TOM SAUBER: THE OLD TIME WAY

By Monika White

Reprinted with permission from Banjo Newsletter

TOM_SAUBER.jpgTom Sauber, a native of Los Angeles and a more than 50 year veteran of many styles of traditional music, is a familiar figure to most West Coast old-time and bluegrass musicians and to others around the country lucky enough to run into him at music workshops, camps and festivals. He is a multi-talented guitar, banjo, fiddle and mandolin player, singer and teacher. Fans of traditional music know him best from recordings with old-time music icons like Earl Collins and Eddie Lowe and, more recently, with Dirk Powell, Mark Graham and John Herrmann. He has performed with an impressive array of bluegrass players including Byron Berline, John Hickman, and Alan Munde. And, to add to his notable resume, he has performed with cowboy and Cajun musicians, appeared in movies and on television and hosted a Los Angeles radio program for many years. Because he continues to be extremely busy performing, recording and teaching, it wasn't easy to pin him down for an interview. We finally talked with him as he was recovering from back surgery.

MW: I've known you for many years, but there are things I don't know. What's your music story? Was your family musical?

TS: Not particularly, although I didn't realize that until I was out of college. We never had anything like a piano until I was fully-grown. My mom found a piano, and lo and behold, my dad played it by ear, but just to amuse himself after dinner. He wasn't great at it, but it impressed me.

MW: Did you play the piano then?

TS: Oh, no, no. I was already playing banjo and totally involved with old-time music by then, but my mom always had a love for music. She always had the radio playing. My older brothers had accordion lessons and we had ukuleles around, but it was more of an appreciation for music than anything else. Even though my mom didn't play anything, we still had a lot of musical activity so obviously, somewhere, music was important in our lives.

MW: You had a couple of older brothers. Do they play anything?

TS: Yes, three older brothers. I'm the youngest of four. And they all played almost nothing. The bother Ed was a little musical. He bought a nice little Martin guitar when I was in high school and we'd play it a little, just for our own amusement. My brother next to him was probably less musical than him, although he did buy the banjo that I learned to play on. In fact, he was inspired enough by a Pete Seeger concert to go out and buy a banjo.

MW: Did you take banjo lessons?

TS: No, we went the typical route for that day like thousands of others, with Pete Seeger's banjo instruction book. We had a guitar instruction book, too, and learned both about the same time.

MW: Is that when you started playing old-time?

TS: Well, it was a short side step from Pete Seeger to Mike Seeger who really knew how to double thumb while frailing. So, we searched for Mike and, of course, there were already half a dozen New Lost City Rambler records out. This was the end of 1963. The Pete Seeger concert was in June 1963 and I had just finished my freshman year of high school. Later that summer, my brother bought an old open-back Kay banjo. I really wish we still had that old Kay. I always thought it was just a crappy old thing, but it was pretty darn cool. I'd probably think of it a lot differently now. By that fall, I had already shifted over, and the Ramblers came out. They may have even been living out here, or at least Mike may have been living out here then. I remember my brother and I went to see them. The Ramblers gave a concert in the school cafeteria at Los Angeles City College on Vermont. It was totally inspiring. I was blown away by all the instruments they played, the back and forth, and everything that they did with them.

MW: You must have been how old, fourteen, fifteen?

TS: Fifteen.

MW: Did you think about becoming a musician then or was it just for fun?

TS: It was just for fun but it obviously became an obsession very quickly. All I can remember is that I wanted to be up there with a good banjo. I had my eye on a Pete Seeger model, and I was trying to talk my folks into buying me this expensive $400 instrument. It was one of the extra long-neck banjos. And, I remember saying to my mom it was something I was going to do my entire life.

MW: You had a premonition.

TS: Yes, but, who was going to believe that from a fifteen-year old?

MW: Aside from playing music, what were you heading for, career wise?

TS: I was a very good student through elementary and junior high, but once I started playing music, it was a long, slippery slope and my grades went from way up to way down. By the time I got into college I was learning how to play the fiddle. I also started to play gigs with people while I was still going to school. I ended up going to computer school down by South Coast.

MW: Didn't you go to California State College in Los Angeles?

