California Report: Kate Brislin

Kate Brislin is a San Francisco based guitarist and extraordinary singer with a rich bluegrass and old-time history. She has performed and recorded with Hazel Dickens, Mike Seeger, Alice Gerrard, Chris Brashear, and Katy Moffatt, to name a few. She’s played many CBA event stages, often with duet partner Jody Stecher and will be doing a harmony workshop with former band mate Valerie Mindel Saturday, February 9 at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley.

Hi Kate, thanks for your time. Was your family musical when you were growing up?

My family was very musical. My mom sang on the radio in Virginia as a young woman. They say I sound like her. My parents sang duets – we always had a piano, my dad had a uke and got me one of my own when I was 5 – and there were a lot of records always. My mom led a choir. I sang in the choir and also sang Everly Brothers duets with my older sister as we did the dishes. In college I took up the guitar, and my younger sisters and I sang and played folk songs on guitars, in two and three-part harmony. I thought all families were like this.  

What about later, as you strayed from the house?

In college I became interested in the banjo. I heard a recording of Earl Scruggs and knew I had to learn how to do THAT! I started out with the Pete Seeger book and later learned clawhammer-style banjo from other players. I stuck with clawhammer, as it was better for accompanying singing — always my main interest. I listened to many recordings of bluegrass and was most drawn to the singing of the Stanley Brothers for their depth and soul. Those harmonies thrilled me. I felt that way about Hazel and Alice too. Other favorites were Jimmy Martin, the Louvin Brothers, and the Blue Sky Boys. I listened to as many recordings of the old players as I could get my hands on. 

What bands did you play with in those days?

I was enlisted into the Arkansas Sheiks in the ‘70s, and toured and recorded with them for a few years. Then I helped form the Any Old Time String Band with Suzy (Rothfield) Thompson, Valerie Mindel, and Genny Haley. We made two albums and did some touring. Later I was in the Blue Flame String Band with Suzy and Eric Thompson, and Alan Senauke. We toured a lot and made one album. During this time I had also been singing and recording with Jody Stecher. Our friendship turned into more in the ’80s; we married and began touring and recording as a duet for the next few decades. We made at least seven albums, five on the Rounder label, two of which were Grammy finalists. 

Wow, that’s quite a resume. Tell us about the band you played with at the CBA Fathers Day Festival a couple years back.

That was great fun. There we all were again with me and Jody, Suzy and Eric, and Paul Shelasky and Paul Knight – Blue Diamond Strings. Paul Shelasky was once in the Arkansas Sheiks as well, so it’s come full circle in many ways. I love playing in a band, and this one was a dream come true. We did a lot of the Jody and Kate repertoire with a full-on band behind it, as well as all sorts of other songs and tunes that I really enjoy. I hadn’t had so much fun in years!

When did you know music was your calling?

The funny thing is that in college I took a vocational preference test and my highest score was musical performer, and coming in second was office worker. At the time that seemed off the wall to me, as I had no idea I’d ever end up performing music. That wasn’t why I played…to perform. I played because I loved the music so much. I thought you had to have a ‘job’ to make a living. I did have computer skills that got me jobs, but I kept playing and started performing, at first roped into it by music friends. It wasn’t too long before I dropped out and became a full-time musician. It’s impossible to tour a lot with a full-time job, and touring was where my bands were taking me. Later I opted to have a part-time computer job so that I could stay home more. The road life was hard for me. I like my nest.

What interests you when you’re not playing music?

I’m an avid knitter. I’d be an avid gardener if I had the land for it. I read all the time and love movies. I also do some jewelry making and ceramics and dabbled in various mediums of painting. Many musicians I know have a keen interest or skill in visual/tactile arts of one kind or another.

Jody Stecher & Kate Brislin

Do you teach music and if so, what do you consider the best qualities of a teacher?

I used to teach all the time. Now I just do it occasionally, at a music camp here or there. I particularly like teaching part-singing and I especially like teaching singing with Jody. He’s a fabulous teacher and can really see what a person needs in order to make progress. He’s amazing.

Can you share some general advice for beginners or even experienced players to continue to improve?

Learn to play by ear if you haven’t already. That’s crucial. Listen a lot to people who inspire you, and in private try to imitate them. You can’t really sound like someone else, but the endeavor will help you improve. Then do it like yourself when you perform it. This is especially true for singers. Don’t think you need to sound like someone else!

You’ve worked in smaller ensembles — duets and such. Is that a preference or just happenstance?

There’s something very special about my duet with my husband, Jody. It’s a sound that was there when we first tried singing together. He’s a very deep and focused musician, and he pulls me into that with him, and I love the result. And it’s easier for us as a couple to be in a band together. It’s less pressure. 

Do you have any thoughts on why your voices worked so well together?

Well, I don’t want to toot my own horn, but since this is an interview about me, what the heck! I seem to be able to easily find the part of my voice that goes with another person’s voice; it’s a special skill I’ve been told I have. In the case of Jody and me, it’s also because our ranges aren’t that far apart. He can sing high for a man and I can sing low for a woman. We find our sound in that blend in the middle. For the kind of music we sing together this is ideal. We’ve listened to a lot of the same music, so our approaches are compatible.

Duet harmonies give more flexibility in vocal arrangements. Do you find that some are harder to make work or more limiting when you add the third voice?

I don’t find anything harder or more limiting about three versus two-part harmonies. There are some songs that I’d rather hear as a duet and would be annoyed if someone added a third part. There are some intervals Jody and I are deliberately going for that are better stark, with just our two notes. We both love singing as part of a trio when that’s what the song can accommodate. It’s all about what serves the song; just because you CAN do another part doesn’t always mean that you should!

Kate Brislin

What shows events or venues that you have played are most memorable for you and why?

I really loved playing in Dublin, Ireland with Jody, and in Nova Scotia at a music festival. In both situations, the audience cheered when the harmony came in on the chorus!! It doesn’t get much better than that in terms of feeling appreciated!

Do you think a music career is viable for artists like yourselves these days?

Things are always changing. You just never know what’s around the corner.

Tell us about other musical genres that you like to play.

Some other styles I play have been peripheral to my main performing life, such as singing in a shape note choir. I’ve always loved blues piano and have dabbled in that over the years, and lately have applied serious time to it. It’s a joy and purely for myself. I also love learning bass lines for old rock and soul songs from my sixties youth. I enjoy singing some of these songs in jam sessions with like-minded musicians, especially songs with good harmony parts. I think it would be fun to be a backup singer in a band that did covers of old New Orleans rock songs, Motown, the Beatles, the Stones, doo wop, girl group songs, etc.

You’re accomplished in both old-time and bluegrass genres. Share your thoughts on how they’re alike and different.

I think the answer to this deserves a book. I couldn’t answer it in the scope of an interview.

I’m sure you have played the CBA Fathers Day Festival a lot.

Yes, many times: with Jody, the Any Old Time String Band, the Golden Gate Quartet, and perhaps the Arkansas Sheiks, but the latter would’ve been a long time ago.

Do you have any other events coming up?

I’m not performing much these days, by choice, but I am enjoying playing just for fun, learning mandolin, playing some blues piano, etc. I do happen to have a harmony workshop coming up Saturday, the 9th of February, at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley with my former AOT band mate Valerie Mindel. It will be fun. Also, my husband Jody Stecher has an interesting tour coming up in March with an all-star band of himself, Keith Little, Paul Knight and Chad Manning, led by his long-time, very musical friend Jerry Wicentowski.

Thanks so much for your time Kate.

Thank you for thinking of me, you asked good questions.

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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.