Feature Article - Spring 1996
Rambler Rooted in Bluegrass
By Bill Knopf
Herb Pedersen's amazing career crosses the boundaries of bluegrass, country, and pop music, and includes recording, television, and film credits. His versatility as a vocalist and instrumentalist has made him one of the most sought after performers and studio musicians in the business. With the success of his band, the Laurel Canyon Ramblers, Herb has again become a familiar face on the bluegrass scene. The bluegrass community knows him for his banjo playing and beautiful tenor vocals, but Herb's talents have long been recognized by top artists in other areas of music. His performing and recording credits include the likes of Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons, and John Denver. In addition to banjo, Herb plays guitar and some Dobro. According to Herb, "It's a good diversion from banjo."
Herb's parents were both born in the San Francisco Bay Area and settled in Berkeley across the bay. Since Berkeley is a college community (University of California), Herb had a broad range of music to listen to and draw from. As a young boy, he also listened to the latest pop music. It was recordings of the Everly Brothers that prompted him to play guitaróan old Stella his mother owned. "I wasn't so much interested in playing lead, but I wanted to learn chords for singing accompaniment. My grammar school actually offered lessons through the orchestra program," remembers Herb.
Future mandolinist Butch Waller and Herb started singing together during the sixth or seventh grade. Besides the Everly Brothers, Herb and Butch learned other tunes they could perform on acoustic guitars, including songs by the Louvin Brothers and the Blue Sky Boys. Upon discovering bluegrass, they were greatly influenced by the Osborne Brothers and Jim and Jesse. "There was just something about siblings singing together that really attracted us. The Kingston Trio was a very popular folk group performing in the Bay Area during this time, and I really liked the sound of that banjo. I expressed this to the clerk in a record store who recommended Flatt and Scruggs' first recording on the Mercury label." That album completely changed Herb's view of the banjo: "God love Dave Guard, but this was a whole other deal."
The first bluegrass band Herb heard was the Redwood Canyon Ramblers, whom he soon became friends with. The first band Herb played banjo in was the Pine Valley Boys, which included Butch Waller (mandolin), Rich Conley (guitar), and Dale Hollis (bass). There wasn't much bluegrass traffic through the area at that time, but Herb and his friends were fortunate enough to catch the Stanley Brothers at the UC Berkeley Folk Festival and the Osborne Brothers at a 1963 concert. "The Osbornes were very easy to talk to and great to hear live," recalls Herb. Also in the audience at this concert were Rick Shubb, Sandy Rothman, Butch Waller, David Nelson, and Geoff Levin -- all of whom have gone on to become successful musicians. Herb didn't listen to just the banjo at concerts, but studied the overall sound and feel of the bands.
Herb's first banjo was an open-back S. S. Stewart. Soon after he upgraded to a Gibson RB-250: a raised-head with a Bow Tie inlay pattern. He kept this banjo for about two years. John Lundberg who was a dealer in vintage stringed instruments came into possession of two pre-war Mastertones: an RB-3 and an RB-4. Sandy Rothman and Herb bought both within a day of each other. Herb got the RB-4. It had the Reno or Flying Eagle pattern and a raised-head tone ring which he had converted to a flat head. Herb describes his learning: "I swapped licks with other banjo players, but mainly taught myself to play by listening to the recordings of Earl Scruggs, Sonny Osborne, J. D. Crowe, and Alan Shelton. You never know if you're playing something exactly the way they did, so sometimes I would slow a 33 1/3 LP down to 16 and pick off three or four notes at a time. After awhile, the ear becomes trained to know where a lick is. Earl's Foggy Mountain Banjo album was my favorite. Flatt and Scruggs' music 'grabbed' me more than any other bluegrass group I had heard."
The Pine Valley Boys eventually went to Los Angeles, working area clubs like The Troubadour and The Ash Grove with Vern and Ray.
In November 1963, the Pine Valley Boys went on a tour called "Hootenanny '63," playing various colleges throughout the South. There were eleven acts on the tour, one of them being Mike Post and the Wellenbrook Singers. Mike Post has since become one of the kings of television music, and Herb has worked on numerous projects for him such as The Rockford Files, The A Team, Riptide, and Hill Street Blues. He played on numerous cues for these shows and sang the main theme of Riptide.
"Hootenanny '63" lasted a month. Herb remebers being in Huntsville, Texas at the time of President Kennedy's assassination. When they returned home, the Pine Valley Boys went through some personnel changes. Geoff Levin replaced Dale on bass, and when Rich left David Nelson played guitar. Richard Greene, veteran fiddler from Bill Monroe's band, would sometimes fly up from Los Angeles and join the band for performances.
David Grisman was playing in the Bay area during this time at a coffee house called Cedar Alley and asked Herb to join his band. Rick Shubb was the banjo player, so Herb played guitar and sang. David and Herb have remained friends and over the years have worked together on a number of projects including Here Today and Home Is Where The Heart Is for Rounder Records. Both Rick and Herb played banjo for Vern and Ray. A number of demos recorded around 1965 were later released on the album Sounds From The Ozarks.
