California Report: Kathy Barwick

Kathy Barwick, a native of Sacramento now living in Grass Valley, has been widely hailed over the past 30 years as one of California’s most versatile acoustic musicians, known for her work in bluegrass, Americana, and traditional Irish music. An award-winning multi-instrumentalist who’s adept on guitar, banjo, dobro, and bass (with a smidgen of mandolin), Barwick was a founding member of the All Girl Boys, a popular all-female bluegrass quintet, and has also worked with such bands as Nine-8ths Irish and the Mike Justis Band, as well as with Pete Siegfried in the bluegrass band Mountain Laurel. She was also a columnist for Flatpicking Guitar Magazine.

Hi Kathy. Thanks for taking the time to chat. You’ve been playing acoustic music in the California scene for quite a while. Can you tell us how you got started? 

I started with classical piano lessons in about 5th or 6th grade. Then it was folk guitar in girl scout camp. I mostly taught myself guitar, and a few years later a friend had a banjo at camp, and taught me how to play Cripple Creek. I came down from the mountain that year determined to learn how to play five-string banjo, even though I hadn’t listened to any bluegrass music. I found the Scruggs instructional book inscrutable, so I ended up taking lessons from Allen Hendricks, who got me off to a good start.

Who were some early influences?

Well, Allen Hendricks of course. I came up in bluegrass with a good group of local musicians: John Green, Greg Townsend, Stan Miller, and Rudy Darling. Everyone was super supportive. Banjo-wise, I was a real Alan Munde fan, and I still play licks I learned from studying him. Via John, Steve, and Greg, I was exposed early on to the wonderful playing of Clarence White, who, along with Earl Scruggs, influences my guitar playing to this day.

What instruments do you currently play and how did find time to get proficient on all of them?

I play banjo, dobro, guitar, and bass, and dabble a little on mandolin. Banjo was my third instrument but the first one I really learned how to be a musician on. I focused solely on that instrument for a good five years. I was young, in my early twenties, and had a lot of time to practice! I did drop a lot of hobbies around that time, and ever since then I’ve devoted as much time as I can to music. In terms of learning additional instruments, mostly I adapted what I knew on the banjo to guitar and dobro. I’m pretty much thinking “banjo” all the time.

How did you start playing with Pete Siegfried?

I met Pete when he was leading the Mountain Laurel Bluegrass Band, based in Nevada County. I was still living in Sacramento and was getting together with their guitarist, Ken Nilsson, for regular “snooty guitar” jams. I was invited to guest on Mountain Laurel’s first album on the dobro. The All Girl Boys was nearing the end of its run when the Mountain Laurel fellows invited me to join their band. Eventually Pete and I found ourselves “the last ones standing,” and Pete suggested keeping on as a duo. It’s really been one of the best things for me, musically. I must confess that I didn’t see Pete’s vision at first, but he was so right!

I saw you recently played in Ireland. How did that go?

We’ve done three tours in Ireland, and they’re always so much fun! We do small venues and house concerts. The people are just fantastic, and we love the country. And they really like American music! In fact, our last album was named after a song written for Pete by Northern Ireland’s fantastic singer/songwriter, Janet Henry.

What other bands are you active in?

I play dobro and mandolin in the Mike Justis Band. Mike writes a lot of original material, and we also cover artists such as John Prine, Townes Van Zandt, and Kate Wolf. The band plays a lot of blues, country blues, and country rock, and it’s really fun. Steve McLean plays guitar, often electric, and he’s fantastic and very fun to play with. He’s also the engineer on the Barwick & Siegfried recordings. I’ve been playing with Steve and Mike since the early 1980s!

Do you compose much?

I don’t do a lot of writing. There are so many great tunes out there, it just seems like a waste of effort to write more, though I did write a tune for one of my solo albums. It’s called The Cantara Loop, and I got a real vote of approval on it when John Reischman, a really great writer of tunes, told me he liked it and how fun it is to play. That feels good! I also wrote a banjo tune, Braeburn, after being inspired by the great Tony Ellis. He said, put your banjo in C tuning, and you’ll write a song. So I did!

How do you go about reworking an existing song?

Oh, that’s my favorite thing to do! I do a lot of the arranging for Barwick & Siegfried. Mostly I think of Craig Long, who recorded and helped produce both of my solo albums (as well as Nine-8ths Irish’s second album). Craig’s strongest and most consistent guidance was “change it up.” I like to bring some of my earlier influences into my guitar work as well, including lots of Scruggs stuff and traditional Irish chord substitutions. All of the drop D stuff I do is from what I learned playing in Nine-8ths Irish, inspired by John Doyle.

