California Report – MohaviSoul on the San Diego Bluegrass Scene and More

Randy Hanson and Mark Miller formed San Diego-based MohaviSoul in 2012 to create a new sound blending contemporary bluegrass and Americana called Grassicana. Their CD, Hometown Blues, was nominated for best album of year in 2018 by the San Diego Music Awards Academy, and is getting airplay across the US, UK, Canada, and Europe. 

Answers here are collectively from Randy Hanson (mandolin), Mark Miller (guitar), Orion Boucher (bass), Jason Weiss (banjo), and Daniel Sankey (fiddle).

How did MohaviSoul start and where did you all first meet?

We met through the San Diego Songwriters Meetup Group. We participated and collaborated in a local musical exercise called The Game, where you’re given one or two song titles and you have six weeks to write and perform the song. Mark and Randy were encouraged by other participants to collaborate together, and Orion and Jason were quickly snagged after meeting them through the meetup. It’s a great creative exercise that we still participate in. We’d encourage others to as well.

How did you come up with the name MohaviSoul?

The band’s name pays homage to the high and lonesome nature of the desert that comes from our soul, rooted in folk and country music. We chose to modify the English spelling over the Spanish spelling, and joining the two words together gives the fusion of our roots and our storytelling. The original Tribal Nation word Hamakhaave is their endonym in their native language, and it means ‘beside the water.’ And with members who have spent significant amounts of time in the high desert, we figured this name brought everything full circle. Mark Miller certainly brings the soulful vocals and Jason the soulful banjo. Bluegrass has this concept of the high lonesome sound, which conjures imagery of the desert, which can be a lonely place as well. And our vocals aim for an emotional and soulful resonance.

Are the band members all originally from San Diego?

No. We’re all transplants from other places with the exception of Jason Weiss, who was born in England but raised and lived most of his life here in San Diego. Mark is from Wheeling, West Virginia (16 years in San Diego) and Randy is a fifth-generation Californian from Glendale and West Los Angeles (20 years in San Diego). Orion (also a fifth-generation Californian on his mom’s side) is from Yosemite and later Bishop, California (six years in San Diego), and Dan was born in Pennsylvania and raised from age 8 in Ventura County. Dan has been in the San Diego area since the late 1970’s. 

The band has a bit more of an Americana sound yet still sounds bluegrass. Who are your influences? 

We make a more contemporary sound using traditional bluegrass instrumentation, as do many other contemporary bluegrass bands, who have really kindled a new interest and greater following in the genre. Since we all came from such different places musically and culturally, I have to list them out individually. But you can see that there’s some overlap and unique influences that span other genres of music, such as rock and roll, jazz, folk, and hip hop. For Randy, the influences include Sam Bush, Duffy, Skaggs, Stewart, Grisman, Jethro Burns, Old and In the Way, the Dillards, NewGrass Revival, and Hot Rize, and songwriters like Dave Alvin, Laurie Lewis, Rodney Crowell, Chris Gaffney, and Tim O’Brien. 

Mark comes from a more outlaw country and rock background and tries to bring that to the MohaviSoul sound. His starting points were Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, progressing to songwriting masters like Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle, leading to progressive, contemporary acts like the Steeldrivers and the Punch Brothers

Jason’s influences include: blues – Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf; Jazz – Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bird, Sonny Rollins; Rock – Jimi Hendrix, Grateful Dead, the Who; Banjoists – Earl Scruggs, Don Reno, Béla Fleck, Tony Trischka.

For Orion as far as bass, everyone from Edgar Meyer and Mike Bubb to Stanley Clarke, Victor Wooten, and Christian McBride. As far as songwriting, everybody from John Hartford to the Wu Tang Clan. But his sole primary singing influence has to be Ricky Skaggs.

Dan’s major influences include Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, Bella Fleck, Sam Bush, and Norman Blake.

What’s the bluegrass scene like in Ocean Beach? 

It’s a very young scene with several bands blending bluegrass with other types of music. Quite a few national touring acts like Hot Buttered Rum, Front Country, Old Salt Union, and Iron Horse have played to packed crowds of young and old alike in the clubs here in Ocean, like Winston’s OB and the Holding Company. MohaviSoul is one of the usual support acts for these groups, blending the local with the national music. We find the scene very supportive of a band like ours. 

Aren’t there a lot of bluegrass players from San Diego? 

There’s a history of great bluegrass musicians to come from the San Diego area, such as Chris Thile, Sara and Sean Watkins of Nickle Creek, Chris Hillman, Bernie Leadon, Wayne Rice, Stuart Duncan, Ron Block, John Moore, Dennis Caplinger, Alison Brown, Byron Berline, Dan Crary, and many more, as documented by Rick Bowman in his history of San Diego bluegrass documentary, “Banjos, Bluegrass & Squirrel Barkers”. Also, the Deering Banjo Company is based in San Diego.

What are some great jams in the area we should attend when we visit San Diego? 

One long-standing weekly jam is the Thursday Night Pickers jam in Encinitas that our banjoist, Jason Weiss, has led for the last 12 years. The San Diego Bluegrass Society holds open mic and jam sessions every second and fourth Tuesday of the month at the Fuddruckers in La Mesa and the Boll Weevil in San Diego, respectively. There are also jams in the Temecula area and occasional Hoedown on the Hill jams in Ocean Beach.

