Charlotte, NC - Thursday, October 09th 2003 - "Will, hey this is Ron. Do you have a mattress I can use?"
My friend Ron is a dedicated man. He found out a few weeks ago that his favorite band, Snake Oil Medicine Show, had decided to play in his own backyard (Charlotte, NC). A couple of days before the show, Ron looked like a kid getting ready for Christmas Eve whenever you saw him in town. When he also found out that they needed a place to rest for the night, Ron came to the rescue. The first task was to find beds for the band, which is exactly why Ron had called me.
"Sure," I told him. "They could use my bed." He came over in his truck, we tossed in the mattress and off we went. Ron wanted to make sure everything was as close to perfect as we could get, grabbing sleeping gear, even planning dinner for the band that night and breakfast before they headed out for their next gig in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. For weeks he’d been talking about the show, while getting folks hooked on the band's music and giving out their website address. I’d see him passing out handbills on campus and on the night of the show; he was arranging rides for folks so they could properly party, while getting home safe with help of volunteer designated drivers. Yeah, my friend Ron is a jam-up guy. Any band he puts this much trouble into had to be worth my sleeping on a box spring for the night.
I spent some time on their website myself and gathered some info on the band. Snake Oil is headed up by George and Caroline Pond. They are an up-beat, progressive slamgrass family band with a positive message promoting art, music, peace, love and unity through a very cosmic form of bluegrass. Even George’s brother, Andy, joins the line-up on banjo. If that doesn’t pack your pipe, resident artist Phil Cheney comes with the band, and he gains inspiration for his onstage art from the energy exchanged between the band and the crowd. His colorful and globally inspired visions dance onto the canvas while the band plays through their set.
Did I mention that they are into positive, non-violent anarchy? Yeah, no joke. One of their most loved songs of the evening was when they played a cover of the Sex Pistols classic "Anarchy in the U.K." set to a very traditional mountain sound.
George, a very charming guy who sports a handlebar mustache akin to the kind you used to see on those old spaghetti Westerns plays standup bass and sings with his wife Caroline. Caroline, who is also blessed with a phenomenal and sensual bluegrass voice, plays fiddle and is one of the most respected up-and-coming female musicians in the jam community. From the get-go, the band made me feel like I was back at home, with big bowl of cereal in my hand (Fruit Loops, no doubt) watching Saturday morning cartoons. You can’t use words to describe a Snake Oil Medicine Show concert. When they tagged "Show" onto the band’s name, they truly meant it. It’s a show that gives you the warm fuzzys while you run around dancing jigs to songs about gamma rays from the sun, passing out "cosmic love" to everyone in the room, while enjoying some of the best bluegrass that has ever come out of North Carolina. There, I got close to describing it.
I asked Ron if I could interview the band. He said that the band probably wouldn’t mind talking to me, but we went ahead to let them know they had an interview coming. Common courtesy, they say. So, on September 11th, instead of plucking down in front of my TV and concentrating on images of war and death, I honored the day by celebrating life. What better way to do that than go out and see a Snake Oil show? Once you get to know the band, you realize celebrating life and creative positive energy are what they are all about.
The band was playing at Mojo in Charlotte that Wednesday. The pub is compact, but friendly. A lot of major names have played here; I see some WSP posters near the bar and a few jazz names grace the walls. Everything wasn’t gravy, though. We had to convince the management (with the help of Snake Oil) to let some of our crew in, and a few were under 21. Caroline and Billy Herring, the Snake Oil road manager, got everyone in that night. This was good for us, because we brought forty of our friends up from Rock Hill, SC, most of them are still in college at Winthrop. The band dubbed the crowd the "Chronicler Nation" (after my friend Ron), though I also heard the name "Rocka Hillbilly Nation" used a few times as well that evening. Ron humbly took the compliment in stride, and swears he has nothing to do with it. People came because they love Snake Oil, Ron assured everyone. It didn’t take long to find out why people like this band.
