California Report – violinist/fiddler Amy Kassir

Amy Kassir is a fiddler and singer from Durham, NC, whose keen melodic sense and dazzling facility on her instrument shine from the sweetest of waltzes to blazing breakdowns. She plays in several Northern California-based bands and talks about that and more below.

Gee Amy, how many bands are you active in? Please tell us about Solid Gold Stranger, Bluegrass Holiday, B*Craft, etc…

Solid Gold Stranger

I’d say I’m actively in three or four bands at the moment. It’s so fun to have bands that are all rooted in similar traditions, but pretty different from one another – they each fulfill a musical need for me. 

I was in an acoustic band called The Creak with Joe Readel and Korey Kassir from 2015 to 2018, where we played all original songs and tunes that were written mostly by the two of them. When one of the members of The Creak moved away, Joe proposed that he, Korey, Ashley Readel, and I start a bluegrass band for fun (I think this was in 2019). We started as a four-piece band (Ashley played mandolin and Korey played bass), and then we decided to get a bass player so Korey could play mandolin and Ashley took up dobro. The most recently added member of the group is Tyler Stegall, who joined us on banjo in the fall of 2023. 

We still play bluegrass songs and old-time tunes, but our original songs are really at the core of Solid Gold Stranger – Joe writes really great songs and then we bring them to life with arrangements and instrumental textures and harmonies. Our sound has evolved into original modern acoustic music, with inspiration drawn from bluegrass, country, and pop. It’s been such a fun journey finding our style, and letting the music evolve as we’ve each evolved as musicians as well. 

Bluegrass Holiday 

I met Karen Wilhoyte in a jam with Mary Kussmaul at South State 48 in 2022, and they started playing more regularly together after the festival. At some point in early 2023, they asked me and Tonya Newstetter to come jam with them, and before I knew it, we were Bluegrass Holiday! We’re also very fortunate to have Sonia Shell join us on banjo towards the end of last year. She’s amazing and really rounds out the band in a great way. We all take turns singing lead and harmonies, which keeps things interesting and showcases each of our unique voices.

Bluegrass Holiday was my first time being in a band that plays traditional bluegrass. Karen and Mary and Tonya know so many songs, and it has been such a good crash course for me to learn so much of the repertoire, and begin focusing on learning the bluegrass fiddle language. Learning kicks, knowing which singing parts were tenor or baritone – I didn’t really know that stuff beforehand, I was just winging it.

I’m grateful to the Bluegrass Holiday ladies for bringing me in and helping to kickstart my journey into trad bluegrass, even if I’m not the most traditional fiddler. Karen is a great front-person and her deep knowledge and love of bluegrass are contagious. 


B*Craft kind of happened organically as a result of a women’s jam that we hosted at our house in early 2023. Ashley Readel, Jee-Hee Haar, Christine Wilhoyte, Tonya Newstetter, and I were the last ones left at the jam and we started playing originals and making up songs together and really vibing off each other’s creative energy. It all came together pretty quickly after that jam when we decided we wanted to play together more. Then we recruited Sarah Jo Millar from Marin County Breakdown to join us on bass.

We’re all crafty and love making things, so the name B*tchcraft kind of came to me as a joke. We describe our sound as a witchy, crafty, and joyful blend of old-time, bluegrass, folk, and country music. There’s definitely a lot of California folk influence in our sound, and we enjoy playing around with the intersection of modern and traditional sounds.

We have a number of original songs and tunes in our set thanks to the excellent songwriting of Tonya, Jee-Hee, and Christine – we’ve spent a lot of time focusing on our groove, textures, harmonies, and arrangements. We also trade lead vocals and harmonies amongst the five of us, which makes our songs feel dynamic but hopefully still unified as a band. We want to make you laugh, cry, and dance all in one set. 

How cool is it playing in these all-female bands? Was this by design or did it happen more organically? 

I absolutely love playing in these bands, and it’s fun that they’re so different from each other. I believe Bluegrass Holiday was designed to be an all-female band from the beginning, and playing traditional bluegrass with this lineup is really fun. It brings a different energy to those songs, and we get to play around with some of the stereotypes. As I mentioned above, B*Craft happened organically out of a women’s jam. We all have different styles, inspirations, and musical backgrounds, and it’s fun leaning into the witchy, crafty, creative energy that naturally brings us all together.

Regardless of gender identity, I think it really comes down to making music with people you connect with creatively, and can communicate well with. I feel so fortunate to have found so many people here in the California community who I feel that connection with. Something that’s always top of mind for me is that I don’t want our gender expression to be the defining characteristic of these bands – I want our playing and our music to speak for itself. All that being said, I’m grateful to the CBA for being so supportive of female bands. Representation is really important, and it’s important for me to be in a community where all people feel welcome. 

