California Report: Scott Gates, CBA success story

Scott Gates with Get Down Boys – photos © Robin Frenette

Described as a fun-loving and remarkable musician, Scott Gates is yet another product of the California Bluegrass youth movement. He has been playing mandolin, guitar, and singing hard core bluegrass since before he was ten years old. Scott is in three bands highlighted below and is a popular instructor for the next wave of California bluegrass talent. If and when you see him play live, you will not forget it.

Hi Scott, when exactly did you know music was your calling?

I’ve known as long as I can remember. My family tells me I answered the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” with an emphatic, “a musician!” since motor skills were a new accomplishment (still are an accomplishment, sometimes). My grandfather Marco Manzo was from Sicily, and I grew up hearing him playing old Italian tunes on his ’21 Martin A-model at every family gathering up until his passing in ’07. I formally began piano at 3, mandolin at 7, fiddle/guitar at 11, vocals/stand-up bass at 13, and three-finger banjo at 22. I’ve always got side hustles going on, but music has been, is now, and, if I stay lucky, will always be my only vocation.

What instrument do you generally find yourself holding when the muse strikes for composing?

My phone! Voice recording apps are invaluable for not only documenting ideas, but for later review with a fresh mind, not to mention making sharing with peers super easy. As far as musical instruments, whatever’s closest. Guitar is the popular go-to because it offers a range of voicings for robust solo accompaniment, the tuning setup makes melody/progression experimentation hyper-manageable, and all in a relatively small, mobile format.

What inspires you for composing, and who are some of your favorites?

At first, pain, trauma, and heartbreak made writing involuntary. Essentially, an experience in that category would eventually overwhelm my mental health to the point that songwriting was the only healthy mechanism available to process and remedy such oft-debilitating emotion. The evolution from subconscious self-medication to a deliberate, pointed expression of the whole human experience has been a joy to go through, as well as a major avenue of catharsis. I’m lucky to have landed in a place now where I just want to write fun songs that I hope my friends would like playing and singing.

Some major influences: Western Centuries, Caleb Klauder Country Band, Elliott Smith, Webb Pierce, Hylo Brown, John Moreland, Joanna Newsom, James Mercer of the Shins, Roger Miller, Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel, Marvin Gaye, Oliver Wood of the Wood Brothers, Larry Sparks, Norman Blake, the McCourys, Buck Owens, Don Rich, Moses Sumney…

How long do you generally work on a piece?

Hemingway said, “Write drunk, edit sober.” The more a song is performed, the more you figure out what works best, and capitalize on that, so in some ways a song never stops being written. Another quote to balance this out would be what Paul Simon said of recording: “You don’t finish an album, you abandon it.” This could be applied to songwriting: don’t tweak it to death! Trust yourself, trust in the creative process. On average, I’d say from the first spark to a solid blueprint, takes typically no more than three days, but none of this is set in stone. The other day I came across lyrics I scribbled down over nine years ago and used them to write an entire song in about an hour and a half that I’m quite happy with.

Tell us about the bands past and present you’ve been in.

I had some kid bluegrass bands from about age 11 on, then was a mercenary picker through and following high school. (I still get hired like that, and still love it!)

The Salty Suites – all-original indie folk consisting of a core trio which writes everything (myself on mando, Chuck Hailes on bass, and Chelsea Williams on guitar), and a collective of eclectic world musicians in supporting roles. Our songs are mostly about love, death, late-stage capitalism, war, trauma, drinking, addiction, andcats.

The Salty Suites

The Get Down Boys are a hardworking, LA-based bluegrass/country group that has changed hands a few times over the past decade. I was a hired gun for years until officially joining in a complete personnel reset, finding myself on guitar/mando, Israel Parker on dobro/bass, and Mark Cassidy (the Hillbenders) on banjo, and we all sing. We mainly hope to display a century of bluegrass and bluegrass-adjacent styles, from Appalachia to Bill to Tony to originals to modern covers. We absolutely adore Larry Sparks.

