Sweetwater String Band ‘not your daddy’s bluegrass’ music
Winchester — When introducing themselves, the members of Sweetwater String Band are sure to tell people they are “not your daddy’s bluegrass” band.
Recently regrouping after a seven-year hiatus, the band consists of four singers/musicians who play a variety of music that includes oldies, folk, country and old-time rock ’n’ roll “with a little bit of bluegrass thrown in,” said Charlotte Swanson Smith, who plays upright bass.
Charlotte is joined in the band by her husband, Charley Smith, on guitar; Rudy Massey, banjo, and Sammy Glynn, mandolin. All four live in Winchester.
With some entertainers, someone could say, “if you’ve heard one, you’ve heard them all,” Charlotte said. With Sweetwater, the members want the songs to be distinct and the band to stand out as quality musicians both together and as individuals.
“We go from one genre to another, one time to another, country to rock ’n’ roll,” Charlotte, 62, said. “We have something for everybody.”
The band began in 2001 under the name Charlotte Swanson and Friends and was intended to perform only once at a benefit show, Charlotte said. She and Rudy were original members.
The group clicked and decided to keep playing under the name Sweetwater String Band, Rudy, 66, said. “I claimed we named our band after Charlotte’s refrigerator because that is where we got our water during practice.”
Charley and Sammy later joined, replacing other members who left. The group played together several years, with gigs such as the Apple Harvest Festival in Winchester and private parties. Then Sammy retired after 42 years at Henkel Harris and moved to Texas, and the band stopped playing.
All that changed in June, when Sammy moved back and the band reformed. A week after he hit town, the band was back in rehearsals, now scheduled for every Thursday night, Charlotte said. “It was like riding a bike. We just eased right back in.”
The group has spent the last several months rehearsing, looking for performance opportunities, and figuring out “which of the thousands of songs we know that we want to play,” she said.
The choice of songs is important to the group not because they want a certain sound but because they want to be open to the songs that speak to them, Rudy said. They choose existing songs but infuse them with their own style.
The band members are interested in songs that offer an opportunity to showcase their different talents and musical backgrounds, he said.
Sammy, 66, used to play banjo in a local family band called New Liberty, which played bluegrass at different venues and festivals in the area for 25 years. When he injured his hand, he switched to the mandolin so he could keep playing.
Rudy was born in the Ozark Mountains and took up guitar at age 13. Then he got a banjo five years later, and he has been picking ever since.
“I was a closet banjo player. I came out of the banjo closet after I moved to Winchester in 1985,” he said with a grin, adding he chiefly played at musical gatherings but also was in a few bands.
A niece taught Charlotte to play guitar until she started taking lessons from local musician Murphy Hicks Henry. Later, she started playing upright bass. She mostly has played in Sweetwater or in a duet with Charley, whom she married three years ago.
Music has always been part of Charley’s life because his family would play together at home. In high school, he had some friends who loved folk and others who loved rock ’n’ roll, and he played guitar with both.
He also played traditional bluegrass with a Front Royal band called Whiskey Creek for several years.
Because all of the members of Sweetwater have a long relationships with music — either professional or amateur — they often look to the past for songs that were once popular and could do with a reboot, Rudy said. “If we haven’t heard them in a while, we figure it is time to reintroduce them to a younger audience.”
One minute they are playing a rousing rendition of “Wagon Wheel” and the next “Wake Up Little Susie” and “Lay Down Sally” after that.
Their repertoire includes music from the 1920s to today and performers such as Patsy Cline, the Beatles, the Eagles and Merle Haggard, Charley, 68, said. “We do so many different varieties of songs, because we don’t just want a steady diet of bluegrass.”
Harmony is important to the members of Sweetgrass, both in the songs and in the playing, Charlotte said. They try to be open-minded with each others suggestions having seen too many bands that didn’t get along.
“If one person doesn’t like a song, we don’t do it,” she said.
Charlotte and Charley are considered lead vocals, but the band members love finding that right key and making it all come together, she said. “I wasn’t expecting to have a four-part harmony in our group, but that’s how it turned out, and it gets better and better.”
Harmony, whether in relationships or singing, is not always easily achieved, Rudy agreed. With four vocals, there is only one note that is right, and finding it is an “endeavor of experimentation and practice. But once you learn how to do it, you tend to know how to do it in most songs.”
It helps that it’s fun, Rudy added. “As long as we like it, we’ll keep doing it.”
For more information about the band, contact Charlotte Swanson Smith at 540-662-2490.
— Contact Laura McFarland at email@example.com