Talk about the new Solid Gold Stranger album, Closer to the Flame. Great players not overdoing it.

Thank you! We’re really proud of this album. Korey did the recording and mixing here at our house, and I’m so happy with how it turned out. This project ended up taking us over a year – between our day jobs, travel schedules, getting new instruments, writing new songs and tunes, and adding new band members (Tyler) – it took a lot of work to get here! 

The album includes ten original compositions – eight songs written by Joe and two tunes written by Korey. I think there’s a really nice range of songs and styles on the record – each song tells a story and has a life of its own. We tried to arrange each song/tune based on what it needed, which sometimes meant restraint and simplicity, while other times it meant going absolutely insane on solos (i.e. Whalers Village, which features rippin’ solos from Jake Eddy and Tyler Stegall).  What I hope we’ve accomplished is a record that feels fresh yet nostalgic at the same time. Emotion is at the heart of our music and I hope everyone can find something that they connect with.

It’s full of duets that sound so natural. How long have you been singing partners?

Those duets are mostly me and Joe. I’ve been singing with Joe and Korey since I joined The Creak in 2015, so we’ve been making music together for about nine years now. I love harmonizing with Joe; he has such a great voice and can bring so much subtlety to his delivery in a way that really makes you feel things and connect to the lyrics. 

I saw Solid Gold played the CBA Father’s Day Festival. What else is up for this year?

We were so honored to be selected as a California Showcase Band this year – playing the Main Stage and Pioneer Stage was an absolute dream. We’re excited to continue the momentum from our album launch, and we have a few other festivals and more gigs coming up this year around Marin and the Bay Area. We are gluttons for punishment so we might record a few more original songs and/or tunes later this year. 

You have sat in/played with others like the Crooked Jades. How did that come about?

The Crooked Jades reached out to me early this year because I think they had seen my playing online, and were interested in having me join for some local gigs and small tours to celebrate their 30th year as a band. It’s been a lot of fun to play their unique versions of old-time tunes – it’s the music I grew up with and it has felt really natural and energizing to play with them. They also play around with ’80s covers and I personally love the creative intersection of old-time and pop songs. I’m playing more dates with the Crooked Jades throughout the year, so keep an eye out for that! 

How long have you been transplanted from Durham, NC, and what brought you to California?

I grew up in Durham and went to college in Massachusetts. I lived in the greater Boston area for some years after college, but I was way too cold and I hated dealing with the weather, so I decided to move to California in 2014. I had some college friends who lived in the Oakland/Berkeley area and they helped me move out here, and it was the best decision I ever made. Eight months after moving here, I went on Craigslist looking for a band, and that’s how I ended up joining The Creak and meeting Korey and Joe.

Tell us about how you got into fiddle music.

I grew up in a musical family in North Carolina, and my dad was always playing in bands on the side of his day job. He plays several instruments (mandolin, bass, banjo, fiddle) and plays a lot of old-time and swing jazz. I guess I had expressed interest in violin when I was very young (apparently I ran to the TV when I saw an orchestral performance and started mimicking the violin), so my parents got me a violin when I was four. My dad taught me my first violin lessons and then I took private classical lessons through the end of high school. 

When I was seven, my dad started teaching me old-time fiddle tunes and bringing me to festivals like Mt. Airy, where I would learn tunes from him and his friends. Festivals like Mt. Airy and Clifftop played a really important role in my musical upbringing. I feel really lucky that I was raised learning both classical and old-time in parallel – learning fiddle tunes by ear from others is such a special gift and I think it helped round out my musical education. I’ve always felt most fulfilled playing fiddle tunes with others rather than playing solo classical pieces. 

Do you recall any early musical memories?

I remember getting violin lessons from my dad when I was four or five in my parents’ room. I was impatient when he was showing me things and I kept trying to saw on the fiddle without listening to him, and I remember it was complete chaos. I also remember being pretty young and throwing my bow across the room because it sounded bad and I hated it. I have so much respect and appreciation for all the parents out there who support young kids learning the fiddle; it can be pretty brutal for a while.

Who are your main inspirations?

I absolutely adore Liz Carroll – her playing is so crispy and exciting, and her original tunes are so good. Judy Hyman is also a huge inspiration – I grew up listening to her and I’m very inspired by her sense of rhythm and unique melodic ideas. Tatiana Hargreaves is another huge inspiration. I’m a big fan of David Grisman and Darol Anger. In the bluegrass realm, I grew up listening to Alison Krauss and I love her fiddling, it’s so melody-driven and so smooth. 

Do you play anything other than bluegrass and old time music?

