Bluegrass Buddies

Burning Embers bring honky-tonk to our local land's end

Seated at the Riptide, way the fuck out by Ocean Beach — just one block from the end of America — banjo picker and vocalist Eric Embry and I shoot the shit going pint for pint around a lacquered tree trunk tabletop. Across the room, a couple of jovial drunkards are crooning along to a jukebox spitting out one of George Jones' classic ballads. Embry's relaying a fantastic story about his encounter with Ralph Stanley, who, as a member of the Stanley Brothers, was a pivotal force in the development of bluegrass in the late '40s and '50s.

"After the first of two shows [at the 2005 San Francisco Bluegrass and Old-Time Festival], I approach him and say, 'Mr. Stanley, I'm the MC for your second show, and I don't know if you ever do this kind of thing, but I want to know if you'd maybe like to do a tune together,'" the 32-year-old Embry explains in a wily Tennessee-bred drawl. He's flashing a big, handsome grin and his eyes rattle about with excitement as he talks. "And Stanley says, 'Well, we'll have to rehearse a little bit.' So we sit down by the merch table, sing a couple of tunes with the band, and at the end of the show, we actually do one."

Restored to its glorious 1941 interior (knotty pine shiplap walls 'n' ceiling, brick floors, and a wood-burning fireplace), the Riptide has been a Sunset haven for roots music since 2004. It's also where I recently stumbled across Embry's ass-kickin' new outfit the Burning Embers, who could be considered the bar's house band. They've been regularly blowing away growing audiences since late last year when Embry — after spending several years knocking about the Bay Area's rich bluegrass scene — brought together vocalist and fiddler Katy Rexford, fiddler Diana Greenberg, drummer (and Riptide co-owner) Les James, guitarist Clint Epps, and a rotating cast of guest musicians, including bassist Rob McClosky and Dark Hollow guitarist John Kornhauser.

Burning Embers: Fiddlers on the old frontier.
Angela Poole
Burning Embers: Fiddlers on the old frontier.

"We do anything that's got really good, interesting, two-part vocals," Embry says — after intimating that he actually "hated the hokey, high-pockets" bluegrass he heard as a child growing up in "touristy" Gatlinburg, Tennessee. "Katy and I love singing old George Jones and Melba Montgomery duets," he adds, "and the Louvin Brothers, and of course a lot of Stanley Brothers-type stuff."

With more than half the group comprising transplants from either the Plains States or the South, the band — which plans to record in Asheville, North Carolina, in August — possesses a grounded, intuitive feel for traditional music. The plaintive nasal harmonies of Embry and Rexford float and skip over the group's choppy, syncopated twang. Unlike many bands tackling the old-time jams, though, the Embers' top-shelf musicians don't come off like some overly reverential museum exhibit.

"We play a kind of honky-tonk bluegrass," James, a self-proclaimed "Okie," tells me. "For a 'bluegrass group,' the instrumentation is not traditional and the song selection is of a wider range than a lot of groups who call themselves 'traditionalists.'"

Then again, what ultimately breathes serious life into the Embers' music is not the group's unique instrumentation but the same sense of brashness that Embry exuded when he approached a living legend/total stranger like Ralph Stanley. This is the attitude all of the Embers play with, as they engage a musical heritage that had been kicking around long before any of them set foot on this earth. And it's the right mix of respect and iconoclasm to have if a musician really wants to make this music pop.

"It's hard to explain," James ponders, struggling for the right words. "For Eric, he didn't just hear some country music last month and now he's dressing up like a cowboy. This is life for him."

 
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