As soon as I am in the club, I spot Caroline Pond and Phil Cheney. The band's promotional table is right up front, so they can greet people when they come in. Phil had his Macintosh on his lap; huddled in the corner, while putting some finishing touches on a graphics he’d been working on. He smiled at everyone that came in and thanked them for coming out to the show. Phil and Caroline are people you can feel relaxed around, and you automatically do so without even thinking about it. Caroline is very enthusiastic about the crowd, as the band didn’t intend to see so many people there that night. She grinned from ear to ear, her eyes lighting up with each new person that walked through the door, and she exchanged conversation in a way that is almost musical in itself. In the back, George was getting ready for a sound check. He might be a little guy, but he has an aura of happiness that is the size of a house. He smiled and waved to the folks in anterior of the concert room. I had a few minutes to talk with Snake Oil, so I took advantage of the moment to speak with the band.
Will Cumberland: We are here at the Snake Oil show tonight. I’m talking with Phil and Caroline. We brought about 30 or 40 folks; a few we had to get in. Phil is working hard on his artwork right now, on the Mac. We are admiring Phil’s artwork right now: he’s got a painting of two whales there next to the wall. Very awesome, very nice, a whole lot of good energy coming off that one. [Phil smiles and nods.] So, Caroline, what is your favorite totem animal? [This question from the Chronicler Nation.]
Caroline Pond: Like any Indian animals? Hmm... probably a bear, because a bear is massive, big and gentle all at once. Plus, they look good on a pole! [She smiles and laughs.]
WC: So, are you looking forward to HarvestFest?
CP: I am SO looking forward to Harvestfest. I get to play with Darol Anger (of Turtle Island). We are doing a fiddle workshop. (She looks at Phil) What do we call it again, yeah a creative fiddle anarchy workshop. It’s going to be myself, Vassar Clements, Joe Craven (David Grisman Quintet) and Darol Anger. We are going to do a Sunday fiddle workshop.
WC: Vassar Clements, wow, what do you think about that?
CP [with a big smile]: Oh, I love him, he’s so sweet and so nice. You know what’s so funny, sometimes, when we do shows together and we hang out back stage, I always bring a glass of red wine and go back. He says to me ‘Honey, you always have something I can’t have anymore, you drinking something I can’t drink anymore.’ (she laughs). He’s sweet, I love him. I mean, it’s so wonderful; he loves the new generation that is coming in, that likes the bluegrass and the jazz. He loves the fact that the young generation is keeping the bluegrass alive. We all look up to him, we all do. He’s so nice and positive, plays his heart out, it’s so beautiful.
Caroline has a crowd of people forming behind her, so I let her go to talk with them. Phil signals me to let me know he’s ready to talk about his art piece.
WC: What are you working on there Phil?
PC: Oh, I’m working on a black and white template; I’m working on some flyers for the show, waiting for a sound check talking to all these beautiful people (We talk about Harvest.) I’m looking forward to just about everything this year that’s happening down there. I’m good friends with T-Dawg, the guy that puts it on. Lots of good friends of ours from Atlanta will be working the show that weekend. Beautiful situation. We are going to go hog wild in our costumes and our art, and my good friend Scramble Campbell is going to be there. It will be his first year there, and I’m looking forward to that, he’s been all over the place with everybody, so, he’s an inspiration to me. You should check him out at scramblecampbell.com. He does art for Widespread, String Cheese and he has a van Gogh style, pretty phat. Very good. (In reference to Campbell as an inspiration to his own art.) Oh definitely, yeah, on some levels yes. He’s amazing; totally, he’s an inspiration.
WC: Ok, I have a few questions to ask you, ok, if you had a totem animal, what would it be?"
PC: A whale, a whale, whales are awesome. They are the Chroniclers of the sea, but they are also the Chroniclers of space and time, and we, as human beings, are lower on the list and we haven’t been very kind to them. I think it’s time to start giving them propers, you know. They have everything that we need for peace and happiness, and they are beautiful and amazing if you think about it. They are amazing, they don’t need external things, like this stuff (points to his computer), they have it all. I think it is amazing, I saw on TV that they have this deep-sea channel from Australia to the Caribbean that they communicate with each other, by sound, through this in four minutes. They have this song, and their songs tell each other the way to go, and they have been passing this song back for many years to various whale tribes for Millennia. They are very advanced. Their habitat is being quickly destroyed.
