In a technologically driven society hurtling toward omnipresent connectivity, embracing a traditional art form can be downright countercultural. For the extraordinary siblings Tristan and Tashina Clarridge, who have won six Grand National Fiddle Championships between them, creating a communal gathering where some of the world’s finest bluegrass, Celtic, jazz and old-time players share hard-won musical wisdom is an extension of an itinerant upbringing that included roughing it in a teepee.
“We were privileged to grow up in an unusual way, which prepared us for the way this event unfolds,” says Tristan, 27, who along with Tashina, 32, presents the rousing conclusion to their Mt. Shasta Music Summit on Saturday at Freight & Salvage. The Shasta String Celebration showcases the dazzling array of talent attracted to the fiddle camp to teach and study, including Indian violin master Kala Ramnath, Grammy-winning Berkeley fiddler and singer/songwriter Laurie Lewis, Appalachian fiddle star Brittany Haas, Nickel Creek bassist Mark Schatz, Scottish fiddle champion Jeremy Kittel, the Clarridges’ innovative chambergrass ensemble The Bee Eaters, and many others.
The Clarridges never planned to run a summer music program, but when the Shasta Fiddle Camp outside Redding suddenly folded in 2005 just a few weeks before the scheduled summer session, they stepped in. Drawing on an expansive network of string comrades they “convinced friends to come out and teach,” Clarridge says. “We did it through trial and error, learning as we went, and we found ourselves filling this void.”
What the Mt. Shasta Music Summit provides is a rare opportunity for seasoned musicians to commune with colleagues from neighboring (or sometimes distant) traditions. Creatively ambitious young players also get hands-on mentoring in a musically immersive environment. By exalting oral tradition over electronic dissemination, the camp offers an antidote to the overwhelming options offered by the wired world.
“There’s a lot of immediacy in how people get their music and what people expect from life now,” Clarridge says. “They expect to have 10 million songs available from any place in the world. There’s a huge amount of potential, but also a huge amount of responsibility, because we’re working with traditions that evolved through isolation. The way of life out of which these traditions evolved isn’t available to most people anymore.”
Raised by their mother, an avowed hippie, mostly in a rural setting near Mt. Shasta, the Clarridges gravitated to music as youngsters and quickly demonstrated remarkable aptitude. In order to feed their voracious appetite for musical information and experience, the family went on the road as Tristan and Tashina attended a far-flung network of fiddle camps, absorbing an array of traditional styles.
“We did everything together as a family, collaboratively,” Clarridge says. “We played music together, and backpacked for weeks at a time. It was a really simple and beautiful life. We were willing to drive 2,500 miles to go and meet some musicians, and get a lesson and go to a camp. Our mom was willing to attempt the impossible. I remember one trip we drove an old car with only three cylinders to Nashville for Mark O’Connor’s fiddle camp. We broke down on side of freeway and people stopped and helped us. We’re still friends with some of them.”
Together and separately, the siblings have positioned themselves at the forefront of an unprecedented wave of string talent nurtured by genre defying renegades like Darol Anger and Mark O’Connor and traditional masters like Alasdair Fraser and Bruce Molsky. Tashina, a Grand National Fiddle Champion and 11-time Grand National finalist, has toured with banjo great Tony Trischka’s Territory and performed at Carnegie Hall as part of bassist Edgar Meyer’s Young Artists program. Tristan is best known for his work on cello and fiddle with the Boston newgrass combo Crooked Still, which disbanded last year.
Lately Tristan has been performing with Darol Anger’s bands The Furies and the Republic of Strings. When their not on the road or teaching at various camps, the siblings stay with friends, and Tristan often hangs his hat in North Berkeley, hanging out with his girlfriend, string player Emily Mann. He and Tashina bring all of their influences to bear in The Bee Eaters, a trio with Simon Chrisman on hammered dulcimer (and Joy Kills Sorrow banjo phenomenon Wesley Corbett when he’s available). The music is gorgeously textured and highly arranged, while maintaining the spark of spontaneity and off-the-cuff humor that animates so much instrumental bluegrass.
Out of both necessity and inclination, the Clarridges have guided the evolution of the Mt. Shasta Music Summit in a way that mimics their upbringing, with everyone involved in all of the work required to keep the endeavor running, from logistics and food prep to concert promotion and clean up.
“Most camps attempting what we’re attempting hire a catering staff, a transportation company, and rent a camp facility that has everything ready to go,” he says. “We send instructors around to thrift stores to get what we need. We’re planning the menu today, where to source all the food items. Kala Ramnath made dinner one night, and we got to see how to make an Indian feast, and then saw her perform that night. We’re not running a camp based on an economic model. You can’t have 25 or 30 instructors if you’re doing it the way a business is suppose to work. We’re striving for a community and not a business, and we’ll be sharing a bit of that at the Freight.”
Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.
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