California Report: Old-Time fiddler and guitarist Karen Celia Heil

This is an update of a previous interview for the California Bluegrass Association Bluegrass Breakdown where I had the opportunity to chat with Karen Celia Heil, the versatile, passionate (and very busy) San Francisco-based American old-time fiddler and guitarist.

Hello Karen, thanks for your time. Can you tell us briefly how you came to this music?

I played folk guitar as a ten-year-old down in Southern California, then got into some country rock. I heard Doc and Merle at McCabe’s in Santa Monica, got into some flat picking and found some Folkways records in the local bins. After migrating to Sonoma County, I hooked up with other acoustic players, ended up at jams, in bands, found a fiddle… went to the Fiddle Tunes Festivals in PortTownsend, and on it goes.

Your website says you play fiddle and guitar, but I’m guessing you play other instruments.

I spent some years playing the big bass in a Cajun band. I can fake it with clawhammer banjo but don’t have the deep skills that the banjo players I’m blessed to play with do. I would love to dig into banjo someday. When I began to concentrate seriously on old-time fiddle, I decided not to spread myself too thin.

What fiddlers do you most identify with?

I identify with an extended group of dear friends all over the country and beyond with generally intersecting fiddle tastes. We like to keep up with what each of us is working on. We push each other in positive ways, and make a point of playing together at gatherings. They’re a mix of colleagues and mentors, young and old. Some are in gigging bands, and others stick closer to home and don’t play out.

What guitarists do you like?

I’m going to concentrate on women, just because that’s who is coming to mind at the moment. For tasteful and driving old time backup, Alice Gerrard, Beverly, Susie Goehring, Allegra Yellin. Most good fiddlers are also, secretly or not, fantastic guitarists that know just what to do, like Rafe for example. If you are aspiring to be a great backup guitar player, take the time to learn some fiddle, which will inform your guitar playing. Beyond backup, OMG Meredith Axelrod and Craig, of course. I recently heard Ali Kafka, who kills it. Del Ray ain’t no slouch.

Tell us about the bands you’re active in.

There’s The Bucking Mules with my amazing band mates Joseph Decosimo, Luke Richardson, and Joe DeJarnette. This band is known for some top level, kick ass music, and I can’t say enough about the musicianship of these guys. I hold it down on guitar and vocals with this band. We have an album or 3 that you can find on Bandcamp, either under the band name, or under Joseph Decosimo.

I have a rotating cast with my Bay Area band moniker KC & the MooNshine Band, depending on the musical job at hand. I have a project with Maxine Gerber, and Thomas Angel called Plaid Strangers. I mainly play fiddle in these bands, but also do some guitar work. Plaid Strangers was going to play at Grass Valley’s FDF as well, and are currently working on a project for the Berkeley Old Time Music Convention, to be held online September 24 through 27.

Your calendar WAS amazingly busy. Were there any shows this summer you were particularly looking forward to?

The Bucking Mules had some fun plans this year which were scuttled, such as the CBA’s Father’s Day Fest, showcases in the Los Angeles area, and a possible overseas trip. I’m not sure when we will be able to get together, as my bandmates live in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. Luckily I went back there last fall. We played a few local dates, and had a band retreat.

For 5-6 years, KC & the MooNshine Band ran a great monthly square dance in the Mission District in San Francisco, hosted by Alley Cat Books. I miss that and all our other local dances a lot. And miss playing the numerous casual events around the area. Also missing my bi-monthly Bernal Heights gig at a local restaurant, played as a duo with many different musical pals.

I’ve noticed that you are taking the music to the local parks. Is that a regular thing now or more catch-as-catch-can?

Once a week, when we can fit it in at Precita Park, with pals that live within a block or two. Like, today maybe when the cable guy gets through here at my house, if it’s soon.

You play a lot of dances that to me feels like I’m stepping into a time warp. Has that environment changed much over the years?

We are talking square dances here, rather than contra, right? The square dance scene is dependent on a vibrant old-time player scene, and folks who are willing to run regular dances, keep them fun and exciting by hosting great bands and great, fun callers, and get the up-and-comers in to hone their skills. On hold are our dances in North Oakland, in the Mission in San Francisco, and at Ashkenaz in Berkeley. It’s been fun to introduce square dancing to people who take to our exciting, refreshed iteration. Hope we can start up again someday.

What’s the difference between square and contra dance?

