California Pickers: Butch Waller

| January 12, 2012 | 1 Comment

Northern California is rife with traditional bluegrass. In this writer’s opinion, there are two reasons for that: Vern and Ray, and Butch Waller’s band High Country.

Formed in 1968, Waller has never strayed from the roots that Bill Monroe created and nurtured back in the ‘40’s with his band’s sound. This is what Bluegrass Unlimited had to say about High Country, “…one of the lonesomest, hard-drivingest traditional bluegrass bands alive…High Country manages to be fresh and exciting without even the merest nod to modern music.”

While this article is about Butch Waller, you can’t tell his story without including references to High Country. They are one and the same.

Butch Waller

Henry ‘Butch’ Waller is a former student and now practitioner of the Monroe style of mandolin and bluegrass. Aggressive downbeats drive many of his solos with raw energy, while his backbeat is light and tone-laden, crispy and tight. His maniacal-yet-right tremolo reminds me more of Everett Lily than Monroe, but I’d guess Everett was trying to get Bill’s sound, too.  He is the owner of a Lloyd Loar F-5, but seems to prefer his Stan Miller these days (I’d probably play a Takamine before removing my Loar from the fireproof safe! And no, I don’t have a Loar).

Now, I never jammed with Everett, but unlike Lily, Waller is quite comfortable on single-note melodies done at break-neck speeds. His versions of Turkey in the Straw and Paddy on the Turnpike will literally make your hair stand on end.

Here he and fellow Monroe-phile Frank Wakefield jam on Bill’s Roanoke.

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In addition to his inimitable playing, Butch Waller can pen a tune. He has written numbers that have gone on to become festival parking lot jam standards: Blues for Your Own, Who’s that Knockin’ at My Door?, and the quintessential bluegrass ocean heartbreak song, A Voice On The Wind, usually credited to Tim O’Brien, whose cover of the song brought it to national attention. The instrumental, Butch’s Blues, from their most recent release Perfect Companions is so Monroe’y you’d almost think Bill himself wrote it. I find this to be impressive in these modern times where your Jesse Brock’s and Matt Flinner’s seem to be all the rage at ‘the World’ of Bluegrass Conference (I am a fan of both, but I digress).

High Country has released nine LP records, some of them released as CD’s and others no longer in print. The singularity amongst them all is their quality. Start to finish these albums are solid. Waller always emerges from recording studio with the ‘band’ sound, and it is typically unapologetic, hardcore, traditional bluegrass.

High Country is 6 years away from their 5th decade together as a band, and Butch is still leading the way. In addition to being a wonderful musician, songwriter and bandleader, Butch is a great guy and a proud father. He is quiet but friendly, quick to share a laugh, and a helluva a guy to be able to turn to on stage when it’s time to hand out a solo. You know he’ll be ready for the meaningful look, and you also know that you’re going to get one of the best breaks you’ve ever heard.

Butch Waller is one of the Golden State’s true treasures, and Northern California’s favorite son when it comes to the sacred bluegrass music.

Drop by the High Country website and pickup one of their fantastic CDs.

David Thom

Based in Sonoma, California, David Thom is the guitarist and front man for the David Thom Band, as well as mandolinist for the Flatt and Scruggs Tribute Band and Grandpa Banana’s Band.

He also runs his own IT consulting business, SonomaComputerPro.com.

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