In 1967, Herb played a brief time with Lester Flatt while Earl Scruggs was having an operation on his hip -- the result of an automobile accident several years before. Earl had seen Herb on TV playing with Carl Tipton and The Mid-State Playboys. The Playboys had an hour bluegrass show every Saturday afternoon on Channel 8 in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Initially, Herb went to the studio to watch, but there he met Joe Stuart who had played with Bill Monroe. They hit it off and Herb was asked to try out for banjo in his band. He got the gig, and after Herb's second or third television performance he got a phone call from Earl.
"I went to visit Earl at his house, and it was there that I was asked to fill-in for awhile. Earl took me to the Grand Ole' Opry and that night Lester said, 'Be at Earl's house at 11:30 tonight, youngin', and we'll head on out.' I showed up at Earl's later, and there was the Martha White bus! I climbed aboard and off we went. It was a long weekend trip to West Virginian to play a few shows. The band was so tight it was unbelievable." To this day Earl and his wife Louise have been very supportive of everything Herb has done, in or out of bluegrass.
Later that same year Dean Webb of the Dillards called from California and said Doug Dillard had left the band. He asked if Herb would like to try playing with them. Herb was with Vern and Ray at the time and living in Nashville. The band had just got a contract to play the Ash Grove in Hollywood, so he would be out there anyway. He auditioned at Rodney Dillard's house, got the gig, and after returning to Nashville with Vern and Ray, packed up his family and moved to L.A. He remained with the Dillards from 1967 to 1970. It was during this time that Herb made his first commercially released recordings: Wheatstraw Suite and Copperfields.
Herb had a great time playing with the Dillards. Once at a New Year's Eve gig in Fort Worth, Texas they appeared at a place called the Charthouse. They knew they were in trouble when they walked in and saw hats and horns on every table. Herb retells the incident: "A Dillard show is a quiet one-man conversation and acoustic music. You have to pay attention. It got to the point where Mitch Jayne who emceed and told all the funny stories and jokes took out his handkerchief and blew his nose into the microphone. Rodney and I got a terminal case of the giggles and couldn't finish the set. Mitch was infuriated that everyone wasn't hanging on his every word. We were crying --it was hilarious!"
When Herb left the Dillards in 1970, Billy Ray Lathum (current guitarist in the Laurel Canyon Ramblers) took over on banjo. Herb returned a few times to work on special projects like a "direct-to-disc" recording (where the studio engineer and producer mix the music as it is being played) called Mountain Rock. "The direct-to-disc project was pretty scary. We were playing some electric stuff, and I had to change instruments during some of the songs. There is no overdubing so if you make a major mistake, you scrap the disc and start over."
The original Country Gazette formed in 1971 which included Herb (guitar), Byron Berline (fiddle), Roger Bush (bass), and Billy Ray Lathum (banjo). The Gazette went through a few personnel changes. Kenny Wertz played banjo for awhile after Billy Ray left. Kenny moved to guitar when Alan Munde joined on banjo. Herb had just gotten off the road with the Dillards and didn't want to be in a band full time, but he helped out on the records singing and playing rhythm guitar.
In 1973, Clarence and Roland White got back together to play bluegrass. Clarence had been playing electric guitar with The Byrds, and Roland had been with Lester Flatt and The Nashville Grass. They wanted to tour Europe as the New Kentucky Colonels with their brother Eric on bass. Clarence called Herb to play banjo, and off they went on a trip to Amsterdam. Problems at home caused Herb to leave the tour early, so Alan Munde flew to Europe to take over. But Herb really enjoyed the opportunity to play with the three White brothers. [Editor's note: Clarence White was killed in July of 1973.]
Herb's reputation as a top session man really took off when he appeared on Linda Ronstadt's first solo album, Hand Sown, Home Grown. He was billed as one of the Beachwood Rangers -- for contractual reasons they didn't use their individual names. This was Herb's first major non-bluegrass recording. He since has appeared on six of Linda's other albums. She and other stars met and heard him at clubs like the Troubadour while he was with the Dillards. Herb's first banjo performance on a pop album was also on Linda's: Ramblin' A'Round. Perhaps his most memorable banjo performance was on the Neil Young tune "Love Is A Rose" from Linda's album Prisoner In Disguise (1975). Herb has also recorded banjo and vocals on Gordon Lightfoot's album Dream Street Rose.
While working on Gram Parson's last album (Grevious Angel), Herb met Emmylou Harris. He sang some of his greatest harmonies on her Pieces Of The Sky album including "If I Could Only Win Your Love," which became a number one hit. When Herb shows up at the studio to sing back-up harmonies, the lead vocal has usually already been recorded. His part is not written out, so after listening and experimenting a bit, he will suggest possible harmony lines to the producer. He works intuitively and can sing what fits. As Herb describes it: "Most of the time they want a tenor part above and baritone below. Two- and three-part harmony is approached slightly different. Three-part is very tight, but in two-part I can be a little freer."
