Friday, May 26, 2017

Viola, We Never Knew Ya

Photo by Eric Hays, Flagstaff Live
Flagstaff's Viola & the Brakemen
began as a legend written on a local mural

There may be a rational explanation but it’s nowhere near as accurate as the mythic one. And after numerous interviews with the members of Flagstaff country-folk-rock-something-but-definitely-not-bluegrass band Viola and the Brakemen, the only conclusion is the truth is murky at best. Just who the hell is Viola? It must be asked. There is nobody in the band named Viola, just as there was nobody actually named Jethro Tull. Well, actually there was. So Viola is even less so.

Is she a chimera, a mystery girl, a waif-like ghost skipping in the alleys of downtown just before dawn? We may never know. Did we ever know Viola? Of course not. Whatever the idea of Viola has morphed into, it’s now also a heat-stroked desert sound coming from the songwriting heart of singer-songwriter Brian White, a phantom that is only cool water cupped in our hands at Oak Creek—where White has written many songs—or from the high-altitude, non-manufactured melting snows where the Kachinas roam. Such a person cannot exist but can only be imagined when you close your eyes and listen to White’s style of musical breeze. He makes up the words for his songs for a band that “only make sense” when expert acoustic music is attached for the safety of the consumer.

“Viola is before my time, and now is legend,” says the band’s drummer, Matthew Tress.

White explains it this way: “Her name was Nora and she played the viola. I thought about calling [the band] Nora and the Brakemen, but instead used Viola to infer both definitions of the word. I like the contrast of a flower and the steel that makes up the railroad and in conjunction with the Southern Pacific Railroad position title ‘brakemen.’ We are asked all the time if (band members Kristin Straka or Jessica Ludwig) are Viola. They always respond by pointing at me!”

In fact, the band’s name has proved to be so evocative and anthropologically local that “Viola & the Brakemen” is now memorialized on the Route 66 mural on the back wall of downtown’s Lumberyard Brewing Co.

“The band name stuck when the Mural Mice (R.E. Wall and Maggie Dewar) added our name as a bumper sticker in the mural on Phoenix Street at Lumberyard Brewery,” White says. “At that point I took Viola and the Brakemen on officially.”

So the evolution of the band was a kind of collective happening, a stream-of-consciousness thing ignited by one fact, codified by local muralists, and now a part of the Flagstaff historic district landscape. The mural image is a kind of faded, half-shadow that’s tilted, naturally, almost upside down, as a barely stapled old band flyer seemingly petrified to the brick wall. At this point, even if there are still band show notices stapled on Flagstaff telephone poles that are older, it appears Viola and the Brakemen will be almost as permanent as the hot dog stand on Route 66 that inspired Jackson Browne to write “Take it Easy.” Especially as brick murals in the great cow towns and mining hubs in the American West prove to endure as the decades roll on.

In any case, that brick-of-an-idea Viola and the Brakemen is the brainchild of White, who among other things is a kind of cyberspace marketing and communications wiz, working on a Master’s in Education Psychology, and really knows a lot about trains.

“The inspiration for the name came directly from my father and his position as brakemen for Southern Pacific Railroad,” he says. “The brakeman was a position on the caboose. They assisted the train when stopping, but in the mid-’80s the caboose went away because they would add more engines for power [longer freight trains] and stopping. But if you were a brakeman at the time you would keep your title per union by-laws. New hires would come in as ‘trainsmen’ while anyone before the caboose was omitted remained a brakeman due to the difference in pay.”

Of the music, a key turn of phrase stands out, “flowers” and “steel.” The new music found in the various digital formats, including on Bandcamp, the real good fortune for White is the quality of the backing band, which among other things, features an experienced player on bass, Keith Gomora, who, with the train beats, keeps each song swinging into some funky places in unexpected ways. As a group they are impressive, with Straka on the violin and Ludwig on vocals and percussion, as well as the work of drummer Tress, whose family has a recording background in the early days of Christian rock in Florida.

The off-the-grid melodies of country-porch, hippies out in the woods playing Marshall Tucker songs, and yes, all of those references to Oak Creek and mid-Western farm life, it comes at you in surprising ways. White says he’s influenced by the Byrds, Wilco and even shoegaze, a more recent critic’s word for guitar-playing frontmen with so much focus on the pedals for guitar effects on the floor they are therefore staring at their shoes. And indeed, there is a very rich palette to the songs, which are steeped in a very Arizona twang and rich harmonies—especially considering White’s background growing up as a kid, the son of an original brakeman who was also a country musician, spending a lot of time at San Xavier del Bac church southwest of Tucson.

“I am an Arizona native and I was born very close to the border of Arizona and Mexico,” he explains. “My ‘playground’ was the San Xavier Mission and I believe this upbringing lends a hand to my Southwestern musical roots. I grew up roaming miles and miles of desert lands in flip-flops, flipping rocks over to check out the weird creatures of the desert in my youth and later taking motorcycle journeys through the Tohono O’odham Nation as I got into my teen years. I had 20 years in Tucson and 21 years in Flagstaff, and I have never lived anywhere else.”

In the final analysis, as far as the legend of Viola goes, in terms of the wake she left, there’s a warm comfort in knowing that somewhere out there is a band whose idea of “going to church” is playing long Sunday afternoons at the porch at Flagstaff Brewing Co. Shows no doubt muted with great frequency by the turbulatin’ of the engines and sirens along Route 66 and the river of trains running by.

~ Originally published in Flagstaff Live, Arizona Daily Sun

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