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Diamonds in the Gap

In addition to work with Michael Holland, Big Fat Gap fills the Ramblers' role in a new version of Diamond Studs

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Diamonds in the Gap In addition to work with Michael Holland, Big Fat Gap fills the Ramblers' role in a new version of Diamond Studs By Grant Britt It's the only bluegrass band that comes with a guarantee. "Pretty much gimmick free," says Big Fat Gap founding member Chris Heaney of the band's music. "All of us have an understanding that we're not in this for the classic professional reasons. We just love the music and we love to get together and play." With that attitude, you might expect a less than professional presentation. But with the Gap, it doesn't work that way. "They're totally unorganized," says ex-Jennyanykind's Michael Holland, who produced the Gaps' one and lonely, yet-to-be-released CD. "And that's what makes them great. They're really true musicians. There are no pretensions or anything. It's all about the chemistry they have--they enjoy hanging out with each other, and I think people pick up on it."

Onstage, the band takes a lot of time between songs whispering off-mike, figuring out the chord progression for the next song. "That's sort of the meaning behind our name--The Big Fat Gap," Heaney says, laughing.

Together for only three years, Big Fat Gap has managed to snag some of the best players in the area, including Rex McGhee, fiddler Bobby Britt, Strunken White's Jon Stickley and mandolin wizard Tony Williamson. They haven't all stayed as "official" members, but the policy on membership in the Gap is a bit loose. Instead of a revolving door policy, there's an open door policy. "Nobody ever really leaves," Heaney says. "When we do our shows out at the GrassRoots Festival we just have about ten people up on stage. They're all part of the greater group, the greater family."

Presently, the core family consists of Miles Andrews on lead vocals, Chris Heaney on mandolin and vocals, Ryan Cavanaugh on banjo, John Garris on fiddle and Robert Mitchener on upright bass. Heaney believes that one reason for the talent passing through the band is that it has attracted musicians who wouldn't fit into another band and aren't interested in playing in a band with a strict leader and a dress code. "For us, fun is the rule, basically."

Bassist Robert Mitchener confirms the band's philosophy. "Our main agenda is to play, and to have fun. We all just see the band as a way to express our musical side."

To date, if you want to hear that expression, you either see 'em live or pick up some MP3s from a couple of shows the band did at the Cat's Cradle last year, or listen to Holland's new solo CD Tomorrow's American Treasures.

You'll notice quite a difference from the band's usual traditional bluegrass sound on Holland's CD. "We kinda change gears," Mitchener admits. "We basically were his hired guns. He just said, 'Play this,' and we played it." It's still technically bluegrass, but Holland added organ to the mix and did some editing on the unrehearsed jams. The band liked the unstructured approach, which Mitchener likened to going on a long ride in the country. The music has a feel like New Riders of the Purple Sage or early Grateful Dead.

Holland admits his approach was risky, but with the ability of Gap musicians like Ryan Cavanaugh or Bobby Britt, who have the melody locked in their memory banks after only one listen, he had no fear. Holland took what he called the magic moment, where the band all came together, out of longer jams and looped it. "It's very natural," Holland says. "Nature likes repetition, and it likes a design that's simple, and it'll copy it, and repeat it."

Holland first recorded Cavanaugh and Heaney in his old studio so they could get gigs when the Gap first got together. Last year, when Heaney approached him again, Holland had the itch to record his own songs, but had neither support nor money to do it. " I said, I'll record you if you play some of my songs and let me use your house. That way, you won't have to pay me any money."

The Gap has yet to put out the record Holland made for them when he made Treasures. "Performing for us is the main gig and it's the most fun for us," Heaney says. " When it gets to that other business stuff, we get a little shy. It's coming eventually."

Meanwhile you can see members of the Gap, including, Heaney, Cavanaugh, Garris and Andrews in Diamond Studs, a musical about the life and times of Jesse James, co-written by Jim Wann and Red Clay Rambler Bland Simpson. Simpson met the Gap at the N.C. Writers Network fundraising event in Hillsborough on Sept. 30. "I had to use their sound system and got to know 'em while setting up," Simpson says. " Sat in on a song and thought they were fabulous--they're great singers and great pickers."

Diamond Studs got its start in Chapel Hill in the fall of '74, then got picked up and moved to New York for a run on Broadway during 1975. The show kicked off what Simpson calls a series of hybrid musicals that he, Wann and the Ramblers collaborated on, including Pump Boys and Dinettes and King Mackerel and The Blues Are Running.

Though James later became a brutal criminal, Simpson says his real story is "the guy who fought for the lost cause, fighting for the South, robbing Northern interests and kept the fight going after the war was over, with decreasing popularity among his native people." Wann and Simpson picked up on James' Robin Hood acts, including giving money to a widow who was about to have her mortgage foreclosed. "We really went after, not a docudrama, but a very lighthearted evening's entertainment."

Heaney says he was surprised to be picked, because he's never acted, but thinks that show producer and star Franklin Golden wanted musicians instead of actors.

"I think that describes us in 1974 perfectly," says Simpson. "We were not actors--we were musicians telling a story. And we were not telling anybody in the audience that we were actors or to believe that we were these people whose personae we momentarily took."

New York Times reviewer Clive Barnes coined the term "musicians' theater," as opposed to musical theater, for subsequent Ramblers projects including King Mackerel. "Finding an ensemble like Big Fat Gap with the great players and the great collective humor of the guys--I think that'll go a long way towards making the show work in this particular production," Simpson says. "I look forward to getting to know 'em as the show rehearses and I can hang around as a resident co-author."

Simpson, who is head of the Creative Writing Department at UNC-Chapel Hill, will be playing piano in the production along with bassist Jack Herrick, who is the oldest member in this Ramblers version. Clay Buckner is on fiddle, with Chris Frank playing tuba and guitar. The show starts Jan. 26 for a two-week run at the Barn at Fearrington Village.

Holland will be along as well. "They just need a face in the band," he jokes. "That's why they got me--a guy with charm."

But even with Holland's charm, an upcoming record and the musical, the Gap remains grounded. "I can't quit my day job," says Heaney, who's pursuing a PhD in public health and working full time. "I've got too much other stuff going on."

"We've all got other pursuits," adds Mitchener, who says he gave up his dreams of Beverly Hills, swimming pools and movie stars long ago. "We're a no-agenda band." x

Diamond Studs opens Jan. 26 at the Barn at Fearrington Village. Tickets, which go on sale Jan. 9 are $20 and available at www.studsatthebarn.com or by calling 545-5701.

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