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Teens find old-style inspiration with North Country Blue

The music business has always been youth obsessed. From Judy Garland’s take on “In Between” from 1940, to early rock ‘n’ roll’s countless adolescent laments, up to today’s hits from a host of camera-friendly performers, it’s been a youngster’s game.

So it’s no surprise that a group of four teenagers, North Country Blue, is taking a stab at a music career. What is unique is they take their inspiration not from Arianna Grande or Kendrick Lamar, but from bluegrass, an early American roots music that got its start nearly a century ago.

North Country Blue—currently at work tracking its debut record—will appear tonight at the Folk Music Center in Claremont.

The group includes Ida Winfree, 14, who plays mandolin and is the California Bluegrass Association’s Teen Ambassador; Tessa Schwartz, who is 15 and plays fiddle; guitarist Daisy Kerr, 14; and Megan January, the group’s 15-year-old bassist. They all sing, and their harmonies are pure Appalachia, which is quite a trick considering they’re all Northern California kids.

They’ve been together for about a year and a half, and in that time have performed at Berkeley’s Freight and Salvage club, Mount Saint Mary’s University’s Women in Music Festival in Los Angeles, The Strawberry Music Festival in Tuolumne City, The Father’s Day Festival in Grass Valley, and Tres Pinos’ Good Old Fashioned Bluegrass Festival.

They’ve also ventured east to the Viva Las VeGrass Festival in Las Vegas, and the International Bluegrass Music Association conference, where Bill Monroe originated the form, in North Carolina.

The girls have unusually clear-eyed views on the music industry, which will serve them well. Their parents, they said, have helped keep their expectations reasonable.

Tessa’s father, Robert Schwartz, is the band’s manager. Ida’s dad, Jason Winfree, plays guitar in the bluegrass group Red Dog Ash, and she’s been sitting in with his band since she was in elementary school. Ida started on piano at five years old, but switched to guitar at seven and it was apparent she’d found her voice. She took up mandolin after learning to navigate the guitar’s larger fretboard, and it’s been game on since.

“Most of us got into bluegrass because our parents are into it,” Ida said. The girls have been attending bluegrass festivals their whole lives. Ida’s first was Rockygrass in Lyons, Colorado. She’s also attended several Father’s Day Festivals.

Tessa has been equally immersed in bluegrass. “My dad started learning guitar right after I was born,” she said, “His teacher said he should go check out some bluegrass, so he did. I went to my first Father’s Day Festival when I was one. I don’t think I missed any since.”

Tessa’s brother is pursuing electronic music production, among other things, and her other brother is a jazz bassist. Both parents play as well, with her dad on guitar and mandolin and her mother on bass, and the lot of them had a family bluegrass band for a time. 

The work of being in a working band—traveling, recording and writing—has been known to play tricks on musicians. One can get lost trying to find one’s voice, audience or in the disorienting lifestyle of life on the road.

But Ida and Tessa seem to show no danger of becoming music business divas. Granted, they’re startlingly young, it seems their collective mindset is in a healthy place.

“I don’t think I really want to do music as a career,” Tessa said. “It’s fun, and I like it, but I have other stuff I’d rather do, maybe teach or something. I think there are other careers that are more lucrative than professional bluegrass musician.”

That’s what’s refreshing about talking to these girls. They’re not starry-eyed in the least.

“It  would be fun to play bluegrass as a career,” Ida said, following it up with an inordinately mature qualifier. “I don’t know though. It’s pretty hard to make a living doing it.”

A listen to the three studio recordings the group has posted on its webpage, northcountryblue.com, reveals a mountain of raw talent. They cover more recent material such as 1986 “Oh Mandolin, ”the 1930 country blues classic, “Sitting on Top of the World,” and “Columbus Stockade Blues,” written and recorded in 1927.

The group’s repertoire is largely cover material, classics from giants such as Doc Watson, but they have penned a few of their own. They collaborated on a blistering song originated by Daisy called “Ruby High.”

“She wrote some lyrics and we were trying to write some other ones,” Tessa said. “We all sort of came up with it.”

The tune features ripping fiddle from Tessa, and a refrain of, “Ruby high, Ruby holler, she don’t come when you call her.” Already festival veterans, they take their early career developments with refreshingly nonchalance.

“I wrote a tune,” Tessa said. “It’s called ‘Maera’s Waltz.’ I named it after my best friend. I’m not that great at writing lyrics. It’s just not something I enjoy doing. But I like writing tunes, and I might write another one sometime.”

North Country Blue appears at 7:30 p.m. tonight at the Folk Music Center, 220 Yale Ave. Tickets are $15 and are available at the store. Kids 12 and under are free. More info is at folkmusiccenter.com or at (909) 624-2928.

—Mick Rhodes

mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com