Chance encounter leads to lifelong love of bluegrass mandolin
On any given Saturday morning, patrons on the downtown Square in Denton are greeted by cheerful, upbeat bluegrass music. A group of musicians gather in the shade of the Courthouse on the Square for their weekly bluegrass jam sessions.
This particular Saturday’s session consists of an upright bass, three mandolins, three guitars and a xylophone. Each week brings a different style of music — whether it’s gospel, bluegrass or country will depend on the style and instrumentation of the musicians.
Among the mandolinists stands Rachel Yeatts, a slight woman with large, serious blue eyes. Her short blond curls are pinned behind her ears, and a content smile plays across her face as she plucks the strings of her mandolin.
Yeatts’ love of music and literature contributed to her recent success as a bluegrass singer in Denton, where she also teaches English courses at the University of North Texas.
Introduction to bluegrass
Yeatts was first introduced to the mandolin in high school. She and her then-boyfriend visited a flea market in downtown Fort Worth, where their friends had set up a booth selling acoustic instruments.
“They had mandolins up on the wall, but I didn’t even know what a mandolin was,” Yeatts said. “The owner of the booth played the mandolin. His name was Wayne Brown — I still have his card.”
She remembers learning a few chords on the mandolin at the flea market, where she instantly loved its sound.
“You just know when it’s a sound you like,” she said.
One of the first songs she learned to play was “Birmingham Jail,” because of its few and simple chords.
A Fort Worth native, Yeatts grew up listening to country music, though she wasn’t introduced to bluegrass until later.
“My folks didn’t care about bluegrass — it was hokey,” she recalls.
But the first time she heard those twangy notes, she was hooked.
“Bluegrass has a grittier, rawer sound, a more stripped-down quality — it’s a lot less self-conscious,” she said.
As far as musical genres are concerned, bluegrass is fairly young. Inspired by Irish, Scottish, English and African-American ballads from as far back as the 1600s, bluegrass didn’t become popular in America until the mid-1900s.
Walt Lundblad, a guitarist in the Square jam sessions and a friend of Yeatts, grew up around bluegrass music.
“It’s a distillation of older traditions, a specific kind of mix of those things that has a lot of drive and emotion,” Lundblad said. “But it’s a very strong spice and doesn’t suit everybody all the time.”
Though Yeatts hadn’t grown up with the bluegrass genre, she learned quickly. She listened to country and bluegrass singers like Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Gillian Welch, artists whose music still inspires her today.
“I think that bluegrass music is a good way to teach people how to live,” Yeatts said. “They’re songs about what it feels like to be human.”
Music is not Yeatts’ only form of expressive art. For years, she wrote poetry with no formal training and participated in small writing clubs in her hometown of Fort Worth. She later earned a master’s degree in creative nonfiction from UNT, where she wrote the first creative nonfiction dissertation at the university.
“Studying literature has done a lot to complicate and enrich the ways I can express emotions I feel,” said Yeatts, whose literary inspirations include Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. “Literature is a way to understand and to be understood.”
As it turns out, her combination of musical talent and love of literature was the perfect recipe for a bluegrass singer-songwriter. Earlier this year, she released an album of 13 original bluegrass songs called Paradise Mountain.
“I see songwriting as a combination of poetry and nonfiction,” Yeatts said. “I use my life to make these songs.”
Robin Huttash, the owner of A Creative Art Studio in downtown Denton, has heard Yeatts perform her songs and read poetry in the studio over the years. She compares Yeatts’ singing and songwriting to early Emmylou Harris.
“She’s very fascinated by songs that tell stories,” Huttash said. “Some are sad stories and older stories. It’s very interesting.”
A fellow musician and supporter of Yeatts’ musical endeavors, Lundblad appreciates the traditional style and form of her songs.
“The things she composes are new and fresh — but at the same time they have a feeling that they could have been composed 50 to 100 years ago,” Lundblad said.
A friend’s support
Yeatts performs at local venues such as Amitea, the LABB and Sidewalk Bistro. Whether solo or with a group, Yeatts has the support of her best friend and fellow musician, Cindy DeFoore.
DeFoore and Yeatts met a few years ago when DeFoore signed up for a journaling class held at A Creative Art Studio. Yeatts was to teach the class. But there were never enough people signed up for it to go through. DeFoore was determined to take the class and continued to sign up.
“Finally she just said, ‘OK, let’s just the two of us do this class,’” DeFoore said.
A few days after meeting up with Yeatts for their first one-on-one journaling class, DeFoore heard about the jam sessions on the Square and decided to check them out. There, she found Yeatts, who had already been attending the sessions for a while.
“It’s one of those coincidences that seems like things just fall into place for this divine meeting of a soul friend,” DeFoore said.
Together, the two friends share their love of music and writing, each supporting the other’s endeavors in their unique way.
“She’s told me that I’ve helped her,” DeFoore said. “But in my experience, she’s the one that’s helped me, by just making me feel that I am a musician.”
DeFoore began playing the ukulele several years ago when she moved from New York to a ranch in West Texas, where she picked up a love for bluegrass music.
“I’d think, ‘Oh, she’s the musician,’” said DeFoore. “But I really got the feeling in playing music with her that, ‘Yeah, I’m a musician, too.’”
As both her friend and her pupil, DeFoore sees similarities between Yeatts’ music and her teaching.
“Whatever she does, she does with such deep meaning,” DeFoore said. “It’s not just something she’s doing, going along with her life.”
Yeatts’ dedication doesn’t stop at herself or even her close friends. While playing on the courthouse lawn one Saturday, Yeatts was approached by a man named Mike, who had heard that she wrote bluegrass songs.
“He said, ‘Here’s the lyrics to my song — can you put a melody to it?’ And I was like, ‘OK,’” Yeatts said, laughing.
For the next two Saturdays, Mike returned to the Square for his song, but Yeatts was still working.
By the third week, she had finished the melody — but Mike was nowhere to be found. Without contact information or even a last name, she had no way of letting him know that she had finished writing and recording the song.
“When we were doing gigs last summer, I started just putting it out there, saying, ‘OK, guys, here’s the story — if anybody knows Mike, tell him his song is ready,’” Yeatts said.
Finally, Mike returned to the courthouse lawn one Saturday, where Yeatts handed him a copy of the recording she had made and copyrighted in his name. Mike was delighted with the extent to which Yeatts took his project.
“Well, I told him I would do it,” Yeatts said. “So I did it the way I intended to.”
Life is like a jam
Most of the musicians of the Square jam sessions aren’t playing to get rich or famous. But Yeatts’ goals remain big. One day, she’d like to see herself playing on the stage at the Grand Ole Opry.
“I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen, but that’s what I’m always wishing for,” Yeatts said, taking a break from the jam session. Since she visited the Grand Ole Opry, she has aspired to return as a performing act.
“They let you go backstage,” Yeatts said of her visit to the theater in Nashville, Tennessee. “So I was really sure to bring my mandolin. I carried it around so that when I got to that spot on the stage where the performers stand, they let me do a song.”
For now, Yeatts continues to play gigs around town, performing original songs. Though she’s busy teaching and performing, she continues to participate in the Saturday jam sessions. They give her something that can’t be found as a solo artist. On her music blog, she wrote: “All I need to know in life I learned from playing in bluegrass jam sessions.”
“Life is a whole lot like playing in a jam,” Yeatts said. “You take your turn, you support others when they have their turn, and you smile.”
SYDNEY WILBURN is a student in the University of North Texas Mayborn School of Journalism.