by Zazie Tobey, staff writer
Warren Wilson’s Bluegrass band the Dead Hemlocks performed on Wayne Erbsen’s radio show, Country Roots, Dec. 2 at 7 p.m. Erbsen, a teacher and prominent member of the music program for the past 19 years, broadcasts out of Western North Carolina public radio, with Country Roots (the station’s longest running program), sending the bluegrass, oldtime country tunes blaring off of 88.1 FM every week. Erbsen directs the bluegrass band among other classes and this semester decided to make it a more advanced class with a focus on performance.
The Dead Hemlocks include Colin Martin, Chris Marshall, Seamus Conley, Jake Yochem, Johnny Steinbock and Sean Valentine. Martin hails on the guitar, Marshall plays the Mandolin, Yochem on the Base, Valentine on the Fiddle, and Steinbock on the banjo.
Most of the five piece band has jammed together in the past, playing informally around the Sage circle fire. For the members who took bluegrass band in the past, this year’s class has been more accelerated, and requires an invitation from Erbsen or a good amount of musical knowledge on the instrument of focus. Before students simply signed up for the class, and were enrolled on a first come first serve basis.
“The advanced class is taking more of a direction because we’re looking to play live,” said Valentine.
Thus far, the five piece bluegrass band has played four gigs this year, the first back in September at the Swannanoa River Celebration, one in November for the VA Hospital, once on the radio and most recently at Sage Café Dec. 5 along with Wilson’s Old Time String Band. Next week the Hemlocks will be performing at an event in Black Mountain at the White Horse. All proceeds go to the Art Space Charter School.
The Hemlocks played a short and sweet set while making their radio debut, although the band’s repertoire and improvisational skills are strong enough they could play around an hour set if a gig called for it. This was the first time for many of the members to play on the radio, sending their music out to reverberate through people’s speakers.
“My sister was listening, my friends on campus, off campus,” said Valentine a first time radio performer. “Also strangers who have no idea who I am were listening – that’s what’s crazy to me. Hopefully they thought we sounded good.”
The band has gotten positive feedback from audiences both on and off campus.
“Some members in the audience at the VA Hospital we’re really into it,” said Yochem.
The band members pick tunes by bringing suggestions to their rehearsals, held twice a week. Tuesdays they are accompanied by Erbsen’s added direction and on Thursdays it’s just the five musicians. The band has around 12 solid songs in their current repertoire. As the band members get to know each other on a personal and musical levels, the hard work of figuring out how to meld each other’s styles turns into a fun challenge.
“Playing with other people is always a learning experience within itself,” said Conley, who plays acoustic guitar for the band. Before coming to Wilson, he did not play bluegrass music.
This semester the band helped Conley improve his flatpicking skills, learning from fellow bandmate Colin Martin.
“It’s helpful for me to compliment what he’s doing,” said Conley. “He’s studied it a lot more than I have. I’ve learned a lot from playing with him.”
Chris Marshall didn’t quite know what to expect when he joined the advanced Bluegrass Band class, but now that the band’s confidence and chemistry have grown, he is excited to know that most of the current members will stick around to play for next semester, in hopes that the band will one day record their music together.
Support the local music scene on campus by going out to see the Dead Hemlocks play at their next gig at the White Horse in Black Mountain on Dec 14.
“We’re not playing the most strict bluegrass music,” said Valentine, “but we play music—music I like.”