As a studio session man on banjo, Herb can take a chord chart and make up a part he feels is appropriate to a particular piece of music. "Composers seldom write the actual notes since they don't always know the capabilities or limitations of the 5-string banjo." From 1977 to 1980, Herb played for John Denver and worked on three of his albums. He was a part of the studio band that included James Burton (guitar), Emory Gordy (bass), Hal Blaine (drums), and Jim Horn on sax and flute. After recording with this band, John decided to take them on the road.
David Grisman and Herb later recruited Emory, along with Vince Gill, and Jim Buchanan, to record the Here Today album in 1982. David and Herb had kept in touch since their Berkeley days, and Vince was known to them as a rising star who had been playing bluegrass with Byron Berline and Sundance and country rock with Pure Prairie League. Herb met Jim Buchanan, who was well known for his work with Jim and Jesse, the Greenbriar Boys, and Mel Tillis, at the Troubadour. Together, they got back to their roots by recording this memorable collection of their favorite bluegrass songs and instrumentals.
The highly successful Desert Rose Band was formed after Chris Hillman and Herb had each recorded solo projects for Sugar Hill Records in 1984. Chris, a bluegrasser from way back, but best known for his work with The Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, had been playing acoustic bluegrass and gospel with players like Bernie Leadon, Al Perkins, Bill Bryson, and John Jorgensen. Chris played mandolin on a couple of tracks on Herb's album, and Herb sang on two of Chris' albums. The two got together with Bryson and Jorgensen with the intention of remaining acoustic. It was John who came up with the idea to "plug-in" and see what the tunes would sound like electrically, so they brought in J. D. Maness on pedal steel and Steve Duncan on drums. The tunes sounded really good so they went with it. They became a top country band for years and were voted the number one instrumental country band by the Academy of Country Music (ACM) several times. The Desert Rose Band stayed together until late 1992.
Herb was practicing banjo at home one day in 1994 when his wife, Libby, came in and suggested putting a bluegrass band together to just play and have fun. Bill Bryson (bass) said, "Anytime, any place," and suggested getting Kenny Blackwell, a veteran of many top Los Angeles-based bluegrass bands, to play mandolin. Herb called his old buddy Billy Ray Lathum to play guitar and sing. They had a rehearsal just to see if it would work -- what tunes they would play and would they be compatible? It sounded great, and one thing led to another. They took the name Laurel Canyon Ramblers which Herb describes as a "tip of the hat to the old Redwood Canyon Ramblers." Byron Berline, although busy with his own band, California, played with them whenever he could.
There was good chemistry all around, so they recorded a few tunes for Barry Poss of Sugar Hill Records to listen to. He liked what he heard and gave them the go-ahead to produce an entire CD titled Rambler's Blues. Dobro player LeRoy McNees and Byron both contributed to the recording. Later, Byron moved to Oklahoma to open his own fiddle/music store which left the Ramblers short a man. They were playing at the Eclectic Cafe in North Hollywood one night when Dennis Witcher and his son Gabe of the Witcher Brothers' Band came in to listen. Kenny, who plays frequently with the Witchers, suggested letting Gabe get up to jam with them. According to Herb, their search was over: "Gabe plays great and has a wonderful attitude. He really fits with what we're doing. He and Kenny are the spark plugs of the group."
Herb doesn't consider himself a prolific songwriter, but he has written and recorded quite a few. His favorite bluegrass-oriented songs, are "Wait A Minute" recorded by The Seldom Scene and "Old Train" recorded by both The Seldom Scene and Tony Rice. Herb wrote some of the songs on the Ramblers' first CD, including the title cut "Rambler's Blues." Bill Bryson contributed "The Girl At The Crossroads Bar" and "Roll On." Both Herb and Bill are getting back into songwriting in the classic Flatt and Scruggs style. Their new Sugar Hill CD Blue Rambler #2 will include "Wait A Minute" and two new tunes by Bryson, "Whistles On The Train" and "Hold On." Aside from his family and music, Herb manages to get to the gym three or four times a week. "Music pretty much takes up all of my time. I really enjoy doing it. Musicians are notorious for not being health conscious, but if you're going out on the road you should try to stay in as good a shape as you can. It's a good thing for your head as well as your body." Over the years Herb has logged thousands of miles in the air and on the road. "Touring is something you have to do, and it behooves you to enjoy it. If you don't, it can become a mind-numbing experience. I enjoy playing for people, and probably always will."
When he was with John Denver and found they were going to "park it" for a couple of weeks in one place, he would often bring his family along. "If I'm on the road playing a different place each night, then five to ten days out at a time is ideal. " Herb's many hours in recording studios has sparked an interest in the technical aspects of the industry, and he would eventually like to get into music mixing for television. His wife Libby is a music editor, andówith Mike Post and a stack of equipment manualsó, he is learning the language of tape machines, time codes, and DATs. "I want to know `what's under the hood, where it goes, and how."
For now, however, Herb Pedersen is happy to be a Rambler and pickin' the banjo again.