By Art Menius
Late in 2001 a Chapel Hill, North Carolina duo called Wiffer Creek released its eponymous debut CD almost ten years after members Charles Pettee and Doug Bremseth began playing together at a club in Fresno, California. So, after taking their sweet time getting an album out, the duo Wiffer Creek, rather than hitting the road to promote it, stopped playing altogether. Then, more than two years later, Bremseth and Pettee return as Wiffer Creek, pushing their first release and planning more. Who are these guys and what are they trying to do?
That first Wiffer Creek album glistens with a delightful blend of original material and old favorites. Wiffer Creek sounds like two old friends playing some great songs together in a home studio for the sheer enjoyment of making music. In fact, that’s exactly what the record is. The cover songs on the album tell their influences – Bill Monroe (“Monroe’s Hornpipe”), the Grateful Dead (“Rider”), John Prine (“Paradise”), Billy Ed Wheeler (“Coal Tattoo”). The heart of Wiffer Creek, however, lies in their original compositions. “Where Else Would We Go?” and “Those Who Seek” demonstrate the growth in Charles Pettee’s writing fueled by the spiritual turn he took after becoming a dad. His standout song, however, is “Oh, Forefathers,” a gem taken by the erstwhile geologist from the rare outcropping of bluegrass social commentary. Partner Doug Bremseth proves a more conventional, but no less successful composer and a guitarist of rare fluidity with a generous melodic gift. His instrumental that serves as the title track is absolutely as powerful a piece of music as the acknowledged classic “Monroe’s Hornpipe.” Bremseth and Pettee, justly proud of their creation, stood ready to bring the record and their music to listeners, but physical problems silenced Doug’s music.
Although their meeting was as coincidental as anything from Kerouac, Wiffer Creek resulted from a simple plan they hatched in 1992. Then just when it all came together for Chapel Hill, North Carolina musicians Charles Pettee and Doug Bremseth, the latter’s physical problems appeared. The pair fell back on plan B, recorded a splendid CD as Wiffer Creek, but health stopped Doug’s playing altogether. Finally, in 2004, Doug is on the mend. They stand ready, a few years late, to tour, introducing the world to Wiffer Creek the brand new duo that is more than ten years old and their new three-year-old album. It all happened like this.
The career as a research psychologist of Charles Pettee’s future wife took her in 1992 to Fresno, California. Just as now, Charles played mandolin and some guitar, wrote songs, sang lead and harmony, and did a lot of the emcee work for the Shady Grove Band. Since Pettee and Jerry Brown started the ensemble in 1981, it has toured Europe many times and recorded half a dozen albums, three nationally distributed and promoted by Flying Fish, finding its niche in the arts council and scholastic market.
So, Charles devised to fly about once a month to Fresno, gigging at local venues such as Club Fred. During one such date there, he met a local musician — Doug Bremseth. Doug had begun playing drums as kid, adding banjo and guitar as a teen. Only a year after beginning on the five, he was performing professionally with Sierra Mountain Bluegrass and Stoney Creek. He developed his chops at fiddlers conventions and Hollywood’s Faunt School of Music, participating in the then burgeoning California bluegrass scene with such players as Stuart Duncan and Alison Brown. On the west coast Doug performing with swing, jazz, top-40 country, and rock bands, but maintained his love for bluegrass and traditional music. Meeting between sets, somehow they resolved that Doug should join Charles on stage to play guitar.
Finding themselves on stage together, they quickly sensed a musical connection, a chemistry that immediately seemed extraordinary to both Pettee and Bremseth. They had each dedicated themselves to music as a profession and followed their dreams despite the odds. Both had spent a lot of time both in bands and playing clubs as solo singer-songwriters developing their craft. The pair shared a love for traditional bluegrass, new grass, and rock groups like the Dead that incorporated roots music in their sound.
“Pettee has multifaceted talents as singer, instrumentalist, arranger, and songwriter,” wrote Sing Out! Magazine, and, “an engaging and expressive baritone voice well suited to the songs he writes and sings.” By 1993, he had already entertained audiences at home and abroad with an engaging mix of bluegrass, piedmont blues, Celtic, and original music for fifteen years. He has hosted workshops on the mandolin and guitar at some of the nation’s largest music festivals, and his original compositions get airplay in the US and more than twenty foreign countries. More recently he has formed Charles Pettee & FolkPsalm and recorded a strikingly original CD of arrangements of words from the Psalms.
