Minnesota seems an unlikely place to give birth to a bluegrass fiddler, let alone one who is also proficient in guitar, clawhammer banjo, and has an extensive songwriting resume. Becky Buller has shown that there is quality bluegrass talent in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, and she has become one of the most sought-after performers and songwriters in the bluegrass industry today.
In half of the time it takes many musicians to achieve half the recognition and accolades, Becky has not only performed fiddle with many of bluegrass music’s top acts such as Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike and the Daughters of Bluegrass, but has also written songs for Special Consensus, The Abrams Brothers, Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road, Rhonda Vincent, IIIrd Tyme Out, and other bluegrass acts. She has also served as a producer, instructor, and radio host to fill her busy schedule.
Becky’s first musical experiences occurred with her family band, Prairie Grass, originally formed by her parents Emory and Linda along with Gordy and Roxy Schultz. “Our house was always filled with music,” she recalls. “My parents would let my brother Michael and I join in the band, singing on our tiptoes into Mom’s guitar mic on stuff like ‘Slewfoot.’ We always giggled when we got to sing ‘rump’ in the chorus! I was really interested in singing with the band, but they said that everybody plays something in a bluegrass band. I was the only one of the siblings to take up the offer.”
Although Becky began taking piano lessons at age five, it was her pestering for fiddle lessons at age nine that got her started in her bluegrass career. “What put them over the edge was the day I nailed some boards together, picked up a stick, and ran around my grandma and grandpa’s yard pretending to play the fiddle.”
Becky’s lessons started with a local country fiddler, Billye Jane Kruse, then to the Mankato Suzuki School of Music with Patti Tryhus. “For the next six years, Patti guided me through eight of the Suzuki books. From early on, she drew parallels between the fiddling and classical worlds. She taught us all ‘Devil’s Dream’ to beef up our bow control.”
During her high school years, she was a member of the school concert band as percussionist, the school jazz band as electric bassist, and performed in two of the school choirs. After two years of “candy bar bribes” from her father, Becky joined the Minnesota Area Youth Symphony (MAYSO), serving as concertmaster during her fifth and senior year. She also was a member of the Minnesota All-State and Gustavus Adolphus College Orchestras during her teen years. “I’m afraid I was a horrible example. Instead of warming up on passages from the symphony pieces, I was playing fiddle tunes!”
While in high school, Becky started learning guitar to accompany herself with her blossoming songwriting. In 1996, at the age of seventeen, Becky won the Minnesota Junior Fiddling Contest. “Contests and recital absolutely petrified me, although I participated in two or three every year through graduating high school. I always enjoyed backing up a song in a band setting rather than playing the tunes. To this day, I’m still trying to catch up on the fiddle tunes I need to know. My husband and all of his pickin’ buddies are really into Kenny Baker tunes, so I’ve been working on those lately.”
Also in 1996, she won the Hank Williams Songwriting Contest at the National Old-Time Country & Bluegrass Festival in Avoca, Iowa. “You pulled titles when you signed up and had a short time until you were called to perform to write the song. Apparently, folks would give Hank a title and he would come back in a half-hour with a song. I pulled ‘She’s Little, Old, and Gray.’ For two days I fought with that title, finally coming up with some nonsense blue yodel about an old Model T. It was ridiculous. It won the contest! It’s never been anywhere since. I had my gospel song ‘The Wings of an Angel’ written in an hour. It didn’t place that weekend, but became my first song to be performed on national radio. I almost drove off of the road when I heard Becky Schlegel and True Blue sing it on A Prairie Home Companion.”
During her tenure with Prairie Grass, Becky listened to many of the modern traditionalist fiddlers in bluegrass. “We had lots of Nashville Bluegrass Band and Johnson Mountain Boys records lying around the house when I was growing up. To this day, Stuart Duncan and Eddie Stubbs are two of my favorite fiddlers, as well as Kenny Baker, Alison Krauss, Jason Carter, and Aubrey Haynie.”
Becky was soon finding difficulty balancing classical violin and bluegrass fiddle playing. “Classical was harder for me because I wasn’t as inspired as I was with bluegrass. I have a greater appreciation for it now. It’s very hard for a classical player to transition over to fiddle and vice versa – the off-beat emphasis in fiddling is hard to get used to as well as all of the improvisation. I’m grateful I received training in both styles at the same time, especially now that I’ve gone on to teach private lessons myself. The classical world has so much to offer to bluegrass fiddling and vice versa.”
[For the full text of this interview and a transcription of Becky’s tune “Clivus Mulchum,” purchase the Spring 2012 issue, or subscribe to Fiddler Magazine!]
For more information, please visit www.beckybuller.com
[Matt Merta has been writing for various music magazines for the past twenty years. He teaches guitar and bass in Detroit, Michigan, as well as performs and writes songs under the pseudonym Mitch Matthews.]
Photo by David Tousley: On stage with Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike in Leer, Germany - June, 2011.