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Traditional American music in Tualatin

Kathy Boyd and Phoenix Rising play award-winning bluegrass in Hillsboro and beyond


by: SUBMITTED PHOTO. - Tom Tower, Dennis Nelson, Kathy Boyd and Tim Crosby have been performing traditional-style bluegrass together for more than seven years. Together, the group has released four CDs of original music.Kathy Boyd happened on bluegrass nearly 30 years ago while living in Beavercreek and leading a girls’ choir in the now-defunct Schubel School District not far from Oregon City. She started the group as something of a resource for young women who, by seventh or eighth grade, were as she said “bored to tears” in their small school.

Little did she know this group would lead to a successful bluegrass career nearly 30 years later — one which would earn her and her band significant airtime and awards.

Back then in Schubel, one of her students’ mothers became a chaperone for choir trips and taught Boyd fiddle. Through her, Boyd learned the instrument and met Tom Tower, Phoenix Rising’s banjo player. Tower has performed with the band’s fiddle player, Tim Crosby, for nearly 40 years.

To say there is a lot of history in the group Kathy Boyd and Phoenix Rising is a fitting description: After all, the bluegrass genre itself was born out of old English, Irish and Scottish music traditions and honed in the mountains of Appalachia, and is a category of American roots music that dates back nearly 300 years.

It was initially a means of spreading news “from front porch to front porch,” Boyd said. “Because of the way that our brains work, the side of your brain that speaks is a different side than the side of your brain that sings. It gets back to the Old English troubadour music. It’s easier to remember the news if it’s sung.”

There is a distinct narrative in most traditional and even modern bluegrass songs but, Boyd explained, the stories tend to be more “soundbite”-style than the longer verses found in conventional folk music.

“Bluegrass tends to be fast, and it’s kind of gotten faster over the years,” Boyd said. She attributes that to a newer generation’s mastery of the instruments to the point where they can play them rapidly and further speed up the tempo of a style of music that is actually very simplistic, and which tends to draw on only three or four chords.

Compared to country music, bluegrass may be rapid, but it also gives more space to instrumental solos.

“In country, you have ‘turnarounds’ between verses, where you get a little instrumental (break),” Boyd said. “In bluegrass, an instrument will play an entire chorus or verse.”

She added, “People really listen to that. It’s common for an instrument to take a lead, and then after the audience to applaud.”

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO. - Dennis Nelson, performs in the Tualatin-based bluegrass quartet Kathy Boyd and Phoenix Rising.

Music that resonates

Boiled down, the subject matter of the average bluegrass song is no different from that of other popular “traditional” flavors of music, like country or blues: It’s all about universal human tragedy, be it heartbreak, abandonment or death.

“One of our most popular songs we do is called ‘My Little Brother,’” Boyd said. “It’s the true story of Dennis Nelson’s stillborn baby brother. We don’t introduce it, he just sings it, and we let people take what they take from the song.”

While some live musicians opt to give a behind-the-scenes look at what their music is about, Boyd feels that much of the band’s success comes from leaving interpretation open-ended and up to the audience.

Boyd recalls many occasions where Nelson finished singing about the younger sibling who never had a chance to go fishing. There is generally a shocked silence among their fans where it’s almost possible to see similar feelings of loss etched on the faces of those staring back at the band, Boyd said.

“But (the song) just so touches them, and then there’s this roar,” she added.

Putting on a good show

Boyd has performed with Tom Tower and Tim Crosby for the past eight years, and seven years ago, guitarist Dennis Nelson joined the trio after connecting with them via Craigslist. Every Wednesday night, Kathy Boyd and Phoenix Rising eat dinner together prior to rehearsal, and Boyd — the youngest of the four — thinks of her band mates as older brothers. In fact, Boyd recalls how surreal it was to introduce her own Sacramento-based brother to her band of brothers during the recent Americana Music Festival in Nevada.

Every January, the band has a kind of “state of the union”-style meeting. Through this process, the four have reached a point of personal and artistic trust that makes songwriting considerably easier.

The band members tend to write songs individually, with one of them doing some of his best work while suffering insomnia; Boyd often finds herself struck with musical inspiration while cleaning the house. But with the familiarity of so many years of friendship, she finds that, “more and more, what comes into the studio is what comes out on the recording because we’ve gotten so used to each other. I think as we write the songs we hear each other in our heads.”

The work-life balance

While half the band (Crosby and Nelson) are full-time musicians, Boyd and Tower find performing bluegrass has proven cathartic as a balance to their work at Odyssey Hospice Care in Beaverton, where Boyd is an admission coordinator and Tower is a chaplain.

It is a workplace where history is always forefront in the minds of both patients and staff.

“I’m the person, if I were in a hospital, I’d be in charge of the emergency room,” Boyd said. “I’m the person you talk to first when you find out there’s nothing left to do. I get stories when people have no walls because they’re in such shock.”

Tower, meanwhile, has more time to build relationships with patients.

“He tends to get these stories that are so heart-wrenching and deep,” said Boyd.

Boyd’s professional life influenced one of the songs she recorded for the band’s more gospel-focused album. And when nurses from their hospice attended one of the band’s performances at the Tualatin Heritage Center, the Odyssey staff found it easy to identify which of the songs — with telling titles like “One Last Breath” — had been written by the hospice chaplain.

Personal connections

Fourteen years ago, Boyd married into Tualatin history when she said “I do” to Mark Gensman, who can boast former Mayor Lee Gensman as kin. It has proven a great match, not in the least creatively: Mark owns recording studio Ground Zero Sound and serves as “traveling sound man,” a “den mother” of sorts and driver while the band is on tour in Ollabelle, a small bus that “looks like a loaf of Wonder Bread going down the freeway” and which was named in honor of “famous hillbilly singer” Ola Belle Reed, Boyd said.

The band’s legal name is Kathy Boyd and Phoenix Rising, because the band is run as a business, Boyd explained. Each member knows the minimum paycheck he or she will receive. It’s clear that performance is hardly optional, and each of the four views the band as a professional commitment.

This kind of focus has allowed the band to get significant radio play and has earned members of Kathy Boyd and Phoenix Rising significant accolades in what can often be a competitive performance region.

“The Pacific Northwest is just ripe with some incredible acoustic musicians,” Boyd said. “Our focus has been to be a package deal” as dynamic musicians and performers.

But with Boyd’s husband at the wheel, the band still views touring as a more homespun affair.

“Because travel is getting so expensive, we tend to be pulling in closer and closer to home,” Boyd said. “This year we’re focusing on the upper left-hand corner of the United States” with a specific focus on touring Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Utah.

Kathy Boyd and Phoenix Rising will perform in Hillsboro on Friday, Jan. 18, at 7:30 p.m. at the Glenn and Viola Walters Cultural Arts Center (527 E. Main St., Hillsboro). Tickets are $10 in advance, $15 at the door. For more information call 503-615-3485.

For more information about Kathy Boyd and Phoenix Rising, visit phoenixrising.org.




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