Chris Stuart forges on with "Mojave River"

John Lupton, November 2004

Possessed by a sense of irony as well as a sense of humor as dry as the Southwestern brushlands for which his band Backcountry is named, singer and songwriter Chris Stuart, 46, is naturally thrilled with the response to their new, self-released album "Mojave River."

But he laughs as he reflects that not too many years ago, he thought his music career was as frigid and ice-bound as the upstate New York landscape where he, a Southerner by upraising, was spending another bone-chilling winter.

"To be honest with you, I moved out to San Diego partly to get away from music. I was pretty burned 1996 and sick of being turned down by several Nashville publishers."

Though actually born in Indianapolis himself, both of his parents were natives of Port Arthur, Tex. At 35, his father, an oil field worker, became a preacher and moved his wife, two daughters and son to Jacksonville, Fla.

"My sister, Betsy, got me a guitar when I was in eighth grade and for some reason the first song I learned was the theme from 'Bonan-za'...About tenth grade, Pete Seeger came through town, and I discovered his banjo instruction book. I absolutely hated old time banjo and only spent time on the two or three bluegrass banjo pages that are in his book. I love old time banjo now, but back then, all I wanted to hear was Scruggs and Stanley - this was about the time 'Deliverance' came out...that was the beginning, and I became one of those banjo nuts that live with the banjo 10 hours a day."

After graduating with a degree in medieval history - and finding a less-than-active job market - he married a veterinary student, Peggy Barr, in 1982. They moved in 1986 to Ithaca, N.Y., where she would finish her doctorate and have two kids.

Stuart worked at Cornell as a computer programmer and consultant, laughing again as he notes the irony, "Remember when you didn't have to have a degree in computing to get a job?" In the early '90s, he formed Cornerstone, a band that gained a following in the Northeast for straight-ahead bluegrass (Bill Monroe once joined them on stage) spiced with the jazz-influenced stylings of female vocalist Dee Specker. They put out three albums, and Stuart also began to get noticed for his own songwriting, with his material being covered by bluegrass artists like Claire Lynch and Suzanne Thomas.

Still, when a job opportunity for his wife in sunny Southern California beckoned, Stuart knew it was time to move on.

"When we moved out here, I didn't plan to play music anymore. I was still writing, but didn't do anything with the songs. I played in a band called Hwy 52...and that kept my hand in playing banjo and starting to have fun playing music again, but not taking it seriously."

He soon found that, by itself, the change of scenery got his creative juices flowing again.

"I've fallen in love with the West. It's easy to do, what with the desert, ocean and mountains out here. There's something out here that appeals to me. Maybe it's just that there are more extremes out here, in the weather and the people."

The "missing ingredients", as he puts it, to his musical rebirth turned out to be Janet Beazley, now Backcountry's banjo player, and mandolinist/guitarist Eric Uglum, both former members of a highly respected California band called Copperline. Uglum eventually left to be with Lost Highway.

"Janet produced a Hwy 52 album, and I got a chance to get to know her in the studio and see how truly brilliant she is. Because she's also a flute player and a trained musician, she has the best ears of anyone I know, but also has a great acoustic/bluegrass sensibility."

"When I first heard them, I got excited again about music because here were people who were playing traditional bluegrass, but it had that drive and that tone that I love...A lot of people don't really know what an effect Eric's playing has had on a lot of people, from Ron Block to Rob Ickes and Stuart Duncan to Julie Elkins. He really is an important guitarist, and it was great to be able to do (Eric's solo) album with him and Janet, 'Shenandoah Wind' (also on the Backcountry label)."

With Janet on banjo, Stuart moved over to guitar, and rather than go the more usual route of adding a fiddle or mandolin, they managed to land one of the West Coast's top Dobro talents.

"After a few false starts, we were lucky enough to find Ivan Rosenberg. I had met Ivan at several festivals in California. What I liked about his playing was that he played the melody! And very tastefully. That's what I wanted in the band, so we were lucky that he was able to join us at just the right time."

As the band got going, still centered in Southern California, the fourth member turned out to be bassist and San Diego resident Dean Knight, who provided harmony vocals as well. Knight appeared on the debut album, "Saints and Strangers," but as their touring itinerary expanded, he was forced to drop out.

"Dean's a dedicated school teacher and just couldn't go on the road. It's worked out fine, and we're still good friends." Stuart pauses, and adds with a chuckle, "Which reminds me, I owe him $20."

