When fiddler Barbara Lamb was just 14 years old and living in Seattle, she put up a notice in a local music store for a beginning fiddle student. Lamb, who had just won the Washington State (junior) Fiddle championship, figured she would try her hand at teaching. It was Mark O’Connor’s mother who first answered the ad. O’Connor, just 11 years old at the time, was already an accomplished classical guitarist, but he’d developed a keen interest in the fiddle. After overcoming his parents’ initial reluctance—they wanted him to stick to one instrument—he started taking lessons with Lamb. Her now-famous student was a quick study, and Lamb went on to become not only one of the country’s top fiddlers but a sought-after teacher.
More than 40 years later, Lamb—who’s returning to Chattanooga for a rare show at Barking Legs Theater with a talented group of musicians on Friday—is still best-known (in much of the media, at least) as O’Connor’s first teacher. But she herself is a world-class, virtuoso fiddler, in demand as a session player in Nashville, and she’s played with some of the best musicians in the world—four of whom will be playing with her Friday night.
Lamb has titled the show “Barbara Lamb’s Hand-Picked Hot Hands.” Performing with her will be a group of friends that include guitarist Jeff Autry, mandolin player Matt Flinner, bassist Mike Bub and banjo player Bill Evans.
It’s a group that Lamb feels completely at home with. “There’s no better rhythm section than Mike Bub on bass. Put Jeff Autry with Mike Bub and it’s just like machine-gun fire with excellent steadiness,” she said. “So even if you’re making mistakes all over the place, with that bottom end it’s like surfing: You won’t be dropped.”
Lamb has worked with Flinner, Bub and Evans individually in the past couple of years, but it’s a rare occasion when all five of them can arrange to be in the same place on the same night. She’s planning on video taping the show for YouTube because “who knows when the five of us will get together again.”
Each of the five musicians is charged with bringing half a dozen tunes to the table. “Everybody has sent everybody else the tunes that they’d like to do,” she said. “We’ve all got them, we all do our homework, and then we get together for one big blowout of a rehearsal and play all of tunes. It all sounds good. We go on and do a sound check, eat a little pizza and then we play the gig.”
Lamb is clearly excited at the prospect of playing with such exalted company for a couple of hours. “We all come from the same bluegrass background so we’ve already got all that in common,” she said. “Mike, Bill and I play gigs together all the time. We’re used to playing together, and we’re used to playing this kind of music. But it adds a little bit of spice to throw in some tunes that we’ve never, ever performed together.”
Lamb is apparently up for anything—as long as it’s fun. In August she went to Russia with Bill Evans, guitarist Tim May, and bassist Todd Phillips on a State Department-sponsored tour. Among the places they performed was at tiny town called Totma, about nine hours from Moscow. They played a bunch of Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs tunes for an audience of about 1,000 people who “had never heard anything like it before.”
Next month she’s launching another State Department tour, playing shows in China, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu, an island off the coast of northern Australia, with Marcy Marxer and Cathy Fink, an acoustic music duo from Washington D.C. In China they’ll perform with a 12-piece Chinese orchestra playing traditional Chinese instruments. When tour organizers asked the Chinese musicians what they’d like to play, they suggested John Denver’s “Country Roads.” That took them by all by surprise, but by all accounts, John Denver has been hugely popular in China since the late 1970s when then-premier Deng Xiaoping, a devoted fan himself, championed Denver’s songs as “acceptable Western music” for a newly emancipated population cut off from Western culture under Mao Zedong.
In addition to playing banjo, guitar, ukelele and fiddle, Lamb and the other musicians in the group plan to yodel for their Asian audiences. “I call it yodeling for world peace,” said Lamb, laughing.
Barbara Lamb and Her Hand-Picked Hot Hands
8 p.m. • $13/$15
Friday, Dec. 14
Barking Legs Theater - 1307 Dodds Ave.
(423) 624-5347 barkinglegs.org