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Versatile sound

by JOEL MARTIN
Staff Writer | February 21, 2023 1:30 AM

GEORGE — Almost anything can be turned into bluegrass, as the Badger Mountain Dry Band demonstrated at the George Community Hall on Saturday.

“We play lots of different kinds and styles of music,” said Jim Honeyman, lead vocalist and mandolin player for BMDB. “Basically whatever we want, adapted into bluegrass style and played with bluegrass instruments.”

Saturday’s set list covered a pretty broad range of music, all converted, as Honeyman said, run through the filter of mandolin, fiddle, guitar and high vocals (sung from the heart and through the nose, as banjo player Nick McLean said) that defines bluegrass.

Badger Mountain Dry Band, based in the Tri-Cities, has been a fixture in the northwest music scene since 1993. The band’s lineup consisted of Honeyman, vocalist Kay Humphrys, McLean on banjo and guitar, Shawn Hughes on guitar, mandolin, octave mandolin and fiddle and Mike Zabel on bass. Joining them for the evening was guitarist Joe Smart, who took home a Grammy Award in 2017 for his work with the Mark O’Connor Band. A crowd of about 80 people turned out for the show Saturday, including a contingent that came down by bus together from Ephrata.

The show started with a couple of traditional bluegrass covers. The first was “Blue Trail of Sorrow,” by Allison Krauss, one of the biggest names in contemporary bluegrass music. The other was “What Have You Done to your Home Place,” originally by the Dillards, perhaps best known as the Darling Family band from “The Andy Griffith Show.”

“That's typical of bluegrass tunes,” Honeyman said leading into the latter song. “It’s either ‘I want to be home’ or ‘I can’t be home, but I'd like to go back home again, but I don't want to be there, but my folks are gone already so I have to leave too.”

From there the musical lineup headed off into several directions, starting with a rendition of the Billie Holliday song “Comes Love,” in which the bluegrass instrumentation took a fairly standard blues tune and gave it a haunting, almost ominous air. The sub-genres of country music were covered, including a western number called “I Don’t Wanna Ride Sidesaddle,” sung with tomboyish glee by Humphrys; “White Freightliner Blues,” “West Texas Wind” and “When You Say Nothing at All.” A couple of instrumental pieces enabled the musicians to take turns showcasing one another’s talents individually. And, as Honeyman pointed out, a certain amount of gospel music was a necessary element in bluegrass, so the band played the high-energy “Hallelujah, I’m Ready.”

“If you listen to a little bluegrass gospel, we'll give you a pass you can give to your pastor, says you don't need to go to church in the morning,” Honeyman said.

Most of the set list was covers, but not all. McLean, a recent addition to the band, took lead on a song he had written about coal miners in Roslyn, entitled “Woe is Me.”

Whenever a bandmate had to stop to tune, Honeyman would razz them until they were ready to play.

“You know how you can tell if the stage is level?” he asked while McLean was twiddling knobs on his banjo. “Because drool comes out of both sides of the banjo player’s mouth.”

The show was part of the George Coffeehouse, a concert series held at the George Community Hall on the third Saturday of each month. The next one will be on March 18 and will feature the band Corral Creek. Admission is $5, which pays for the use of the hall, organizer Debby Kooy said. The band’s expenses are covered by a hat pass during the show. There were also CDs on sale of the two albums BMDB has recorded.

Washington state may be a long way from bluegrass’ roots in Appalachia, but in some ways it’s not, Honeyman said.

“There was actually a pretty big bluegrass scene in the ’30s,” he said. “There was lots and lots of folks that moved out from the southeast up into the Northwest; Darrington (in Snohomish County), the Yakima Valley, picking fruit down in California.”

“Probably one of the oldest bluegrass festivals in the Northwest is in Darrington,” he added. “It's a great festival and tons of folks come from all over the country for that.”

Joel Martin may be reached via email at jmartin@columbiabasinherald.com.

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Joel Martin/Columbia Basin Herald

The Badger Mountain Dry Band performs Saturday at the George Community Hall. From left: Guest guitarist Joe Smart, band leader Jim Honeyman, vocalist Kay Humphrys, Mike Zabel on bass, Nick McLean on banjo and Shawn Hughes, who played fiddle, mandolin and octave mandolin as well as guitar.

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Joel Martin/Columbia Basin Herald

Mike Zabel plays a bass solo on “Comes Love.” The bluegrass instrumentation, especially the bass, turned a blues standard into something ethereal and more than a little unsettling.

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Joel Martin/Columbia Basin Herald

Nick McLean, left, picks banjo and sings his own composition, “Woe is Me,” about the plight of coal miners in Roslyn. Fiddler Shawn Hughes switched to guitar for the song.