Good Ol’ Persons
Photos by Gene Tortora
Reprinted from Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine
October 1984, Volume 19, Number 4
“I’m sorry, but when it comes to singing bluegrass, most women just can’t cut it.”
“Women bluegrass musicians are such wimpy players.”
“If God had intended women to play bluegrass, He would have created “Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Persons.” Oh, to have a nickel for every time such grumblings have been heard in the bluegrass world. And oh, to have a copy of the latest Good Ol’ Persons record and a serving of crow handy next time the chauvinists rear their heads.
Granted, it took a while—about 40 years—but at last there are a growing number of women who sing and pick with the technical ability and feeling that bluegrass demands.
Three such women perform in one of the West Coast’s most popular bluegrass bands, the Good Ol’ Persons. Since its 1975 debut, the San Francisco Bay Area group has been steadily gaining acclaim for stunning vocals, original tunes and hot instrumental work.
Now, with a new record out on the Kaleidoscope label and a successful festival tour under its belt, the Persons have increased their following even further.
The five-piece group, with Kathy Kallick on guitar, Sally Van Meter on Dobro and banjo, Paul Shelasky on fiddle, John Reischman on mandolin, and Bethany Raine on bass, draws from a huge working repertoire of bluegrass, western swing, country, folk, and original material.
The result is a smooth, unique sound, combining traits of both traditional and modern bluegrass, with vocals playing a major role.
“We try to stay within the style of the song,” Dobro player Van Meter said. “If the song is traditional, we play it really straight, although some songs take on different personalities.”
Kallick agreed, adding, “Many bands try to copy Ralph Stanley or Bill Monroe exactly, and I like that, too, but we don’t copy anyone; the way we learn songs is in true folk tradition: from each other.”
The only original “Person” still in the band, Kallick, 30, moved from Chicago to San Francisco in 1973 to attend the San Francisco Art Institute. However, the daughter of a folksinger mother and guitar-playing father soon found music more to her liking.
She began playing and singing “for fun” with fiddler Laurie Lewis, guitarist Dorothy Baxter, mandolinist Sue Shelasky, and banjo, spoons, and hammer dulcimerist Barbara Mendelson.
The group, which was more old-timey sounding than the current band, began performing at local bluegrass haunts, and when Sue quit the band, her brother Paul stepped in as the mandolinist and “token male.” (When John Reischman joined the band three years later, Paul switched back to playing fiddle.)
This combination of musicians recorded the first Good Ol’ Persons record on Bay Records in 1977. That effort established Kallick’s smooth, understated singing style and gift of songwriting.
With about 50 songs to her credit, Kallick continues to write, and six of the ten songs on the new album are hers, including the title cut, “I Can’t Stand to Ramble.”
“My songs come from fantasy, observations and happenings,” she said. “I always say that I have a muse helping me write; sometimes the line of a song will just come into my head.”
Although, she adds, other times she consciously decides what direction and style the song will have:
“In ‘Broken Tie,’” she said, “I tried specifically to write a bluegrass song spoken from a contemporary point of view.”
The Persons’ other main lead singer, bassist Bethany Raine, adds variety and dimension to the group with her heavier vibrato and rich tone. Her tenor voice, combined with Kallick’s lead and Van Meter’s baritone, make up the vocal trio affectionately known as “The Personettes.”
Originally from Nevada City, Ca., Raine, 26, became a bass player “by default” when a band she played guitar in needed a bassist. She took to the instrument immediately and continued to play it in other groups, including the Any Old Time String Band.
“I really like playing bass with the Persons,” she said. “This band is really attentive to the bass and everybody sees the bass as an important part of the group.”
Besides music, Raine finds time to do bookkeeping and electrical work.
And, speaking of interesting occupations, what do you get when you cross an opera-singer mother with a Hawaiian guitar-playing father? Why a daughter who sings baritone and plays Dobro, of course.
Sally Van Meter, 26, began playing guitar at age eight. She remembers as a child hearing many types of music, from early recordings of Tex Carman’s Indian-Hawaiian guitar playing, to Roy Acuffs “Great Speckled Bird.”
