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CLASSICS WITH A BLUEGRASS TWANG

Crawfish Pie is your basic bluegrass band, with one minor exception: Its repertoire includes Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the William Tell Overture, and avant-garde guru John Cage’s iconoclastic “Four Minutes, 33 Seconds.”

Mixing the earthy twang of bluegrass with the sophisticated textures of orchestral standards is the brainchild of Scott Richardson. Guitarist, mandolin virtuoso, and sometime impresario, the 25-year-old San Diego State University music major is the mainspring of Crawfish Pie.

Sunday night, Richardson and his three bluegrass cohorts will perform at SDSU’s Sunday Evening Concert Series in Smith Recital Hall.

“Last season, when I was playing with the predecessor of Crawfish Pie, the Bandini Mountain Ramblers,” Richardson said, “we played our bluegrass transcription of Beethoven’s Fifth for one of the series’ programs, and the people ate it up. They went crazy.”

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And why would any self-respecting bluegrass band want to play symphonic classics?

“Maybe it’s because I’ve always been a Spike Jones fan,” Richardson said. “There’s something about breaking those taboos and thumbing my nose at the stuffy attitudes held by most classical music audiences. But I have yet to find someone who hasn’t really enjoyed what we do.”

When asked to cite the major challenge in transcribing classical music for a four-man bluegrass group, Richardson snapped: “We have no timpani.”

Regaining a serious demeanor, an attitude not entirely congenial to his disposition, he continued: “Of course, with only four players we can’t add all the instrumental colors we’d like to include. What we do is not an exact re-creation of classical pieces. We play the most important parts, the melody and harmony.”

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Richardson admitted that the group has tapped out a few percussion parts on its instruments from time to time. “And the trumpet call from the ‘William Tell Overture’ sounds great on the banjo,” he averred with total confidence.

Like Richardson, two other group members have classical backgrounds. Violinist Chris Vitas, a graduate of the UC San Diego music department, has played with the La Jolla Civic-University Orchestra, and SDSU graduate Frank Prater is equally proficient on acoustic and electric bass. Banjo player Don Ridgeway is pure bluegrass.

“As far as I know, there’s not another bluegrass group that does what we do,” Richardson said. “Most bluegrass musicians are not classically trained. They don’t read music, and they’re not familiar with classical repertoire.”

Crawfish Pie is named for the Cajun delicacy immortalized in the Hank Williams country-Western tune that begins: “Jambalaya, crawfish pie, file gumbo,” Richardson explained. Last summer, when the group was contracted to play five nights a week at Sea World, Richardson came up with the name Crawfish Pie because of its piscatorial connotation. Also, Sea World’s management had rejected his first suggestion--"Ray Manta and the Fins.”

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From time to time, Crawfish Pie has performed live on radio station KSON’s Sunday evening bluegrass program, but the group’s inventiveness has been tested more in performances for private parties.

When booked to serenade visiting Australian businessmen meeting at a Harbor Island hotel, Richardson called up San Diego Opera general director Ian Campbell for assistance. The Australian-born impresario lent him a recording of traditional Australian songs, which Crawfish Pie quickly learned. Affecting Australian accents and singing the likes of “Waltzing Matilda” with bluegrass harmonies, Richardson and his group passed themselves off as “The Boys from Melbourne.”

Richardson’s musical background is more eclectic than Crawfish Pie’s repertoire. After acquiring an A.A. degree in photography, he sold his equipment to enroll in the SDSU music program, where he is a vocal major. He plays guitar in the group, even though the mandolin is his favorite instrument and the one on which he is most proficient.

“You have to have a guitar at all times in bluegrass, and I’m the only one in the ensemble who played guitar,” he said.

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When Richardson was a high school student in Orange County, he picked up the bluegrass tradition from a banjo-playing classmate.

“He was from Oklahoma, and he taught me guitar so he would have someone to accompany him on banjo,” Richardson said. “Nobody else in our school listened to bluegrass--everyone was too busy listening to the Beach Boys--so we formed a group that ended up playing for the PTA and other school functions.”


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