Like most bands, Napa’s Howell Mountain Boys can trace their origins back to jam sessions, in their case to a pizza parlor and a clothing store. The seven-piece bluegrass band will return to Blue Note Napa for two shows this Thursday, June 20.
I sat down last week with singer-guitarist Bruce Wilson and banjo man Glen Bettencourt to talk about the band members and their music.
In defining their songs, Wilson said, “heavily bluegrass.” In an earlier incarnation, they were the Napa Valley Ramblers with a significant Irish influence. But according to Wilson, “that just didn’t work out and, well, we don’t have any Irish players now.”
Many of the band members met at a regular jam session at Pizza Hut in Napa. Wilson encouraged the players to move over to Wildcat Clothing, at the time downtown on First Street (his spouse Thea Witsil’s vintage clothing shop). They played out in front of Wildcat every Wednesday.
“We coalesced as a band,” Bettencourt said. “When somebody walked up and asked, ‘You guys ever play anywhere? You want to play at a party I’m having?’ And that was just all.”
“Another thing that brought us together, coalesced the band, was Porchfest,” Wilson said. They have performed at Porchfest for the past four years.
Wilson plays guitar and is the lead singer. “Thea and I have been living in Napa for almost 30 years,” he said. “I’m originally from Quakertown, Pennsylvania. My first exposure to this kind of music was at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, a big gathering where they have all kinds of Americana music.”
“One more year as a high school teacher in Vallejo and then I’m going to retire,” Wilson added. “I teach psychology, history, government, economics, social science.”
Bettencourt said that he has been playing the five-string banjo for over 40 years. “I retired from the school district in 2013,” he said, “and I got bored. So ever since I’ve been a substitute teacher for the school district, so I’m still working.”
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He describes himself as an anomaly compared with other banjo players. “When I first started to play, I was living in an apartment,” Bettencourt said. “I learned to play very quietly. Fast, accurate, but quietly. I still play quiet. In fact, I get people asking me to play louder.”
Bass player Roy Barush worked as a communications technician for the County of Napa for 28 years. “With that experience, I help out with technical and mechanical systems for the synagogues in Napa and Vallejo,” he said. “I also help with tech for the programs put on by NCTC (Napa Center for Thought and Culture).”
In addition to playing with the Howell Mountain Boys, Barush also plays with the Pickle Creek String Band and Pacific Ridge.
Duncan Lautze is a longtime Napan who works as the parts manager at Jimmy Vasser Toyota. He plays resophonic guitar, a steel acoustic instrument played with a slide.
Michael Meehan, an orthopaedic surgeon at Kaiser-Vallejo, is a multi-instrumentalist, playing accordian, harmonica and keyboards.
Dan Weigardt plays mandolin. “Dan is an electrician who travels all around the Bay Area for work,” Wilson said.
Finally, Sarah Marriott is the fiddle player. According to Wilson, “she is a lawyer married to a winemaker and they have triplets. So how she finds time to play with us I don’t know, but she manages to.”
— Thursday, June 20, 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. $10-$15. Blue Note Napa, 1030 Main St., Napa. 707-880-2300. BlueNoteNapa.com.