The repertoire is primarily original. What traditional favorites do you play?

When it comes to traditional bluegrass, we love to go back to the classics such as Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, the Carter Family, Jimmy Martin, the White Brothers, Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, and Peter Rowan. We put a contemporary spin on traditional tunes like Working on a Building, Live and Let Live, and Rain and Snow by using different vocal characteristics and varying the arrangements. We’ll take a traditional tune, speed it up or slow it down, add our vocal style, and present it in a new, different way – still recognizable but definitely MohaviSoul. We also love the influences of bluegrass bands like Old and In the Way, the Steeldrivers, Steve Earle, Hot Rize, Del McCoury (and sons), and the Steep Canyon Rangers, as well as Townes Van Zandt, and John Hartford. We’ve even been messing with some more contemporary country covers, songs by the likes of Tyler Childers and Sturgill Simpson for example.

Tell us about your release Hometown Blues.

Hometown Blues was recorded at Singing Serpent Studios in San Diego. We waited a couple of years after the release of our first two CD’s to develop some new and solid material for a full-length CD of 12 songs. It was produced and engineered under the able stewardship of Ben Moore of Singing Serpent Studios, and mastered by Grammy Award-winning mastering engineer Gavin Lurrsen at Lurssen Mastering in Los Angeles. While this CD was self produced, we’re also under Jake Skolenick’s record label, Mannequin Vanity Records, here in San Diego. We started recording in three-song clusters in January and completed all 12 songs by May, 2017, and released it in August, 2017.

I like the song Ferguson Fight. It’s an upbeat though very serious song.

One of the great traditions of folk music and even some bluegrass is to reflect on our social experience and political climate. This song reflects on the possibility that we can come back together and leave the tribalism of social, economic, racial, and ethnic identities and barriers behind long enough to “take back the night.” The riots in Ferguson, Missouri and the aftermath still go on and have left a wake of social and emotional damage and unresolved issues. Our song is simply a melodic metaphor within a classic bluegrass motif that paints the picture of needing change, healing the damage of social tribalism, and hoping to come together and make changes that can help to “take back the night” together. It’s a fun song to play with a classic bluegrass kind of riff. Its melody was partly inspired by the progressive songs of the late great band Cadillac Sky.

What’s your relationship with Deering banjos? 

Deering has been very supportive of our banjoist Jason Weiss and more recently of MohaviSoul, with them inviting us and filming our Woodroom Session at their factory here in San Diego this last fall. We appreciate their roots here in San Diego and their great influence and contribution to banjos and bluegrass. They’re another important piece of the deep heritage of bluegrass here in sunny San Diego!

What shows do you have coming up you are excited about? 

We have some festivals coming up later in the summer that we’re very excited about. First, we get to return to the San Diego Bluegrass Society’s big SummerGrass Festival on Friday, August 16th. This festival always has some great national acts along with SoCal-based bands. Then we return for the third year as the headliner for the Santee Bluegrass Festival on Saturday, September 14, in support of music in the schools. And we’re very excited to be a featured band at a big national festival like this year’s Huck Finn Jubilee in Ontario (Friday, September 27) alongside the likes of Railroad Earth, Steep Canyon Rangers, the California Honeydrops, Lindsay Lou, and the Dustbowl Revival.

You played the CBA Great 48 event in Bakersfield. Tell us about that.

MohaviSoul was one of the featured showcase bands for the Thursday night CBA concert in 2016 and we were again featured for a late-night show in 2018. We love this festival, as it’s such a great reunion of bluegrass musicians and one of the few festivals in California that actually brings together and showcases both the NorCal and SoCal bluegrass communities, as well as bringing in others across the West. One of the best things about this event is picking up new songs from other regions, meeting new folks, and seeing old friends we’ve picked up along the way at other festivals.

You all support a lot of community organizations. Tell us about that. 

We’ve played a variety of benefits that support environmental groups and groups sponsoring instruments and music for schools. This includes the Farm to Bay environmental group here in San Diego, festivals such as Temecula, the Viva Las VeGrass, and Santee Bluegrass Festivals, and special schools such as the Waldorf School of San Diego that sustains a curriculum that blends music and math. We’ve given many such shows and songwriting workshops at these festivals to share our love for writing songs and creating music, and most importantly to support this critical cause of bringing music and kids together. It’s a right brain-left brain kinda thing that we were taught becoming scientists, mathematicians, and computer scientists at many levels of our educational path.

What are your plans for the future?

Some California mini-tours up the West Coast of California and Oregon and along the eastern side of the Sierra, as well as Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico. Tour some festivals in the East Coast, West Coast and Europe. We hope to make it back to IBMA and represent with our California-style bluegrass in 2020. We’re also writing lots of new originals and will record another MohaviSoul original CD very soon. Because we get so many requests at our shows for some of the unique covers we play, we’ll also record a CD of these popular cover tunes – MohaviSoul style, of course.

Thanks for your time, guys.

We thank you very much for taking an interest and learning more about SoCal Bluegrass and MohaviSoul.

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.