WC: I fully agree. This next question is about art and music, the fusion of the two. In the current world situation, the outlook is kinda of half-and-half; we could go one-way or the other (I’m overly referring to September 11th and Bush wanting war with Iraq). How, in context, to a lot of things that have been going on, how do you view your show and your music works as a way of healing and how art itself, fuses with music and, heals the human mind?
PC: Wow, gee, yeah, that’s a great question. I think that what we do, I hope, maybe turns on a little light for the people, maybe the people who have never seen this kind of thing before and it’s really kind of a simple idea you know. Just art and music together, kind of a beautiful combination. I’m so inspired by the music, and it sort of flows through me and it comes out in what I do. And it makes me want to do a lot more, you know to just try to encapsulate a little message of peace, a simple message in what we do, to share with everybody. It’s like a sort of a message of joy and a way of life, of simple living and loving, in non-violence, and a kind of awareness of all these ideas. It’s not a new idea, by any means; people have been doing it for thousands of years. It’s just a good thing to continue. It’s kinda the lore that the whales hold, the history of all things, just kind of adding to that, taking from it, keep it going and spreading it around and encouraging other people to do the same things. It’s the main message, I feel like we try to convey anyway, I hope.
A few minutes later, I run into Billy Herring, the road manager for the band. It’s not standard procedure to interview the manager, but Billy is an awesome individual who is also well versed on social and world issues. Like John Joy, the manager for Leftover Salmon, Billy is a gifted and talented logistician, moving the band from place to place while they tour. He keeps the fans up to date with the band and is highly approachable.
WC: So, Billy, what were we talking about here? [We are admiring Phil’s artwork.]
BH: Well, we were talking about whale awareness, awareness of things in the Universe that need being aware of, that need to be brought to the attention of humans, things other than war and blood and oil and those things. We need to be thinking about the whales who have been traveling all over this earth longer than mankind put together for ages and ages. We need to be aware of these things, because we are completely shutting then down with sonar and fishing techniques, and all for what? All for what? We are tearing down an institution of all time; we need to be aware of that. And that comes on a day we need to be aware of peaceful things, colorful things, gentle things, not rough destruction, I think, so yeah.
WC: Wow, that’s amazing because some of the time, a lot of the crew does share the same sentiments as their band. In rare occasions, like in the Dead family, even the road crew they share in the vision that ‘the’ guys had, and it’s amazing that you share the same feelings (as Snake Oil). How did you come to join the band?
BH: I used to own a club up in Boone, NC, and when the guys were young, they used to play at my place, sometimes for a dollar cover, sometimes for free...whatever. They loved getting up there and jammin’, expressing what they believe, it’s the same group of people, maybe not the same core group of members, but it’s the same philosophy, the same color, the same energy, the same smiles. I’ve kept up, you know, stayed with them, kept with them. Same family style, the way that we work and just in this official capacity, only for four months. But as the capacity as a friend, that sort of thing and original business partners, sharing in this type of love of music and art. Indeed, it’s been eight or nine years, yes.
Soon the band is playing and the crowd bursts out dancing. That made the band members of Snake Oil extremely happy they came to Charlotte to play, instead of staying on the road to Alabama and Jacksonville. George remarked throughout the evening that he loved the crowd and that he enjoyed playing for intelligent folks. During much of the set, Caroline’s smile marked peak moments as she drew in from the experience; it was obvious the joy filled up in her and rushed out through her fiddle. She wove the evening happiness into swaths of bluegrass and George sang all those happy tunes about science, the sun love and peace on a day that needed it most. It was a celebration of life, pure and simple.
And the crowd danced through every song.
