California Report: Lisa Berman from the Crooked Jades

Bay Area based Lisa Berman is a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist, known as a pioneer in bringing the Hawaiian slide guitar back to old-time music, and redefining its sound. She also performs on clawhammer banjo, dobro, guitar, harmonium, and baritone ukulele. Berman co-founded the Crooked Jades with Jeff Kazor and the renowned all-woman old-time string band Stairwell Sisters.

Hi Lisa, let’s start at the beginning. How did you come into the roots music fold?

My dad is mostly a piano player, but he also played the banjo and learned from a Pete Seeger book while he was on the Navy ship heading to Okinawa in the ’60s. After we moved from Chicago to San Diego in 1970, he would drag us to Southern California bluegrass music festivals. Then he started asking me to back him up on guitar while he played banjo. Our house was always filled with music, mostly my dad playing and hamming it up with friends and neighbors stopping in, often unannounced, to play or listen, alongside all the weekly lessons and practicing. And when the music wasn’t live, the record player, 8-track, or radio was always on.

What was your first instrument and do you still have it?

Besides the shared family piano where my sisters and I took lessons, I had a small classical nylon-string guitar that I started playing at age 9. I do still have it.

It sounds like the entire family was musical.

Yep. Our dad played the most, and our mom played a little piano too. Us kids (three sisters) played piano starting at age 7, and got to choose what to play at age 9. I switched to guitar. Our Grandpa Harry, my dad’s dad, made a one-string fiddle out of an old oil can and a broomstick. I don’t know where he got the idea. He used a light pink powder puff for a chin rest, and it had optional bridges—either an almond shell or a walnut shell for tonal variations. I ended up with his actual violin/fiddle. 

I’m guessing you were exposed to a variety of styles.

My dad was basically a human jukebox, with a great memory for lyrics. On the stereo, our dad played a lot of show tunes, Harry Nilsson, Liza Minnelli, folk, rock, and bluegrass. My mom always played the Beatles and Neil Young, and funky aerobicize music like the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, Peaches and Herb, and the Bee Gees. My parents could only agree on a few random albums like Neil Diamond, Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass, the Moody Blues, and James Taylor. The record player, 8-track, or radio was always playing. 

Funk and soul, Soul Train and American Bandstand often on TV, wacky parties with cocktails and singing. One of my dad’s bands opened for BB King at the Stardust in Las Vegas where I got to meet BB, around age 13. Our parents were also involved in local theatre and “Village Vaudeville.” Dad also played for dancers (his sister/our aunt was a ballet dancer), and we all performed in plays.

When did you start playing guitar?

I went through phases of playing the guitar, starting with acoustic at 9-12 and electric in high school, with a short stint with classical guitar in college. I really re-caught the bluegrass and old-time bug after going to Strawberry Music Festival for many years. While living in Big Sur, I picked up the guitar again and started learning some Peter Rowan and other finger-style guitar songs, like Dust Bowl Children. With all that guitar picking and doing graphic design with a mouse, I got bad carpal-tunnel and had to lay off for a while. 

What about slide guitar?

I went to Strawberry Fest with my dad one year, saw someone playing a slide guitar on stage and I asked my dad, “Who is that and what is he playing!?” He said, “That’s Jerry Douglas, and he’s the King of the Dobro.” I knew then and there that that’s what I wanted to play. It also looked like I’d be able to keep my wrist straighter and it might not hurt so much. I raised the nut up on my guitar and went to Sally Van Meter’s dobro workshop at the 5th String in Berkeley. She said to me, “You’re gonna be a dobro player.” I started practicing every day, and soon after was playing with Jeff Kazor and the Jades from 1994 to the present, and the rest is history, I guess.

As a side note, when I was in high school, long before I started playing dobro, my mom took me to see the film Paris, Texas at an art museum. The theme song with Ry Cooder’s slide got into my soul and bones that day, and re-awoke when I heard the dobro years later. I love the soulful, vocal, moving/traveling quality of the slide.

Who do you include as your biggest musical influences?

I’d say my first big influence was Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s songwriting! I would lie on the floor with my head by my dad’s big speakers, playing Elton’s LPs over and over and over, looking at the artwork and following along with/learning the lyrics. There was so much emotion and storytelling, including many stories that piqued my teenage brain about love, sex, drugs, country living, life and death, prostitutes… you name it. Elton’s music included slide. It was very layered and cinematic, with some mandolin and even some banjo. My very first concert was Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road tour at age 12. I sometimes think about doing a show of EJ songs…and I think it needs an illustrated movie, too. And there was the constant backdrop of my dad playing music on repeat, especially the Beatles’ White Album.

What about from this side of the pond?

I had/have so many. I’m not really good at picking faves, but here are some: Fiddlestix at Strawberry Fest, and so many old-time influences like the Freight Hoppers, the Wandering Ramblers, Red Hots, Ralph Stanley/Stanley Brothers, George Jones, Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard, the Louvin Brothers, Ola Belle Reed, later Gillian Welch and David Rawlings harmonies, Jerry Douglas, Josh Graves, the Horse Flies and Richie Stearns’ rhythmic banjo, Rhiannon Giddens, the Heartbeats (with Rose Sinclair), Townes Van Zandt, Tom Waits, Joe Thrift/Red Hots, Jerron Paxton. 

