Back in the 1970s, when most teenagers could rattle off the titles of songs by Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, Bad Company and other rock 'n' roll bands, a 13-year-old named Evan Marshall had a different idol in music:
Chet Atkins, the revered, country-based guitar picker.
A classical violin student since the age of 7, Marshall saw Atkins performing one night on television, and the seeds were planted for a career as a solo mandolinist.
The Marshall family, living in San Gabriel, religiously watched PBS on Sunday nights, and Chet Atkins made a guest appearance with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops orchestra one evening in 1972.
"I was really taken by this guy's incredible guitar playing," said Marshall, who will debut his new quartet, the Bridges of Orange County, in Laguna Niguel tonight. "After [Atkins] played a few songs, he brought out his own guest. I don't remember his name, but he was a fiddle player, and he and Chet played the 'Orange Blossom Special,' backed by the Pops, and both my brother and I thought it was absolutely the greatest thing we'd ever heard," Marshall recalled recently over coffee and pastry.
"So I went out and bought a recording of the 'Orange Blossom Special,' and we heard through the grapevine that this fiddle music was part of a musical world called bluegrass."
When Marshall started high school the next year, he joined a folk music club and was turned on to the mandolin by a banjo-playing friend in their newly formed bluegrass band.
"When l went over to his house one afternoon, he had this little instrument hanging on the wall," recalled Marshall, "and I asked him, 'Wow, John, what's this little guitar?' He laughed, told me it was a mandolin and suggested I try playing it because it was tuned the same as a fiddle."
So he plucked a few strings, and that wide-eyed kid has never looked back.
"All of a sudden, playing bluegrass-style fiddle and mandolin was my new passion," said Marshall, who went on to earn a music degree in 1980 from Occidental College.
Now 37, Marshall has seen this passion bloom into a promising solo career highlighted by select concert appearances such as the annual Napa Valley Music Festival and three releases on the respected Rounder label. His latest, 1995's "The Lone Arranger," offers a remarkable tour de force of instrumental virtuosity, including both lightning-quick passages and subtler artistic touches.
His eclectic repertoire includes everything from popular American standards, numerous Beatles tunes and the theme from the "Godfather" to classical works, Spanish-flavored guitar pieces and Hungarian dances. In choosing outside material to shape into his own, Marshall holds himself to one rule--listen with "big ears."
"I believe you should never let your preconceived notions tell you what the music must be like or sound like," suggests Marshall, whose wacky side emerges when performing his day job with Billy Hill and the Hillbillies in Disneyland's Horseshoe Saloon. "Listen openly with big ears, and trust those big ears . . . .
"When I'm selecting songs to play or record, they have to stir my soul so I can play them with that same kind of passion. You challenge yourself. I don't want my versions to be any less emotionally satisfying than the originals."
Soft-spoken and affable, Marshall has gained prominence in the mandolin world for reviving the "duo" technique that was made famous in the early 1900s by the Italian legend, Giovanni Gioviale. This type of picking enables the mandolinist to play the melody and accompaniment at the same time. This is done by departing from the standard tremolo to pick the accompaniment or bass line, and then returning to the tremolo before the ear can discern any break in the melody line.
In effect, it sounds like two or three mandolins working at once. Or as Marshall aptly puts it: "It's a musician's sleight of hand."
Marshall debuts his brand-new quartet tonight at Shade Tree Stringed Instruments in Laguna Niguel. In two sets featuring plucked and bowed strings, Marshall will be joined in the group, Bridges of Orange County, by classical guitarist Eric Brenton, violinist Ann Brenton and bassist Barry Cogert.
"The Bridges of Orange County is a project to expand the audience for both myself and the mandolin," said Marshall. "We'll be playing classical works by Vivaldi, Hummel and Tarrega, some Christmas music and an Evan Marshall original. In the future, we'll probably play about 80% works of the classical masters, and about 20% worth of new and adventurous things."
It's heartwarming that Marshall's musical contributions have gained the attention and admiration of the key source of inspiration first seen on TV that Sunday evening long ago. In fact, Chet Atkins has praised Marshall as being "one of the few great musicians of our time."
"It's a tremendous compliment that he believes in me enough to say something like that," said Marshall, who three months ago moved back to San Gabriel from Yorba Linda with his wife, Beth, and their 21-month-old daughter, Julia. "I think it gives me a kick in the butt to never go into cruise control. . . .
"I'd like my work to remind people that music isn't just a frivolity, but a necessity for making life beautiful. I've been entrusted with carrying one of the mandolin torches, and I must do it responsibly and lovingly."
* Evan Marshall performs with the Bridges of Orange County tonight at Shade Tree Stringed Instruments, 28062 Forbes Road, Laguna Niguel. 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. $16. (714) 364-5270.