TS: Yes. Since I didn't want to go to Vietnam I went to college. I managed to maintain the student deferment throughout all four years. Now I know that the back trouble I've dealt with in the last couple of years started when I was in my mid-teens so I may have avoided the draft anyway. It took me a long time, playing music and working, but I got my degree in History. I was thinking that I might teach high school or something like that, but by the time I got my degree, there weren't any jobs, so I thought I'd go to UCLA because they had a Folklore program-for no better reason than not knowing what else to do. Since I was already heavily involved in playing with people like Earl Collins and Ed Lowe and getting not just good, but pretty serious about the music, the UCLA program was a chance to look at the music in a different way. It gave me a chance to pay attention to the music I was most interested in-mostly where Earl Collins was. So I got a Master's degree in Folklore. But, by the time I finished, I realized that the kind of work you could get with that degree was academic or public sector. By that time, too, I was a regular customer at the Ash Grove Folk Club. My life would be very different had it not been for that place. Earlier, I mentioned the concert at Los Angeles City College that the Ramblers gave. That concert preceded a week's run at the Ash Grove. I never missed them when they came around. I also started seeing other musicians. Doc Watson was coming out twice a year, sometimes by himself, and other times with Fred Price and Clint Howard. I was a senior-maybe around 1965 or so-the whole club scene was very different in those days. People would come and play at the Ash Grove for four or five days, not just one or two nights. In 1965, Doc, Fred and Clint came out every night in April.

MW: I've heard a lot of stories about the Ash Grove but I hadn't started playing yet. I didn't play until the middle 70's.

TS: It was absolutely incredible!

MW: How did you pick up the fiddle? You started out on the banjo.

TS: I had also been playing the mandolin. A guy in our neighborhood named Pierce Powell was my brother's age and they went through Scouts together. Somewhere along the line, Pierce became friends with Mike Seeger. Pierce had a younger brother, Vince, who was a couple of years ahead of me. He had a mandolin and I bought it for maybe a hundred bucks. It was a nice little old pumpkin-face Gibson A model. I started playing and, being pretty much the same as the fiddle, it led me to thinking about finding one. So, I borrowed my sister-inlaw's fiddle and I started scratching out Baltimore Fire and other simple tunes of that nature.

MW: So, by the time you were out of high school, you played banjo, guitar, mandolin, and fiddle.

TS: Yes, and the dulcimer. Actually, it was anything I could get my hands on. I was insatiable. I'm sure BNL readers will be able to identify with that feeling. I just had an absolutely insatiable appetite for this stuff.

MW: Different kinds of music? You now play, or have played, bluegrass, cowboy, other country music, and I don't know what all.

TS: Yes, and it amazes me about the caliber of people I have played with, but definitely old-time music has always been my biggest love and focus. In my freshman year of college, I was in a badminton class, looking for easy units since I needed my student deferment. Classmate Tony Depietro somehow realized we both played mandolin. He played in a bluegrass band and they were looking for a guitar player. I decided to see what it was about although I'd never played bluegrass before. I think I had seen Bill Monroe, and I went to see a Dillards concert in Visalia, but bluegrass was always way up on a pedestal for me. I could never play that stuff. I had no aspirations or expectations that I'd be able to play it. I could, however, play rhythm guitar, and that's what this was about. And, I'd been fooling around with mandolin. I did that for a few years; we had a little 4-piece band: guitar, banjo, mandolin, and bass. We played a few gigs here and there. That would have been around 1967.

MW: When you were in college?

