California Report: Ryan Breen of Windy Hill

Ryan Breen is co-founder and holds down the banjo, vocals, and songwriting chair for the San Francisco bluegrass band Windy Hill. They are the backbone of the Bay area bluegrass world, and in 2018 released their fourth album Live from the Ratz Nest in the classic bluegrass style.

Hey Ryan, thanks for your time and congratulations on the new album. Where exactly is the Ratz Nest?

Thanks, Dave. The Ratz Nest, AKA the Ratz Carlton, is in the hills of Soquel near Santa Cruz. Andy O’Brien, our mandolin player, lived there for a few years.

The sound is great. Does Windy Hill’s feel translate equally well for live and the studio?

Thank you. The album was recorded live to tape on two mics, one for the bass and one for everything else. No overdubbing; everything in one take like the old days. We’re certainly most comfortable with fewer mics, so our sound translates best in a more live setting. It’s fair to say that bluegrass isn’t meant to be played with each band member in a separate room.

There’s very little bio info available for the band. Please share your background.

I grew up in Portola Valley, California, at the foot of Windy Hill Open Space Preserve. It still is and will always be home base. I left the Bay Area to attend Colorado State University and returned upon graduating. I’ve been living in San Francisco for almost seven years. In high school, my pals and I became obsessed with live music, mostly of the jam band variety. One of my best friends started pickin’ banjo, and pretty soon a handful of our crew were pickin’ Cripple Creek all around town. I had a short stint on a left-handed banjo before returning it. A couple of years later, during my college sophomore year, a friend gifted me her father’s homemade right-handed banjo. I learned on that ole thing, which has been passed around to a few of my banjo students over the years. A lot of my banjo development happened while studying abroad in Barcelona. I started playing guitar around 2013. 

Barcelona banjo, I bet there’s a story there. Was your family musical growing up?

My parents are music lovers and encouraged me to take piano lessons as a kid. My mom has a truly eclectic musical taste. Growing up, she would play everything from the Pretenders to Rachmaninoff to Motown to Peter, Paul and Mary. My dad was a huge Van Morrison fan, and one of my favorite childhood memories is jamming with him to Van’s Ain’t Nothing You Can Do, him on sax and me on piano. My siblings and I were really into Thriller as kids, haha! Almost everyone in my family can play some ukulele because of family ties to Hawaii. My brother can shred a drum kit, and my sisters also dabbled in drums and electric guitar as kids. Beyond my immediate family, my uncle Joe studied opera at Julliard and has sung all over the place, including at the Grand Ole Opry, backing up my aunt Carlene Carter. 

It’s cool that Carlene is a big Windy Hill Fan. Do you two ever swap songwriting stories?

Carlene is the best. She and Joe have always encouraged me to follow my passion. She is obviously full of amazing songs and stories and has told me about certain songs she’s written, especially those about family. She’s an inspiration for sure. 

Tell us about how the band got started.

I like to say that Windy Hill started in high school woodshop class, chopping air mandolin on a 2×4 and talking shop with my classmate Henry Warde. To me, Windy Hill started before I even played banjo. Once I picked up the banjo and Henry the mandolin, we would do some pickin’ and singin’ in the summers and holidays while home from college.

When did you start recording?

We made our first Windy Hill recording in the summer of 2007, thanks to a Christmas present from my mom. We cut four songs in four hours at a local recording studio. In 2008, Henry moved to Colorado, during my final semester, and we found bass and guitar players. At first we were going for a more progressive sound, and then we made friends with die-hard classic bluegrass lovers from Springfield Ohio, Jason Stapleton and Justin Judy, who completely changed our trajectory toward that O.G. ‘grass. Bless their hearts. The band moved home to the Bay Area and re-formed around 2010. 

How have you maintained the same band sound through a fair number of personnel changes?

We have a lot of talented friends who love bluegrass. Today, the majority of our band still consists of high school friends. Windy Hill has always been as much about friendship as it has about the music. We rely on chemistry. Beyond that, I think anyone we’ve brought on board has understood the kind of music we like to play. We’ve been able to maintain our same attitude and approach despite the personnel evolution. To me, bluegrass is all about intention and attitude. 