I approach George for the first time, but we had exchanged smiles during the show. You never truly meet George for the first time, no, you feel like you’ve always known him.
WC: So how did you feel about tonight?
GP: Very fine, we love an intelligent crowd, like who were here tonight all tonight, all tuned in. (We talk about Ron for a bit and introduce ourselves, I tell him how Ron worked hard to get all these people out here.) Oh yeah, we love the Chronicler and we love all these people who came here tonight.
[GP in regard to his name.] I have over 23 names. Hmmm... so many nicknames, just call me what ever you want [smiles]. [Snake Oil has a secret affection for the number twenty-three, the number of mystical synchronicity.]
WC: Who are your musical influences?
GP: That's a pretty broad spectrum. We are music lovers, specifically Spike Jones, Django Rienhardt and Janet Jackson and No Doubt.
WC: "Who are your non-musical influences?"
GP: Ghandi, the whales, various authors of books.
WC: What is your favorite totem animal?
GP: An orange cat. [Cheshire, possibly?]
George and I promise to catch up later at the house that the guys have prepared for the band back down in Rock Hill. We didn’t get back to the house until late, plus the band beat us there. We cooked dinner that evening (black bean burritos) and most people stayed to twenty past four before they headed home. I get to squeeze in a few more interviews before we started to eat.
WC: I’m talking with Sean Foley, keyboardist for the band. What are your comments and general feelings about the evening?
SF: I had a great time, I thought everybody was great, all dancing. Nice.
I ask him about some of the other famous keyboardists, mentioning that my personal favorite is Bill McKay of Leftover Salmon. After a few minutes, we discuss various members of Leftover, including Drew, Greg and Jose. Of course, everyone knows Vince and we also talked about the passing of Mark Vann.
WC: Where are you from by the way?
SF: Well obviously...you know I’m from the U.S. I’m actually from Michigan, but I grew up in Los Angles and Orlando, but I’ve been in NC for these past 10 years, so I can say I’m from North Carolina.
WC: So what do you think of the Holy Land, Boone? [The band is from Boone, NC and the author is a rabid App. State fan.]
SF: Boone is cool. I love going up there. I lived up there for two years, I’m glad I stayed up there; the place always stays fresh in my mind. If I stayed there any longer (smiles) it’s a small town. But I didn’t grow up, didn’t go to college there, that’s cool though. They do need more places for live music.
WC: How long have you been playing with Snake Oil?
SF: A little over a year now, but I’ve been friends with these guys all the way from the very beginning. So I’m all about what they are doing, I like to add to it and help out. It’s a movement. It’s a movement that involves more than just a one style of art. Audio, visual. In, outer. Black, White, Ying, Yang. It’s a show, it’s a movement, but it’s a group of people more than just a band. That’s what I think of Snake Oil. That’s what I think of them, always have.
WC: If you had a totem animal, what would it be?
SF: Dragon, I was born in the Year of the Dragon. So anything that has to do with me astrologically is in (element) fire. I love fire. Dragons are good, it’s non-traditional thought, I have some native in me, maybe I might choose something more traditional, you know. But yeah, definitely Dragons.
Andy Pond busts in at this point, grinning from ear to ear. I get a chance to bug him about the evening and his thoughts on the band.
WC: As I hear, your George Pond’s brother. So, how long have you been with Snake Oil?
AP: Not necessarily since day one, but since 1996. But before that, we had little basement jams that we called Snake Oil. (Caroline adds a little about Andy’s history with the band) Yeah, I had a bluegrass unit, Snake Oil Bluegrass Unit Number One. When I was in High School, voted the Walker School of the senior band, heh, the only band in the senior class.
WC: So what do you think about Boone?
AP: Oh, I love Boone; it makes me think about college. That’s where I went to college. I learned a whole lot about music up in Boone. Good views, man, good mountains, good feel. I went there just because I played banjo and wanted to make music. [A little on his background.] I was born in Italy, but I went to high school in Atlanta.
WC: How long have you been playing banjo?
