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Plowing ahead

OTC VarmitZ take old-time sound to Happy Ass Festival


Murray and Co. celebrate their VarmitZvah in style.
  • Murray and Co. celebrate their VarmitZvah in style.

As a child, Sylvia Murray spent a couple years on her uncle's farm in Owatonna, Minn., while her parents went through a divorce back in California.

Her uncle, who had lost a hand in a farming accident, was already experiencing the plight of today's family farmer.

"When his fourth son left home, he used to say, "I can keep this farm going with one hand,'" recalls the singer/songwriter/frontwoman for OTC VarmitZ. "But the cattle ended up getting dysentery, and I remember sneaking down the stairs while my uncle was talking to the banker on the phone. He was worried that he couldn't pay his bank note, and it really struck me, you know, how that would be, to lose your farm."

Decades later, she would write a song about it, except from the banker's perspective: "I shook my head and stared at my new sign / "Vice President' was written all in gold / I told the man I could not go with his plan / In 30 days his farm would have to fold."

Murray didn't get serious about songwriting until some six years ago, around the time she hooked up with her current band. Since then, she's placed a sizeable number of songs with regional and national artists "21 with other artists, 18 or 19 of them this year," she says after some prompting from her husband Bill, who plays banjo in the Parker, Colo.-based group.

Between Murray's expressive old-time vocal style and her poignant songwriting about ordinary folks in not-always-ordinary situations (she's written two about mining disasters so far), it's not hard to understand why her band sticks with her.

"Mark Hutchinson, the guitar player in my band, invited me to his house to jam," she says of the group's origins, "but I didn't really want to interfere with their jam session. So during their intermission, I just was playing some songs that I wrote, and they said, "Where did you get that?' Well, I wrote it. They said, "We know what we're going to be doing from now on.' And that's how it started."

Bruce Baker, a Native American fiddler and multi-instrumentalist who'd played with Bo Diddley, Freddie Fender and Roy Clark, was the next to join.

"I was on an open stage one night, and he just came up and joined me," she says. "And I said, "That's the prettiest fiddling I ever heard.' He said, "It's the best I ever played. Can I stay?' And I thought, "That's easy.'"

Rounding out OTC VarmitZ are Jax Delaguerre (upright bass, concertina) and Vinnie DeFrancis (mandolin, guitar, banjo). All are accomplished players, but it's Sylvia's husband who draws the most attention from other musicians.

"Bill plays clawhammer, and he has a very unique style," she says. "He uses the [banjo's] pot as a drum as well as playing the strings, so it's kind of a percussion instrument as well. When we go to the international festivals, everybody circles around and tries to figure out what he's doing."

While the band may have started as a vehicle for Murray's songs, it's become much more.

"We've got four albums and are working on a fifth at Jim Ratts' recording studio and this one's going to be professional," says Murray. "The other ones we just did in a basement."

OTC VarmitZ, with many others
Happy Ass Ranch Bluegrass and Jam Festival, 202-CR 368, Lake George
Friday, July 11, 7 p.m., and Saturday, July 12, noon (festival runs July 11-13)
Tickets: $20 one-day pass, $35 weekend/camping pass in advance, $40 (cash) at the gate; all ages;

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