The Old-Time Herald Volume 8, Number 6

Features

Old-Time Music—My Life, Not A Career—Debby McClatchy

by A.V. Shirk

“Old-time music is not a career. It’s my life!”
This rather emphatic self-analysis comes from Debby McClatchy, a California-born, banjo-playing singer, who delivers it in a soft, matter-of-fact voice that carries as much conviction as if she were shouting. McClatchy has been charming audiences for some three decades now with her performances of Irish ballads, Appalachian folk songs, early country music and her own compositions among which she often sprinkles California gold rush songs—something of a specialty of hers. But McClatchy did not set out to become an old-time musician, or a musician of any sort, for that matter. She more or less fell into her career about as precipitously as Louis Carroll’s Alice fell into the rabbit hole. Although she remembers her mother singing old Carter Family and Jimmy Rodgers songs, her musical education consisted primarily of listening to a lot of Everly Brothers recordings and playing the baritone ukulele (badly, she says) while singing with her brother and two sisters.
In the mid-1960s, McClatchy was a San Francisco college student studying American history and English literature and expecting to become a teacher. While doing homework in a local coffee house, she would hear The San Francisco Jugless String Band play songs she more or less remembered her mother singing to her as lullabies. “They’d start singing ‘Keep On the Sunny Side’ and I’d go, Wow! I know the chorus to that,” she remembers.
One thing (hanging around coffeehouses with open mikes) led to another (borrowing a guitar) and soon she was playing and singing Irish music regularly with two friends. She was, at that time, a much better singer than instrumentalist. She could sing third harmony “off the top of my head,” as she puts it. One day, the three of them went to a local Irish tavern that was willing to let them come in and play for fun and maybe a little in tips. “We brought down the house,” she recalls. They were hired on the spot and found themselves performing regularly. McClatchy quit college, and, to the loss of the teaching profession, joined the musicians’ union and was supporting herself as a full-time musician two months after she started playing the guitar.
A year later, she was part of a coffee house duo working four nights a week plus street singing. “We did everything from ‘San Francisco Bay Blues,’ the Irish stuff, to ‘Amelia Earhart’; a lot of thirties stuff—kind of transitional between old-time and bluegrass.”
After a year of playing all night gigs in bars, the two needed a change and decided to go to Ireland, which involved driving from San Francisco to Boston from where they would fly to Dublin. McClatchy had met, at a “very late night party,” a woman who played old-time banjo. “I just loved what she was doing,” recalls McClatchy, who got the woman to teach her the basics. “And driving across the country in the ’59 Chevy, which had a really big front seat, I practiced and learned how to frail,” she says.

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