Red Desert Ramblers will amble their way to Riffs
September 17, 2013
Sharon Mitchell of the acclaimed regional bluegrass band the Red Desert Ramblers said her instrument, the hammer dulcimer, isn’t found in traditional bluegrass music.
The wood and wire concoction is generally played in Asian and Middle Eastern music, but is occasionally heard in Appalachian music, she said.
"I have encountered plenty of challenges of figuring out how to arrange the [bluegrass] songs we play to fit it in," Mitchell told The Park Record. "As opposed to other dulcimer players, I back off when we’re playing traditional bluegrass, but I’ve been able to find ways to fit in some arrangement breaks and model the different styles to the best of my abilities."
Mitchell will show how the hammer dulcimer is played when the Red Desert Ramblers perform at Riff Acoustic Music for the monthly Full Moon Concert on Sept. 21.
The band — Mitchell, guitarist and vocalist Steve Hewson, banjoist Rick Martinez, upright bassist Dave Bates and mandolinist Richard Schmeling — performed at Riffs nearly a year ago, and has since added to their musical repertoire, Mitchell said.
"We’re planning to play two sets," she explained. "One will be all traditional material, and then we’ll do an all-request set and perform songs that the audience wants us to do. It will be a lot of fun."
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The idea to play a full set of requests is somewhat of a new idea, Mitchell said.
"Usually, when we perform a regular festival or a concert, 1/3 of the show is old material that we have learned over the years and the next third of music is made up of songs that we have learned because our fans and friends have asked us to learn them over the previous year."
The final third of music is comprised of new material, she said.
"When we decide on which songs we want to learn, we pick songs that are appropriate for our voices and go over well with the audience," Mitchell said. "We generate a list of songs that we want to learn. Everyone has input and ideas and we usually have an abundance of songs that carry us into a new year."
Most of the tunes the band plays are traditional bluegrass, classic country and swing.
"We also choose songs that give us good ideas for new arrangements that haven’t been done," Mitchell said. "Plus, we need to perform songs that we can stand to listen to when we rehearse them over and over again."
Every now and then, the Red Desert Ramblers will throw in an original tune.
"The only person who has written those songs is Dave, our bass player," Mitchell said. "We do play a couple of his songs, but we mostly do arrangements of covers."
The Red Desert Ramblers have been together since 2005, and started as the Irish American Duo that featured Mitchell and Hewson.
"I was sick of being in a band, so Steve and I decided just to keep it to the two of us," Mitchell said. "However, we got calls for gigs that required a band, so we added Rick on the banjo and Dave on the upright bass."
Mandolinist Schmeling joined later.
"Steve and I still work as a duo, but we both love the band shows that we do and we’ve had a lot of great success with them," Mitchell said.
Throughout the years, the Red Desert Ramblers have played throughout the Intermountain West and was the first Utah-based band to be invited to the International Bluegrass Music Association Fan Fest in Nashville, Tenn., in 2009.
"The [Fan Fest] is probably the most prestigious performance opportunity in the bluegrass community," Mitchell said. "Professionals from all over the country who play the music at such a high level play that festival, and there is a lot of competition to land a slot in the festival. We were very honored to be asked to play."
Other festivals the band has played include Pickin’ in the Pines in Arizona, Southern Nevada Bluegrass Music Association Festival in Logandale, Nev., and the Bannock County Bluegrass Festival in Pocatello, Idaho, to name a few.
Mitchell, who was voted the best dulcimer player in Utah by the Intermountain Acoustic Music Association, said she was drawn to bluegrass because of its feeling.
"I think everybody has a different kind of rhythm they are drawn to, and it’s something that’s in their soul and makes them want to listen to music that touches them in different ways," she said. "I think everyone in the band likes the high-energy groove that bluegrass and old-time country has."
Mitchell said the same type of concept led her to the hammer dulcimer.
"I loved the sound of it, but more importantly, it felt good when I played it," she said. "There are a lot of instruments we wish we could all play, but we don’t have a physical or emotional attachment to many of them.
"For example, I play the piano, but never really liked it that much," Mitchell said. "However, when I started playing the dulcimer, I felt an immediate physical attachment to it that drove my emotion."
Riffs Acoustic Music, 1205 Iron Horse Dr., will present the Red Desert Ramblers as this month’s Full Moon Concert on Saturday, Sept. 21, at 7 p.m. Doors open at 6 p.m. and the show starts at 7 p.m. The event is BYOB. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased by calling (435) 647-1940 for reservations. For more information, visit http://www.riffspc.com . For more information about the Red Desert Ramblers, visit http://www.reddesertramblers.com.
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