Here’s a transcript from my recent interview with improvisational bluegrass band Pickford Sundries:
Tampa’s merchants of improvisational bluegrass are Jason “Fil” Pate, mandolin; Tug Winthrop, Dobro (resonator guitar) and vocals; Tony Caruso, guitar and vocals; Brian Lane, upright bass; and Fred Donovan, guitar and vocals.
Formed: July 2006
Why they named their band after the beloved, defunct general store, which still has the bare bones of a storefront on Hillsborough Avenue near Armenia Avenue in Tampa.
Tug: I’ve been in Tampa since ’89, back when it was open. I really liked the quaintness of the place and the folks who ran it. I kind of thought it fit us – obsolete and sort of hanging in there. It’s also the cheapest billboard in town.
What’s the ratio of originals to covers?
Fred: Depends on the night. Sometimes we play a whole set of pretty much originals. Sometimes we mix it up with some originals and some covers. You have to remember a cover tune for us can take on a life of its own. … We get into some jazzy progressions. The idea is that we start out with that chord structure and then on top of that build whatever we want to and it’s whatever we do on that night. You never know what’s going to happen when we start. It’s both scary and exciting at the same time.
Jason: We play off the room, too. It makes a difference if people are sitting or talking or asking for requests.
Fred: It’s really an improvisational-based band, is what it is.
Tony: A lot of freedom to explore.
Too much improvisation can be tedious. How do you balance things out?
Tug: Sometimes we have to pull it back in.
Fred: We start out with a melody and end with a melody but in between it’s a free for all.
Tug: If we have a long instrumental, we’ll try to sandwich that a short sort of vocal song before and after to keep up the audience interested.
Asked about whom they cover, they’re all over the map. They name everyone from Peter Rowan and Bill Monroe to Bob Dylan, Miles Davis and Led Zeppelin. Their backgrounds are just as diverse.
Fred: I think we have a mixture of training, but the one important thing is that we don’t have any prima donnas. Nobody is like a star.
Tug: Except for Fred!
Fred: Everybody is focused on what the other guy’s doing. Music is a team sport. We’re trying to create our own sound and feed off each other.
Tony: Brian, Tug and I played together in River Cove Ramblers. We played together at Four Green Fields, New World Brewery and Caprice Island Bistro. As bands do, they kind of dissipate and evolve into other things. Tug and Fred went to school together. We’re all three engineers.
Fred: Tug and I went to Georgia Tech. We graduated 13 years ago. My wife was friends with Tony and his friends at USF about 15 years ago.
Tony: 20! Ironically, I met Tug through work not through that connection. The other connection would be the Bluegrass Parlor Band – Jeff Jones and Tom Henderson. Tom plays music on WMNF. They had 35-year-old establishment and Jeff helped us find Jason. … He had put a note on the bulletin board.
Jason: I was making calls to see who plays bluegrass in the area. … I went down there and jammed with them one night. I just wrote “seeking bluegrass” and now look what happened.
Tug: It’s a tragic story. … Jason is one of the better musicians in the band. He has a wide range of influences and brings all types of stuff. We call it going down the rabbit hole with Jason.
Jason: I remember asking them what they were looking for and they said they were wide open. … The jazz aspect that we do is to keep it non-repetitive. It’s a little more interesting of a show. We get to have way more dynamics and the audience, it seems, has a better listening to them.
You respect traditional bluegrass, too?
Fred: Yes. There’s a difference between playing at a bluegrass festival, where it’s the straight bluegrass crowd and you’re kind of a missionary preaching it to people who don’t normally listen to it. We have respect for traditional bluegrass music. It’s a beautiful American art form. They have rules and you have to follow them.
Tug: That’s one of the last crowds that will sit and listen quietly to people play and applaud when you take a break. They’re very knowledgeable of the instruments, the history behind them and the people who play them and they’ll recognize the style you play in. You cannot disrespect a crowd like that. I mean, that’s a disappearing crowd. They’re really aging and dying off. Those festivals are getting smaller. We definitely tip our hats to those folks.
Fred: We listen to a lot of old-time, straight bluegrass – Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, and Flatt and Scruggs.
