by Carol Rumpf
edited by Caroline Wright
From bluegrass now, June 2002
"WOW! Who ARE those guys in that Cingular Wireless commercial?!?"
Folks who have heard the attention-getting commercials on national television have been asking this question for weeks now. You've probably heard them, too, without knowing who was playing that great music --- in cartoons, movie and TV soundtracks, advertisements, and back-up bands galore. The list seems endless.
Now it's time to meet Dennis Caplinger and John Moore, best friends and principals in Bluegrass Etc., a working band they founded as teenagers over 25 years ago. Over the years, Bluegrass, Etc. has become well known in the western United States, very popular in Europe --- but this band remains relatively unknown to many East Coast bluegrassers. How can that be? Here is their story.
Lincoln Junior High School in Vista, California has at least one claim to fame: it has produced three super bluegrass musicians. Both John Moore and Dennis Caplinger went to school there, as did fiddler extraordinaire Stuart Duncan. John and Stuart even played together in a band called the Pendleton Pickers. In fact, this region of southern California has produced some of today's best-known bluegrass musicians. Besides Dennis, John, and Stuart, Alison Brown, Ron Block, Chris Hillman, Chris Thile, and Sean and Sara Watkins all hail from the same immediate area.
One weekend, Dennis attended a banjo-fiddle contest in Vista, hooking up with John, playing mandolin, and his sister Julee on rhythm guitar. The three wound up playing on stage later that day. "It was a huge thrill for me because John and Julee were very good," recalls Dennis. "Julee played great rhythm and their singing was really tight. I was blown away." It was the beginning of an alliance that has lasted to this day. "When we started playing together everything seemed to jell musically," he remembers.
Through the early 1980s, Bluegrass Etc. rose to prominence in the western U.S. where they made a steady living playing bluegrass festivals, clubs, concerts and all the major amusement parks in Southern California. They enjoyed a 10-year running contract with Sea World in San Diego. In 1987, they took a hiatus from Sea World to fulfill a 4-month contract with Tokyo Disneyland in Japan. When Julee left the gig early to accept a "real job" in southern California, John, Dennis and Mike Craig (their bassist at the time) finished out the contract as a trio. Dennis and John decided they really liked this three-person configuration, and Bluegrass Etc. has performed primarily as a trio ever since.
In the last decade of the 20th century, the band built a strong fan base on the West Coast. Dennis and John were, and still are involved in other high-profile musical projects, both on the road and in the studio. Dennis toured with and produced country artist Jann Browne, and spent time on the road with singer/songwriters Kevin Welch and Kelly Willis. He played on numerous soundtracks, including Back to the Future III, El Diablo, Rio Diablo, and Steven King's Apt Pupil, as well as The Simpsons, Animaniacs, Hysteria, Pinky and the Brain, and various programs for A&E, the History Channel, TNN and PBS. His music is heard on many television commercials, including the ad for Discover Card with John Lithgow. Dennis also produces and performs on the popular "Pickin' On" tribute series for CMH records, including Pickin' On Led Zeppelin, Pickin' On ZZ Top, and Pickin' On The Rolling Stones. Byron Berline, Dan Crary, Richard Greene, Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen, Chris Thile, Sean Watkins and John Reischmann all sought out Dennis when they recorded albums.
John also kept busy with radio and TV commercials and movie soundtracks, including Blaze for Touchstone Pictures, El Diablo for HBO, Christmas in Connecticut (in which he also appeared) and The Spitfire Grill for Hallmark Hall of Fame. He appeared in the CBS television special The Legend of the Beverly Hillbillies, which he recorded with Roy Clark, Byron Berline and Earl Scruggs. He was a featured mandolinist/guitarist on Byron Berline's Grammy-nominated album Fiddle and a Song, along with Dennis, Vince Gill, Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Bill Bryson and others. He can be heard on Dan Crary's album Jammed If I Do, Chris Thile's Leading Off and Byron Berline's Jumping the Strings, and the Dan Crary and Lonnie Hoppers American Band project.
In the mid-'80s, John was asked to join the L.A. Fiddle Band, led by fiddle master Byron Berline. Within a couple of years a new ensemble evolved, consisting of members from the L.A. Fiddle Band, the power band Sundance, and the great bluegrass trio of Berline, Crary, and Hickman. The new group, called "California", consisted of Berline, John Hickman, Dan Crary, Steve Spurgin and John Moore. This immensely popular band swept the IBMA's Instrumental Group of the Year award three years in a row (1992, '93, and '94) before disbanding in 1997, much to the sorrow of their fans. The group is still heard occasionally in reunions; they'll reassemble this October, at the Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival.
