For the last few years (pre-COVID), I’ve booked one of my favorite west coast string bands, Skillet Licorice, at the Santa Barbara Old-Time Fiddlers’ Festival. When it comes to enchanting old-time waltzes and rags, they are simply stellar. Throughout their career, they have collaborated with other like-minded musicians who share their love for the music of the East Texas Serenaders and the Skillet Lickers. When I heard they were recording an epic album over the pandemic with contributions from several of my favorite musicians, I jumped at the chance to “sign” them to the Tiki Parlour Recordings label.
This album specializes in the sweeter side of the old-time canon, focusing on waltzes, mazurkas, indigenous music and more from Texas, Arizona, and beyond. I was particularly interested in this recording since it involves repertoire that’s inherently sweet. The musicians made a conscious effort to select classic lovely sounding melodies for this recording, rather than turning driving square dance tunes into precious piles of new age sentimentality. I’ve been waiting for something like this in recent years.
Skillet Licorice’s Elise Engelberg and Matt Knoth are joined by a menagerie of guest musicians like Suzy Thompson, Meredith Axelrod, Craig Ventresco, Katie Hill Harris, Kelly Marie Martin and many others to create this Allsorts Orchestra. In fact, old-time virtuoso Clinton Davis appears on the album, whose solo CD on Tiki Parlour Recordings is also about to be unleashed! Skillet Licorice have a cult following on the west coast and we’re hoping that musicians from all around the world will now discover their music.
In order to learn a little more about this powerhouse duo, I mean “orchestra,” have a gander at their interview. I just love them (and their music dearly) and I hope you fall into a similar romance with them once you hear Allsorts Orchestra.
David Bragger (DB): How did you go about learning old-time music?
Elise Engelberg (EE): I come from Kentucky, but did not discover country and bluegrass music until my early 20’s when I began to play in a local country band. It was a number of years after I moved to San Francisco that playing fiddle became a real passion.
At first, I was learning bluegrass fiddle tunes on my own by listening nonstop to recordings. That was so HARD and I did not know about the Amazing Slower Downer. Eventually I found some great teachers: Jody Stecher, Chad Manning, and Suzy Thompson.
I have continued to take lessons on and off and I definitely feel more motivated when I am taking lessons or attending workshops and festivals.
Matt Knoth (MK): Thru bluegrass music. My dad (Cuzin Al) was a bluegrass DJ and Emcee my whole life, and something of a bluegrass pioneer on the West Coast. I sang John Hartford’s “boogie” from the stage when I was 5. I started playing guitar around 8 years old so I could play Beatles songs. I was a little embarrassed about bluegrass and old-time music in high-school and college. When I got back to the Bay Area after grad school, I started getting back into bluegrass, took banjo lessons from Avram Siegel. I formed All Wrecked Up with a dear friend from high school. Eventually I realized that the actual genre sweet spot is somewhere right between bluegrass and OT.
DB: What instruments do you play?
EE: I play fiddle and frail on the banjo. My mother took me to see a concert of young violinists from Japan when I was about 5 years old. I have been in love with the violin since that concert.
MK: I play guitar, banjo, and a bit of bass. On this record I only play guitar. I like to sample stuff and make loops.
DB: Do you play any other music genres?
EE: I have just resumed taking classical violin lessons. Hoping some of those classical chops will enable me to play a sizzling Joe Venuti solo one day.
MK: I make some ambient music under the name Low Rider Bicycle. I am a big fan of Brian Eno and of accidental music. So I spend some time generating loops and then running them through various FX boxes to create unintended sonic variations. I played bass in a retro rock band called Skunk with fellow OT and Bluegrass musicians Jordan Ruyle, Dave Murray, John McKelvy and Erik Pearson.
DB: Who are the musicians/bands/ensembles who you’ve played with over the years?
EE: My first string band was with Dave Murray, Ed Rudolph and Jimbo Trout at the 3300 Club in San Francisco. Thanks to those folks I learned a lot about old-time music and fell in love with clawhammer banjo.
My husband Matt and I became musical partners in 2002. We have had a great time playing old-time with The Mercury Dimes and bluegrass/old-time with The Black Crown Stringband.
I have also had the good fortune to perform with The Crooked Jades, The Stairwell Sisters and The Bogues (a Pogues cover band from SF).
MK: My very first band was The Fifth Column. My best friends from high school played a bunch of U2, REM and Rush. None of us could sing tho, so nothing really ever happened. In Grad School, I started exchanging Bluegrass mix tapes with Chris Ereneta from the 5th Column and when I got back to the Bay Area, Chris and I formed All Wrecked Up with Barb Hansen, Christa Dahlstrom and Mike Brown. A fine band, and we would eventually get to play the Great American Music Hall, opening for Chris Thile and Nickel Creek.
Chris and I were also founding members of the San Francisco Bluegrass & Old-Time Festival, and because of the festival, eventually, I would create a twice monthly bluegrass/old-time series, Critical Grass, at the Hotel Utah. One of the bands I hired was How You Duo which featured Michael Follstad who told me he wanted to start a bluegrass band. Another band I hired was Colonel Trout’s Possum Humpers, featuring Elise Engelberg on fiddle! Soon thereafter Elise and I got together and met Jordan Ruyle down at a Kelly Martin party in LA and The Mercury Dimes (and the LA Old Time Social) were born. Black Crown Stringband (with John McKelvy and Yoseff Tucker) was a fun band where I got to play lots of banjo. When BCS disintegrated, Elise and I started focusing on what we could play well and that’s when we started Skillet Licorice and really started delving into the ETS, and started looking for like-minded musicians with whom to collaborate.
