MUSIC FOR A LIFETIME

words ERICA BROWN

I was 6 when I picked up the fiddle for the first time, and had no idea how it would change my life—the people I would meet and the places I would go, all because of music.

Starting with classical music, I took private lessons and played in youth and college orchestras. But just a couple years into lessons my curiosity about other styles of fiddle music arose.

My familial musical influence was my Pepere, my mom’s dad. He played button accordion and harmonica and would play and sing French Canadian music—the music of his heritage—for my brothers and me when we’d visit. Unfortunately, he passed away soon after I began taking lessons but his music really stuck with me.

At 8, I began taking French Canadian fiddle lessons from Don Roy. Roy is an incredible French Canadian fiddle player, born and raised in Maine. He and his wife, Cindy Roy, received a National Heritage Fellowship in 2018 from the National Endowment for the Arts for their contributions to French Canadian music in Maine. I was Roy’s first student and though he was reluctant to take me on at first because of my age and that he had never taught anyone before, he agreed to give me one lesson to see how it would go. During that first lesson he quickly realized I was serious about wanting to learn the tunes and techniques he was teaching. That lesson brought with it a friendship to last a lifetime and we are still making and writing music together to this day.

The next step, at age 9, was joining The Maine French Fiddlers, a band led by Roy. The group comprised Roy’s wife, his uncle Lucien Mathieu, his cousin Louis Mathieu and a few close friends. Every band practice or concert was like going to Disney World. I looked forward to learning the material and arrangements and most of all playing music with this incredibly supportive and fun group. Despite my young age, it never got in the way of us being able to come together and play music for hours on end. Music has a way of doing that. It brings people together no matter what the differences, which is such a gift. My supportive parents were willing to drive all over New England and Canada for various performances and fiddle contests, not to mention the many years of commuting to weekly lessons from various teachers statewide.

Uncle Lucien became like a grandfather and introduced me to bluegrass. I was immediately hooked and my family and I started going to several weekend-long bluegrass festivals around New England every summer. When the Maine French Fiddlers disbanded when I was about 12, I started diving into the bluegrass repertoire, including singing. So after many years of prodding and encouragement from family and friends, at 16 I started to sing. Within a couple of years Erica Brown and The Bluegrass Connection was born, and is still alive and well, performing all over New England and Canada. I’ve been so lucky with the incredible musicians who have been part of the band over the past 18 years. They all feel like family to me.

Ten years ago I met my now husband, Matt Shipman. We started playing as the duo Darlin’ Corey—named for the well-known American folk song—just a couple years after we met. Matt sings and plays guitar, mandolin, clawhammer banjo and bouzouki as well as writes original material. In addition to singing and playing fiddle, I also play guitar. Striving for an eclectic mix, you’re likely to hear us play a set of old-time tunes, sing a folk, bluegrass or even country song. Add to that a smattering of original material and we’ll even throw in an Irish or French Canadian tune for good measure.

Image

From the left: Josephine County's Colleen Raney,
Hanz Araki, Erica Brown and Matt Shipman.
Photo: Jullian Lancaster, 22 Pages Photography

Four years ago Matt and I crossed paths with Colleen Raney and Hanz Araki from Seattle who were visiting Portland and had joined one of the many Irish sessions that happen in Portland every week. Incredible Irish musicians, we took a liking to their playing and singing immediately. Better still, we found out they were going to be moving here within the next few months, so I took it upon myself inundate them with house listings in my neighborhood, hoping to persuade them to move close by, which they did.  The whole idea was if we lived near one another it would be easy for us to get together to play music. But I should have known that would prove nearly impossible given how busy we all were performing in our various projects.

As Raney tells it: “We’re very lucky to have so many friends in the music industry in Maine, but one of the challenges is that we never get to spend any time together because we’re always working during normal ‘hanging out’ hours. There’s a joke among musicians that the only way to see your friends is to book a gig with them, and in this case, it’s absolutely true. There is a wonderful weekly night of Irish and Irish-adjacent music at Blue in Portland, organized by Tom Rota for the past 15 years, and we decided to pick up one of those shows for the four of us as an excuse to play music together after a couple of years of attending each other’s shows and genuinely enjoying the music being played. We thought it might just be a fun thing to do once or twice a year around town when things were quiet. Considering that was in July 2017, I think we might have underestimated things a little bit.”

One of the biggest challenges we found after booking this performance was not coming up with music to play but rather what to call ourselves.

Araki explains the origin of our group’s name: “Naming a band is really hard. Josephine County is a county in Southern Oregon. Colleen and I grew up on in the Pacific Northwest and long drives are just part of the job. They’re also fertile ground for weird conversations. On one of any number of drives we took down Interstate 5 to California and back, we decided that if we ever had a country band, hers would be Josephine County and mine would be Jumpoff Joe. When we made the decision to do a show as a quartet, we thought it would be so much tidier to have a band name than listing all four of our names, and because the name Josephine County was in the offing, we went with it. Even though we’re not a real country band, with Erica and Matt, we get close enough.”

We all come from such diverse musical backgrounds and I’ve really enjoyed the process of finding interesting ways to combine our various styles of music to create our unique sound.

My husband sums it thusly: “I think the thing I like most about this band is that we all appreciate each other's different musical styles. I think what can happen sometimes as a musician is we can get too pigeonholed and narrow-minded in our own genres. That being said, one does have to be a serious student of a genre before you can even begin to study another one. But the willingness to listen, appreciate and to even play another genre can be a great learning experience. It can help you rediscover and grow your own musical identity while learning something new.

“I think everyone in this band has ‘moonlighted’ in each other's genres and so we can truly appreciate where we all are coming from. For instance, bluegrass and Irish music grew and continues to grow almost side by side for me. I think of myself as more of bluegrass/folk musician because I started writing songs and playing bluegrass and old time music first. But then I look back and think, I've playing the bouzouki at Irish sessions and with bands for almost 20 years now. The music scene around Portland is so rich that I feel really lucky to have the opportunity to continue to learn and grow because all of my amazing musician friends around here.

“I think another cool thing about Josephine County is that everybody in the band is a strong singer. Having four vocalists, song interpreters and writers in the band is so great and it gives the audience a chance to hear from everyone as a lead and harmony singer, which I think people really appreciate. Three- and four-part harmonies are really fun to sing. And because everyone is a singer, we treat each other with musical respect when we each sing and do our best to accompany and make that singer and song be the best it can be.

“The fact that there are so many different instruments and options also keeps things interesting. We have clawhammer banjo, fiddle, many types of flutes and whistles, bodhran, three different guitar tunings—two often going at the same time, which I love. I love all the diversity this band brings to the table. It's fun to have all these different sounds and tools to use. And everyone gets along, and that's important. We're all good friends.”

josephinecountyband.com

Erica, at age 8, enters at 18:05 minutes, but the whole video is excellent music.

Previous StoryNext Story