In 2000, John and Dennis were joined by bassist Bill Bryson, a well-known musician they had worked with in the studio and on various gigs over the past 25 years. One of the legendary bass players in the L.A. country/bluegrass scene, Bill was a founding member of The Desert Rose Band and the Laurel Canyon Ramblers. He toured extensively with Chris Hillman (of the Byrds), Bernie Leadon (of the Eagles), the Bluegrass Cardinals, and Dan Fogelberg, a pop star whose bluegrass album High Country Snows was critically acclaimed. Bill's resume includes recordings with Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Glen Campbell, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Emmylou Harris and the Oak Ridge Boys. He has won two Grammys and has been nominated numerous times as the Academy of Country Music's Bass Player of the Year. His film credits include The Long Riders, Cannery Row, and Bound for Glory. "Bill is the consummate working musician," says John. "He fits in Bluegrass Etc. both personally and musically - he's a great singer, and a seasoned road warrior."
Workin' For A Living
Bluegrass Etc. is over 20 years old and still going strong, and the guys in the band are making a good living - Dennis is supporting a family of five! Why don't they appear regularly on the festival circuit, and especially on the East Coast?
John's response is enlightening. "The music industry is multi-faceted. The festival circuit, which is highly visible to bluegrass fans, is really only one facet of that industry. Through the years, we've played lots of festivals, mostly in the west and in Europe. But by virtue of where we are located geographically, we have found ourselves filling a niche in the industry that bluegrass musicians from other parts of the country may not have access to: the broad-based entertainment industry centered in and around Los Angeles."
Adds Dennis, "Southern California is the base of the motion picture industry and the home of many major amusement parks and resorts. It's also the center of the West Coast recording industry. Over the years, we've had contracts with virtually all of the amusement parks and resorts, and have worked in the L.A. studio scene extensively. There are quite a few festivals on the West Coasts of the U.S. and Canada that we play on a regular basis."
Both John and Dennis feel that their early days of playing at amusement parks has affected their presentation of bluegrass music in their shows. "Amusement parks like Disneyland and Sea World offered us good, steady long-term income in the formative years of the band," says John. "Six shows a day, six days a week not only kept our fingers limbered up, but we also had to do more than just stand out there and play. We learned how to bring the audience into the show and arrange a set of music that kept their attention."
Dennis agrees wholeheartedly, "When you're playing at the front gate of Disneyland or Knott's Berry Farm and management walks by, you'd better have a crowd of folks watching you and enjoying it! Otherwise, you're fired. We found ourselves in the unique position of having to convert people on the spot who were not familiar with bluegrass. If you think about the number of folks who walked through that gate every day, you realize that far more new folks were exposed to bluegrass there than would have ever found their way to a festival."
The European Connection
Through the years, John continued developing his skills in horsemanship and his reputation for teaching it, both in the U.S. and in Europe, where he does several seminars yearly. When John was still with California, the band toured Europe several times and he made some excellent contacts, which he was able to use when he wanted to book a European tour for Bluegrass Etc. "Things took off from there," he says. "Over the years, we've performed regularly in just about every country in Western Europe and a few eastern European countries, too, playing everything from concert halls to folk and bluegrass festivals. We had the honor of being the first bluegrass band to play in Ljubliana, Slovenia after the fall of the Iron Curtain. That was quite a culture shock!" As a result of all their tours overseas, Bluegrass Etc. has built an extensive fan base in Europe.
Dennis and John have mastered the art of arranging their European tours so that they are logistically and financially feasible. Dennis says, "One of the big things we've got going for us is that we are a trio. That cuts down on a lot of overhead - one less hotel room, a smaller rental van, one less airline ticket, less baggage, etc. After a lot of years of touring Europe, sometimes two or three tours a year over there, we've learned how to streamline things. We have a solid working formula with agents and promoters covering everything from sound systems and handling foreign currency to hotel rooms and work visas. It makes it easy for them and for us."
John adds, "We handle all our own booking domestically, and use a combination of agents overseas. Our agents see eye to eye with us on what is required to make a tour work. We're not doing this to take a vacation in Europe; it's business and it's got to be financially viable." He claims they've never missed a performance because of an inability to make a travel connection. "We've become possibly the best map readers on the planet!" he laughs.
Those who know them will attest to the mastery of numerous instruments by each of the talented men in this group. Asked about how they manage several instruments when traveling, John responded, "I play several instruments, but I travel with guitar and mandolin. Although Dennis will routinely bring 10 or 12 instruments to a session, when he's on the road with Bluegrass Etc., he travels with just banjo and fiddle. Bill is a great upright bass player, but he travels with electric bass for logistical reasons. He is also a great clawhammer banjo player, and he'll be doing some of that in our future shows as well."
It's been noted by more than a few of their fans that Bluegrass Etc. generates a much bigger sound than the average trio. John explains that the band's approach to their sound is affected by the smaller size of the group. "I find that I sometimes alter my style when I'm playing in this trio, versus a larger band. In a trio format without extra rhythm instruments, I might play closed position guitar chords in a percussive manner behind a particular solo of Dennis', as opposed to the way I might play if there were a mandolin chop going on." Or, John says, he might use open, sweeping mandolin chords behind Dennis' fiddle solo, to fill in where a rhythm guitar would be. "Bigger isn't always necessarily better," he explains, "and some of the most haunting, beautiful sounds of bluegrass are made with a single voice or a couple of instruments."