DB: Which old-time musicians do you place on godlike pedestals?
EE: Dead: Cousin Emmy
Live: Suzy Thompson, Clinton Ross Davis, Meredith Axelrod, Craig Ventresco and Aaron Jonah Lewis.
MK: After I sang “Boogie”, John Hartford gave me a poster and a note thanking me for singing his song. He was and still is a big hero of mine. Aereo-Plain is one of my very favorite records.
Ralph Stanley is by far my favorite banjo player, and my favorite singer. His sound is effortless and as though it is the very source.
Tom Sauber is another one of those guys who has both endless authenticity on every instrument he plays, and consummate taste and restraint. He can play every ghost note of any quirky fiddler’s bow in any style (with nail polish).
Frank Lee plays with funk and mojo and I can’t decide which I like more, his funky rhythmic banjo playing, or his wickedly heavy blues guitar.
Craig Ventresco *is* a living guitar god. He plays like you and I breathe.
David Hildalgo. You just know that DH is always playing music. He’s one of those guys, I bet, that cannot put his instrument down. When it’s all said and done if I could play and sing like one dude, it might be DH.
DB: Are there any music-related books have had a great impact on your music-making?
EE: Victor Wooten’s The Music Lesson is an amazing book and helps me get out of my own head. I enjoy reading autobiographies and loved Charlie Mingus’ Beneath the Underdog and Alton Delmore’s book Truth is Stranger than Publicity.
MK: Definitely more a listener than a reader. That said, my favorite book that makes me think about how to make music is Revolution in the Head by Ian MacDonald which is a song-by-song analysis of the Beatles catalog. That book taught me a lot about how to listen to any music.
DB: How about your favorite music documentaries?
EE: I really enjoy the music documentaries of Les Blank and Yascha and Carrie Aginsky.
Terry Zwigoff’s Louie Bluie made a big impression on me when I first saw it.
I recently discovered Folkstreams and have been enjoying all they have to offer.
MK: Spinal Tap is way more real than is generally understood. Elise and I played in at a children’s playhouse in Sweden and it was very much Puppet Show and Skillet Licorice.
The Beatles Anthology (I have it on DVD and Laserdisc!). Watch Ringo take zero prisoners on She Was Just Seventeen in DC on their 1st US tour. Check out how hard Paul’s bass lines are and then check out how he NEVER looks at his hands. Watch George Martin shed a tear listening to Lennon’s haunting, isolated vocal on A Day in the Life.
No Direction Home – Dylan is a genuine shape shifter hiding in plain sight. I could listen to Allen Ginsburg talk about Bob Dylan forever.
DB: Which old-time recordings have inspired you the most?
EE: Best Fiddle Banjo Duets by Tommy Jarrel and Fred Cockerham was the first old-time music I had ever heard. I think I listened to it on repeat for an entire day.
After Tommy, probably Skillet Lickers and East Texas Serenaders. I also love Buddy Thomas’ Kitty Puss recording. Oh and anything by Art Stamper!!!
MK: Document Recordings – East Texas Serenaders. The ETS play some of the most beautiful waltzes I have ever heard. I don’t know anybody who is writing melodies like theirs today.
Lost Fiddler – Art Stamper
This record features JD Crowe playing killer Scruggs style banjo on a number of tracks. That sound, the sound of a driving OT fiddler with the added attack of the metallic 3-finger banjo, is what I want to hear from OT dance bands.
Ways of the World – Rayna Gellert. It’s like Rumours for OT music.
Rattlesnake Tidal Wave – Foghorn Stringband. The perfect OT record. Kinda the Catch-a-Fire of OT records. A new source. Everybody listened. Everybody copied.
We”ll Die in the Pigpen Fighting – Tom, Brad & Alice. So crisp and clean and tight and yet still groovy and tasty.
Gu-Achi Fiddlers – Elliot Johnson and Lester Vavages . Everything is down tuned at least a whole step, even the guitars, and so these beautiful fiddle duets are even more languid and rich. It’s some of the most lovely and enchanting music I have ever heard.
King’s Lament – David Bragger & Susan Platz OT musicians usually try to hide their classical backgrounds, but KL is the perfect intersection of early music and OT music. It’s like genuine new world baroque music. The best infusion of European precision and harmonic sophistication into the soul of American folk music. One of my favorite OT records and it absolutely served as inspiration for the approach we took on AO.
DB: Who are some of your favorite contemporary traditional musicians?
EE: Aside from “the gods” and present and former bandmates: Tom, Brad and Alice.
Not sure if she would consider herself a traditional musician but I love Sierra Ferrell. What a voice!
MK: Clinton Ross Davis, Horsenecks, Dmitri Mavra, Meredith Axelrod, Suzy & Eric Thompson, Echo Mountain Stringband, Aaron Ohwell and Nokosee Fields.