Two-Time Winner of the Yellow Pine
National Harmonica Contest,
Comes to the Wood River Valley.
By Karen Day
It is a fact of life that some of the greatest discoveries of mankind are brilliant stokes of dumb luck. Par example, Newton’s falling apple, Leonardo forgoing Mona Lisa’s eyebrows, and not least, Isacc Hohner creating three centuries of foot-stomping, hand-clapping good times by blowing through a piece of wood the size of snickers bar. For those same three centuries, there have been people, mostly paid professionals who can name Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, disputing the musical magnitude of the harmonica. However, it would be obvious they hadn’t stumbled onto one of the best kept secrets of music now playing in the Wood River Valley. The harmonica virtuoso called Fred Crabtree.
Crabtree is the two-time winner of the Yellow Pine Harmonica Contest, a national level competition that attracts hundreds of harmonica masters and thousands of tourists to the one-dirt-road town the first week of August each year. Yellow Pine is a town purposely lost in time and the heart of the Sawtooth mountains, and Crabtree has proven, twice, he is not only the undisputable champion of the disappeared art of the harmonica, but a modern reflection of the mountain men of this ghost town’s yesteryears. Yellow Pine is one place you won’t hear Britany Spears or 50 Cent, but undoubtedly, if these pop music wunderkind did show up; it’s easy to imagine fifty-year-old Crabtree being “discovered” on their next Grammy- nominated CD. Amazingly and much like his instrument, this obscure star has avoided becoming a has-been, mostly because he has never been anything but himself.
At six foot three, Crabtree naturally maintains a birds-eye view of others, even when he’s not on the stage, but his demeanor is anything but distant. He always wears an infectious smile and a contraption resembling homemade orthodontic headgear that allows his hands and mouth individual freedom to perform a mind-blowing test of musical coordination. While his mouth pulls the blues, jazz, bluegrass from a harmonica, his vintage Martin guitar has mastered just about any rock song you can dig out of the last three decades. However, the most original and heart-stopping music begins when Crabtree’s breaks into his own songs.
Crabtree explained he has been playing county fairs, barnyards, backcountry saloons and campfires since he was a child, but as a full-time rancher and horseman, he’s never much been interested in the siren call of the professional music machine. Born in West Virginia, he had a peripatetic upbringing, attending more than 17 schools before he graduated. He eventually settled in Idaho, on 240 acre ranch in one of the remotest valley’s of the Posmeroi, because “it felt like home, still smelled like the wild west and there is always plenty of quiet to fill up with music.” He lives there still, in a house he built himself, powered only by the Idaho sun and wind.
The inconstancy of his itinerate upbringing and the harsh wisdom of ranch life have uniquely informed his songwriting. Life and human relations are tragically unpredictable his harmonica and guitar seem to wail together beautifully. And this is what makes Crabtree an authentic American storyteller and an extraordinary talent. With the heart of a poet and his rowdy, honky-tonk soul, you can almost hear the washboards, fiddles and spoons echoing in your bones, without losing respect for the modern art of his preferred instrument. His style is vintage hobo. While his lyrics dust off your heart with the truth, his harmonica/guitar instrumentals are a rustic romp with contemporary polishsimilar, but not the same, as the famed, eclectic style of mandolin master, David Grisman. When you hear it, you know, there is nothing like Crabtree.
His new CD, Ghost Train, straddles the self-contained definitions of folk, pop, rock, blues, jazz and honky-tonk. Every song is a definitive explanation of his artistic integrity and broad personal style. That’s no easy trick. The airwaves are crammed with songs that purposely sound the same and artists today are rewarded for their ability to imitate commercial formulas. But much like Hostess Twinkies, box cake never tastes as good as homemade. One song in particular, “When I’m Dyin’” is a soulful, but strangely sweet lament about one old man’s simple last wish. It could be autobiographical for any or us and since none of us can outrun our destiny, we could all wish for the same end in no better words.
The night I happened to see Crabtree at the Red Elephant, the comment heard most was “What’s this guy doing here?” intoned with respectful disbelief, as if it was understood his talent was clearly larger than his audience of fifty or so appreciative locals. As it happens with true talent and in Disney movies, that same night, the entertainment director for Sun Valley Lodge also happened to be sitting on one of those bar stools, and asking that same question. Crabtree was playing at the Sun Valley Resort the next week.
When I asked him where he had been hiding all these years, Crabtree answered with same wry and self-deprecating humor that infuses his song lyrics and stage charm. “I’m a lifelong bachelor and winter up at the ranch is long and cold. The conversations with the horses and cats get pretty repetitive. Besides, I just love to play music for people.” He used the word “dang” several times in one sentence, though not once in a song, and he mentions his CD’s are for sale at $10.00, as if apologizing. Amazingly in this age of MTV, Crabtree prefers to be one of those rare, undiluted artists whose low-keyed success actually reflects positively on the intelligence and the ability of his music to please the ear.