TS: Yes, that's when I first started to see people who played bluegrass. There used to be a pizza parlor down in Lakewood. Pat Cloud was in a band-not the Town and Country Boys then; it was called something else first. He was about 16 and had just started winning contests at Topanga Banjo and Fiddle Festival. The Kentucky Colonels were playing locally at Cal's Corral, on TV, and at the Mirada Bowl. That's probably the first place I saw Mel Durham, but I didn't get to know him until a year or so later. It was with those guys that I first went to the Topanga Banjo contest when it was still in the Canyon. That was also the first time I saw Earl Collins. The audience used to sit on this beautiful shaded hillside. Earl Collins played Arkansas Traveler with this older guy, Warren Johnson, playing guitar. Then, at the end, he got up and entered the contest, and I think his son backed him and he set everyone on fire. It was the most incredible experience. People went crazy! I had met Bill Bryson after I graduated from high school, even before I met the bluegrass guys. I actually had a gig lined up. I was asking around for people who could play it with me. Someone gave me Bill's phone number and we got together. Bill was great. I had been through the New Lost City Ramblers "school of music," and he'd been in string bands with David Lindley and was a couple of grades ahead of me in school, so he had a lot more experience than I did. We hit it off and started playing duet gigs, playing old-time music, just the two of us. After I got into bluegrass, I got a nice Gibson tenor banjo that needed a 5-string neck. The same person that introduced me to Bill Bryson told me about a guy in El Monte who made banjos-Bob Givens. We got along really well and he started to make the neck for my banjo. Since I had a lot of free time on my hands and didn't have anything else to do, I hung out there. He and his partner, Dave Cross, didn't shoo me off (which they were prone to do with a people). When I first went down there, he was finishing off a mandolin for Darryl Boom. I met Darryl who was playing in a band with Pat Cloud for a while and in a band with Randy Graham and the rest of the Town & Country Boys. Bryson and I played a couple of gigs on the same bill at funky little clubs and at open mike nights at the Ice House in Pasadena.

MW: Were you mostly playing guitar?

TS: With Bryson, I was playing all of it-guitar, banjo, mandolin and fiddle for old-time music. It wasn't long after Givens finished that mandolin for Darryl that I told him I had to have one made for me. He started on mine and that got me fired up to play mandolin. I then started a little trio with a friend of Bryson's, Frank Sullivan, who eventually moved away. Among others who played in the band at one time or another was Dennis Riley. There were many changes. Bryson, Darryl Boom, and I ended up playing. We got a gig at a place called the Village Inn and played a couple nights a week for nine months. The people who owned it furnished the whole place in antiques and opened a second one in Orange County. Mel Durham and Wild Oats played there for a long time. By then I got to know Mel and people like Bill Cunningham and Larry Rice (Tony's brother) who played mandolin. Darryl and I became pretty darn good friends. By early 1970s, Darryl heard about this great banjo player, John Hickman, who had moved here from Kentucky. Darryl was playing in another local band called Cold Creek and their fiddler was Jodi Cifra. Darryl, Jodi and I went to John's place in Canoga Park and, Yikes! It made your hair stand on end, John was so good. I had never had the chance to make music with anyone of that caliber. It was an incredible experience. That led to a little band called Corn Bread, and a red, vinyl LP in 1974-75. We played for three or four years. By then Byron Berline was around and Alan Munde and the Country Gazette was playing. Byron eventually lured John over to his circle. I was trying to finish my Master's degree, playing with Earl Collins, and going down to the Old Time Fiddlers' and the Sunday jam sessions in Whittier. I had fiddle tunes coming out of my ears playing with Earl, Mel, Bob Rogers, and Leslie Keith. Leslie was a great fiddle player and lived in San Gabriel. He was the first fiddle player with the Stanley Brothers. There was this woman named Pauline Zingleman, a real go-getter and behind the scenes person-kind of a patron of the arts. She didn't have an embarrassed bone in her body. She would have parties and invite Doc Watson down to her place in San Diego. We went there, met Doc, and played with him.

MW: Talk a little about Eddie Lowe

TS: I met Eddie in 1972 at another Topanga contest at the UCLA Recreation Center. It was another vivid moment. By this time, the early County records were coming out that featured clawhammer banjo with Kyle Creed, Fred Cockerham and Tommy Jarrell. I had been listening to some of that. I was standing up on the hill at UCLA and remember seeing this old fellow with a resonator banjo that had a copper fingerboard halfway down the neck. He said, "I'm going to play a tune that on one side of the mountain is called John Brown's Dream and on the other side of the mountain is called Pretty Little Girl, but I call it John Brown's Dream." He had barely started that and I thought, Whoa! I ran down the hill, leaping over people sitting on their blankets so I was backstage by the time he was finished playing. I introduced myself and that started the whole experience with Eddie, which lasted until he died in 1996. There were many, many, many great times playing music with him. We played mostly out West. Jim Griffith brought Eddie, Bill Bryson and me to Tucson. We also played the San Diego Folk Festival, Salt Lake City, and Fiddletunes a few times. It wasn't until Earl died that I started spending a lot of time with Eddie. We made a couple of amazing trips to Weiser, Idaho. People still talk about him and I still run into people who remember us playing together.

