California Report: Amy Scher, a Berkeley treasure

Amy Scher is a treasure of the Berkeley bluegrass, folk, and old time scenes. She plays great fiddle and sings with such passion, it leaves a lasting impression on all who’ve had the privilege of hearing her belt out a classic. She recently went on an extended stay to Nashville with duet partner Hailey Pexton to play music, meet new friends, and experience that scene.

Hi Amy. Tell us how you were first exposed to bluegrass.

I had a great group of friends in Flagstaff AZ who brought their instruments out at our gatherings and played bluegrass standards, Bob Dylan, and all kinds of things. It was so nice to hear, it inspired me to want to pick up the fiddle and play with them. When I witnessed total strangers get together at bluegrass jams and just start playing songs together, I was totally amazed and had to learn how to do that too.

 What instruments do you play?

I play the fiddle and also working on good solid rhythm guitar. 

Was your family musical when you were growing up?

Somewhat, yes…My mom was an active singer in the church choir, and my fairly large family would have gatherings where my aunt would play her acoustic guitar and we’d all sing along. I credit her with my first exposure to Mountain Dew at a very young age. My brother was a fantastic bass player and we were both in a band together for a couple of years when we were teenagers, which was a lot of fun. He was a good guitarist and drummer too, but these days he only plays a little here and there.

Ah, the crazy aunt syndrome. What other influences do you have?

My musical interests and influences vary quite a bit. Currently, my biggest fiddle influence is Chad Manning, who’s been my mentor for quite a few years now. He’s a huge inspiration and a great teacher. My favorite fiddle players right now are Jon Glik and Joe Meadows.

What is your approach to learn new material?

I listen a lot over and over and over, sometimes for days or weeks. I try to get the overall feeling of the song or tune and then focus on either the words or melody. Once I have the general feeling and idea ingrained into my being, I stop listening so obsessively and let it come out of me as it will. Sometimes, if I haven’t heard the original in a while, I go back to it to see how I may start to express it differently in my own way. 

Tell us about your duet with Hailey Pexton and the recent trip to Nashville.

My focus for the last year or so has mainly been on this duo project with Hailey, and we are both super excited to be exploring traditional bluegrass and country songs between the two of us, with the flexibility to have a whole band if we have a situation where it makes sense to do that. We love singing together, and it’s been fun and challenging to explore these songs vocally and with just two instruments. We both had some time this past winter, and decided to head out to Nashville for a couple months to hang out and play there, and meet new people and experience the music in a new place. We didn’t have any real set plans other than this, and we ended up having a blast, playing some gigs, jamming a ton, and recording some songs while we were there, as well as getting to see some of the most incredible live music on a very regular basis.

Have you adjusted your voice in any way to sing with Hailey?

I’m always trying to pay attention to how my voice sounds when I’m singing with others, both tonally and dynamically. If I’m singing harmonies, I do my best to adjust my phrasing and intensity to match the lead. With Hailey specifically, she and I just click in a way that I don’t have to think about it much generally and there’s some magic that happens on its own; but we do both hear things and make adjustments to get more in sync, both in phrasing and dynamics. 

I love that tune If You Ain’t Loving (Then You Ain’t Living), tell us how you found that?

We listen to a lot of music, and you just come across songs that are intriguing in the process, so when we find ones we like we learn them. 

Do you have any exciting shows or festival gigs coming up?

Yes! We are playing the Berkeley Bluegrass Festival on May 19 at the Freight and Salvage, and we’ll be teaching a singing workshop that day also as part of the festival. 

Do you have any recordings planned?

When Hailey and I were in Nashville, we recorded 6 bluegrass songs with a killer band, which I’m hoping will be finished up and released in the near future. Nate Leath is the producer, and also plays fiddle, along with Cory Walker on banjo, Mike Bub on bass, David Grier on guitar, and Hailey on mando. Hailey and I also are planning to do some more recording, likely more on the country side, in the near future.

Have you toured with any bands or have any good road stories?

Once while on a perimeter loop tour of the eastern half of the US with my good friend’s punk band, I had the great pleasure of climbing up onto the not-so-big roof of a five-story building in Pontiac, Michigan, and jumping on a giant trampoline up there with a great view of the city. The show was on the first floor of that building in the back of a natural foods market. We ended up sleeping on the concrete floor in the basement that night. Surely this is a metaphor for something important.

What interests you when you’re not playing music?

I love hiking, backpacking, cooking, gardening, and sewing. I’m most at peace in the woods, on a mountain. I have an alternate personality that’s a potter, but I’m not doing much work in clay these days. I work for a most excellent nonprofit solar training organization, doing curriculum development and teaching, and I do some freelance solar electric system design as well..

You’ve worked in smaller ensembles. Is that a preference?

I love a full, driving bluegrass band sound. However, I think there are a lot of traditional songs that have been adopted into the bluegrass style that came from a more “mellow” origin and I’m interested in getting to know that side of the genre.

What are some shows that are most memorable for you?

