Rice, Rice, Hillman & Pedersen run wild

John Lupton, December 2001

He's not complaining, but Herb Pedersen is as surprised as anyone that "Running Wild" represents the third Rounder release from Rice, Rice, Hillman & Pedersen - surprised, considering that he initially thought that the first album would never materialize at all, and that it would be yet another one of those great ideas that just never seems to work out.

The friendship and musical association of Pedersen and Chris Hillman dates back some 40 years now, to their teenage years in California. It was at a 1963 show in Pasadena that they met the elder two Rice brothers, guitarist Tony and mandolin player Larry.

It was a case of rising young musical prodigies finding common ground - country music ground - that wasn't always easy to find in the Southern California music scene of that era.

"With Tony and Larry," Pedersen says, "We've known them since they were teenage kids, when they lived in California back in the early '60's. They, along with us, although they were younger than Chris and I, were listening to the same kind of stuff. So, it all...made sense."

That "same kind of stuff" was the vibrant mixture of country-based styles and sounds brought by the waves of immigrants to California from the Depression onward, symbolized by performers as diverse as Buck Owens, the Maddox Brothers and Rose, Merle Travis and the hard-edged bluegrass sounds of Vern and Ray (with whom Pedersen worked for a time).

Hillman, of course, rocketed to fame during his years with The Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Pedersen built a career playing for and with folks like The Dillards and Emmylou Harris and released a solo album or two before hooking up with Hillman during the 1980's in the Desert Rose Band, one of the more decidedly country-oriented of the wave of country-rock bands of that era.

For their part, the Rices built pretty solid credentials along the way as well. While Larry has long been recognized as a premier session player and vocalist, Tony Rice has come to be widely regarded as perhaps the pre-eminent acoustic guitarist of his generation. In the late '80's and early '90's, they teamed up with their younger brothers Wyatt (guitar) and Ron (bass) for two popular Rounder albums titled, appropriately, "Rice Brothers" and "Rice Brothers 2."

"When I ran into Tony and Larry up at Grass Valley one year, prior to us getting together and doing (the first) recording, we were talking about, 'Gee, wouldn't it be fun if the four of us could get together and maybe skull out some kind of recording project?'," Pedersen says, "and I said, 'Yeah, that's a great idea', and usually in the heat of those kind of situations, you always think, 'Nah, this is never gonna happen.' Then, a year later, Larry called and said, 'Let's think about going in and recording,' and Ken Irwin at Rounder was gracious enough to give us a little spot there on the label to do some recordings."

That spot on the label turned out to be 1997's "Out Of The Woodwork," and the response was enthusiastic enough that a follow-up album, "Rice, Rice, Hillman and Pedersen" was released in October 1999.

Both albums were geared more toward the traditional bluegrass that had been their original touchstone, but "Running Wild" expands to include more of the variety of country music that each of the four have played over the years.

The title track, for example, is from the repertoire of Ira and Charlie Louvin, perhaps the prototypical country "brother duet" act, and much of the album's emphasis is on vocal interplay. The Louvins were an obvious place to start, says Pedersen.

"When you work in groups, and there's maybe only one or two singers, and you have to fall back on just two-part harmony, (the Louvins) are the guys you go to because they made some of the most interesting two-part stuff...really blossomed, just made it really work. Jim and Jesse (McReynolds) are guilty of the same thing. They have that same type of approach to thirds and fifths, and sevenths and ninths, and whatever they're going to do...they never forsake the purity of the music, but they always come up with something very, very colorful and interesting as far as their harmony blend."

Despite not being brothers themselves, Pedersen says that after 40 years of singing together in one context or another, he and Hillman have managed to achieve much of the same understanding of how to do the two-part harmony.

"Chris and I, we came from similar backgrounds...Even though we're from California, we were exposed at an early age to a lot of really good folk, bluegrass and country music, and for some reason, we both fell into that thing where we both liked the same type of stuff, where we both really embraced Flatt and Scruggs, and Monroe and all the original bluegrass guys and then the spinoffs that kind of made it not more interesting, but just gave it a little different flavor, like the way the Osborne Brothers rearranged their vocal stack, where there was a high lead. And with Jim and

Jesse it was that real traditional 'mountain duet' kind of stuff, you know, Jim singing tenor to Jesse...It was just similar tastes, I guess, and I think that's why we kind of think the same way when we write tunes, either when we're writing together, or when Chris is writing with Steve Hill, or whether I'm writing with somebody else, we think in terms of 'Gee, how is Chris, or how is Herb going to sing this part?', in the melody or whatever, so we're constantly thinking about it from that standpoint."

