California Report: Paul Shelasky on his new release, Fiddle Tunes from California, and more

This is a follow up to the previous interview where Paul further discusses his new release Fiddle Tunes from California, available on Bandcamp, plus his influences, composition, twin fiddles, and his tune, Cazadero, which was recorded by many including John Reishmen and Chris Thile.

Picking up where we left off. Did you spend much time in New York?

I went when in 1966. We had an uncle who was active in the Broadway shows, and we saw Fiddler on the Roof because his wife was playing the lead female role (of Tevye’s wife). I think my sister and I went to Greenwich Village and tried to get into see the Fugs, a very avant-garde band, and of course, they wouldn’t let us in because I was only fifteen. 

Wasn’t the Washington Square Park scene happening then?

I’m not sure, it may have been on the wane at that point, but all my friends, like Artie and Harriet Rose, were staples of that scene. Anyway, I didn’t spend much time in New York, but with the Rhythm Brothers, the Disney band, after we left Disney, we auditioned at Carnegie Hall and played the Community Concerts Series in huge auditoriums all over the country, and they stiffed us for every penny.

Ouch. So who are your mandolin gurus?

Well first, Bill Monroe of course.

That’s interesting because it’s so different than something like the tune you wrote, Cazadero. Do you play much in his style?

I try to play like him, but I don’t do it as well as a lot of people. I couldn’t play Cazadero on the mandolin if my life depended on it. I was trying to be a total Bill Monroe clone like my other heroes Frank Wakefield and David Grisman of course. I got to play some with Grisman, and I played in Frank’s band for like three years. I think those guys are great.

When was that?

I dunno, around 1980 or so when he was out here for about ten years. Another mandolin player who was my hero was Sandy Rothman. Of course, he played guitar and banjo with Bill Monroe, but Sandy plays mandolin, in my opinion, every bit as good as Bill ever did, and is on various records where you can hear that. His mandolin playing can be heard on the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band recordings. Unfortunately for the Bay Area bluegrass audience, his public performances are rare these days.

Who are your comedic influences?

Well… It’s a broad stretch even calling me a comedian, judging by the reaction from the audiences before they run off but uh, Rodney Dangerfield and Henny Youngman are two great influences. Of course, I watched the Three Stooges every day of my life. I’ve been trying to be a comedian since I was ten.

I thought you’d say Homer And Jethro.

Oh, I love Homer and Jethro, they’re great.

What’s the worst thing that ever happened to you telling a joke on stage?

I once told a Polish joke at a pizza parlor in El Cerrito and this like 6’5″ Polish guy came up waving his fist yelling at me. He was very offended. He left, but I didn’t tell any more ethnic jokes for a while after that. I have been threatened occasionally for my comedy but mostly I’ve just been ignored. It’s hard to hear it over the snores from the audience, and yet I persist.

What other musicians influenced you early on?

Well, Ed Neff is a real role model and gave me fiddle lessons when I was just starting, and Butch Waller who plays exactly like Monroe. Those two locally were my heroes. I love their playing and I wish I could get the sound that they get.

How would someone hear some of the obscure recordings that you have done like Fiddle-Crazy and Two Pauls Watching?

Fiddle-Crazy is apparently on the internet somewhere. My album of original fiddle tunes, called Fiddle Tunes from California, will be on Bandcamp when someone helps me do it ’cause I’m a dunce with a computer. 

I don’t think Two Pauls No Waiting, which had limited distribution, is for sale anywhere, and I don’t think Tony Marcus has put it on Bandcamp, but you may be able to find it on his website, or through Paul Anastasio.

NOTE: You can purchase the CD on the Tuxedo Records web site.

Two Pauls No Waiting snippet at the Freight & Salvage in 2012.

Talk about your playing twin fiddles. Have you always been into that?

Sort of. The most twin fiddling I do is a couple of numbers with Ed Neff, and Ed plays really, really in tune, so I have to play my best. Same when I’m at jam sessions or festivals, I mostly just play twins on everything with Annie Staninec because we play completely alike, we keep it simple, and I think we sound great. You can count on her to play perfectly in tune.

Are you usually playing the melody or the harmony?

I always let Annie play the difficult part because she’s the virtuoso. I have also played a lot of twin fiddles with Laurie Lewis, and various times with my sister Sue in bands. In swing style, I’ve played twin fiddles with Paul Anastasio at a couple of gigs recently. When I play swing, I play melody and he plays a part below and above like the Western swing guys do.

So he moves around both above and below you?

No, he plays them at the same time. He plays a double stop that gives you a third and a sixth above and below. He’s great to play with. One thing about twin fiddles is I like to have stuff somewhat worked out. I don’t like spontaneous twin fiddles unless the person like listens to the same records as I do.

Can you talk about your tune Cazadero? How did it come about?

I’m trying to remember. The Good ‘Ol Persons played in Cazadero, CA in about ’76, but I don’t think I wrote the tune until I was driving back from LA to play with an old-timey band that was opening for Bill Monroe. So I wrote it in the space of about four hours while driving from LA to somewhere like Bakersfield. 

