An Interview with Oliver Schroer
by Oliver Schroer
What happened to music after high school?
I played a lot of guitar to avoid assignments in University. I spent so long there, going around in circles. I studied history, then philosophy. I always joked that I had tenure. "Took me ten years to finish my BA!" I was a freak for the blues, but eventually got introduced to jazz - Chick Corea's 'Light as a Feather' album was a big turning point, and also "The Velvet Touch of Lenny Breau'. I became a huge Lenny Breau fan, and learned how to play a lot of that album. Years later, I was walking with a friend on Queen street in Toronto and there - lo and behold - Lenny was playing at the Basin Street Club. This was at a time when nobody really knew what had happened to Lenny, or even if he was still alive. Even though we had just eaten, we went in and endured surly waiters and bad pizza, but hey, we got to sit 10 feet from Lenny Breau. After that I used to try to catch as many of his shows as I could. Seeing him voice all of those passing chords while playing only sparsely with his right hand was a beautiful thing. The other guitarist I loved was Joe Pass. And on piano Bill Evans. I saw him live two or three times.
You're talking a lot about guitar, here. Were you playing fiddle at all during this period?
The fiddle was pretty much on the shelf. Once in a while, I used to haul it out when I jammed with my friend Dave Brown. Dave was a member of Kennedy Road Tabernacle in Brampton. This was a Pentecostal church with a great rockin' band. Dave had access to the place on Friday nights. They had this tremendous sound system, and we used to just plug in two guitars, or guitar and violin, and make stuff up. It was lots of fun. I had somehow acquired a crappy pickup at this point and painted my violin electric blue, so I guess I hadn't lost interest altogether.
So how did you get more heavily into the fiddle again?
Well, I reconnected at a jam session with an old friend from high school - Jim Ryan. He had a country swing band called the Traverston Band, playing really local dances up around Markdale. I joined that band as a lead guitar player. My first gig was a1982 New Year's gig in a small barely heated country hall. We actually had to come in early in the afternoon, and begin stoking the woodstove so the place would be warm enough by nighttime. I got $30 for that gig, and boy was I pleased. "I get to be on stage, and have fun, and then they pay me too?" Jim remembered that I had played the Orange Blossom Special on the fiddle in high school. (How could anyone forget!) He made me haul it out, and I began jamming some of the country stuff on the fiddle. For one of the dances, we needed to learn a square dance set. Jim lent me a tape of Don Messer - so that was the real beginning of fiddle tunes for me. 'Redwing', 'Little Burnt Potato', 'St. Anne's Reel'.
This is the first mention of country music. Quite a change from Yes and Genesis, what?
At first, I wasn't actually keen on it. But, I was just having too much fun playing it, and I got hooked. Jim liked Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs, Hank Sr., George Jones, Patsy Cline, etc. He actually had an encyclopaedic knowledge of country music radio of the previous 20 years. On our very last gig, we played a matinee and then an extended evening show, and we played 95 tunes, and never repeated one, (except 'The Crystal Chandeliers', and that was a request). So I guess you could say that was quite an education for me.
Did you play a lot of fiddle with the Traverston Band?
Mostly guitar, really. I made a good friend Chris Sankey who was studying philosophy, like myself, and who was into Doc Watson. We got together and learned 8 fiddle tunes, and then we went out and busked at St. Lawrence Market in Toronto. It was quite a joke, but we had a terrific time. We later got hold of a record by the Jarvis Benoit Band from Nova Scotia, and it just knocked us out. We learned the whole album. We spent vast amounts of time hanging out, playing music, and getting his parents' pickup truck stuck on obscure sideroads. (Here's a tip: If a sideroad is called #17, no matter where it is, don't go there.
It sounds like you were having more fun with your fiddle.
Fun was definitely the thing. I loved playing this music that got people going in such a visceral way. It really seemed to bring people together.
Did you keep playing with Chris?
We played a lot of music together, trad style fiddle and guitar things. We even obtained one of the TTC busker's licences for the Toronto Transit system. Well, he eventually went to medical school (which didn't really straighten him out, even though he became a doctor, 'coz he's a true freak.) I was extremely broke that fall, and decided to busk by myself in the subway, playing jigs and reels. I was surprised I could actually make a living at it. I did a lot of subway playing for about 3 or 4 years.
What was that like?
Well, it was @%#&ing cold in the winter. But I really liked it. There was an immediacy to the experience. If I played well, and put out good energy, I made more money. I worked really hard, and got to play my repertoire a lot. I would get up at 5:45 am, be up at Sheppard station in North Toronto by about 7am, play 'til 9, take a break 'til 3pm, then play until 6 or 7pm. It was intense. I learned about 600 tunes in the years I was playing there. I had nothing else to do. I made a lot of friends in the subway, too. The neat thing was to see how many people could relate to fiddle music - it seemed everybody had some relative, living or dead, who was a fiddle nut. Grannies, punk rockers, everybody was fiddle-friendly. The other thing about busking was the freedom. There I was, filling peoples' ears with this joyful noise, and yes, they had the jobs, but I was having the musical fun.
Was that your main outlet for the fiddle at that point? It sounds like you didn't have much time left over.
My then-girlfriend Marie decided she wanted to learn square dancing with me. There was a night course at Central Technical School, led by old tyme caller Jack Hayes. I thought it was a good idea and I also thought I'd bring along my fiddle. I had been very enthusiastic but isolated, and I had no idea there was a vast culture of fiddles and fiddlers right in my own back yard. I was surprised that there was live music at the night course - a fiddler called David Weir, and a guitarist called Ian Bell. Well, those guys sure put me in my place! In a good way. I couldn't believe how much I had to learn.
Did they teach you directly?
Ian (who is a good friend to this day) lent me tapes of Quebecois fiddler Jean Carrignan, and Irish powerhouse band De Danaan, and new worlds opened up to me. I got into Irish and French Canadian fiddling about the same time that way. (Of course, in Jean Carrignans' playing, there is a great deal of Irish, from the 78s he heard as a young man.) David Weir introduced me to his old buddy Norm Gibson, an avid collector of fiddle tunes. That whole period was tremendously exciting for me, filled with learning, new friends, and always lots of music.
Did you ever learn to square dance?
Sort of. Mainly, I was always trying to sit in with the band!