Of course I love all the older generation old-time players like Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham, Nathan Frazier and Frank Patterson, and other black string bands that were too rarely recorded or acknowledged, the Carter Family, Doc Watson, Benton Flippen, Dock Boggs, Arthur Smith—way too many to name. I studied some fiddle with Earl White. I’ve learned so much from and with my bands and bandmates, especially from Jeff. 

This list isn’t surprising, given what I’ve seen and heard at many Jades shows.

Also, one of my faves is Richard Buckner, a deeply soulful, heartfelt musician and creative songwriter who also co-produced a couple of Jades’ albums. I love his traveling vocal style. I also spent many years studying Congolese dance and drum with Titos Sompa and a big community of musicians from the Congo, I did a bit of West African and Afro-Brazilian dance, and later I learned some Jarana and Zapateado from the Son Jarocho music tradition of Veracruz (with Spanish and African influences, including polyrhythms, percussive dance, and call-and-response vocals). I traveled for nine months through Latin America in 1987 and heard a lot of music, including Peruvian bamboo flute music, Huaynos, and high voices of the women singing. Growing up, I’m certain that hearing minor and mournful choir songs from going to Jewish services got in there too.

Do you do any composing?

I do some and would love to do more. I used to fill journals with lyrics and song ideas, later sometimes adding melodies. Sometimes the melodies come first. I’m also interested in cinematic/soundtrack shorter sound bites. I’d love to do something with that some day.

How did you meet Jeff Kazor and start the Crooked Jades?

Jeff and I first met when we were both planning to go to Sound Acoustic Music Camp on Vashon Island in Washington in 1994. We decided to travel up together, but first Jeff invited me to a weekly jam in Oakland. We’d cross the bridge from San Francisco to Oakland every week and I continued with that jam for a year. I’m so grateful that the guys there were super kind and encouraging. I sat on the outside of the circle and learned and practiced, and slowly took more chances and built up the courage to move into the circle. I was still too shy to sing publicly at that point. A friend asked us to play a party, and later we had a steady gig at Radio Valencia in San Francisco just after it was repaired after the fire truck crashed into it. At the beginning, Jeff and Erik Pearson and I went by the Kitchen Pepsteppers for a while, mostly playing on the street by the crepe place in Glen Park, SF.

The Jades are not your typical old-time band. Was it conceived that way or did it naturally evolve into this innovative unit?

It started with more bluegrass and some old-time and quickly moved toward mostly old-time. Later, we kept adding more layers and instruments. Jeff has a great record collection and a lot of vision. He encouraged bringing in a bunch of other influences (Asian, Vietnamese jaw harp, etc.). I would bring in some songs, add my voice, suggest arrangements, write new lyrics to old songs, etc.

How you do approach finding and adding new material?

Whatever moves me or makes my jaw drop. Sometimes it’s just really fun, rockin’ music that makes one get up and dance or more, or “shouters” (rockin’ tunes with lyrics popping in and out). Usually I (and my bands) gravitate towards songs and tunes with some kind of a twist that hasn’t been done too many times—crooked tunes, funky tunes with surprises (like White Face, or Tie Your Dog Sally Gal where we’d throw in extra chord now and then), funky rhythmic banjo with texture and/or polyrhythms, etc. 

Slide guitar is not your typical old-time instrument. What have you done to adapt it to the band?

I started by learning all those fast bluegrass tunes on the dobro, and I can do it, but it’s not what I want to do all the time. I’m not so great at music theory or knowing my fretboard by heart, so I’m not a flashy solo-taker (which tends to be more in bluegrass than old-time anyway). I tend to play by ear and by feel and what moves me. Mostly I end up being more of a rhythmic or slide support to a group with pops of color and mood. That said, if I took the time to learn more theory, I think I could bring out more of what I hear in my head.

Are you active other bands?

I co-founded and played with the Stairwell Sisters for about 12 years, plus the occasional duos, trios, solo. I play around the house with my sweetheart, Mark Schatz…who knows, maybe we’ll do some small shows at some point.

Do you have any recent or upcoming recordings?

Not at the moment, but hopefully 2022 will start some kind of new album. Jades? Other? Time will tell. I miss playing music with like-minded friends so much!

Congrats on your IBMA Graphic Designer of the Year nomination. Tell us about some of your projects.

Thank you! I’m grateful to have been able to combine two passions—art/design and music. I’ve designed and/or art-directed countless CD covers/albums/posters for bands. I’m doing more and more photography and hope to have my new photo website up soon. If you want to take a peek at my design and photos you can look at my design site.

I’ve been helping facilitate and do graphics for anti-racism workshops related to the music we play—its history, song titles and lyrics, appropriation issues, etc. Learning and growing a lot, with still so much to learn and do.

