Classical training paves way to success in bluegrass world
Gary Linehan, The Union Democrat /
Tuolumne native Julie Schmidt was raised on classical music, from home schooling with her four sisters to violin lessons with Carolyn Sylva and degree in piano performance from the University of the Pacific in Stockton.
While working toward her diploma, she played bluegrass fiddle for fun and is now in a band booked to perform at the 2013 Wintergrass Bluegrass Festival.
"I started getting back into playing the fiddle in college," Schmidt said. "I had put it aside as I pursued piano, but I fell in love with the music again and began to go to bluegrass jams as an outlet for playing music for fun."
She also became a member of the popular Sonora bluegrass and Americana band Coyote Hill, performing on violin, trumpet and vocals.
She then went to Paris, where she was happy to find fellow musicians in the active bluegrass-country-Cajun community.
Upon returning to the United States after a year abroad as an au pair, Schmidt needed a place to live, so she accepted an offer from her sister, Melissa, who had a spare room in Portland, Ore.
"I had heard that there was an eclectic music scene alive and well here and started going to public bluegrass jams a few weeks after moving," Schmidt said.
She met guitarist Ken Chapple at one of one of her first gatherings. They formed the alternative bluegrass band Wayward Vessel in 2009 and released their self-titled debut compact disc in 2010.
"The musical goal of Wayward Vessel is to expand the boundaries of bluegrass while remaining accessible to a wide audience," Scmidt said. "We all come from different musical backgrounds - jazz, Middle Eastern, bluegrass, rock and classical - and we love the creative challenge of blending them all together into something that is new but pleasing to the ear."
The other members are Josiah Payne on mandolin and Belinda Underwood on bass.
Schmidt said the band draws inspiration from the Punch Brothers and Joy Kills Sorrow, while her own creative influences include Regina Spektor and Crooked Still.
"We hope to continue to create new music and expand our reach beyond the Northwest, especially into California," she said.
June saw the release of their second CD, "Before the Grey," which was immediately followed by a second place performance in the 2012 Telluride Band Competition, a nationally-recognized bluegrass contest in Colorado.
They continue to create new music and are becoming increasingly more established in Portland and throughout the Northwest.
Fred Coates, master of ceremonies at the Columbia Gorge Bluegrass Festival, called Wayward Vessel "a fine band full of heart and superb musicianship."
Ben Lacy of Portland television station KGW said simply, "This group is unbelievable."
Schmidt plays fiddle and sings in the band, as well as contributing three original songs to the new album - "Mourning Dove," "Middle Sister" and "Little Girl."
The band has just been signed to perform at the Wintergrass Bluegrass Festival, scheduled Feb. 28 to March 3 in Bellevue, Wash.
They will share the stage with such nationally acclaimed acts as David Grisman, Peter Rowan, Laurie Lewis, Mollie O'Brien, Darol Anger and others.
Schmidt, 28, said she still plays piano, but not as much as before. She teaches music at the French American School in Portland and gives private lessons, as well as playing in a local church.
She also just bought a piano for her home.
She said her parents, Jim and Mary Anne Schmidt, who still live in Tuolumne, have come to terms with her musical choices.
"They understand that we're happy with what we're doing," she said. "I had a lot of good experiences at the university and I definitely pull on all that. It gave me a good foundation and was really helpful in instilling the discipline it takes to be in a band."
Her other sisters are Rebecca, Annie and Elaine, all of whom are musically trained to varying degrees.