Feature story: Bluegrass by the bay

The band Windy Hill finds its place in the close-knit Bay Area bluegrass scene

Johnny Campbell comes from a long line of fiddlers. There's his dad, his grandpa, his great-grandpa. So naturally, he moved from Tennessee to the Bay Area to join a bluegrass band.

No, we didn't get that backwards. Campbell fiddles here, for the local band Windy Hill. The group is named after the Portola Valley landmark and was started by a couple of Menlo-Atherton High School graduates.

Though the Bay Area is known more for redwoods than bluegrass, the five musicians seem to be ambling happily along their creatively rootsy paths. They perform from San Francisco to Santa Cruz, revere the bluegrass icon Bill Monroe, and recently put out their first album, "Let's Go To The Fair."

"There's not many young, traditional bluegrass bands," says banjo player Ryan Breen, who can see Windy Hill from his Portola Valley backyard. "We take it really seriously. We love it, and I think people recognize that."

While at Colorado State University in 2008, Breen started the band with fellow M-A graduate Henry Warde, a mandolinist. The two returned home after school in 2009 and reconnected with bass player Kyle McCabe, who had been in their class at M-A.

Guitarist Thomas Wille joined later, as did Campbell. Breen met Campbell at a music festival and invited him into the band. The fiddler, who was just visiting California, decided to stay.

"It's a close-knit bluegrass community in the Bay Area," Breen says. "It's easy to make new friends."

The atmosphere is decidedly down-home on a recent afternoon at McCabe's West Menlo Park family home, where he's lived since graduating from U.C. Berkeley. Their bandmates weren't able to make it today, but McCabe, Breen and Campbell contentedly mix bass, banjo and fiddle into a few spirited tunes full of fast picking.

A dachshund and a wire-haired terrier scamper around the patio, and there's a fresh, spicy smell of tomato plants growing in a box. Campbell takes a pull from a bottle of beer and looks satisfied. "Handsome Molly," Breen sings, "wherever she may be."

The musicians try some harmonies, reaching for what Bill Monroe famously described as bluegrass' "high, lonesome sound." Some don't quite gel yet, but the guys freely admit they're all working together on being stronger players.

"It's not like I'm a bass scholar," McCabe says. "I'm just learning."

That's been happening since high school, when the M-A friends used to hang out at events like the High Sierra Music Festival, soaking in every note.

Now Windy Hill has been playing its own venues, including the Little Fox Theatre in Redwood City and Palo Alto's Dragon Theatre. The band plays some original tunes, including "Highway 84," which Warde wrote about that lonely drive home from band practice to the Coastside.

"Our new goal is to play 10 gigs a month," Breen says.

By day, Breen works at a law firm, while Campbell is a welder. As for McCabe, joining the band also helped him get hired in this economy. When the Old Port Lobster Shack opened a few months back in Ladera, McCabe asked the management if they needed a band for the grand opening.

"They said, 'That's cool, but can you cook?'" McCabe says, laughing. Now he's got a job and a band. "Bluegrass kind of took me in its lifeboat."

Info: Windy Hill has several show dates planned, including: Sept. 11 at the Peninsula Banjo Band Jubilee in San Jose, Sept. 19 at the Amnesia bar in San Francisco, and Oct. 22 at the First Presbyterian Church of Mountain View. For details, go to

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