Sharon Gilchrist discusses producing the new North Country Blue CD

If you follow bluegrass at all then you are no doubt aware there is an amazing amount of young talent coming out of California. The California Bluegrass Association (CBA) Youth Programs spearheaded by CBA President Darby Brandli are a huge part of that success, and North Country Blue (NCB) is the latest young band exciting crowds in California and beyond.

In less than two years since they formed, these teenagers have already played the Strawberry Music Festival, CBA Father’s Day Festival, Viva Las VeGrass, and the venerable Freight & Salvage, plus they showcased at IBMA in 2018. The members, who all sing, include: Tessa Schwartz on fiddle, Daisy Kerr on guitar and clawhammer banjo, Megan January on bass, and Ida Winfree on mandolin and guitar. They play both traditional and original material.

NCB has just put the finishing touches on a new, 11-song release produced by noted Berkeley mandolin player, singer, composer, Peghead Nation instructor, and now producer Sharon Gilchrist. Sharon took time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions about working with the band on what is her first full-length CD production.

Tell us how you came to this project.

While catching glimpses of North Country Blue this past year, I was struck by the maturity of their musical ideas and repertoire, and the conviction with which they perform the music. They clearly love what they are doing. My first involvement with the band was a weekend of band-coaching where fiddler and singer Megan Lynch Chowning and I worked with the girls on arrangements of already-existing material. All of that material is on the recording, so that time proved a valuable contribution. 

When the band decided to hire a producer, I think they may have been looking for an outside, objective party or referee to make decisions, and mostly keep the ball rolling in the studio. With the level of musicianship present and the substantial body of material the girls had to present, I immediately did a deep dive into the project.

What areas did you work on before going into the studio?

We only had three days available for rehearsal. My challenge was to determine what area of focus could have the greatest overall effect on the project. That one area of focus became the skill of listening. Listening is where all good musical things become possible. We applied the art of listening to the band’s groove. When a band listens to each other, they find the groove. From there, playing becomes easier. This was imperative as we did not have time for instrumental overdubs in the studio. 

Once the foundation of listening and groove was established, we then focused on musical interactions like dynamics, varying rhythm patterns, backing up the lead vocal and worked out arrangements on the remaining half of the material – not bad for a few days rehearsing. 

That’s a lot of work and commitment, they were obviously up to the task.

I am beyond impressed with the effort the band gave this project. The elements we chose to focus on along with their individual and collective efforts paid off in spades. The girls stuck to a pro schedule tracking eleven songs with relative ease in three days, adding a fourth day for vocal harmony overdubs. The girls treat each other with total respect, are self-motivated and have a tremendous work ethic. It was a pleasure to work with them and the album absolutely exceeded my expectations. 

Here are some tracks from the CD.

Pride of Man
Hello Florence Thompson
Riding on that Midnight Train

These gals who are from all over Northern California are quite busy and in the midst of a six-city California CD release tour where they will play in or near each band member’s hometown, along with two shows in Southern California, where the band members have many followers. The remaining show dates listed below include special guests and of course you can get your copy of the CD at these or any other shows, or by emailing the band at info@northcountryblue.com. It will also be available soon on CD Baby and the usual digital platforms. Visit their website for more show dates and the most up to date information.

  • Sunday, February 17 – The Back Room in Berkeley
  • Friday, March 1- Casa Verde House Concert in Point Richmond
  • Saturday, March 23 – The Barking Dog Grill in Modesto

If you have ever been in a band, you know how difficult organizing gigs and rehearsals can be. Imagine doing this in California without a drivers license so huge thanks go out to the parents who do endless scheduling and shuttling, help manage the web site, take photos and videos and pretty much anything else required to move the band forward.

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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.