I am honored to have shared the stage at the Freight and Salvage with Laurie Lewis as part of the Lula Gals at the Berkeley Bluegrass Festival, and Bill Monroe’s Birthday Celebration in 2017. I’m equally honored to have joined Kathy Kallick and a great group of Handsome Ladies (as The Picks) last year as part of the annual Pickin’ on Hate benefit show. The festivals I have played that stand out the most are Vern’s stage at the California Bluegrass Fathers Day Festival, the Good Old Fashioned and the Parkfield Bluegrass Festival were especially fun. They had impeccable sound and a discerning knowledgeable audience. That last bit was also the most intimidating, and pushed me to work really hard to be the best I could be. 

Have you played other CBA events?

I’ve played on Vern’s Stage twice, three times, each time was with a different band; the first time I was so nervous that I didn’t think I would survive. It was, I think, only my third or fourth public performance ever with my fiddle, in a band. I also played the Presidential Suite showcase at the Great 48 in Bakersfield with Hailey this past January, which was a lot of fun.

Do you think the bluegrass old-time genres are being preserved and will continue to thrive?

Yes! There are so young people who are amazing players, and they have a genuine interest in the music… It’s not something they’re doing because their parents are making them! I think there’s a growing interest in acoustic traditional types of music as an accessible alternative to the exorbitant mainstream music scenes that currently exist. 

Can you share some techniques that have helped you?

I’ve found that playing and preparing a LOT ahead of time helps me tremendously, as well as remembering to breathe. Getting over my stage nerves was and still is a challenge, but making myself get out and do it as much as I can has also helped a ton. Listen and play as much as you can! 

What questions would you ask of your favorite artist or inspiration?

I would love to ask how they found the music style they are playing, and ask them what some of their challenges and struggles have been along the way. I would want to ask to hear their stories about how the instruments they play came into their life, and what their reasons were for choosing that particular instrument. I’m intrigued by musicians’ relationships with their instruments. I like to hear about this from players of current generations too!

Describe some of your challenges and struggles along your musical path and how you handled them.

One big struggle has been a mental one, where sometimes my negative inner voice gets the better of me and I feel terrible about my musical abilities. I’ve learned to put that voice aside by acknowledging it in the moment and setting it aside for later. It’s hard to do, but just being aware of it and consciously making a choice to not entertain it in the middle of a jam or performance helps it to calm a bit. I’ve also made myself take every opportunity I can to play with different people in different settings so that I’m more comfortable in unfamiliar circumstances. I’m playing music for enjoyment after all, and I love sharing music with others, so I don’t want the negative voice to prevent that from happening. 

Another struggle has been learning to play the fiddle with a full-time very technical day job. I love playing the fiddle, so coming home to play is often what I look forward to, but after expending so much of my brain during work it can be difficult to come home and try to learn new challenging things. To help get through that, I’ll just pick one thing, maybe a tune or a lick or a whole break and try to get it down enough that I don’t have to think about it. Then I figure out how to incorporate that into my normal playing repertoire. Also, I try to sit down for a few hours at a time on my days off so that I have a good chunk of time to work on the more challenging things with a fresher mind.

Do you approach singing differently than playing an instrument? 

Yes. It’s very different from fiddling, but I also find them to be so closely related in terms of tonal quality and expression that I often end up approaching my fiddling like singing melodies. I’ve grown up with my voice and I trust it. I know that most of the time it’s going to do what I want it to do without having to think or worry about it and I’m extremely grateful for this! Learning words and harmony parts is “the work” associated with singing, and while there’s always the risk of forgetting words or hitting the wrong harmony note, I don’t get too bothered by it. I picked up the fiddle later in life, so it’s still not as reliable as my voice, and I still have a lot to learn about that instrument, so I spend a good amount of time doing “the work” on it. 

What do you think it is about music that touches people so deeply?

Well-written songs express what I cannot put into words. I imagine that others find that to be the case as well, and it can be comforting to know that someone else felt like I do about something and was able to get it out and share it with the world. It’s sometimes a relief to be able to relate to others in that way on some very personal issues, knowing you’re not alone.

What other artists do you listen to?

I’m a huge Tom Waits fan. He’s such an incredible storyteller in the context of songs. His masterful use of practically every instrument that has ever existed to create just the right moods for his stories has fascinated me for a very long time. I’m also drawn to his own persona of all of his taboo and fringe characters combined. 

What tunes do you play when you first pick up the fiddle?

I play Lonesome Moonlight Waltz, June Apple and Katy Hill quite a bit. I also really love Methodist Preacher.

Thanks Amy for sharing your story and best of luck on your new project.

Thanks for wanting to interview me Dave!

Notes

This is an updated version of the original interview from the CBA Breakdown and website. Thanks to Jeanie Poling for copy editing. Photos by Snap Jackson and David Cupp.

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About the Author

Dave Berry

Dave Berry is an avid mandolin picker, singer and songwriter who writes an interview column for the monthly California Bluegrass Association (CBA) members publication featuring California regional and national artists who tour California. He grew up in bluegrass country on the Ohio River right between where the Big Sandy and Big Scioto Rivers dump into the Ohio. The columns are also featured on the CBA website at www.cbaweb.org.