You recently worked on a project with renowned chef Alice Waters. Can you talk about that? Does she dig old-time music haha?

I didn’t work directly with Alice Waters, but I’m pals with Shawn Lovell who’s a metal worker/blacksmith. She makes Alice’s Egg Spoon (for cooking eggs in an open fire). I’m an aspiring photographer and I asked Shawn if I could practice on her working in her studio. She said, sure! C’mon by my studio. I had a lot of fun doing it, and hopefully Alice will use some of my photos someday—I think they already have a photographer they like to work with. You can see some of these photos on my website.

What inspires you the most when creating art or music?

Soulful, unique, layered, boundary-pushing, moves your soul, outside the lines, good stories, good messages, brave stuff.

What interests you when you’re not playing music or designing music-related collaterals?

Photography, dance (Zumba), cooking/food photography/farm, Zen meditation, and of course spending time with my son.

Do you give music lessons?

Yes! In fact, I just started teaching someone again in person last month. I forgot how much I enjoyed it. I don’t consider myself a full-time teacher and really only teach beginners or advanced beginners. Give me a shout if you’re interested in lessons in slide/dobro/clawhammer banjo or vocals/harmonies.

Are there any upcoming shows you’re looking forward to?

I’ll be playing with Jeff and Erik Pearson as a trio at Bull Valley Roadhouse for their Sepia-Toned dinner & music show in Port Costa. Mark Schatz has been touring for BĂ©la Fleck’s new bluegrass album. They’ll be playing at Carnegie Hall and the Ryman in January and I plan to go. Mark will also be playing music with his new duo with Bryan McDowell. I’ve only been out to a few shows/fests since the pandemic hit, but I’m certainly looking forward to more. 

Can you share some musical challenges youve had and how you conquered them?

Well, some I’ve conquered and some I haven’t. I learn by ear and I’m not so up on my theory. I’d like to learn more theory, as it would make me a better player with more tools for getting what’s inside my head to come out with ease. It limits me in certain way, but I’m also grateful to be someone who plays by ear. Also, staying brave, finding supportive folks to consistently play with, and sticking with my passion to practice, play and get better.

Tell us more about your singing influences.

Elton, Richard Buckner, Hazel & Alice (low harmonies), Louvin Brothers (strong duo harmonies—hello hitting octaves!), George Jones, Gillian/David (again, those low harmonies), Stanley Brothers harmonies (high lonesome Ralph harmonies), Tim O’Brien (unique, soulful, relaxed traveling vocals), that son jarocho singer!

I love duos (preferring them to trios as it gives one more room to spontaneously “travel”), call-and-response (African, son jarocho, community). I especially love singing harmonies with Jeff Kazor, and Susy Pomon (Sue Sandlin) of the Stairwell Sisters. I love when harmonies have that buzz and blending and mixing magic, and when they can push up against each other—coming together and apart.

What fiddle tunes do you love?

I especially seem drawn to modal tunes (the 1 and the 7),  ones that knock your socks off. Definitely crooked tunes. Things with a unique twist or unexpected chords.

Finally for the geeks out there, what instruments do you have, play and love?

  • Scheerhorn dobro (#110) played in GGBDGBD
  • Wood slides – Oahu slide, and a 1930s Slingerland Maybelle, which arrived from eBay with a cigarette-stained mother of toilet seat fretboard, and cigarette ashes inside! I play these in low C – CGCEGC
  • Mike Ramsey clawhammer banjo 12-inch pot with cutaway
  • Fretless banjo with a new new fretboard added by Kevin Enoch. Thanks to Mark Schatz.
  • My grandpa’s violin/fiddle
  • Gibson Marauder electric guitar maybe from the ’70s
  • Vietnamese jaw harps and jarana made by Mike Melnyk. Thank Mike!

The Jades work with choreographers and filmmakers. Tell us about that.

I love playing many genres of traditional acoustic old (old-time) music from around the world, and also love mixing things up—collaborating with dance groups, or playing different styles of music, but with typical string band instruments.

Kate Weare + ODC Dance Co. – Bright Land and World’s On Fire and Decameron – this combo of us Crooked Jades along with some solo shows I did) playing old music alongside modern dance has been some of my favorite work to date.

Another project I worked on that I really enjoyed being part of was Kenny Feinstein’s Loveless: Hurts to Love (acoustic remake of My Bloody Valentines’ project). This was such a fun project to work on with Kenny, Jeff Kazor, Bruce Kaphan, Richard Buckner, Erik Pearson, and Charlie Rose. Produced by Jeff Kazor with Bruce Kaphan.

Thanks so much Lisa.

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About the Author

Dave Berry

Dave Berry is a California based author, mandolin picker, and composer who writes the California Report column for Bluegrass Today. He grew up in the Ohio Valley right between where the Big Sandy and Big Scioto rivers dump into the Ohio. His articles, Morning Walk album, and video are available on streaming sites and his website at daveberrymusic.net.