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."
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.)
There was also a practical side to jamming with musicians closer to the couple's Echo Park home. Even just getting Heinle, who formerly lived in Long Beach, over for a jam session during 5 o'clock traffic proved tricky. "Old-time is more of an oral music tradition, so learning the music [requires] that time playing together," Martin says. (Heinle and his wife eventually rented a home directly behind Guzman and Martin's duplex.)
That improvisational core of old-time music has turned the band's monthly open jams at the 1642 Beer and Wine bar near Echo Park into a draw for novice old-time musicians like 26-year-old Nick Bachman. "I always wanted to play the banjo, it has this mysticism about it, but no one young was really doing old-time music in Minneapolis," says Bachman, a television animator who moved to Los Angeles from Minnesota last year. "Here, there seemed to be a newer old-time scene to get into that [Triple Chicken Foot] was leading."
The band's biggest event of the year is still the Los Angeles Old Time Social, a three-day event in May immediately preceding the Topanga folk event. Guzman, Martin and Heinle modeled the festival after the Portland Old-Time Gathering, complete with old-time music concerts, master musician workshops and a Saturday night square dance. "We wanted to do something that focused solely on old-time music but was less structured than Topanga," Martin says. (The motto of the local event is "old-time is a good time.")
As Heinle notes, there was also a practical -- and social -- side to hosting a multi-day festival. "We had all these [old-time musician] friends who wanted to come to L.A., but not for just a one-day event in Topanga," he says. Now in its seventh year, the festival draws both traditional musicians such as Walter Spencer and newer bands like the Driftwood Singers, an L.A.-based duo (Kris Hutson on strings, vocalist Pearl Charles on autoharp) whose original songs are based on old-time and folk music traditions.
But as every good fiddler knows, having a really good time depends on more than just the musicians. "The old-time music Triple Chicken Foot plays is made for dancing," says 53-year-old Susan Michaels, who has been calling square and contra dances in the L.A. area for more than 25 years (in contra dancing, dancers stay in a line rather than forming a four-couple square).
After attending the Los Angeles Old Time Social, Michaels suggested a square dance collaboration in order to reach a younger audience. "In the contra dancing tradition that I come from, 'squares' are considered what the old folks do," she says. "But the people who come to hear Triple Chicken Foot are much younger, in their 20s and 30s, and they just open up to the music and dancing."
Guzman says the do-si-do reception at the first few dances was slow, but recently, more than 100 people have attended dances held at alternative concert spaces such as HM157 and the Echo in Echo Park.
Like many attendees, Crystal Lee, a 32-year-old vintage clothing retailer, says she first heard of Triple Chicken Foot and the square dances on the social networking site Facebook. "Their music is just good, old-timey wholesome fun," says the Long Beach resident, adding that she was also drawn to the physical aspect of square dance socializing that the Internet lacks. "The square dances give Angelenos a chance to actually touch each other's hands, something that never happens today when people won't even look at each other [when they pass] on the street anymore."
Michaels credits young, enthusiastic attendees like Lee, who attend square dances without what Michaels' calls preconceived "hillbilly" notions, as instrumental players in L.A.'s old-time music revival. "It's much more like the community barn dances in Appalachia 100 years ago, just people drinking and having fun, than any other square dances I call," she says.
That's good, old-fashioned mountain music news to Guzman, Martin and Heinle's ears.
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Showing plenty of urban pluck
Here are upcoming old-time music performances, including the Los Angeles Old Time Social, where numerous bands will perform. Check Triple Chicken Foot's website ( www.triplechickenfoot.com) and the L.A. Old Time Social website ( www.oldtimeisagoodtime.com) for new shows and updated information.
Ongoing: Triple Chicken Foot hosts an open jam for old-time musicians at 1642 Beer and Wine bar near Echo Park the first Thursday of every month, 8 to 11 p.m. 1642 W. Temple St., (213) 989-6836. Free and open to the public. The next jam is March 1.
Tuesday, 9 to 11 p.m. Square Dance at the Pointe Education & Conference Center, Cal State University Long Beach, 1250 N. Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach. $10 cover. www.csulb.edu/divisions/students/housingconference_services/the_point e/directions.htm
March 15, 7 p.m. to midnight. Fundraiser performance for the West Hollywood Bicycle Coalition, Little Bar, 757 S. La Brea Ave., (323) 937-9210, www.littlebarlounge.com. For information, wehobike.org.
March 17, 8 p.m. Square dance at the Eagle Rock Center for the Arts, 2225 Colorado Blvd., (323) 226-1617, www.centerartseaglerock.org.
April 6, 9 p.m. Performance at Echo Country Outpost with Scott McDougall, 1770 Glendale Blvd., Echo Park, (323) 667-9606, echocountryoutpost.com.
April 14, 8 p.m. Square Dance at HM157, 3110 N. Broadway, Lincoln Heights, email@example.com, www.thechurchoffashion.com. $10 cover.
May 17 to May 19. Los Angeles Old Time Social. Performances by numerous bands, workshops and a Saturday night square dance led by Triple Chicken Foot. Various times, cover charges and locations throughout Los Angeles. www.oldtimeisagoodtime.com.
May 20, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest & Festival with performances by Triple Chicken Foot and other bands, square dancing and competitions, www.topangabanjofiddle.org. Tickets $11 adults, $9 ages 10 to 17 and 65 and older.