Pickin' on the Classics

Charleston City Paper | September 30, 2006
There aren’t an awful lot of popular comparisons between Bill Monroe, the patriarch of bluegrass music, and Johann Sebastian Bach, prolific Baroque composer and musician. Yet, Steel String Theory manage to blend the music of the two, reminding astute listeners of the striking similarities between the fiddle and the violin.

While two members of Steel String Theory hail from Greenville, S.C., they’re officially based out of Weaverville, N.C., where they relocated after college in order to be close to Asheville, the epicenter of Carolina bluegrass music. S.C. natives Chris Chamberlain and Philip Barker, who have been playing music together since high school, split the vocal duties, with Chamberlain on guitar and Barker on mandolin. Bassist Ben Edwards rounds out the trio, although guest musicians are frequently invited to sit in with the band, adding the piquant tones of dobro, fiddle, and banjo to the band’s spicy sound.

For Chamberlain, whose musical background includes formal training in jazz and classical composition and performance, the appeal of bluegrass is much broader than its own genre. His love affair is with acoustic, rather than simply bluegrass, music.

“It’s easy to put together an electric band and hide behind distortions and drum sets, but when you take all that away, it’s a more organic type of music,” Chamberlain says.

He and his bandmates relish the raw sounds of steel string picking, as well as vocal and instrumental harmonies. They also focus heavily on the composition of their songs, producing highly-technical cutting-edge tunes that allow for improvisation, but don’t necessarily rely on it.

“Improvisation is such a big part of bluegrass, but we really focus on the craft of song composition,” Chamberlain says. “We craft each of our tunes to be an independent piece.”

While he’s a bluegrass musician taking cues from classical, rock, and jazz, Chamberlain points out that there are modern classical musicians, including Edgar Meyer and Yo-Yo Ma, who are flirting with folk and bluegrass music in their own classical arrangements. Other bluegrass artists, like banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck, have taken traditional bluegrass instruments and infused the sound into different genres. For example, Fleck’s band, The Flecktones, produces a rich, progressive, funky jazz. The fact is bluegrass, which is often regarded simply as country music’s backwoods cousin, is actually an amalgamation of myriad manifestations of acoustic music.

“It’s oftentimes overlooked, but bluegrass is a hybrid of classical and blues,” says Chamberlain. “It’s a lot of classical, blended with blues and folk, that’s been embellished.”

Steel String Theory pay tribute to all these types of acoustic music, from classical, to jazz and blues, to folk and bluegrass, on its recently released album, The North Buncomb Years, which is a more mellow follow-up to the band’s 2004 debut, Curve in the Road. It is easy to forget the band’s weighty influences and simply kick back and groove to the album’s full-bodied sounds. Yet, for a more complete experience, a listener should engage in listening to the complicated melodies and intricate counterpoints, envisioning not a three-piece acoustic band, but instead a tiny orchestra.

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Founded in 1997, the locally owned and operated City Paper is Charleston's only weekly alternative newspaper and the second-largest publication in the metro Charleston area. Reaching a strong mix of active, affluent locals and tourists, the City Paper has thrived...
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