The Brownsmead Flats’ latest CD, Strings & Yarns, just out, is vintage Flats. A mixture of originals with a sprinking of traditional songs arranged by the band, the subject matter is local – politics, history, water and family. The album is dedicated to bassist John Fenton’s wife Carol, who died recently in an accident in Mexico. She also wrote one of the songs on the CD, Porch Swing. The CD’s cover features a photo of a tapestry that was presented to the band by a fan – hence the CD’s title, a reference to the cover tapestry and the type of music they play and instruments they use.
Though the timing of the new release coincides with Astoria’s bicentennial, the only song written specifically for the big birthday is harmonica player Ned Heavenrich’s song, Shines and Glows, according to Ray Raihala, the band’s newest member, and the only Clatsop County native. Raihala wrote two of the album’s songs, Generic Historic Anniversary Song, where you can fill in any of the myriad anniversaries that we’ve celebrated recently or will in the near future, and Ballad of the Peter Iredale, celebrating one of those anniversaries, the 100th of the beaching of the Peter Iredale in 1906, on Clatsop Spit.
“The band has evolved to sing about historical happenings,” said Raihala, and the new CD contains many examples, including Heavenrich’s Recall, which tells about the recent recalls of several Clatsop County commissioners, and guitarist Robert Stevens’ The Vortex, which tells the story of a man who witnessed the selling of Fort Astor to the English during the War of 1812, went upriver to do some business, and came back to Astoria, only to find that the fort was now a brewery with the English moniker Fort George.
The band does an a cappella version of Long Beach, Washington resident Mary Garvey’s Astoria Bar on Strings & Yarns, highlighting the Flats’ tight harmonies, featured during their many local concerts. They use a single old-style microphone for voices on stage, which helps the band members to hear each other, and presents an interesting choreography for the audience, according to Raihala, as each soloist bends in for his part, while the others sink back.
The Flats’ fiddler, Dan Sutherland, who also plays mandolin and hammered dulcimer, wrote two songs on the new album, Sail Away Sister and Somebody’s Baby. The album is rounded out with a couple traditional songs, the ever popular Cotton Eyed Joe (with Over the Waterfall) and the sea shanty John Kanaka.
Strings & Yarns was recorded at Billy Oskay’s Big Red Studio in Portland, in four 12-hour sessions. Previous Flats’ albums were self-produced, so this one was quite a step up, according to Raihala. This is the Flats’ 5th album. Potluck was produced in 1996, followed by Rain in 1999. In 2006, they released two recordings. The first, Astoria, features numerous compositions that explore Astoria, its history and topics related to the Columbia-Pacific region. The second, Live at the Liberty, was recorded at the Liberty Theater in Astoria, as part of the Lewis and Clark bicentennial celebration.
The Brownsmead Flats started playing together when the band members all converged on Brownsmead in the 1970s as what Raihala called “young marrieds” who wanted to try out the rural Oregon experience. They came from Nebraska, Illinois, Michigan and California, built their own houses, and started families. The community had (and still has) frequent potlucks, and music was/is a big part of them. Though each of the band members had played in a band previously, none had really done what the Flats’ website calls “crabgrass”, a folk/bluegrass style centered on this area’s geography. The band’s first album, Potluck, took the name of the venue where it all began.
Raihala joined the band about 15 years ago. At the time the band formed initially, Raihala was on the road much of the year, eeking out a living playing in a cover band. When that band broke up, he started playing with the Flats more often, and still does.
All the band members have day jobs and practice typically one day a week. They’ve played at the Northwest Folklife Festival, the Tumbleweed Festival, the Pendleton Round-Up (right after 9/11), and opened for the Kingston Trio at the Liberty Theater a few years ago. In addition to the current members, pianist and guitarist Jennifer Goodenberger has played with the Flats in the past.
Raihala attributes the band’s longevity to the fact that they “enjoy the process, get along well, and love the creative expression in music.” He says, “We’re always on a point on the road; it’s a journey, not a destination.” Going on 25 years together, with no end in sight, the Brownsmead Flats should be around for a while.
Don’t miss the CD release party at (where else) Fort George Brewery on Saturday, June 4th at 8 pm. Other upcoming concerts include two Summerfest dates, June 18th and July 16th in Long Beach; the Astoria Sunday Market on July 3rd; the Ilwaco Timberland Library on July 28th; and one of the band’s favorite venues, McGandy Park in Lacey, WA on August 28th. Pick up the Flats’ new CD at Bach & Rock in Astoria, also: www.brownsmeadflats.com.