Dennis also feels that three can be a good, viable number when it comes to bluegrass. "When you play in a trio, in some ways, each member carries a little more weight on their shoulders. What you play really matters because each instrument is so exposed." He says this provides some exciting opportunities for experimentation. "I find myself a lot freer to explore different textures and styles while soloing, and especially while backing up the vocals." A true innovator, Dennis has perfected a technique whereby he makes a five-string sound just like a tenor banjo. This unique skill can be heard on "Bye, Bye Blues", from Traveling Band, the Sierra Records CD released in 1997.
A Most Cingular Sensation
Everybody's curious about that Cingular Wireless commercial, featuring a collection of a half-dozen excellent West Coast bluegrass pickers, hammering away magnificently on Beethoven's "Ode To Joy".
"I got the call from an L.A. ad agency for which I've done sessions for years, asking if I could put together a great bluegrass band for them for an upcoming national commercial," Dennis explains. "The problem was, they needed it the next day! For the guitar spot, I called John in Colorado and he started driving. I rounded up Bill to play bass, Herb Pedersen to play dobro, Kenny Blackwell to play mandolin and Gabe Witcher for fiddle. I thought I had it all put together, but then they called back and said they absolutely had to have a female fiddler!" I called Gabe back and broke the bad news, but he was very professional and graciously backed out. Then I called Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek and got her lined up. We cut the music in L.A. on Friday, played a bluegrass festival in Arizona on Saturday and Sunday and went back to L.A. for the video shoot on Monday. The commercial hit the air nationwide on all networks a week later!"
When asked if the making of this commercial was influenced by the popularity of the movie O Brother Where Art Thou?, Dennis replied "Absolutely. My understanding is that the initial concept for the commercial came about after an executive saw the movie." This commercial has fast become a great shot in the arm for bluegrass music. "I think it says something very positive about the growth in popularity of bluegrass music that a major U.S. corporation chose this form of music to advertise their product nationwide," John concurs.
Speaking of Nickel Creek, Bluegrass Etc. has become known as the band that influenced this wildly successful ensemble. "We've had the pleasure of knowing those kids since they were toddlers," John smiles. "Dennis and I were their first teachers. I gave Sean and Chris mandolin and guitar lessons, and Dennis taught Sara fiddle. Their families and mine were friends long before all the music started. A lot of good memories of horseback rides, camping, hunting, fishing and skiing go hand in hand with my enthusiasm for their current success. They are a monster band with an immense amount of talent, and I am proud of, and thrilled with their success in the music industry." He adds, "My only regret is that, back in the days when they were big-eyed kids hanging on every word I said, I didn't tell them to hold their instruments upside down, hold the pick between their toes and sing in Portuguese… so that we old pickers would still have a chance!"
"It still wouldn't have made any difference!" Dennis adds with a smile.
Both John and Dennis hope to do solo recording projects in the coming year; they're also recording the band's fourth album for Tricopolis Records. Their busy 2002 touring schedule includes the Rockygrass Bluegrass Festival and Academy, the Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival, the British Columbia Bluegrass Workshop and the Chilliwack Bluegrass Festival in British Columbia, among many others. Their complete schedule can be found at www.tricopolisrecords.com. Their 1999 Tricopolis CD, Home is Where the Heart Is, was chosen as one of the top 10 bluegrass albums of the year by the Chicago Tribune.
Dennis continues to stay busy, working in the studios of Southern California and performing with Bluegrass Etc. His banjo tablature book, Gospel Banjo, is available through Centerstream Publishing, and he is currently writing a series of four books for Time-Warner on playing banjo, fiddle, mandolin and guitar in a band context. He lives in Vista, CA with his wife Libby and their three children Melissa, Zachary and Rachael.
John lives in Cortez, Colorado with his wife Erika and their horse herd. He alternates Bluegrass Etc. gigs with a busy and lengthy worldwide touring schedule, conducting his horse-training seminars. John also teaches equine studies through San Juan Technical School in Southwest Colorado. He is currently completing a mandolin instruction book for Centerstream Publishing, and has just released a new book entitled Handbook of Horsemanship Concepts and Ground School Exercises, available through his website at www.johnmoore4horses.com.
In addition to playing with Bluegrass Etc., Bill Bryson performs with the Laurel Canyon Ramblers and stays busy in the L.A. studio scene. He lives with his wife Annie in Pasadena, CA.
So now you've heard the rest of the story. Bluegrass Etc. is a busy, hard-working band which over the years has perfected some pretty wonderful music. It's fresh and adventurous, expertly played and cheerfully delivered. Without a doubt, this band has found the key to success, and will be in it for the long haul.
Carol Rumpf was one of several founders of the Adirondack Bluegrass League of New York state, one of the oldest bluegrass clubs in the country. She is a retired hospital medical records coding specialist, and is Town Justice in her community when not engaged in her favorite pastime of chasing bluegrass musicians around, trying to get that ever-elusive story.