And, although she had heard the instrument, she didn’t see her first Dobro until she was 19 years old; when, while playing a banjo in a music store, a man came in with an old carved-body Dobro for sale. And, to make a long story short, the price was right—$42 —and Van Meter’s career was launched.
“My first big influence on Dobro was Mike Auldridge,” she said. “He gets such a nice, fat tone, compared to Oswald Kirby’s (Acuffs Dobro player) ‘crying and dying’ sound. I prefer Dobros with a woody tone, not tinny-sounding.”
Indeed, Van Meter’s own playing is noted for her rich tone, expressiveness, and attention to backup work.
After playing banjo and Dobro with a bluegrass band in Chico for two years, the Good Ol’ Persons lured Sally to the Bay Area in 1977. There, her Dobro began enhancing the band’s country material and her banjo boosted its bluegrass sound.
The Persons’ sound is also enhanced by mandolinist John Reischman’s innovative playing. While adept at traditional styles, it is his swing and “new acoustic music” influences which add spice to the band’s fare.
From “Limehouse Blues” to his own “Birdland Breakdown,” Reischman’s smooth, flowing lines demonstrate amazing technical accomplishments, which have also led to his performing and recording with Tony Rice’s Instrumental Unit.
A native of Ukiah, Ca., Reischman began playing rock and blues guitar at age 12. After hearing some bluegrass on TV’s “Andy Griffith Show,” though, he was hooked; he borrowed a mandolin and began to learn.
“The first guy I listened to was Sam Bush,” he said. “As far as influences, I would name him for his drive and fluidity, David Grisman for his expressive tremelo and tone, and Andy Statman for his creative playing style. I also listen to new wave groups like the Police,” he said.
After living in Oregon for five years, Reischman, 28, returned to California to play and sing bass with the Persons, a decision he doesn’t regret. “For one thing, in this band, I can play lighter and quieter, and the dynamic range is greater than any band I’ve ever played in,” he said.
Also a composer, two of his instrumentals, “Get Up and Go To Work” and “ItzBin Real” are featured on the band’s new album.
Perhaps the most colorful personality in the band belongs to fiddler Paul Shelasky. Long known for his outrageous antics (he came to his first Persons’ gig in drag), hilarious parodies (“Hoofprints In the Snow”) and dumb jokes, (from racehorses to chickens) he is both the band’s clown and red-hot, versatile, fiddler.
“Paul is a great imitator,” Raine said, adding, “You can almost tell what fiddler he’s been listening to that day by the way he plays that night.”
But Shelasky, 31, has developed his own sound, too, and is regarded as one of the finest fiddlers in the country. He won the California State Old Time Fiddle Championships in both 1975 and 1981, has judged numerous contests, including 1983’s National Old Time Fiddle Championship in Weiser, Idaho.
However, had it not been for a certain bluegrass festival one summer, Shelasky might have spent his life digging up bones instead of winning contests.
“I was in my third year of college, studying archaeology at Sonoma State,” he recalled, “and I went back to Bean Blossom, met Kenny Baker, and that was the end of my college career!
Raised with classical music (his father is a violinist, his mother a pianist), Shelasky dabbled with piano and ragtime blues guitar before buying his first fiddle at age 18. He learned by attending local “hoots,” listening to recordings of Scotty Stoneman and Richard Greene, and “practicing like a madman.”
In addition to collecting jazz fiddle recordings and old automobile catologs, Shelasky is also a composer and vocalist. His “Rutabaga Boogie” has become a classic, and is still the band’s most requested song.
Although the Persons still continue to play local bluegrass clubs, they hope to continue touring and “break out of the local music scene,” according to Kallick.
Their unique sound and having a trio of women singers may help do this.
“We do get jobs because we have women singing trios,” Kallick said, though she is quick to add that she favors working with men and women in a group.
“Having both men and women in a band seems to work better; it’s a microcosm of society.”
But gender takes a back seat to music in this group, according to Van Meter, who added, “We prefer to go over as competent musicians first.”