After their surprisingly successful impromptu set at Club Fred, Pettee exclaimed, “Man, I wish you played banjo. Our band back home is seeking a good banjo player.” Doug replied that banjo was his primary instrument. “Dang,” said Charles, “I wish you lived in North Carolina.” Doug allowed that since his wife was a dietician, she could find work anywhere.
Thus, Doug would convince his wife to move to Chapel Hill where he would play banjo for the Shady Grove Band. Additionally, but at least as significant to the pair, Charles and Doug would work together as a duo. Thus, they could support each other’s development as singers and songwriters, backing each other a gigs on arrangements they had worked out.
Doug auditioned over the phone for Brown, and within six weeks after meeting, they made plan A happen, or so they thought. Bremseth sounded great with the Shady Grove Band, while Charles and he began gigging around North Carolina. The Shady Grove Band enjoyed one of their most prestigious stateside performances with an appearance at the Lincoln Center’s Roots of American Music Festival in New York City. Life was good, until Doug began experiencing increasing pain picking. Little more than a year after the move, Doug had to leave the band because his hands could no longer take the strain of playing that much in general and the banjo in particular.
Pettee and Bremseth continued to perform together since Doug mostly plays guitar in the duo. They went to plan B – refining what they were playing and writing locally, recording a strong record, and touring listening rooms in the southeast and mid-Atlantic to support it. Somewhere in the late 1990s they adopted the name Wiffer Creek to indicate a vibrant, natural, but quirky place in the imagination where music originates. Doug became a fixture in the vibrant North Carolina – Virginia bluegrass scene, continuing to sing, write, and play guitar, for a while leading his own band. He produced music for videos and TV including the soundtracks for a couple of series on the Discovery Channel.
By the time their first album appeared, Wiffer Creek had played such excellent listening rooms as Carrboro, North Carolina’s ArtsCenter. Doug’s condition, however, had continued to deteriorate. The days when he could pick a little became increasing rare. He suffered from a collapsed disc in his spine between the C5 and C6 vertebra. The condition caused numbness in Bremseth’s hands making it impossible to pick and difficult just to travel. Eventually the pain increased until any physical activity other than swimming proved excruciating. The hurt in Doug’s body hardly matched the distress of his silence, at being unable to express himself through music. Charles missed working with his musical soul mate and regretted – that “what could have been” regret — not being able to take Wiffer Creek’s music to listeners.
In 2003 Doug finally and successfully endured the delicate surgery required to address his disability. Surgeons removed the collapsed disc, replaced it with a piece of bone, and then secured the vertebra with two steel plates. After a few weeks in a neck brace, Doug could pick again, and the issue became building back his picking muscles rather than pain and numbness. With medical miracles and exceptional determination, he was back.
Pettee and Bremseth could get excited about Wiffer Creek again. As the latter recovered, they began planning a second Wiffer Creek album for summer 2004 release featuring their original instrumental music and interpretations of traditional tunes with North Carolina themes and titles. Besides a couple of covers appropriate to the theme, like Lauchlin Shaw & AC Overton’s “Chapel Hill Serenade,” it will include Doug’s “Seagrove Bound” and “Cedar Creek Waltz,” suggesting his love of pottery, and, from Charles, “Shining Rock” and a reprise of his early Shady Grove Band tune “Beaucatcher’s Rill.” Charles used North Carolina mountain landmark’s from his youth in Asheville as inspiration for his contributions. After that will come a follow-up to their first CD — another album of original and traditional songs based in melodic bluegrass but featuring a good deal of improvisation.
Wiffer Creek has their immediate focus, however, on their 2001 album that few have heard yet. Pettee and Bremseth stand ready, renewed and refreshed in fact, to get out on the road and finally share the music they have been making together for so long.
Singer-songwriters who draw upon foundations in southern roots traditions to create original Americana music, Wiffer Creek offers the exquisite improvisational chemistry of musical soul mates. Wiffer Creek plays a mix of original compositions by both Doug and Charles along with their arrangements of traditional fiddle tunes and classic bluegrass. The pair approach Wiffer Creek’s music with a deep respect and understanding of each other’s repertoire, and traditional music in general. The excellent material with lovely, unique arrangements, the taste only experience can bring, and strong musicianship make Wiffer Creek a special listening experience as well as a great story. Wiffer Creek delivers a lovely listening experience for anyone who likes real mashed potatoes better than mass-produced French fries.