MW: You've played with a lot of big names. What are some highlights?

TS: There are a lot. One time I played with Earl Collins at a festival in Julian, California. Earl had already won the contest. I played banjo and Ossie White played guitar. It was the end of the day, the sun was going down, there were 150 people in a big circle dance, and we were playing. It was very emotional. I also remember when Bill Bryson and I sang Little Glass of Wine at a party and in comes Leslie Keith with a fiddle solo and, my God, it wasn't just any solo, it was his solo that he recorded in 1936. Things like that stick in your mind. There've been jam sessions that you wish could go on forever. One of those times was when I met Mark Graham in Weiser at a jam session in the boy's locker room at the Junior High School.

MW: My old band had a reunion concert a few years ago and it was such a high. But when we listened back to the concert tape, it was terrible! We couldn't believe it because it felt so good throughout the concert and everyone loved it.

TS: I understand exactly what you're talking about. I talk with my students about how great music is and that you can experience those great moments at any level. But, at the same time that you're actually playing it, you have another program going on in your brain. It's a mix of what you are aware of playing and the ideal. They don't always mesh.

MW: Do you have a favorite banjo?

TS: Yes, it belonged to a neighbor of mine. He bought a great little 1912 Vega Fairbanks Tubaphone in 1915. I've also found a nice Little Wonder tenor banjo and had Bob make a neck for it. That has been my great all-around banjo. It's got some volume.

MW: Your kids are both musical. And your son Patrick seems to be following in your musical footsteps.

TS: They are. Hannah isn't driven to play but she is musical. Patrick started playing at about seven years old. I remember his very first jam session. John Herrmann and Dirk Powell came out for the Solstice Festival and stayed with us. We were sitting around playing and Patrick grabbed the bodhran, pulled up a chair and played it flat like a bongo. I was playing a lot of Cajun music then.

MW: I remember Patrick playing Cajun accordion when he was about 10. Then he picked up mandolin, guitar and banjo

TS: When he was 13, I was gone for several weeks, and when I came back he was playing clawhammer. He was pretty good and sounded just like Eddie to me. The first time I played Flatt & Scruggs for him, he didn't like it. Then he listened to J.D. Crowe and the New South and later began to appreciate Scruggs style. Somewhere along the line, he picked up mandolin and played with Cliff Wagner and the Old Number 7 for a while. He plays in several bluegrass you drag your index finger across the strings. I've taken that and worked it into the thumb and index finger. It emulates a three-finger style. It's almost Travis-like guitar playing. Roscoe Holcombe played a thumb style, Keyes an index style. I like to mix them up. I've also taken bits and pieces from some of the great bluegrass players like John Hickman, Greg Smith, and Alan Munde. Most people don't realize that I'm a former member of the Country Gazette. I played one gig with them. They're all fabulous banjo players.

MW: I know this is a hard question because the answer changes, but do you have any favorite tunes?

TS: I sort of subscribe to Eddie Lowe's philosophy that the banjo by itself sounds like hell and is only half the music. It needs a fiddle. Yet, in Round Peak style, just the banjo works. For clawhammer, it would have to be something by Kyle Creed or Tommy Jarrell. There are some great solo pieces around. There's a beautiful version of Walking in the Parlor on the "High Atmosphere" album. Uncle Dave Macon's Rabbit in the Pea Patch is really good, and one of my favorites. As I said, I've gotten into the realm of fingerpicking when I was flat on my back after surgery. It's the soothing school of banjo playing.

MW: You've made a number of recordings over the years, including appearances on albums with Dan Crary, Rodney Crowell, Ry Cooder and Laurie Lewis.