Replacing Knight on a full time basis - including on the new album - is Mason Tuttle, a Buffalo native now living in Missoula, Mont., "and he's a great musician too, playing mandolin and guitar as well as bass."

As accomplished and multi-faceted in their talents as they are, the band's core strength continues to be Stuart's remarkable ability to draw songs from more than one creative well. He's more articulate than most writers in being able to analyze his gift - even if the analysis is characteristically off-center.

"I usually don't start with themes. I'm more (into) noodling around on the guitar and singing nonsense until something sticks, and then I start working on it. I hate it when I get a melody before words, but that happens sometimes. I have a theory that there's a perfect melody for any phrase you might say - like 'Uncle Bonaparte left us a stuffed horse' would have a perfect melody to fit those words. That's what I go after, and I never go too far with words unless I have a melody with it. After that, I work on it until the voice in the back of my head stops saying 'that sucks.'"

The new disc's title track exemplifies another aspect of his approach.

"(It) started as a guitar riff I couldn't get out of my head. We recorded most of the album at Eric's studio in Hesperia, Cal., which is in the high desert and the Mojave River runs nearby...I always enjoyed crossing this bone-dry river bed to get to the studio and the sign there, 'Mojave River' stuck in my head because I like mixes of words like that. 'Mojave River' basically means 'dry wet'. I knew it would be the title track even before I wrote it, only because I like titles that have some kind of juxtaposition of opposites."

"But there is a concept to the album based on the geography of the West. I'm finding that I have to include the land in my songs now for them to have any meaning for me. It's something that's bigger than the characters in the songs, and it gives them a world to act in. I don't usually write songs about myself. I mean, I'm a middle-aged, middle-class, middle-of-the-road white guy. I don't even care about my problems."

Another song with arresting imagery is "Sin Stealer," written against the backdrop of a stormy Texas night.

"I wrote (it) in a hotel room in Brownwood, Texas on a night that featured the most God-awful thunderstorm...I was reading Larry McMurtry's novel, 'Sin Killer' and wanted to write a song with that title, but for some reason I started thinking about Jesus as being the one who 'takes away' the sins of the world, so 'Sin Stealer' occurred to's 'Jesus as Boogie Man'. The lead character has heard about this Jesus who goes around taking away your sins, but he doesn't want to lose his sins! According to Dante, those in Hell want to be in Hell. So, it's either a gospel song if you read it that way or an anti-gospel song if you take it straight. And I always take mine straight."

"Mojave River" also features a pair of tunes that illustrate Stuart's love of classic country themes - like drinking and mothers.

"I wrote 'Old No. 7' (because) I'm a little tired of all the self-righteousness in bluegrass these days. I mean, it's great (that) people want to thank God for getting them an IBMA award, but I sincerely hope that God couldn't care less about IBMA awards. I couldn't believe there wasn't already a country song about 'Old No. 7' which, of course, is the Jack Daniels slogan on their bottles. It's a fun song to sing live, but people at bluegrass festivals get a little nervous about singing out loud about drinking. I don't know why. Flatt and Scruggs used to sing 'Dim Lights, Thick Smoke' and all that. It's something that needs to make a comeback, and people shouldn't care so much about offending those with their noses in the air. I'll continue to write songs about the dark side of life because I think that's where most of us live."

And, what's a good country or bluegrass album without a "mother song"?

"The basic idea for this song was Ivan's...we were driving somewhere and he told me his idea about a young girl visiting her mother's grave and the father putting some flowers down on it, but the young girl not understanding that her mother was dead. And, he had the title, 'Don't Throw Mama's Flowers Away'. I couldn't believe he had handed me a great 'dead mother' song, so I wrote the verses, melody, and we worked together on the chorus. I moved it to a highway shrine with one of those little white crosses. I'm lucky to have two other good songwriters in the band in Janet and Ivan. They push me a lot, and I trust and respect their opinion of things."

With a touring schedule in 2003 and 2004 that has taken them not only across the U.S., but throughout Canada and the United Kingdom as well, the whole band is excited about their burgeoning prospects, but Stuart is especially gratified at making a living in music that eluded him in the snows of New York.

"I'm trying to write songs, get gigs, take care of the business side of things and keep the band working. I'm not sure what I want to do with Backcountry Records, whether to just keep it for band and solo projects, or expand out with other artists, such as Eric Uglum. Right now it's more of a logo than a label. But basically, I'm a songwriter, and I need to do that more than anything."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •