, I am creating my own sound. Accepting that sound as is—this is what makes me happy and excited about music. Then the sound is free to evolve and grow from there. And it does. It's an adventure from there."

I saw the Rowan and Rice Quartet a couple of times with Davies (who is also a wonderful, dynamic player and singer). But I did not catch the combo with Gilchrist, to my great regret. I hope for a live album release someday. She knows of none in the works.

And I also wondered what it was like to leave your mandolin mark on some songs that are so valued, almost sacred, in the bluegrass songbook. Gilchrist takes Bill Monroe's mando chores over on "Walls of Time." She holds down David Grisman's spot on "Midnight, Moonlight"

The latter song being a '70s acid-grass classic that so many of us have long loved and played often in various bands and jams.

You can stand out on the Winfield road through the Pecan Grove at 4 a.m. and hear "Midnight" wafting from a campfire jam with a stoked-up singer playing it like it was his last day on earth. The song brings back a lot of memories for many people.

"Midnight, Moonlight" is a song I've played in bands all my life," Gilchrist said. "In truth, I had to play it so much, I finally refused to play it anymore. But then it was a bit humbling to play it with Peter.

"I fell in love with it once I experienced Peter's sense of the song. It comes from a very hopeful place."

Hope and the beauty of music in people's lives is what stood out to me when I first saw Gilchrist years ago picking around for fun as a kid at Winfield.

It's still there for her, even after she's stood in the "Moonlight, Midnight."

"Tony insisted on recording that song for the album," Gilchrist said. "He thought we played that song better than any others. Because of it's popularity we all questioned the decision. It may be the best track on the album.

"Bryn plays walking bass lines throughout Tony's solo. It builds a tension that finally gets released into the last verse. I walked into such a cool and well-developed sound that Bryn and Tony created in the rhythm section. It took me a while to find my place there. Through the recording process I began hearing ways to play off of both of them. I think this track—"Midnight, Moonlight"—is where this approach started coming together for me.

"It was a sound that evolved after the album that is distinctive in the Quartet—this mad, percolating rhythm section with all sorts of improv inside it. Not a typical bluegrass band.

"Midnight, Moonlight" is probably the most intense song in the Quartet. I find I am always completely immersed in the music of this song. No thoughts. And then there is the joy of the crowd which is quite beautiful."

Fast facts for Sharon Gilchrist fans:

Her mandolin: A 1991 Gilchrist (no relation), custom made for someone else. Patterned after a red-sunburst Lloyd Loar, except x-braced, spruce top and curly maple back and sides. Has a Tree of Life inlay pattern copied from a teens Gibson.

"Tony told me I should never get rid of this mandolin. I love it for its pure, bell-like tone. There is a clarity that I have yet to find anywhere other than Gilchrist. Mine in particular is very even in tone from the bass to the high end. The high end is very deep in tone.

Coming up: Currently recording a new solo album in the Frogville Records in Santa Fe with engineer Bill Palmer. Release date is mid-summer and will be available at www.frogvilleplanet.com and CD Baby.

Onstage sampler: Performing with Peter Rowan at the Tulluride Bluegrass Festival on June 20. With Bryn Davies at Northwest String Summit in North Plains, Ore., July 18-20. On tour with KC Groves in August. Various other workshops.

Website: not yet, working on it. But she keeps her MySpace page updated with tour, workshop and music release information.

Also planning: some solo shows and plans to play in the Santa Fe area with Ben Wright, guitar; Abe Streep, fiddle, and Ezra Bussmann, dobro, banjo, mandolin and fiddle. Look for them at the Taos Solar Fest.

"I just landed my first film-scoring job for a film short called, "Milagros". I am very excited about this. I've been accompanying a song writer and film-score wizard here in New Mexico named Donald Rubenstein.

For Winfield fans: "I went to Winfield every year from 1979 to 1991.

I am a veteran!

"I haven't been back since, kind of breaks my heart. I hope to get back."

Reads the Cafe: "Sure. This site is such a great resource. I go to it to find out the latest new from time to time and when I want to look up a factoid it proves quite handy."

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