Contra is described as more Northern, more New England, requiring thirty-two bar tunes, that are perky, but played at a slower tempo. Contra bands tend to be more orderly, and danced with couples in a line. Squares refers to the general configuration – eight dancers put into four couples arranged in a square – which ended up being more popular in the South. The music for Squares is old-time, faster to raging fast, and it boasts some very creative, fun moves.

How do you describe your music to newbies of old-time, bluegrass or other roots music?

Generally, old-time music is fiddle/banjo music that pre-dates bluegrass, with Scotch-Irish immigrant origins, mixed with African American, Native American, and other ethnic influences. It incubated in the Southern Appalachian US, and with migration spread to the newly industrial states and beyond. It is predominately home made music for dancing, with branches that include some crazy crooked solo stuff, and trad songs, brother duets. It generally has a lot of rhythmic drive and odd twists and turns of the fiddle bow. It’s curiously stimulating and satisfying! You should try it!

Do you sing in any of your bands?

I do. Old-time performances need songs and vocals to break up the endless tunes! I love singing harmony, and we have that going on in the Bucking Mules, with three of us taking turns on lead vocal. Plaid Strangers has a song or two up their sleeves. 

How are vocals in this style different than say, pop, or traditional bluegrass?

It’s just a different aesthetic, less showy I suppose especially if you are talking modern bluegrass. Songs and vocals can be more stark, and not obviously ‘arranged.’ Then I love the fiddle tunes that have lyrics, which will be sung intermittently, so you have an instrumental laced with bursts of vocals. Love that. Much of traditional lyrics are however problematically laced with sexism, violence, and racism, so there’s issues that need to be addressed, are being addressed. One can replace lyrics, or drop those songs altogether. It’s not an issue isolated to old trad songs, I must say.

Which fiddle tune lyrics do you like singing?

There are some fun verses I love to sing to the iconic Buffalo Gals, and Cider. I love the non-vegetarian Ground Hog lyrics.

How are vocal harmonies treated in old-time?

Other than with the Carters, there are definitely fewer three-part harmonies. I take that back, there are shape note and Church based choruses.

Do you have interesting stories about your instruments?

Due to a series of odd circumstances, my little Gibson L-1 guitar was played by Stevie Ray Vaughn on French TV in the ’90s. I couldn’t have made that up, and I didn’t witness it. The video clip finally showed up on YouTube a couple of years ago. The fiddles I have are made by a Tennesseean named Gene Horner who is well into his 80s. He is an ‘unschooled’ maker who uses local woods, and lives on land his grandfather settled. I have taken a few field trips there, gotten to know Gene. His fiddles have a distinct sound and personality.

I’ve heard people refer to some old-time fiddling as scratchy.

Many of the field recordings that we source from were recorded when the players were quite old. Their playing can have a beauty and presence that quite possibly is an acquired taste. Nowadays, scratchy can be – and I guess is – a rhythmic style. There are many branches of the tree. 

Is there anything special about old-time guitar, especially in contrast to bluegrass rhythm guitar?

Lots! For starters, it’s hopefully quite driving and, at least in my opinion, gives an equal power to the boom and the chuck, so to speak. We might not need a bass most of the time, if the guitarist can handle it well.

Your fiddling is so authentic to that bygone era. How are you able to so thoroughly replicate that sound and feel?

Thanks for the compliment! I pay lots of attention to the source recordings. It’ s quite easy to research that online these days. Ultimately, I can’t help but be a modern player. One can’t erase all the modern influences.

Old-time has a much bigger presence at CBA events than in the past. Tell us about your involvement with CBA camps and festivals and the Pride parade.

I co-ran the Golden Old Time Camp for a couple of years with Mark Hogan, when it was held in Booneville. I’ve worked the CBA Father’s Day pre-festival camp now for years, both on staff and as an assistant. I’ve had a few talks with Carl Pagter, and we agree that it would be a loss on many levels if the CBA abandoned its roots in old-time. I was pulled into more CBA participation by the Pride Parade CBA Float project of a few years ago. As one who is connected with the old-time scene both East and West, I want to be involved and accessible, which is why I joined the CBA Board. So now I’m giving a strong voice to the CBA’s old-time inclusion.

There’s sometimes tension between bluegrass and old-time players. Do you feel this is inevitable or is it easing some?

Hopefully, that’s all in fun! There is a lot of mutual appreciation going on as well.

Thanks Karen. Hope to see you soon.

Special thanks to copy-editor extraordinaire 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.