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Bluegrass 'Phoenix' rises in Hillsboro

Kathy Boyd happened on bluegrass nearly 30 years ago while leading a girls’ choir in Beavercreek. One of the choir-trip chaperones taught Boyd to fiddle—and introduced her to banjo player Tom Tower, thus sparking a successful bluegrass career which has earned Boyd and her band, Phoenix Rising, significant airtime and awards.

The bluegrass genre was born out of old English, Irish and Scottish music traditions and honed in the mountains of Appalachia. It’s 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.”

In bluegrass, 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, due to a newer generation’s greater mastery of the instruments.

The music itself is actually very simplistic, usually drawing on only three or four chords. But the stories behind it can be profound.

“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.”

Many times, after Nelson finishes singing about the younger sibling who never had a chance to go fishing, there is a shocked silence in the audience, Boyd said. The song “just so touches them. And then there’s this roar.”

Feels like family

Phoenix Rising consists of Boyd, who plays bass, Tower on banjo, fiddle player Tim Crosby and guitarist Dennis Nelson, who connected with the trio eight years ago via Craigslist. Every Wednesday night, the foursome eats dinner together prior to rehearsal.

Boyd, the youngest, thinks of her band mates as older brothers and recalls how surreal it was to introduce them recently to her own brother when they played near his California home.

Every January, the band has a kind of “state of the union” meeting, which has helped them reach a point of personal and artistic trust that makes songwriting considerably easier.

The band members tend to write songs individually. One does some of his best work while suffering insomnia. Boyd often finds herself struck with musical inspiration while cleaning the house.

While Crosby and Nelson are full-time musicians, Boyd and Tower both work at Odyssey Hospice Care in Beaverton, where Boyd is an admission coordinator and Tower is a chaplain.

“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.

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.Their bluegrass career provides a cathartic balance to their hospice work—work which sometimes shows up in their songs. 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.

Close to home

Boyd’s husband, Mark Gensman, owns the recording studio Ground Zero Sound and serves as the band’s “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.

“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,” including Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Utah.

This can often be a competitive performance region, Boyd said. “The Pacific Northwest is just ripe with some incredible acoustic musicians.”by: SUBMITTED PHOTO. - Dennis Nelson, performs in the Tualatin-based bluegrass quartet Kathy Boyd and Phoenix Rising.



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