California Report: Christine Wilhoyte

Reprinted from Bluegrass Today
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Christine Wilhoyte is a second-generation bluegrass picker following the footsteps of her dad Mike, and stepmom Karen in Marin County. Another product of the California Bluegrass Association Youth Programs (CBA), Christine is the current Butte County Area Vice President two years running. She certainly knows her way around a guitar, but her solid banjo playing and high lonesome harmonies stand out in the current bands she plays in, North Country Blue and Green Mountain Bluegrass.

Hi Christine, thanks for your time. Tell us how you got into playing bluegrass.
Hey Dave, thanks for thinking of me! My dad and stepmom introduced me to bluegrass. They brought me to my first CBA Father’s Day Festival when I was 14. I think they’d taken me to Good Old Fashioned Bluegrass Festival the year prior, but I hadn’t met any other kids there, so Grass Valley is the one that stands out. I had the best time there, and after meeting some other kids my age and watching them jam, I was hooked. The next week my dad taught me my first song on guitar, Wildwood Flower.

Do you get to play much with your family these days?
Not as much as I’d like since I live in Chico and they’re in Novato. The couple times I’ve visited them since the pandemic, we’ve had some really good jams and those were quite special. My dad and I are actually planning to record an album together soon. I’m really looking forward to that!

What was your first instrument, and what other instruments do you play?
My first instrument ever was the clarinet. I played for a year before switching over to violin, which I played for a couple of years. I took drum lessons for a while and tried out ukulele before I went to Grass Valley, where I realized that bluegrass is where it’s at. Now I stick to guitar and banjo.

What banjo style do you favor?
Well, my skill set certainly lies more in three-finger traditional banjo. I’ve been playing banjo for about six years now, and I spent the first three or four pretty solidly focused on absorbing the traditional style first. I still have quite a ways to go, but it’s been fun lately trying to play more old-time tunes in the three-finger style and working up tasteful banjo accompaniments for solo banjo and vocals. 

I recently reached out to Emily Mann of the Paper Wings duo (who are awesome!) for a clawhammer banjo lesson, and she suggested a lesson trade, which was super fun. She taught me some clawhammer and I showed her some three-finger stuff, and we of course got to chat about the fun and nerdy nuances of banjo playing. 

While we’re on the hotly debated topic of three-finger vs. clawhammer vs. two-finger vs. flatpick, etc., I have to say that one of the things I’ve come to love most about banjo is the way that it distinctly fits into such a variety of musical settings. When you look at it in the context of just one specific style, like traditional bluegrass, it seems to fit into such a particular spot – constantly rolling, filling out the sound, keeping the groove chugging, etc. Yet the banjo has its role in a diverse range of music – traditional bluegrass, melodic, jazz, Irish, clawhammer folk, old-time, two-finger, etc. – and each role is unique to each style, with different dynamics and techniques. It’s so crazy. I love diving into those tiny details, and it’s been super fun dipping my toe into clawhammer and old-time. 

Talk about your approach to vocals and, of course, some favorites.
To be honest, I don’t consider myself much of a singer. I try to stay relaxed without straining my voice, and to use breathing techniques to help the air flow more evenly. Though the whole staying-relaxed-and-without-strain thing goes right out the window at a late jam or busking at the farmer’s market! 

Since quarantine, I’ve been listening to quite a lot of Pharis and Jason Romero. They’re a beautiful folk duo. They cover My Flowers, My Companions, and Me by Banjo Bill Cornett, and it’s become one of my favorite songs to sing. 

As far as bluegrass and old-time, it’s tough to pick a favorite vocalist. There are so many that I love! Some that stand out to me right now are Carol Elizabeth Jones, Reeb Willms, Caleb Klauder, Jim Miller, Lynn Morris, Bella White, and Gillian Welch. I’ve been spending lots of time in the Boots albums that Gillian Welch just released – they’re pretty much a gold mine. Bella White’s album is also definitely worth checking out.

Do you ever compose?
I’m not sure that I’m good at it, but I’ve played around with writing more in the last year. I have a few instrumentals I’m happy with and one complete vocal song. Maybe one day they’ll get recorded!

Do you feel music is a full-time or part-time endeavor?
That’s a tough question to answer. I think it depends on the individual. Of the professional musicians I know, I can say that it’s almost certainly much more than a full-time endeavor for them. Through North Country Blue’s recording experience last year, I got to spend a lot more time with our mentor and producer, Sharon Gilchrist. I could go on for a while about how inspiring she is – work ethic, musical taste, and all-around an admirable human and a kind soul. That recording and mentorship time was a great learning experience for me. Folks in the professional world really work their rear ends off! I feel very fortunate to be a hobbyist and to remain deeply connected to the community through picker friends, bands, and gigs. 

For other hobbyists, I think that whichever amount of time works for someone’s lifestyle is the right amount. Personally, I cycle through phases of spending more time in different areas of my life – work, friends and family, music, biking, and other outdoor activities. That all being said, music is a huge part of my life and on my mind almost constantly!

