Just a little over a year ago, Sharon Martinson came into Fiddlers Crossing on Open Mic night with her banjo. She is a biologist, with a PhD, and was working through the University of Santa Cruz on a project here. She and a friend sat quietly in the back until she was called up to perform.
As soon as she began singing and playing banjo in the old-time clawhammer style, just about every jaw in the room dropped open. She was immediately signed to teach at Camp Kiya, where she gained a fans of everyone at the camp.
Martinson will be back at Camp Kiya August 5-8, teaching beginning and intermediate banjo. (The camp can still take a few more campers. See campkiya.com or call 823-9994). This year, she’ll also be sticking around to perform at Fiddlers Crossing, on Friday, August 10, with her musical partner, cellist Dave Huebner.
Huebner’s imaginative and energetic cello is a perfect counterpoint to Martinson’s unique banjo frailing style. (Frailing, or Clawhammer, banjo is a technique of using just the thumb and the back of one finger, rather than picks as in bluegrass.) While most of their songs are original compositions, the music has a familiar down-home sound to it that draws the listener in immediately.
Both musicians were classically trained. Martinson hails from the mountains of Wyoming. Before she took up the banjo, she played the French Horn for 20 years. Her grandfather gave her an old Washburn banjo from the late 1800s, but it sat in a cardboard box for years under her bed while she pursued her graduate degree at Dartmouth, in New Hampshire.
In her last year of school, she heard Bruce Molskey play the clawhammer banjo and she was inspired to pick up the instrument and teach herself a few tunes. In 2007, she moved out west to do environmental research through UC Santa Cruz, living part of the time on the California coast, and part time in Mammoth Lakes. Martinson formed friendships with musicians and banjo teachers in both places, and soon was singing and writing songs. In Santa Cruz, she even played an eclectic mix of Turkish-Sephardic-Arabic music on the banjo with the group, Fretless.
Huebner began studying classical cello at the age of 7. Much of his childhood was devoted to cello competitions and performing with various youth orchestras. He was principal cellist for two broadcasts of the Disney Young Musicians Symphony. He played with orchestras at the White House and the Hollywood Bowl. At the age of 17, he gave up what looked like a promising career on the cello to live in the mountains.
Huebner returned to music after a few years while working as a caretaker in the winter for a snowed-in resort. With time on his hands, he learned to play the guitar and began writing his own songs. Three years ago, he brought his cello back out of the closet and discovered he could have fun playing other kinds of music, from folk to rock ‘n’ roll.
Martinson and Huebner met at a jam session in the woods of Mammoth Lakes. They discovered there was magic in the mixture of banjo and cello, and in the blend of their voices. Two years ago, they formed a duo and began performing and touring as The Littlest Birds. Since then, they have been named FolkAlley’s Open Mic Artist of the Month, and their albums have been accepted onto the internet’s Pandora.
The Littlest Birds will set down at Fiddlers Crossing August 10 to give the audience a unique late-summer treat.
Fiddlers Crossing is at 206 East F Street at Robinson Street, in Downtown Tehachapi. Tickets may be purchased next door at Mountain Music, at The Apple Shed, or with a credit card by calling 661-823-9994. Tickets to the concert are $15, and as always, coffee and goodies are included. The concert begins at 7 p.m. Doors open at 6:30p.m.