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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, December 21, 2001

A bluegrass babe A bluegrass babe (December 21, 2001)

Eight-year-old Francesca Nagle makes old-fashioned music

by Amy Goodpaster Strebe

When Francesca Nagle picked up a guitar for the first time as a kindergartner, her mother had no idea that she would be performing alongside a bluegrass legend only three years later.

But this year, 8-year-old Nagle appeared onstage twice with her musical idol, Jimmy Martin -- "the King of Bluegrass" -- at bluegrass festivals in Indiana and Illinois. The encounter came about while Nagle, her parents, and 6-year-old brother, Nico, were on the road this summer traveling the country in their R.V. While stopping in at the Station Inn in Nashville, Tenn. for a bluegrass jam session, Nagle sat in and met Kenny Ingram, one of Martin's former band members.

According to her mom, Palo Alto native Annie Zacanti, the former band mate was so impressed that he suggested they contact Martin.

"I couldn't believe we had his phone number," Zacanti recalled.

She telephoned the musician, and to her surprise Martin invited them to his home just outside Nashville in Hermitage, Tenn. Tears appeared in the 74-year-old Martin's eyes, Zacanti said, as Nagle played for him. When he learned that one of the family's stops would be a bluegrass festival in Illinois he was slated to play, Martin promised to put the youth on stage.

"It was exciting," Nagle recalled.

Martin enjoyed Nagle's guitar playing and singing so much he asked the Mountain View resident to perform with him again at the Bean Blossom Festival in Indiana in September. Having by this time established a friendship with Martin, the family packed up their R.V. and headed east. Because Zacanti home-schools her two children, they didn't miss out on any lessons while on the road.

"They're so normal and nice, just regular people," Zacanti said of the bluegrass musicians they met at the festivals.

Even though Nagle had to wait past midnight to perform with Martin, she turned heads at the festival, and performed for an audience used to seeing musicians old enough to be her grandparents. (Nagle's maternal grandmother, Marcie Zacanti, owns and operates the B.J. Bull Restaurant in Palo Alto's Alma Plaza.)

Following the festival, Martin signed Nagle's guitar -- now a cherished instrument that is rarely far from her grasp.

Nagle practices her music every day, and takes guitar lessons from Jack Tuttle, a bluegrass teacher at Gryphon Stringed Instruments in Palo Alto who has banjo, mandolin, fiddle and guitar students. According to Tuttle, Nagle is a unique student because she understands bluegrass music intuitively.

"It's fun and not too hard," said Nagle while strumming a guitar nearly twice her size. "And I like the people who play."

Even though some kids her age have made fun of her taste in music, Nagle is confident in her abilities and unfazed by her peers.

"I think Frankie is showing other kids that it's OK not to like Britney Spears," Zacanti said.

Despite her early success, Nagle doesn't appear to be overly anxious to go professional.

"I want to be a doctor," she said.

For now, Nagle enjoys the family jam sessions and performing at farmers' markets in Palo Alto and Pleasanton with 14-year-old fiddle player Brittany Haas from Menlo Park.

"The first time she performed at a farmers' market right after she started playing the guitar, she brought in $19," Zacanti said. "The first quarter she got, Frankie's eyes just lit up."

Haas, who started playing classical violin at the age of 4, met Nagle at a bluegrass festival in Grass Valley a year ago. Also a student of Tuttle, Haas began playing bluegrass seven years ago.

"I like how the whole band sounds together," she said. "It's fun to sit around and jam."

Haas, who has performed with fiddler Darol Anger, also considers Bruce Molsky and Stuart Duncan her musical influences.

"Bluegrass is different, not mainstream," Haas said. "It's a lot of fun and you get to meet and get to know the musicians, which you wouldn't be able to do if more people were into it."

Haas said she enjoys playing with Nagle, and is impressed with her musical abilities.

"She's amazing -- very talented. She's definitely going to be a star," Haas said.


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