Many have advanced the theory that there is a genetic component to the classic tight-harmony, country duet sound, and Pedersen is quick to agree.

"I think there's a lot to that...like with Don and Phil Everly, for example, those are guys I listened to prior to even listening to bluegrass and folk music. When I was in the seventh and eighth grades, I would listen to Everly Brothers music, and there it was, you know, it was a more refined version of what Ira and Charlie were doing. Not refined in the sense that they were 'better', but it was just a little smoother type of approach, and it was a little more 'pop', you know. And when you hear Don and Phil talk, their speaking voices are different, there's a quality in there that you can hear when they're speaking, that it's undeniable that they're brothers...it's just the way they phrase their words, the way they use their vocal chords, it's just something that they're born with."

Another rich country music vein mined by the quartet on "Running Wild" is the tradition of the "topical story song," a tune written to comment on the news of the day, whether it be a train wreck, a notorious murder or the disappearance of a folk hero like Amelia Earhardt. "The Mystery That Won't Go Away," an original tune by Larry Rice, deals with the death of JonBenet Ramsey, and turned out to be one of the album's more remarkable cuts, though Pedersen admits he wasn't too sure about it at first.

"It was just something that (Larry) had in his head, and when he brought that idea to us, Chris and I just kind of flinched, like 'Oh my gosh, do we really want to do something like this?' But then when he brought the finished tune to us to record...my jaw dropped, because it's like a modern-day 'murder ballad', it's like the 'Knoxville Girl', Version 2001...it just made a lot of sense, and when we finished recording it, we just went, 'Yep, that'll work'..."

The cast of supporting musicians on "Running Wild" will be familiar to those with a knowledge of the work of the Rice Brothers over the years - including yet another brother team, Rickie and Ronnie Simpkins - but the presence of a familiar face from Hillman's and Pedersen's Desert Rose years, pedal steel virtuoso Jay Dee Maness is particularly welcome, and it's clear that Pedersen values him as much more than a friend.

"He brings a different style of steel guitar playing to the party. He has a smoother type of approach to it, but he really likes playing along in ensemble stuff where it might be a little bluegrassy, he loves that sixteenth-note picking kind of stuff, and he's very good at it. But there again, Jay Dee has had to fit into a lot of different things out here in the West, not like Nashville, where when you want steel guitar, they pretty much sound the same, but out here, he's had to adapt to make a living, so it doesn't sound too country, or too whatever...he's an amazing musician, he and I worked on a Beck album a couple of years ago. I played banjo, and he played steel."

Warming to the subject of the differences in the way country music is played on the West Coast, compared to Nashville and the hard-core old time and bluegrass regions of the Appalachians, Pedersen shares his thoughts.

"I think a lot of the people, and I'm guilty of this, who make a living playing the type of music that we do - country-slash-bluegrass - a lot of times you can't help but mix the two, when you're doing sessions for example. I try to use as much of that kind of stuff in commercial work that I do, be it Chevy Trucks, or the California Cheese Corporation or whatever it is, you just...bring your tools to work with you, and a lot of the stuff that I learned to play was based on early bluegrass and country stuff. So, if I'm playing guitar, if they want 'country' rhythm, I'll ask them, 'Well, are you talking about 'Buck Owens country rhythm', or are you talking about 'Lester Flatt country rhythm', because there's a difference, and then they don't know, and then you explain and show it to them, and then they make their decision...But there are so many more musical influences out here, I think, musically than there are in the Southeast, or was, like in the 1960's."

Though they do play some dates as a foursome, Tony Rice, Larry Rice, Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen continue to fill their schedules with plenty of other projects apart from each other. For Pedersen, in addition to session work, it's bluegrass with the Laurel Canyon Ramblers, the band he co-founded with fellow Desert Rose alumnus Bill Bryson that has put out three well-received Sugar Hill discs. Still, he's happy with the new album and won't mind if Rounder comes knocking again.

"I think 'Running Wild' is the best one we've done. It seems to be doing better, chart-wise right now at this early date, and we just hope we can do some more.

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher • countrystandardtime@gmail.com