One big challenge in arranging is to keep it interesting yet not so over the top that it smacks you over the head. I try to keep things under the radar, yet almost every song we do has something that’s just a little different – as we find out when we add a bass to our duet! 

I like to emphasize the story line in a song, which means arranging the song to really feature the singing. I’m fortunate to play with such a wonderful singer and story-teller in song, Pete Siegfried. Our arrangements are designed to emphasize the drama in a song, and as I am “the band,” I’m free to play interesting bass lines, leave stuff out, and add stuff back in, as the feel of the song indicates. It’s a great joy for me to have this opportunity. I’m not a strong singer, and in any case, being able to focus all of my energy on backing Pete allows me to really explore what rhythm guitar is all about. 

Aren’t you an instructor at camps? What are some techniques to help students get past major difficulties?

Oh yes, lots. Many of our tours have been built around the teaching work I’ve done. And the music camp opportunities have come to me largely from my work as a regular columnist for Flatpicking Guitar magazine. I’m currently scheduled to teach flatpicking guitar at the Walker Creek Music Camp in April 2020, and I’m hoping to add another camp or two to my schedule. I do a little private teaching these days, but mostly just as needed. I’m a strong proponent of learning by ear, so I generally encourage folks to develop that skill. I find that approach difficult to sell these days, with all the tablature and such that’s available. But it’s so necessary to develop that skill, so I keep hammering away!

Sample from Kathy’s instructional video YouTube channel

Tell us about the music scene up in Grass Valley?

There’s a really great music community here in Nevada County. It’s very eclectic, with a little bluegrass, a lot of old-time, lots of singer-songwriters, and a lot of tribute stuff! I stick to folk/bluegrass, but it’s great to see all the musicians coming together in different configurations.

You have performed a bit of John Prine material. Do you do his songs in duet style?

Yes, it’s what we do. I like to arrange things with just enough of a nod to the original, but bringing in some of our ways as well.

Duet harmonies typically have more flexibility than three-part bluegrass harmonies. Do you and Pete spend a lot of time working out the vocal stack or does it just come naturally?

I do most of the harmony singing. I really love the flexibility that two voices have, but to my chagrin, I’m pretty stuck in a parallel harmony world, which is usually what we end up with, with the occasional suspension or flat 7th note. Someday I’ll put more effort into it and try to get some different sounds – 5ths, unisons, 9ths. I’ve been inspired by Keith Little’s thoughts on harmony singing, but it just doesn’t come naturally to me, so it’s still a work in progress.

What straight-up bluegrass bands have you played in?

In the 1980s I played in Wild Rose with Dorothy Hawkinson, Tamara Phelan, Keith Little, Steve McLean, and with the Bluegrass Philharmonic with Dave Lucas, Steve McLean, Robert Bowden, and Joe Craven. Then I played with the All Girl Boys  with Mary Gibbons, Chris Lewis, Debby Kaspari, Bethany Raine, Carolyn Cirimele, and Sonia Shell, followed by the Mountain Laurel Bluegrass Band with Ken Nilsson, Paul Siese, Doug Bianchi, and Pete Siegfried. All of these bands seemed a bit progressive to me, but by today’s standards they were pretty straight-ahead bluegrass! I also was fortunate to sit in with the Good Ol’ Persons on banjo and High Country on bass, both wonderful experiences. I also toured with Bill Grant and Delia Bell one summer.

What are your hobbies outside of music?

For most of my music career, it was work, music, and gardening. So I guess gardening is the answer to this question. Since I retired from my day job, I find that my drive for digging in the dirt has lessened…I think it was a way to blow off steam from work! We have a dog and two cats, and we enjoy them so much! My husband Jon and I do volunteer dog-walking at our local shelter as well.

Do you have any new recordings planned?

Pete and I have three duo albums out, and we have a lot of new stuff we’d like to record. And I’ve been planning for several years now to record a guitar album of old-time tunes and traditional Irish material. 

Do you have any upcoming shows?

Barwick & Siegfried is taking a break from performing at the moment, but I have a few other things coming up. The Mike Justis Band will be “opening” for John Prine at the Mondavi Center in Davis on October 4, which means we’ll be the local band performing in the courtyard prior to the main act. We’re pretty dang excited, as we do lots of Prine material and have even done some “Prine nights” with Pete, Steve, Mike and me. 

And on November 2nd, I’ll be playing dobro with Penny Harding and Jeff Sears at Luna’s Café in Sacramento. This will be a fun and eclectic night of music.

Do you have anything else you want to share?

Folks interested in my specialty, crosspicking guitar, can get my new book online.

It includes all of the articles – 53 columns! –I wrote for Flatpicking Guitar magazine, half of which feature crosspicking in one way or another.

Thank you very much Kathy.

It’s been my pleasure!

Copy editing by 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.