Scott on guitar with The Get Down Boys

Jeff Scroggins and the Scroggdogs is a project that began with a year of whirlwind touring from across the US to Europe twice before things shut down last year. It began when Jeff contacted me after I was filling in regularly for his son and my bluegrass brother, Tristan, in their now-retired band Jeff Scroggins & Colorado, and we started a group together with my beloved friends Yoseff Tucker, Jan Purat, and Zach Sharpe as personnel, playing some driving bluegrass and old country, stacked with brother duo harmonies, and Jeff’s iconic explosive banjo.

And over the past year, I’ve cultivated a few new projects currently in development.

What connections do you see, if any, between bluegrass and other music styles?

A musician should integrate all styles, cross-pollinate from different instruments, and keep an open mind and ear to absorb from entirely different disciplines. In a Q&A or workshop, I like to answer the question, “Who’s your favorite mandolin player,” or songwriter, or whatever with names like Earl Scruggs, Mitch Hedberg, Charles Bukowski, Francis Mallmann, Trey Parker—that is to say, banjo players, comedians, poets, chefs, and cartoonists have a lot of valuable philosophy, technique, professional maxims, etc., highly applicable to the life of musicians.

What artists do you listen to that may surprise the readers?

Not sure what would surprise anyone, considering that we live in a time when so much is at our fingertips in an instant. I’m highly influenced by ’90s Oakland/NYC hip hop. I adore the EDM genres (especially electro) and their impressive cultural similarities to Appalachia. One of my favorite groups is Tank and the Bangas, an incredibly fresh group from New Orleans that tastefully incorporates authentic R&B, blues, spoken word, soul, punk, rock n roll, hip hop, jazz, trap, and folk, into without a doubt the most dynamic performances I’ve ever seen. They’re one of those rare groups that you see and think, “I’m witnessing history right here.” They’re singlehandedly refining the core of an indefinable, brand new genre… They make the term “genre” itself seem laughable.

Are you a bandleader or do you desire to be?

I am a bandleader, but it was never a goal, I think it just happened out of necessity. I have a lot of fun interacting with an audience, singing became my favorite damn thing to do in the whole world, and I adore rhythm – it simply ended up that I was the one primed to take on that role in the groups I play in. That said, each group I’m in is an equal democracy, trusting in one another’s taste/ability/decisions, and honoring any challenges that may arise in the creative process. This taught me a priceless life lesson: the solution to any given dispute is likely to be a fusion of two different ideas. Once again, applying what you learn in one discipline to another discipline or area of life.

What do you like to do when not playing music?

Thrifting, hockey, video games, rock climbing, beach bummin’, chess, mycology, raising Saturniidae moths and my two wild cats, exploring cuisine, breweries/distilleries/vineyards, studying history applied to politics, volunteering for local campaigns, geeking out on directors, learning to write code, gardening herbs/vegetables/succulents, birdwatching, learning about local ingredients, hiking to go find them, and preparing them for use in the kitchen… that’s all I can think of. The quarantine kept me busy!

Do you have any students and, if so, what do you consider the best quality of a teacher?

I had about a dozen students prior to the shutdown, which will continue in the next couple months or so. The number fluctuates as my students need me, of course, and I’m always happy to take on more! The best quality a teacher can have is patience, undoubtedly. Dedication to your student’s goals is equally as important, no matter what.

Tell us about the LA bluegrass scene.

We’re growing it slowly but surely. Lots of regular jams picking up steam, and residencies. The CBA now has its weight behind the region more than ever before, which makes my job as the CBA’s LA Regional Director so much easier! Huge thanks to the CBA for expanding and uniting all the smaller SoCal county associations under such an inclusive community umbrella. This year is set to be pretty exciting; listen and watch for announcements of a new event coming this fall!

What events, or venues have been most memorable for you?