A lot of young players stray from bluegrass as they mature. Do you see that happening with you?
I can maybe imagine a day when I don’t primarily call myself a bluegrass musician, but I think that would be to maintain the integrity of what comprises bluegrass. I play bluegrass but not everything I play is bluegrass. There are so many totally different sounds that are perceived as bluegrass, I don’t want to muddy the water anymore!

I enjoy exploring other styles of music, and when I sit down to write, I don’t usually gravitate towards bluegrass songs. I wouldn’t want to label something bluegrass if it simply wasn’t. That all being said, bluegrass will always have a special place in my heart. I’ve written a couple of tunes that are for sure grassy, and I’ll always love playing bluegrass music. There’s really nothing like ripping banjo on a Johnson Mountain Boys song in a 2:00 a.m. jam.

What bands are you active in?
At the moment, North Country Blue and Green Mountain Bluegrass. I’m not sure what my dad and I will call our band yet!

Are there any new releases available or planned?
North Country Blue released an EP summer of 2020, which was my first real full-length recording. Talk about a valuable learning experience – that was a real blast. It’s crazy to think it happened a year ago now! 

I also had the good fortune to lay some banjo down on a song for AJ Lee and Blue Summit’s upcoming album. Unfortunately, I had a COVID scare from work and wasn’t able to make it up to their actual recording session, which means I didn’t get to snoop on the rest of their material as I had planned! So I’m super excited to hear how that whole album comes out. 

There’s also that album with my dad that I mentioned which we’ll be working up the material for soon. We’ve been wanting to record something together for a while, so I’m excited for us to have a little musical project to work on together.

Finally, my good pal Dana Frankel (of Mission Blue) and I are planning to record an album sometime this year of old-time, folk, and bluegrass. That probably won’t be until later in the year. So there’s kind of a lot coming down the pike this year.

What are some of your musical challenges or goals?
As I mentioned, I enjoy the fine details of tone and technique. When I’m making enough time for music to feel physically in sync with my instrument, I find that adding those layers of complexity to my playing is a challenge that will probably continue… forever, haha. 

One day I’d like to put out a full album of original material. It may be a while. I have a big trip coming up this summer, so I’m excited to see what kind of music I write along the way. Some songs worth remembering, I hope!

Tell us about your involvement with the California Bluegrass Association.
I’ve had the fortune to teach at the Youth Academy at the Father’s Day Festival, and to serve as the Butte County Area VP for two years. This past year has been pretty quiet with COVID, unfortunately. I’m also involved in the CBA membership committee, and I try to stay connected in helping out Darby and Kimber with the youth program. They’ve got some awesome stuff planned for kids. I hope that one day I’ll have made a tiny fraction of the impact on the bluegrass community that Darby Brandli has made. She’s a fantastic role model and inspiration.

What’s happening in the Chico bluegrass scene?
As of now, not too much that’s CBA sponsored. However, there’s a solid crowd of folks here who pick, and I hear they’ve continued to find safe ways to get together and jam. There are a couple of active bands around here as well. I hope to see more public gigs and jams as things with the virus start to calm down. 

What are you studying at school?
I actually just finished up my degree at California State University, Chico in exercise physiology – this is my first semester with no school! I’m unsure where I’m off to next as far as schooling is concerned – maybe physical therapy or physician’s assistant. 

Until I figure that out, my plan this summer is to ride my bike across the country to raise money for physical education instruction in rural communities. I’m still working on the details of a GoFundMe or a pledge. For now, if folks would like to donate to the cause they can contact me: [email protected]. I’d like to be able to purchase some equipment for the schools in the towns whose beauty I’ll be enjoying this summer.

What are your non-musical interests?
Before I got into bluegrass, my love was soccer. Now I have two loves – music and physical activity. 

I love spending time in nature and playing sports. Recently it’s been a lot of bike rides, hiking, and snowboarding. Since being in Chico, I’ve gotten more into rock climbing and had lots of fun playing spikeball and going tubing down the river with coworkers. I also enjoy reading and learning about exercise science and the like. 

It’s pretty much the best of both worlds being able to enjoy creative and physical expression in one lifetime. To be a little serious – I work in a hospital right now, so I meet a lot of folks whose bodies struggle to support the activities they love to do. It’s heartbreaking. All we want as people is for our souls to be seen. I feel very lucky to get to do all the things that I do. 

What are you most looking forward to this year?
I’m really excited to do those recordings with my dad and Dana Frankel, but I’d have to say I’m most looking forward to my bike trip. It’ll be at least three months of riding across the country, and hopefully I’ll stop at RockyGrass in Colorado on the way – if the COVID situation allows. I’m really excited to connect with lots of people, learn about different communities, and hopefully write some songs! 

Is there anything else you wanted to mention
If anyone out there has tips for the TransAmerica Trail or is interested in donating to help me purchase PE class equipment for rural schools along my trip, please contact me through email: [email protected] or Venmo: Christine-Wilhoyte.

Thanks much for your time Christine. Can’t wait to see you on the circuit.
Thank you for taking the time, Dave. I hope we can all be pickin’ again soon.