Tug: Bluegrass is compared to a tree a lot of times, with a lot of different branches, big and wide with a lot of things underneath it. It’s a very broad musical art form and has its camps and it’s very regional. You can go out west out to Denver and up in the mountains of Colorado or the northwest of California, that’s a very progressive sort of bluegrass. But if you go to West Virginia, that’s going to be a very traditional form. Carolinas are known for banjo players. Every part of the country has a different flavor and spice and a particular crowd. It gets mixed up a bunch …
Fred: I came from a popular regional straight bluegrass band, the Dog River Boys (1998-2005). Jason came from Western North Carolina, where traditional bluegrass first really blossomed in addition to the coal mining areas of Kentucky, so he knows how to play it straight just as anybody in town.
Jason: Bill Monroe said learn how to play it then find your own sound, your own approach. It’s very different from classical, where you want to play with the same feel every time note for note.
Tug: He blended black blues, gospel singing in church and Scots Irish fiddle melodies. That was his particular twist where he carved a niche out of blending the seams of the American melting pot.
Fred: And the instruments are from all over the world. The banjo is from Africa. The mandolin is from Italy. The guitar is originally from Spain. The steel string guitar is a German instrument. The upright bass is definitely a German instrument. The Dobro is entirely American …
Tug: But invented by a couple of Czechoslovakian brothers!
Fred: Bill Monroe put it together, set up a structure for it and asked everybody to have fun with it.
Tony: Hence the connection to the Sundries.
Tug: That’s true. It’s the perfect name for what we’re doing.
Fred: We love Tampa. It’s like bluegrass and our band. It fits. It’s a cosmopolitan town with a lot of different folks in it, like us.
Tug: There’s a 40-year history of bluegrass in this town. Tom Henderson is a local bluegrass patriarch that kept everything together and kept passing information and the local radio show going and the shop and lessons, so he kept the art form going.
Fred: Tom Henderson and Jeff Jones made what we’re doing now possible.
Fred: If people are local and don’t want to have to drive too far and want to attend a music festival that includes a lot of great traditional and progressive bluegrass, they should go to Riverhawk in Dade City.
Tug: It’s coming up Nov. 6-8.
Tony: It’s at the Sertoma Youth Ranch. There’ll be 4-5,000 people there and after hours, people walk around with their instruments and start impromptu jams around the campfires.
What do you think of the Avett Brothers?
Tug: I think they’re good songwriters. They have some nice harmonies as brothers. I like them, I enjoy them. It’s a different angle than where we’re coming from but again it’s a big tree. They have a lot of energy and a very good following. They have a lot of tongue and cheek lyrics that are really funny.
Fred: In bluegrass, you can either play or you can’t. We don’t have any effects on our guitars. There are no delays or distortions. There’s no laptop with a drum machine on it. It has to be pure. If you’re going to play bluegrass, if you’re going to step in there and pick, then you have to know what you’re doing. You have to be able to play. You can’t cover it up with any modern effects.
Brian: There are no shortcuts.
Tony: It’s very humbling.
Fred: It scares a lot of people going into it, but it’s absolutely rewarding. You learn a lot about music going down the bluegrass path.
How do you balance personal life and band stuff?
Tug: You’re going to need another notebook!
Fred: It really hasn’t been a problem for any of us except for Tug (loud laughter).
On Brian’s illustrious past with Slobberbone:
Tug: Brian played with Slobberbone, which was a cow punk/alt-country band, for 10 years. He toured all over the world. There’s all kinds of stuff on him on YouTube.
Fred: How many states did you play gigs in, Brian?
Brian: 31 and 10 or 11 different countries overseas.
Fred: We Googled Slobberbone one night and Craig Kilborne show and there’s Brian coming out on Craig Kilborne’s show. They played all over Europe – Belgium, Germany. Slobberbone was a huge alt-country success out of Texas. He’s from Denton, Texas.
Julie: (To Brian) So, you know the guys in Centro-Matic (also from Denton)? They got started with their following here, opening up for you guys at Skipper’s Smokehouse.
Brian: I met my wife at that gig.
Brian: About five years … then I got divorced. That’s why I’m playing with these guys. My schedule is wide open!
Pickford Sundries play their first gig at Smoke on Platt Street in Hyde Park on Friday, Oct. 10.