It’s striking that your original songs all sound like standards. Is that intentional?

When I write a song or tune it just comes together. I try not to confine my creativity to any boundaries, like trying to write a bluegrass standard. Still, I’ve spent so much time listening to classic bluegrass that of course it shows in my songs. One of my songs that people seem to like, City Slicker Darlin’, I wrote on a plane on my way to visit Jason in Ohio. I was feeling inspired by Ohio bluegrass when I wrote that one, so it was probably a conscious effort to write a good bluegrass song. 

The Monday night bluegrass at Amnesia, the bar in San Francisco, has been going on for quite a while. When did it first get on your radar?

We first played Amnesia in March of 2010, opening for 49 Special, who were nearing the end of their Amnesia tenure. Our guitar player at the time had a connection to the band, and he got us an opening slot. That was our introduction to the San Francisco bluegrass scene. Later that year we started our monthly residency. I LOVE Amnesia and am really thankful for all of the hours I’ve spent there and for all the people that have oiled its gears over the years. It’s something I’ll always cherish.

I noticed you’ve been playing at a boat house venue in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Tell us about that.

Kyle McCabe, our bass player, has been hosting “Bluegrass at the Boathouse” at Stow Lake in the park for over a year. It’s a fun and intimate venue and is organized through Airbnb. Kyle had his first child a few months ago and took a little hiatus, but it’s up and running again, and I believe Windy Hill will be playing there once a month in 2019.

How would you describe your banjo style?

Three-finger Scruggs-style. I’m mostly self-taught. I think being a lefty and playing righty has shaped my style, although it’s hard to say how. I try to play with good drive and am a straight-forward, no-frills player. Maybe I’ll learn the frills one day. 

Windy Hill has done some small tours. Will the stars ever align for a broader tour?

I hope so. We talk about touring in Japan – I’d really like to do that. Windy Hill will be back on the road again but I have no idea when. Touring can be a lot of fun. We did a seven-week tour once – I’d be shocked if that ever happened again. 

Your vocals sound like you’re from Tennessee. How does a Californian get that lonely sound?

You hear people talk about trying to sing with or without an accent. I don’t think about it and just try to sing like myself. Of course, we’re all influenced by our surroundings, and I listen to a lot of classic bluegrass. Lester Flatt is from Tennessee, and he’s my favorite singer. I try to inflect some of his style in my singing. 

What percent of your songs are written by the band and how do you decide which ones to record?

Of the four Windy Hill albums, a little more than half of the material is originals. We have a couple of albums with 15 or 16 originals. The decisions of which to record are spontaneous and can depend on how prepared we are for a recording session. 

Are there any special shows coming up this year? 

We have a few big shows in the works, but nothing to share with the masses just yet. Folks can email me at windyhillbluegrass@gmail.com if they’d like to book Windy Hill. 

What’s the best banjo joke?

The one that’s never been told? I’m a member of BAMJO (Banjoists Against Musical Jokes Org), so I’m prohibited from weighing in on that. 

Do you have any advice for the banjo players or their spouses?

Love it or leave it. 

Is there anything else you want to say?

Shout out to my bandmates Kyle McCabe, Thomas Wille, and Andy O’Brien, and to my friends who fill in with us most often, including fiddlers Brandon Godman, Jan Purat, Alex Sharps, and Jack Kinney, mando pals Bill Foss and Josh Gooding, and all-about-that-bass Jimmy Touzel. And thanks to everyone who has played in Windy Hill over the years…way too many names to list. Also, thanks to High Country for giving me something to aspire to. Congrats to them on 50 years as a band.

Thanks much Ryan, see you at Amnesia and beyond.

Thanks, Dave, for a fun walk down Windy Hill lane. 

Websites

Notes

Windy Hill plays every third Monday at Amnesia in the San Francisco Mission District from 9:00 to 11:30 p.m. There is also an open jam from 6:30 to 8:30 hosted by the Handsome Ladies. If you find yourself in San Francisco on a Monday night, get on over to Amnesia for their regular Monday night bluegrass shows.

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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. He is forever indebted to copy editor Jeanie Poling for cleaning up his act.