Grass Valley’s Nevada County Fairgrounds which houses the CBA Father’s Day fest and their music camp prior, which I’ve been attending since I was 7 years old. Lifelong friends, amazing jams I’ll never forget, hilarious, sleep-deprived Monday mornings…. I’ll have Father’s Day week blocked off in my calendar for life!

You’re involved in some awesome late night jams at the CBA Father’s Day Festival. Any good stories to share?

Oh MAN. What happens at Grass Valley stays at Grass Valley… ha! Every story that comes to mind is barely family-friendly! There’s one where a California legend was walking from one camp to another at night with a beer in one hand and a fiddle and bow in the other. Since it was dark, and late, and the festival was in full swing, he went to cross the little river, and he tripped! Instead of catching himself, he fell chest and face smackdab into the dirt, with his fiddle and bow AND beer protected, both hands held straight up in the air! The man had his priorities straight!

What event in life really caused you to get hooked on bluegrass?

The CBA Father’s Day music camp at seven years old, and the Huck Finn Jubilee music camp.

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

I have a 2003 Michael Lewis JR-158 F-style mandolin (JR: patterned after John Reischman’s Lloyd Loar). She’s my baby, my workhorse, my best friend, my marriage, my baseball bat, and I will never want another. I use 1.90mm Clayton Raven picks for mandolin, and a 1.5 Dunlop Prime Tone for guitar.

I own a 1983 Martin D41V and use this regularly, but my bandmate is currently lending me his 1947 Martin D28 — nuclear in warmth and punchier than Mike Tyson at a luau.

Do you approach singing differently than playing an instrument?

Yes and no, honestly. Yes in the sense that the emotional/mental game is nearly impossible to articulate in vocal training. The best vocal coaches have this rare ability. No in the sense that every instrument (wood, steel, brass, and flesh alike) should be approached differently per instrument and per musician.

What fiddle tunes do you love and automatically play when you first pick up a guitar or a mandolin?

For mandolin, I’d say Lost Girl (thank you Caleb n Reeb) and Jessamyn’s Reel. I don’t play Thile much at all, but this song slaps. He utilizes what I call his Peter Pan lick so much—a major arpeggio followed by the 6th (ex: G B D G E)—that I was just sick of it, but this song finally nailed its application, in my opinion. For guitar, these aren’t fiddle tunes, but they function as such: Last Thing On My Mind by Tom Paxton, Billy Gray by Norman Blake, and Matty Groves a la Doc Watson fingerpicking.

What do you think it is about music that makes it touch people so deeply?

The catharsis facilitated by undoubtedly shared emotion. It boils down to the closest thing we have to telepathy for musicians and listeners alike. We’re given permission through music to process our pain and trauma, which, even a small amount of processing, can be a huge relief. I firmly believe a musician’s goal is to make adults cry in public.

What other mandolin players do you enjoy listening to and why?

One of the funniest things about playing traditional music is discovering new areas within the walls of the tradition. The McCourys, Larry Sparks, and Bradford Lee Folk are all great examples of remaining within the bluegrass box, while creating original, fresh content. Purists and progressives alike, rejoice. To me, that’s the goal, and it has the added benefit of being exactly what Earl/Bill/Stanleys/etc. did.

Consequently, my little brother-in-bluegrass, Joshua Gooding, is my favorite mandolin player (currently playing with the Alex Leach Band.) My dude is a Pandora’s box of licks. His attack leaves no brutality to be desired. He’s capable of expressing a wide range of emotions, and his attitude is that of a wild west monk—the musical language he is distilling as he evolves is an unblemished marriage of the unusually daring and pure zeal for the bluegrass box-residing foundation.

Thanks for our time Scott!

Thank you for having me, Dave. I really appreciate you reaching out. Hope to chat again soon! Long live our bluegrass music and communities!

Scott with Evan Marshall playing Foggy Mountain Special

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.