Friday, July 25, 2014

Hangtown inspires folk opera

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ERIC BRACE and Karl Straub collaborate to produce "Hangtown Dancehall" — "A Tale of the California Gold Rush." Courtesy photo

From page B2 | March 07, 2014 |

Eric Brace was born at a brand-new Marshall Hospital back in 1960 and although he spent only the first three years of his life in Placerville, the romance of the Old West and the lure of gold that brought the world to El Dorado County in the late 1840s remained firmly fixed in his psyche. So much so that he has co-written and produced a haunting yet lively folk opera titled “Hangtown Dancehall,” billed as “A Tale of the California Gold Rush.”

The record features Brace’s instrumentals and strong singing voice, along with talented performances by accomplished fellow artists who make the music come to life — life in the 1840s and ’50s, that is.

Brace, whose own life’s journey led him to being a feature writer for the Washington Post until making music became his full-time career in 2003, recalls how he formed the idea of creating the folk opera about a town he still visits every three to four years.

“The idea for ‘Hangtown Dancehall’ started coming together in 1998 when I was writing a story for the Washington Post about Highway 49 and the Gold Country, on the 150th anniversary of the start of the Gold Rush,” said Brace. “I was doing a lot of historical research for the article, and the songwriter in me kept saying, ‘There’s songs in them thar hills.’

“The first song I started writing was the one that became ‘King Midas’ on the record.”

That song is about James Marshall, who discovered golden flakes in the tailrace of Sutter’s Mill in Coloma in 1848, and Brace said he “couldn’t get over the irony of him dying poor.”

From the record:

“I guess you could say that I started it all
“When I bent down early that day
“The sun it was rising, the air it was cold
“And now here’s what I want to say:
“If it’s shining and calling you
“Don’t pick it up
“Leave it lying there it might be gold
“if it is, then the price you will learn
“Where a man can be bought and sold.”


The idea

Brace said Marshall’s life following his discovery of gold captured the songwriter’s imagination and stuck with him over the years.

“I’d read a story about how people would recognize Marshall on the street and ask him where they should be looking for gold, thinking he had some secret knowledge,” recalled Brace. “I imagined that would have made him pretty mad.”

Brace, who is listed as co-author of the record along with Karl Straub, said he has been playing music and writing songs steadily since college and once he realized the idea of writing about the Gold Rush wasn’t going to go away, he decided to do something about it.

He began listening to the few songs from that era that have been written down and recorded, and found himself focusing on “My Darling Clementine” and “Sweet Betsy from Pike.”

Brace ends up taking “Betsy’s” adventures further and the lyrics tell of her traveling from Missouri with her true love, “Ike,” only to break up with Ike following a fight on their first night after arriving in Placerville.

Betsy, it seems, loves to dance and Ike has a jealous streak as wide as the main vein of the Mother Lode. Ike storms out into the night and adventures follow for both estranged lovers, all documented in the folk opera.

The story line leads to an encounter with James Marshall, naturally, as Ike and a partner have struck it rich and decided to treat themselves to the most expensive meal the cook in Old Hangtown can whip up.

Marshall, perched on a barstool, watches as the two men whoop it up, showing off their healthy pokes, while the cook prepares a double batch of “Hangtown Fry,” the name of yet another tune on the recently released record:

“Counter man, counter man
“I used to be cash poor
“Like most of the suckers
“That come through your door …
“I been workin’ up a rich man’s hunger
“I feel it’s only fair to warn ya
“I don’t think I can wait much longer
“For the fanciest meal in California
“Hangtown Fry, Hangtown Fry.”

The Hangtown Fry originated in Placerville, lore has it, with hungry miners tucking into a combination of eggs, oysters and other Gold Rush goodies that stuck to the ribs and were hard to come by.

Other of the total 22 song titles give music fans the idea: “Pike County Rose,” “Hanging Tree,” “So Many Miles,” “Death in Hangtown” and “El Dorado Farewell.”

Without giving away the entire plot, suffice to say there are musical twists and turns, along with a surprise ending.


Catchy collaboration

Despite what at first blush might be the thought that “Hangtown Dancehall” is simply a lighthearted hoot, take a listen as extremely talented musicians and singers lend a hand to the effort, including Brace’s co-collaborator Straub.

“Karl Straub was the key to making this happen,” said Brace, who added that the project has been 10 years in the making.

“I’m a big fan of Karl, who’s a Washington, D.C., area songwriter and guitarist whose career I’d been following a long time. He had a band called the Graverobbers that managed to play down-and-dirty rock ‘n’ roll but with songs that varied from punk rock to Tin Pan Alley,” said Brace.

Following Straub’s enthusiastic response to Brace’s dream, coming on board was Jared Bartlett, an audio engineer that had worked with Brace’s band Last Train Home.

“He was the one who took all the different recorded parts from 12 different recording studios and mixed them together beautifully,” said Brace, who plays acoustic guitar and sings on the record.

“On the musician and singer front, Tim O’Brien came in to play fiddle, banjo and mandolin, and sang the heck out of three of the songs.

“But I have to say, the diamond in the crown is Kelly Willis, who agreed to sing the parts of Betsy within about five minutes of me e-mailing her,” Brace continued. “She’s always been one of my favorite singers and when she said yes, I knew we would have a finished record that sounded amazing.”


Positive reviews

Placerville’s Ricky John Jackman couldn’t agree more.

“‘Hangtown Dancehall’ makes a pleasing recipe,” said Jackman, frontman for Ricky and the Redstreaks. “Take bluegrass stock, stir in a pinch of hillbilly spice, add a hint of folksy rock then add in some lyrics that are worthy of an attentive audience. With the female vocals that bring back memories of working with ‘Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks’ what they’ve cooked up is high-speed traveling music at its best.”

So far, “Hangtown Dancehall” has been performed only in Nashville, where Brace now lives, but he said he is hopeful about presenting the folk opera this fall on the East Coast and maybe out to California once its presentation becomes “more streamlined.”

“I’d like to play in Placerville, Grass Valley, Auburn, Nevada City — all up and down Highway 49,” said Brace. “I’m also hoping to turn it into a ‘proper’ musical, with more dialog and characters, and with any luck, I can catch the ear of a big-time producer and we’ll take it to Broadway. Might as well dream big.”

As far as critical acclaim, Brace said, “We’ve gotten just a handful of reviews so far but they have really been by far the best ones of my entire career. Really, really super reviews with lots of big adjectives.”

Add your own superlatives to that list of adjectives by picking up a copy of “Hangtown Dancehall.”

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