AP: Ten years, ten years. [He smiles, looks at Caroline and George.]
WC: I have three questions relating to you, whom do you consider your musical influences? Non-musical influences? And if you had a totem animal, what would it be?
AP: Oh wow, all the people around me. All the musicians that I have played with, or meet in Boone. They showed me about all these other musicians that everyone knows about anyway, like the big Jazz guys and since then I’ve gotten into world music, like folk music’s of various cultures and also American folk music, you know, heavier than I did before. I like world music I like to mix it up.
[On his non-musical influences.] That’s a good question; I have to say my pops, my dad, for sure. He showed me my first guitar lick. I don’t know who, everyone I meet. Everyone out there, everyone there. I think everyone I meet at various points and time become my idols.
[On his totem animal.] I would have to say a monkey or a dog. If we are going to have totems, at the top would be an eagle. I dream a lot about flying, I wish I could, feel like I can. You remember from long ago, when you were a kid, you had those dreams, you jump, there is no gravity. Like you have special gravity boots on.
I get a few minutes to finish my interview with Caroline, since she had go back to greeting the fans earlier at the club. She’s very tired, but still happy folks came out and cooked her dinner tonight.
WC: Caroline, who are your music influences and non-musical influences?
CP: My musical influences? Stephan Grappelli, fiddle player who just passed away recently and oh... Gwen Stepfani, from No Doubt. I love her. Stevie Wonder, he plays away, really cool. Really neat. As far as non-musical influences go, political women like Mary Queen of Scotland, Queen Elizabeth, so strong and powerful.
WC: What do you think about Björk? [I was asked by a fan to ask this one.]
CP [smiling]: I love Björk! I like the music she did with her dad. She has that jazzy voice, singing with her dad, very cool. I love her.
I jump over to speak with their new drummer, William "SeaWhale" Sewell (otherwise known as "Beefy," because he’s a vegetarian). He has been with the band for only a few weeks and Snake Oil had been touring without a drummer for a good stretch of the tour. He busts out with a beat-box tune reminiscent of the Fat Boys back in the '80s. The crowd claps and William smiles.
WC: How long have you been playing with the band? About three or four weeks?
WS: That’s four gigs, sir. [On his thoughts about the band and this evening.] I think Snake Oil is a cool name for a band. Well, I think the show definitely corresponds with the energy of the crowd. [In a jovial tone:] It was at a very high rate this evening, thus causing a high level of energy amongst the band members.
WC: "Where are you from by the way?
WS: I’m originally from Greensboro, NC. But mainly out of Boone NC, great damn place. I’ve been drumming since I was in the sixth grade.
WC: If you had a totem animal, what would it be? And how about you musical and non-musical influences?
WS: Insert elevator music hear [big smile]. I think that an owl sounds pretty damn cool. The owl has these big eyes. [On influences:] A lot of jazz based stuff, a lot of John Coltrane, Miles Davis. A lot of Cuban influenced music, Buena Vista Social Club, a lot of those cats, very solid things. Mexican music, Mexican tortillas. Funk. George Clinton [busts out into Spanish about how much he loves George]. Non-musical, a lot of dance people. John Cage, Merce Cunningham, part of the dance thing. Martha Graham [the famous choreographer], a lot of dance people in the dance world. My mom, she’s a good influence!
It’s late and towards the end of the evening, Billy is still up. (It’s because he’s a Scorpio, he says. Funny, so is Ron.) He’s infamous for staying up late and getting up earlier. Most of the crowd has left and it’s about 4:23am in the morning.
WC: Billy, anything else you want to add before I turn this off?
BH: Good night!
Find out more about Snake Oil Medicine Show by visiting their website!
Photos by: Ron and John Roseman
JamBase | North Carolina
Go See Live Music!
Will Cumberland writes for Freakinasheville.com and is an avid supporter of North Carolina musicians. Contact Will at email or visit his website.
Snake Oil Medicine Show
Asheville, NC 28805
Will Cumberland of Mountain Xpress