California Report: Billy Pitrone of Bean Creek talks new release and more

I caught up with Billy Pitrone, the guitarist, lead singer, and songwriter for Bean Creek, at his ditch-side camp at the CBA Fathers Day Festival. Billy is a multi-year winner of the Northern California Bluegrass Society’s male vocalist of the year and is known to sing ‘em like he was there.

Hey Billy, congrats on the Home Again release. Tell us about the heartfelt title track you co-wrote with your brother Michael.

The title track, Home Again, is a song that I found in some paperwork I was going through. The song was written by my dear brother who died several years ago. I come from a family of pretty fair singers, and my brother Michael always loved Emmylou Harris and knew her songs. He wrote the song while trying to learn guitar late in life. I found the song that I had not heard, but the words with chord changes were there. I wrote the melody and it came together quickly. It has just as quickly become a band and crowd favorite.

This is Bean’s Creek’s third recording, fill us in on the history of the band.

This band had its beginning at Dennis English’s house in Santa Cruz in 1999 or 2000, at a jam I was invited to by Matt Bohn, the Bass Doctor. I met Pete Hicks and Rob Horgan, and the four of us decided we wanted to do all traditional style bluegrass. We are all very close in age, and just found a musical connection based on ass-kicking bluegrass music. Sarah was the easy and logical choice for bass, she owns that place now. 

The overall sound captures Bean Creek very well. Was it recorded over time or pretty quickly in a few sessions?

We did the recording with Matt Dudman at the controls over a few sessions, give or take. He treated us very well and we went with Matt on the strength of his CD he made with his band, Matt and George and the Pleasant Valley Boys.

Matt also shared a producer credit. Was that mostly while in the studio or also some in advance while working out the material.

We asked Matt to give us input at any time because he knows us, he has watched the band over the years, and we respect his opinion. He is mad for bluegrass music.

Where can people purchase or listen to the release?

We are working on getting the CDs available on CDBaby but that might take a few days. Right now, people can pick up a copy at our gigs (Phil’s Fish Market and Sam’s BBQ – see gig page on our website), or they can shoot us a note at info@beancreekbluegrass.com, along with their address and we can send them a CD via snail mail. Other digital availabilities are being worked on currently!

I like the mix of covers, originals on Home Again.  You don’t sway too far from the bluegrass fold except for that wacky song, Hawaii.

We started work on this CD to have a picture of the band at this time, and to give our fans and listeners some favorites of theirs, and some new originals. Hawaii is not anywhere near bluegrass music, but has always been a crowd pleaser. I thought it might turn into a free trip to Kauai.

I like that song, 500 Spring Street. Tell us about that. 

That’s a song by the Barton Brothers out of Virginia from the early ’70s. I got that from Henry Ward who collects old bluegrass albums on vinyl.

That’s a great lyric “As they marched me down the hallway to myself.”

Yeah, that’s the best prison song I ever heard. The Bartons are kinda like the Stanleys, who we love. Anybody like that, the Gillis Brothers or the Paisleys, we like them too. The strength of Stanleys was when they went into the studio, there was no messing’ around and they had something to say. They were professional and prepared unlike some recordings you hear where you have to wonder if they even rehearsed for the session.

What’s got your attention right now?

Well, we just finished the new Bean Creek recording, so finalizing that. The band is kind of separated geographically. With me and Sarah in Santa Cruz and the boys an hour or more away, it can be a challenge getting together to make it happen.

You’re got such a pure country sound. Where did that come from?

I grew up in a large Italian family in Cleveland. My dad was a disc jockey and had a voice very much like mine. He owned a nationality station WXEN, and he had the Italian hour show. All of the kids could sing, so we would sing these old 1890s songs with our parents.

Did your mom or dad or siblings play any instruments?

No one but me in nine kids played a stringed instrument. My sister played piano a little until we burned the thing during an extremely cold Ohio winter.

When did you start playing music?

I got my first guitar when I was young. Then at 13, I became a roadie which was a lot of fun.

Cool, please tell us about that.

I had two friends, they were brothers and kids of a church organist, who started a top 40 Motown band. These guys got good fast and had an agent who was in a touring doo-wop band. They got gigs and I got a job, mostly in the summer months but also for school mixers. We played some amusement parks on Lake Erie. The drummer still plays in a Cleveland band. I always gravitated to the band and worked with bands everywhere I went. Probably looking to sing in any capacity.

When did you leave Ohio?

As soon as I could. I left when I was 18, traveled and ended up in Oakland in the late ’60s. The Vietnam War was happening and I lost a lot of friends. A lot of crazy stuff was coming down in that time.

When did you first hear country music?

I grew up watching the Buck Owens show all the time. In Ohio, on a good Saturday night, I was able to tune in to the Jamboree on WWVA out of Wheeling, West Virginia, where I learned to love those players.

You write a lot. What’s your writing style?