My music taste is pretty varied and I like to bring all of those influences into my playing. I spent about five years playing Irish tunes when I had a band in Boston. I also played electric bass in a rock band in college for a bit (I was terrible). Before getting into bluegrass, I was playing indie acoustic music with The Creak, which had influences from progressive rock, jazz, etc. I’m up for trying most things, and I love playing and singing cover songs.

Talk about the band, Great Whiskey Rebellion, and playing Irish music.

What a throwback! When I was in college in Massachusetts, I got a fellowship to go to Ireland and study traditional Irish music for my honors thesis, so in the summer of 2008, I traveled across Ireland for a month and played in pub sessions every night. I didn’t know many Irish tunes, so my goal was to really immerse myself in the music and pub traditions and learn as many tunes as possible. It was an incredible trip, especially to feel the connection between Irish and old-time tunes. 

When I came back to the US, I decided I wanted to start a band, so I talked to a Boston pub and got a gig booked before I even had the band. Then I quickly assembled The Great Whiskey Rebellion with some friends – I played electric violin, and we had bass, guitar, and drums. We played a rowdy mix of Irish tunes, old-time, Americana, various cover songs, and even some klezmer tunes. There was such a supportive music community in Worcester and Boston during that time (2009-2014) and the energy from the crowds was so much fun. I haven’t played much Irish music since I moved to California ten years ago, but I still remember that musical phase fondly and hope to revisit some of those styles in the future. 

What other instrument would you secretly like to learn?

Definitely upright bass. I’ve always been drawn to bass, it’s one of the things I enjoy listening to most in all the genres of music I enjoy. It’s such a crucial instrument and it would be so fun to play that role. My secret dream is to play bass in a Talking Heads cover band. 

Are you an instructor?

I have taught lessons in the past and I’m open to teaching anyone who is interested! I can be reached by email

Talk about how you have worked through a past music challenge.

This is a great question! I feel like I’m constantly working through my musical challenges. Something I’ve struggled with over the last few years is trying to find my identity as a fiddler now that I’m more involved in the bluegrass community. I grew up playing old-time fiddle, and I was bluegrass-adjacent but never really learned how to play bluegrass. So when I started going to bluegrass jams a few years ago, I didn’t know any songs to call, and I didn’t really know how to solo in the bluegrass style – I’d just use my ear and try things out, but I didn’t have the musical vocabulary. 

I decided in 2023 to really focus on learning the repertoire so I could build more confidence, and at the end of the year, I started taking lessons with Chad Manning and Megan Lynch Chowning (who are both incredible musicians and teachers). I also started getting requests to sit in on gigs with bands who needed a fill-in fiddler (High Water Line, Town Howlers, etc.), and the combination of lessons and forcing myself to play as much as possible has really helped me push through some of my challenges and start to find my voice in this music. You just have to take risks, try things, and fail in order to learn – sometimes I take risks and it doesn’t work, and sometimes I take a risk and surprise myself in a good way. 

I’m still working on gaining more confidence in bluegrass, and I’m really trying to get out of my head and stop judging myself for not fitting exactly into one particular style. Expanding my toolkit as a fiddler has been incredibly rewarding and I’m motivated to keep learning and trying and pushing myself, whether it’s bluegrass or some other styles in the future. 

Did I see you have a solo fiddle album coming out? Are you a composer?

I have a solo fiddle tune album coming out in late summer and I’m so excited about it! I had never thought about recording a solo album before, but Jake Eddy and I were chatting last year and he was encouraging me to put myself out there, and he offered to produce a solo album. So I flew out to West Virginia this April and we recorded in Pittsburgh for three days with an amazing group of musicians: Jake Eddy, Carter Eddy, Victor Furtado, Korey Kassir, and my dad, Fred Levine, who played twin fiddles for a tune.

The album is mostly classic fiddle tunes that I grew up playing, plus a few favorites that I’ve enjoyed playing over the last few years. We were going for an album that captures the energy of walking around a festival and hearing people play tunes together, from simple duets to rowdy jams. Jake is an amazing producer, and I’m grateful to him for believing in me and pushing me outside of my comfort zone. I’m excited to share the album when it’s ready! 

What do you do when not playing music?

I have a day job, and outside of that, I love to eat and talk about food. I also love sewing, which I haven’t had much time for recently, but I’m hoping to get back into it soon. I have a lot of hobbies but I’m a pretty sleepy person so I mostly like to sit outside and relax. 

What is your go-to instrument?

I have a 1908 German violin made by Johann Glass, and I absolutely love it. I got it last year from Brandon Godman at the Father’s Day Festival (I broke an E string on my old fiddle and ended up getting a whole new instrument). I use a John Brasil bow. 

Is there anything else you would like to say?

Check out the Solid Gold Stranger web site for updates on upcoming shows!

Share this:

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