Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


LAMB, Barbara

(b 14 January 1958, Seattle WA) Country/bluegrass fiddler, teacher, singer, songwriter. Her father is a retired teacher, a self-taught fiddler and a composer (John David Lamb has had a composition recorded by the Kronos Quartet and has released several self-produced CDs of his music). Barbara began studying the violin when she was eight.

She disliked conventional lessons with a violinist in the Seattle Symphony for two or three years, but persevered until, she says, she was fired by her teacher, because she had learned a Swedish dance tune by ear from a Skandia folk fiddler, and played it much better than her assigned lesson stuff. 'I was so proud of learning that little tune. It annoyed my teacher no end.' She switched to the folk dance teacher, who also taught using written music, but 'I really just wanted to play by ear and by feel.' She played at folk dances, and then went with her family on their first visit to Scandinavia, taking her fiddle with her. There she played her Swedish tunes with real Swedes in the very villages where the tunes came from. And back in the USA, playing in a variety show and still only 12 years old, she heard her first Bluegrass band, Tall Timber, with fiddler Vivian Williams, and immediately knew what kind of music she wanted to play. With Vivian and her husband Phil she played square dances, and in 1975 Lamb and Williams made an album of duo fiddle tunes called Twin Sisters, reissued on Voyager Records 20 years later.

Williams turned Barbara on to fiddling contests, specifically in Weiser, Idaho where the National is held every June. She placed ninth in the junior division her first year, though she thought she was terrible, and vowed to learn a hundred tunes before the next National, which she did. At 14 she won the Washington State contest and the NorthWest Regional contest, both in the junior (under 18) division, and placed fourth in the National. Vivian Williams was a wonderful mentor, emphasizing that a contest wasn’t all about winning, but more about having fun and jamming with other musicians.

Also at 14, Lamb began teaching, and one of her students was 11-year-old Mark O'Connor. At 15 she joined a newly formed bluegrass band, and learned that she had no idea how to play in a band, very different from playing in contests and for dances. She learned by listening to records by Jim & Jesse, Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs and others. 'By the time Barbara was 16,' her father says, 'she was lying about her age and playing bluegrass in taverns with adult bands. This worried me a lot, as you can imagine, but there was not much I could do about it. She was a full time professional well before she finished high school.'

After high school Lamb toured with author Robert Fulghum, also from Washington state, who had a lecturing career after his book Everything I Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten dominated the best-seller charts for nearly two years. She stood on stage with him and played bits of music between his stories, and it was Fulghum who first told her that she should go to Nashville.

Next Lamb was a founding member of Ranch Romance, a vocal and instrumental group with yodeling, named after a pulp magazine of the 1930s. With Jo Miller on guitar, Lisa Theo on mandolin, and Nancy Katz on bass, they were an opening act for k.d. lang for nine months in the late 1980s. Lisa left, replaced by Nova Karina Devonie on accordion and David Keenan on guitar, banjo and violin; they signed with Sugar Hill, Bland Barbara played and sang on all three of their albums on that label: Western Dream '89, Blue Blazes '91 and Flip City '93. She left that group and made the move to Nashville early '94, but after a short road gig with Sweethearts Of The Rodeo, she joined Ray Benson's Asleep At The Wheel, and moved to Austin, Texas for a year and a half. She played on Asleep's prize-winning instrumental title track 'Wheel Keeps On Rollin',' but she did not get the grammy knick-knack for her mantelpiece, because meanwhile she had given notice, and after she told Benson she was leaving the band, her name mysteriously disappeared from the credits before awards night.

She moved back to Nashville and she's been there ever since. She has also toured with the John Cowan Band, Scott Vestal & Continental Divide, Trish Yearwood, Tony Rice, Peter Rowan, and others. As Lamb's dad says, 'It has not been an easy life, but she has been able to do what she loves to do. Not many of us can say that.' Lamb's own albums, each one even better and more fun than the last, are Fiddle Fatale '93 and Tonight I Feel Like Texas '96, both on Sugar Hill; Blue On Dakota 2000, Fiddle Piggy 2003, and Bootsy Met a Bank Robber 2006 on her own Lots of Coffee label.

She co-produced Bootsy at Silvertone in Nashville with E. Scott Esbeck. The bouncy opening title track is about a gal who takes up with a good-looking rounder; the lyrics might make a listener laugh out loud, especially given the rhythmic snap in the writing and in the delivery of the words. The instrumentals on the album show off the excellent band, with Jeff Autry on guitar, Butch Baldassari on mandolin, Scott Vestal on banjo (who also did some of the recording at his studio in Greenbrier), and Mike Bub on bass. We have all seen Bluegrass bands on public television, lined up across the stage, everybody picking as fast as they can, because they can; there is none of that here. The fills and end-of-phrase flourishes are perfect; the music swings, because it is allowed to breathe. Kathy Chiavola and Edwina Lamont contributes harmony vocals, and Chiavola co-wrote 'Bitter Pill', a tough song about unrequited love. There are two covers of songs by Richard Thompson, with Mollie O'Brien singing lead on 'Poor Little Beggar Girl', Tim O'Brien on mandolin and bouzouki and singing harmony. John Cowan guests on 'Whispering Pines', written by Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson; they wanted to showcase Cowan’s beautiful voice, and Esbeck choose the tune. And there is much more: an altogether wonderful set.

Swedish Design 2007 on Lots of Coffee is an album of Swedish-style fiddle tunes composed over the years by David Lamb, with David and Barbara on fiddles, David on spilåpipa (a small folk flute), Bill Boyd on organ here and there, and delight in old friendships, picnics and folk music on every track.