When the Texas Sheiks assemble on the stage of the Freight & Salvage on Saturday, December 12, it will be a bittersweet occasion. Geoff Muldaur created this Americana supergroup in 2008 to help his friend, Stephen Bruton, deal with the stress of his regimen of chemotherapy. Bruton, who made his reputation as Kris Kristofferson's lead guitarist, had been diagnosed with terminal throat cancer. Muldaur hoped a recording project would take Bruton's mind off of his impending death. With Bruton on board, Muldaur assembled a studio band for a recording session that would explore the intersection of folk, blues, country, swing, ragtime, jug band, and mountain music.
One of the first people Muldaur enlisted for the project was Berkeley's Suzy Thompson. Her deep knowledge of American folk music in all its various permutations has made her one of the nation's most respected traditional fiddlers. The two first met twenty years ago at a music party that Thompson and her husband, guitarist Eric Thompson, hosted. "He's always interested in hearing new music from the early days of recording," she said about Muldaur from her Berkeley home. "I feed him stuff I dig up and I've sat in with him when he comes to town, and I was honored that he asked me to sit in."
Per Muldaur's request, Thompson contributed a list of possible songs to play during the session. But when they got together — along with Jim Kweskin of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, the group that first brought Muldaur into the national spotlight — they didn't rehearse or make any decisions about what to play. "When we got to Austin, we just sat down in the studio and started playing and something really clicked," said Thompson about the group, which also features Dobro-player Cindy Cashdollar (one of Thompson's musical heroes), multi-instrumentalist and singer Johnny Nicholas, and stand-up bassist Bruce Hughes. "Magic happened. It was the easiest, most fun, and most musically satisfying session I'd ever been on. Everyone was an excellent musician with a passion in their playing. All of them have a strong individual identity, but they all serve the music, unlike pop musicians who often make the music serve them."
Meanwhile, Bruton was fighting for his life. "One day he left after the recording to drive to Dallas for chemo, then drove all the way back to play another session that night," said Thompson. "He was tired, but not a whiner. You could see he was glad to be playing and the music provided some positive distraction for him." Bruton's understated virtuosity is one of the quiet joys of the Texas Sheiks. He also added some tasty mandolin picking to "Yellow Dog Blues" and "Cairo." Bruton died soon after these sessions in May, but his playing lives on, giving the album the sound of a loose, freewheeling, front-porch gathering of longtime friends.
Part of that quality is due to the recording process. "We sat in one room and recorded the old-fashioned way," said Thompson. "Stephen may have added a few overdubs, but most of the tunes were cut the same way the old-time bands we love made music, everyone playing live together. We could all see each other; we could even smell each other." The group didn't rehearse at all but just worked out the arrangements as they went along. "Cindy and I were able to get into an almost telepathic thing and worked out unison and harmony parts on the fly that sounded like we'd been playing together for years."
Thompson says it's the best album she's ever made — as well as the first time she made a record without prior rehearsals. In fact, besides Muldaur and Kweskin, she hadn't even met the other players before. "I've played on records where it's all overdubbing and no interaction," she said. "This was the exact opposite." Muldaur and Hughes, who produced Texas Sheiks, managed to preserve the energetic, spontaneous feel of the session. Eric Thompson is going to play guitar at the Freight gig, but Suzy says "nobody can fill in for Steve."
For Thompson, playing with Kweskin at the Freight will also mark a full circle in her career. In 1973, just days after first arriving in Berkeley, she saw Kweskin play a solo concert at the Freight. "It changed my life," she said. "I'd come out here to take a year off of college before going back to finish, and it became a lifetime of playing music and not going to college." Thompson, who had been playing guitar since age ten, also took violin lessons, which she says she "hated intensely." "It didn't occur to me that you could play by ear and have fun," she said. "I guess top-notch classical musicians have a ball playing, but in folk music you can have a good time even if you're not that good."