TS: Yes, and a few years ago, Mark Graham and I recorded an album, just banjo and harmonica, "I Thought I Heard it Blow." We're very pleased with how that came out. More recently, Mark and I have been performing as The Brainstormers-a tip of the hat to Mark's brand of song. I'd like to play more with Mark and with Patrick. Playing with them is great fun, one of those great highs and special moments.

MW: Usually people want to know if you have some words of wisdom, some pearls, some encouraging words.

TS: You have to have a good idea of where you want to go with your music. I've always had a very clear model for what I wanted to do. I saw Earl and I wanted to play like that. And I had Eddie. I'd already been playing for ten years in the melodic style and was learning tunes from Mel, Earl and Bob Rogers. But, playing with bands now, including Laurie Lewis, and The Zombies.

MW: Of all the instruments you play, why do you tend to go back to the banjo?

TS: There's a lot I get out of it. For me it's relaxation and very meditative. It's a nice fit for my own personality (or lack of it), and whatever quirks of nature I have. The banjo suits me. I can, within limited parameters, have a certain degree of creativity and still feel that I'm in touch with traditional music.

MW: What does playing banjo mean to you?

TS: A lot of things. Playing around home it's often a way to relax and sort of meditate. The repetitive nature of oldtime dance music, and banjo playing in particular, is very soothing and calming to me. At other times it's a big challenge trying to master a particular piece of music or technique. I used to play a lot of sports when I was young, and for me, there's a sense of competition-not with others, so much; trying to outdo them- but with yourself, to see if you can do something and do it well. Then there's all the social and personal attachments you make over the years with mentors, friends, etc., which mean more than anything.

MW: Do you tend to stay with frailing or clawhammer?

TS: It runs in stretches. In the last few years, I've steadily gotten more deeply into two-finger picking.

MW: What other styles do you play?

TS: I play clawhammer style in more or less the Round Peak approach although I do occasionally play more melodically than a typical Round Peak player would. I also play a lot of different finger styles-2-finger, both index and thumb lead, and 3-finger, as accompaniment a la Charlie Poole or lead like Dock Boggs or the McGee brothers.

MW: Whose finger-style influences do you reflect?

TS: There's a list: Doc Watson, Roscoe Holcombe, Will Keyes. I never saw him play but I think Howdy Forrester was a 2-finger picker. For myself, for my own satisfaction, I play a combination of all of those. Staying at the late second shows in the 1960s, when the last 20 people were left, gave you a chance to get a good look at the performers. Doc used to do this great stuff. I keep meaning to talk to him about a specific banjo lick he did where Eddie, I totally changed my playing. I had always played with my middle finger and switched to my index. It took a couple of years to get comfortable and confident. I've tried to incorporate things as I've needed to in order to play something that is fun, is nice to the ear and feels good. That's what's important. You don't have to be the center of the jam session but you have to put yourself in a physical place where you can be close to the music. To me, for something to be good you have to play it and be relaxed. If you worry about it or you're going to stumble, or speed up or slow down, then it's time to re-think it. Always play within yourself. This comes under the category of good advice for everybody. There's a time to stretch things out and a time not to.

MW: What's going on for you currently?

TS: For the last three years I've been up and down with back problems and surgeries so have had extended periods recuperating. I discovered that with a lightweight banjo I could lie on the couch, put the banjo on my chest and play. I came up with some great arrangements while under severe pain and narcotics. The banjo's been great for me.

MW: So, you're still discovering?

TS: Oh yes. Just in the last couple of weeks I've found a couple of new tunings.

MW: What's ahead for you?

TS: After ten years playing with Brad Leftwich and Alice Gerrard, I'd love to play more with Patrick but he keeps pretty busy. I'm going to try to apply myself to put out some instructional materials. I have a number of books in me that would love to come out if I could just coerce them.

MW: Well I hope we don't have to wait too long. Thank you. It's been great!

For more info go to: www.Tombradalice.com

Reprinted with permission from Banjo Newsletter: The 5-String Banjo Magazine VOL XXXVII, No. 6, April 2010

Monika White was the founder of, and banjo player for, Old Mother Logo, an all-woman, old-timey string band that performed on the West Coast in the late 70's and 80's. When not playing music with family and friends, Monika is an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California in LA.