I wouldn’t really call it a style, but something really has to hit me to write a song. I have to be moved. I can’t just sit down and say I’m gonna write a song. The song Dirty Waters on the first Bean Creek album was inspired by a 60 Minutes show I saw about pig farmers in North Carolina putting their wastewater back in the dirt, which was ruining the water table. Also, I’m very aware when I write that my voice is strong, so it opens up options that I try to take advantage of. 

I think I first met you all at the CBA Fathers Day Festival. Have you been coming to it for a while?

We’ve been coming for about 12 years, which is pretty much when we started playing country-style music. Before that I played in a large reggae band called Square Roots. We had a lot of success, sold out the Catalyst like 10 or 15 times, and opened for bands like Burning Spear. I wrote two full albums of ska music in that period.

How many times have you played CBA Father’s Day festival?

We’ve played Father’s Day five times, twice on the main stage and thrice at Vern’s. The main stage is a little hectic but real fun, and Vern’s is a great experience with its own vibe… and booze!

Did you still play with Square Roots?

Not really much, but one time we did get the opportunity to open for the band No Doubt at the Whiskey A-Go-Go in L.A. When they came to Santa Cruz, they opened for us at the Catalyst. This was before they got really big.

Got any shows of interest coming up?

Bean Creek plays Phil’s Fish Market in Moss Landing constantly, maybe 6-8 gigs a month. We play our regular once a month show at Sam’s Barbeque in San Jose and have been selling it out the last 6 months. We also do 5-10 weddings a year and a bunch of parties, so we’re pretty busy.

You all ever tour at all?

Nah, we play the regional festivals and we might travel up to Sonoma for a winery gig or something if we get hired, but mostly we keep it local.

Do you teach music?

I work with Luke Abbott, and run a jam class in downtown Santa Cruz on Thursday nights. I love the Abbotts. I always say Luke’s my big brother and Kyle is my little brother. I occasionally teach a few people from the jam class but that’s about it.

What is or was your day job?

Never had one, music is it. The previous band ended abruptly in ’94, so I took a bit of time off. After a while, I picked up my acoustic guitar and played some at home and at a party and decided I felt like I still had something to say. I still had a driving need to express myself.

When did it hit you that country/bluegrass was really your thing? 

The first time we came to FDF, we were jamming with our friend, Eddie Ducommun, who recently passed away. I was singing a song of his called Mark it Down, and these guys came by and stopped in their tracks and just listened to us sing for quite a while. I don’t remember who they were, but Eddie said they were heavy hitters so we figured we were on to something.

You play and sing with a lot of passion, and I think that really grabs the listener.

I was 50 when I started doing this music. We decided we didn’t know how long we had left, like what crazy thing might take away the opportunity, so we’re going all out playing all we can. I see a lot of other players who I feel don’t have that driving force, and for me that’s why I’m here.

Do you have any advice for singers?

A friend I knew in a Cajun band once told me the best advice he had for singers was to use your own voice because nobody else has YOUR voice, and it’s what makes you unique. It’s all the “youness” that you have, so don’t bury it.

I tell my students, sing like a bird, sing all the time, when it’s hot, when it’s cold, in rain and in sunshine. And guess what, birds don’t have any problems singing as loud or as often as they want, so you shouldn’t either.

What do you like about the jam class?

There’s that tradition of going to a jam and everybody gets a chance, and I like that. I see some jams where people get skipped over because someone might feel they aren’t quite as good as the others, but my feeling is how are they ever going to get better if you don’t give them the chance to step up. That’s hogwash.

You mentioned the Stanleys and others. Who else touches you?

Larry Sparks. When you hear him play a guitar it just blows you away, and then he tells you he’s never played electric guitar in his life. Where did he get all that stuff from? The soulful singing he’s got and the white suit, he’s like a southern gentleman, and all those little affectations he has. He’s a bit of a ham and so am I. In Square Roots, I would wear anything, do anything to make it fun, and I just don’t take myself too seriously. I mean, isn’t that what entertaining people is really about anyway?

Do you play fiddle tunes, and if so which ones are in stuck in your head right now?

We concentrate on singing more than the fiddle tunes, but I love Big Sciota, and the groovy Squirrel Hunters.

What kind of guitars do you play?

After trying many guitars I’ve settled on a Santa Cruz DPW in rosewood for my working git. I think Richard Hoover has a special idea about why and how his instruments work.

What can others learn from your passion and drive for the music?

Bluegrass is something you go and find. You have to dig it out, go find that station late at night. That’s what put the hook in me. You can’t have it handed to you in classes or books. You really have to want it and then go get it.

Are you Beatles or Stones?

Definitely Beatles, but I really enjoyed reading Keith Richard’s autobiography.

Thanks for your time Billy, now let’s pick some.

Sure thing.

Notes

This is a an updated reprint of a CBA Bluegrass Breakdown article. Thanks to copy editor, Jeanie Poling.

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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.