Wow, so you wrote it while you were driving?

Yep. Maybe like 1978, and it was on my birthday too.

How did that work? Did you have anything to record it with?

I did not. The tune just came to me.

So when you got out of the car, did you just play it over and over so you wouldn’t forget it?

I think so. This is hazy, but I know the name was inspired from playing the gig at the one bar in Cazadero (not the music camp), which was a very rough place. It wasn’t a fun gig.

How do you remember tunes when you didn’t have a way to quickly record them?

Sometimes I don’t. I usually carry around a little cassette recorder that I’d put things into. At that time, I could sort of write music a tiny bit. Now I can write it sufficiently well and I don’t have to go to the instrument. I can’t do anything with weird timing but a fiddle tune that just goes da da-da da-da da-dah, I can write…easy tunes and find the notes. I couldn’t do that back then but I can now.

How did it end up in the unusual fiddle tune key of E?

I write lots of tunes in E because the key of E had a good sound to it. Cazadero borrows from other tunes, I’m embarrassed to say. The second part is like Dry and Dusty by Benny Thomasson with different chords, but the last two parts are completely unique to me I’m quite sure.

Did you do the chords for it and have they always been the same?

Oh yeah. I really wanted a piano on it. It’s got augmented chords and stuff like that. 

So how did Chris Thile end up playing Cazadero?

Oh, I’ll tell you the Chris Thile story. He’s a huge fan of John Reischmen. So John recorded it first, and he was living in Washington at the time. He had Scott Nygard play guitar and Rob Ickes on dobro and Kevin Wimmer on fiddle, who came into the Good ol’ Persons when I left. So John did a great version which Chris learned, and he made it more famous than anybody, and they played it fast and incredibly clean because they can and that’s who they are. And the tune changed. The fourth part is way different than the way I played it. It goes up into the high position so I could never play it which is one of the reasons I never recorded it with the Good Ol’ Persons. It’s morphed into a new tune from what I wrote, soundly improved I would say, and I’m happy that people like and play it.

I think it was one of the first tunes that caught my ear when I started playing mandolin.

It’s all over YouTube. People are putting their versions on various instruments.

Cazadero Sixth Floor Trio at the Kennedy Center

We saw Chris at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass doing the radio show Live from Here with his great band do it.

That’s great and he always mentions me. Well going back, John is one of my big heroes and I got to play with him for twelve years.

That’s so great. Cazadero also reminds me a bit of your tune China Camp. Was that before or after Cazadero?

That was before. I wrote it around 1981 and recorded it with the Good Ol’ Persons in 1983. It’s a pretty good recording but it sounds like it’s between A and B flat because the engineer thought it was dragging and he sped it up.

Yeah, it sounds pretty fast.

It is, I used to play it really, really fast but on the Good Ol’ Persons recording it started pretty fast, then the band sort of slowed down a little bit so he was trying to adjust. There wasn’t a lot you could in 1983 like you can now with tempos. John plays it unbelievably well on the Good Ol’ Persons version which is on my compendium album on Bandcamp

How many tunes have you written?

I’ve been writing my original tunes for 40 years, and have a new release called Fiddle Tunes from California which was mostly recorded in a 2006 session at Eric Uglum’s studio in Hesperia, Calafornia. One final track was added in 2008 using Eric’s mobile studio in Novato, California. It was finally released, on the internet, this December, 2023, with much artistic and technical assistance from Tyler Stegall, Jon Grier, and Dave Berry. I hope fiddlers and other instrumentalists will enjoy the tunes and want to play them.

I assume the release has a lot of similar-sounding tunes to Cazadero.

Somewhat. It does have my version of Cazadero. I tried to play it differently from how Reischmen and Chris Thile played it and it’s slower. There’s one Texas-style tune on it and a bunch that I flatter myself sound like Irish or Cape Breton.

Who were the players?

I’m playing all the instruments including fiddle(s), guitar, tenor guitar, mandolin, banjo, and electric bass, except for a couple of the tunes. Eric’s son Austin Ward, replaced my bass track with the string bass and banjo virtuoso Janet Beazley played multiple tin-whistle parts on four tracks..

Are there any plans for a CD release or making it available on streaming platforms?

Yes, a CD will be out eventually but not sure about the streaming.

Do you have any regular shows you play these days?

Just the Willowbrook Ale House in Petaluma on the first two Thursdays of every month with the Ed Neff band. 

I understand that today is your birthday so happy birthday. 

Yes, and on the same day that I wrote Cazadero. Later I’m going to dinner with a friend. When I look in the mirror, I say is that Keith Richards’s grandfather?

Winding up, have you read any good books recently?

I’ve been reading the book Strongmen which talks about the history of Hitler, Mussolini, and Trump. I read mostly books about California history because I skipped fourth grade and I missed California history so I’ve spent my adult life visiting the California Missions and studying their history.

Have you played music at any of those Missions?

I have not.

That should do for now. Thanks much for your time, Paul.

Thank you Dave for persevering and doing all of this transcribing.

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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