Steve Waller, mandolin player, of the Sawtooth Mountain Boys passed away on Friday, June 26, 2015, following a massive heart attack at his partner, Carol Justice’s, home in Cornelius, Oregon. He was 69 years of age.
The band was named after the Sawtooth Range of the Rocky Mountains.
From Sale Creek, Tennessee, the leader of the Sawtooth Mountain Volunteers and later the Sawtooth Mountain Boys, Waller had played traditional bluegrass music since 1965.
A pioneer of Oregon bluegrass music, Waller with Mike Eisler formed the Sawtooth Mountain Boys in about 1970 while both were at Oregon State University.
Born on November 30, 1945, Waller grew up surrounded by music, both with family members and guests, some of whom, like Curly Fox, were widely known. The music of choice was old-time Appalachian and bluegrass type music. At that time Waller played spoons, while Fox was an early influence on the fiddle. His mother showed him a few basic chords also.
Waller remembered watching Flatt & Scruggs on television in the mid-1950s.
At high school Waller played clarinet. It was during those high school years that the family left their Tennessee saw-mill to search for better prospects in Oregon, settling in La Grande.
He started playing mandolin seriously in 1963, self-taught, learning by slowing down records by his favorites Bill Monroe, Frank Wakefield, Jesse McReynolds and Bobby Osborne.
While in college in 1964, Waller met banjo player Mike Eisler and they soon started playing music together, performing as a duo using the name The Duel Finger-Pickers.
In early 1965 they met Harry Stayner and Buzz Altman and formed the Virginia Creek Boys.
Stayner and Altman left temporarily, and Jim & Bill York joined with Waller and Eisler to form the Sawtooth Mountain Volunteers, a name that remained until its change in 1971 to Sawtooth Mountain Boys.
Early on the Sawtooth Mountain Boys had a weekly 30-minute live radio show on Tuesday night at Radio KLOO-AM in Corvallis. Also the band had a regular Wednesday night show at Murphy’s Tavern in Corvallis, Oregon.
As bluegrass festivals become regular occurrences in the northwest the Sawtooth Mountain Boys became regular features.
In 1975 they recorded their first album, simply called Bluegrass (released on the Home Comfort label, HC 1001).
In 1996 the Sawtooth Mountain Boys released their Ocean of Tears album (Coupe de Grass 001), with all original material and in 2000 the band cut its third album, Blue Side of Lonely (Coupe de Grass 002).
In the late-1980s and early-1990s the Sawtooth Mountain Boys embarked on three European tours, performing around a single mic, much to the delight of European enthusiasts.
For many years Waller hosted an annual Pickin’ Party and it was during those jams that the idea for the Oregon Bluegrass Association was formed. Waller was the second president of the association and, in all, he served about six years helping to lead the organisation.
While he played traditional bluegrass music, he was always open to something new, if it excited him.
Waller was a self-employed carpenter / general contractor specialising in the renovation of period buildings of some character.
This remembrance was completed with the help of Joe Ross, to whom we extend grateful thanks, and who shares these anecdotes ….
“…… one of my most favorite (and influential) memories of Steve would be when he and his band would first take a stage. Steve would exclaim, ‘Let’s Pick!’ The band would launch into Sawtooth Mountain Breakdown and then treat an audience to a hard-driving show full of exciting, energetic traditional music. For a student a few years behind Steve, I was lucky to have him as both friend and mentor. During the early-1970s, he was one of the few mandolin players here in Oregon that I had to watch and learn from. Most importantly, Steve always conveyed that same elation and jubilation that he himself felt when he was first learning bluegrass. If anyone out west could capture the thrill, feeling, emotion and sincerity of traditional bluegrass, it was Steve Waller.
And then there was the time I lined up Sawtooth Mountain Boys to accompany Rose Maddox at the Myrtle Creek Bluegrass Festival in the mid-1990s. Rose was used to working with many different musicians as accompanists. She was very happy with the pairing and told me, ‘They actually set time aside to rehearse with me.’ They presented some great sets together at the festival. Steve even had some witty quips and banter with Rose on stage that earned him a pinch in the butt or playful little slap from her.”
This black and white video from 1975 Waller demonstrates his prowess on the mandolin while allowing him to project his vocals ……. Ocean of Diamonds
R.I.P. Steve Waller.