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Read the complete Peat & Barley story - our interview with writer Dominique Agnew for
the Monocacy Monacle!

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Dominique Agnew © 2007

On the Brink of the Silver Lining

This is the story of a violin—a red one—and the turmoil of generations of humanity surrounding it.  Lives are lost; journeys traveled; passions ignited; revolutions waged; blood spilled.  Does this sound familiar?  If you’ve seen The Red Violin, you recognize it.  If you haven’t seen it, rent it or borrow it this weekend (not suitable for children).

Let’s try anew.

This story begins with a violin—as do the best of stories (if you doubt this, read above).  It’s amazing what an instrument can do to turn the tides of human lives.  The year was 1991 when Becky Ross received a summons from her parents, something along the lines of, “We’re moving, come get your junk.”  Amongst the “junk,” was Becky’s violin, given to her by a great aunt, from her school days.  It had been years since she’d played, having left it at home when she had left to attend Bryn Mawr College then later married, but she decided to pick it up again.  At the time, she was living in New Jersey with her husband, Bill Mitchell.

Through colleagues at her place of employment, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Becky started playing music again.  “Someone at work mentioned playing Irish tunes,” she says, and she found herself drawn to the Irish-Celtic style.  With Becky having so much fun, what was Bill to do but join her.  He doesn’t get a violin, though, that’s only for the heroine of the story.  No, Bill observed some musicians playing the hammered dulcimer, and he said to himself, “That looks like fun.  I bet I could learn to do that.”  He promptly bought a kit and built his first dulcimer.  On the hammered dulcimer, Bill is completely self-taught, having received no formal lessons.  He did have musical training in his youth, playing the baritone horn in high school and in his college pep band (Clarkson College in Potsdam, New York).  Together with seven others, Bill and Becky were in their first band, the Princeton Rovers.

Sadly for the Rovers, in 1993, Bill and Becky left New Jersey for Laytonsville, Maryland where they still reside.  Bill accepted a position at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and Becky transferred to a different NOAA lab in the area—and the music continued.  At the time, the director of the Potomac Valley Scottish Fiddle Club was living right around the corner.  They were pleasantly surprised by the proximity.  “Little did we know it would never be close again,” says Bill.  “Until we had it [in our home],” adds Becky.  The PVSFC is a non-profit group that caters to anyone who likes Scottish Fiddle music, whether they play the fiddle or not.   Primarily, an educational group, they do put on a “few limited performances,” says Becky.  They also host one Scottish dance per year so that members can have the experience of playing in a dance band. 

From the PVSFC, Bill and Becky met John Ward and became part of a group he put together, the Homespun Ceilidh Band, still in existence and in demand.  Playing with these two groups required Bill to develop accompaniments because it was difficult to read the music while looking at his instrument.  “I learned to play chord accompaniment…by necessity to keep up,” says Bill.  Becky adds, “Most dulcimer players focus on solos.”  Playing accompaniment is a technique many hammered dulcimer players don’t have.  “It’s given me a unique style,” says Bill.

Pursuing their interests in their music and their instruments, Bill and Becky began attending the Upper Potomac Dulcimer Festival, originally in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, but now in Harper’s Ferry.  There, they met dulcimer player Jeanean Martin of Boyds.  She may just have been the catalyst behind the creation to come.  Every once in a while, “there were little gigs that she couldn’t do,” says Becky, and Jeanean would tell them, “C’mon, you guys, you can do this.”  Becky continues, “That got us thinking that we could do duo pieces.”  Little by little, Bill and Becky began playing as a duo and developing a repertoire.  Of course, there was one thing missing.  Bill says they decided that if they would continue, “Hey, we oughtta have a name.”  The duo, Peat and Barley was born.  The birth year:  1996.

By 1998, they recorded their first CD, Reflections on Big Moose Lake.  This first CD was mostly for friends and family and to showcase some of Bill’s composing, as a vacation on Big Moose Lake in the Adirondacks was where he composed his first tune.  They did sell a few of the CDs, but Bill is quick to say that it’s now out of print.

Two years later, Bill attended a composing workshop at an Upper Potomac Dulcimer Festival in Harper’s Ferry taught by Sam Rizzetta.  With these skills, Bill would compose two pieces as wedding presents, and they would be found on their next CD, On the Brink, which came out in 2003 (would you believe they live on Brink Road?).  Bill and Becky had been discussing the possibility of recording a real CD in a studio for some time, but it took Bill’s diagnosis of cancer in 2001 to spur them to action.  “That sort of focuses the mind,” he jokes.  Not only was On the Brink well received among their growing fan base, it was a 2003 Wammie (awards from the Washington Area Music Association—WAMA) nominee for best traditional folk recording.

Also new to this recording, there were two new instruments.  Bill and Becky still played the hammered dulcimer and the fiddle, but they had each upgraded their respective instruments.  Bill, who found himself more serious about the music, purchased a D600 from Dusty Strings in 2000.  It’s a larger dulcimer than the one he built, with an extended range (more bass “which Bill uses to great effect in Peat and Barley arrangements,” Becky says) and pedal dampers which are “not that common [and] which also facilitate interesting effects in the arrangements,” adds Bill.  Becky, in a strange fluke, replaced her red violin with another red violin.  By 2002, Becky decided she wanted to devote all of her time to music.  “Against all standard advice, I quit my day job,” she laughs.  The week before she was to leave NOAA, Becky was contacted by John Schmidt who worked in another department of NOAA who had heard of her leaving to play the violin.  Well, it just so happens that in his spare time, he makes violins.  He graciously offered her a violin on loan, and the beautiful tone of this instrument is what’s heard on the CD and in performances today.

In pursuing her focus on the violin, Becky has become a member of a number of musical groups.  With Violinsanity, her violin duo group with Dominique Agnew of Boyds, she “is enjoying returning to my classical roots.”  She continues, “My classical playing is now refined by the improvisation that I’ve learned through playing for dances.”  Her other two regular groups are:  Tasker’s Chance with Jeanean Martin and Deborah Bower specializes in eighteenth century music, and the English Country Dance Trio with Colleen Reed and Liz Donaldson.  She also plays as hired with other musicians.

As the years rolled forward, Bill and Becky considered going back into the studio.  They had more arrangements; Bill continued to compose.  “Time gets away from you,” says Becky, “you have to set your own deadline.”  Once again, it was an illness that gave them a little shove.  Bill’s cancer reappeared in 2004, and this time, he underwent a stem cell transplant.  This road was a more difficult one, but you know the saying, every dark cloud has a, yep, Silver Lining.  The title song, “Silver Lining,” is another exceptional composition by Bill.  “We’re getting loads of compliments on that,” says Becky. 

Original compositions have become a sizeable portion of Peat and Barley’s repertoire, but even more so, their captivating arrangements of well-known traditional pieces and Bill’s tunes.  Because they both play melody, harmony, and rhythm, they frequently weave beautiful blends that are both haunting and intoxicating.  “That’s what we think is the strength of our duo,” Becky says, “our creative arrangements that keep the listener’s interest through the interplay of the two instruments.”

What about the violin that began our story?  Just like in The Red Violin, it is in the hands of a new violinist to weave its magic.  Becky recently passed the family’s red violin to her nephew.

Peat and Barley will be having a concert and CD release party for Silver Lining at the French Quarter Café in Germantown on December 2 from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.  Arrive early and enjoy a meal.  There will be a complimentary dessert buffet during intermission complete with CD signing and T-shirts for sale.  Becky promises, “It’ll be just loads of fun.”