By Julie Horner
The Memorial Day weekend weather was perfect. Burgers and bacon on the grill, Richard Thompson on the iPod, a cold brew in hand, and the happy din of laughter and live music drifting through the forest and among the tents and tapestries as another day of magic at Strawberry Music Festival transcended the twilight between sunny lounging on the green and the communal energy of all-night acoustic jams. I was sharing the vibe (and a mean plate of tasty BBQ) with San Lorenzo Valley’s Americana/Bluegrass “house band,” Heathen Hill.
“We originated as people who jammed together at Strawberry,” my host and Heathen Hill singer/songwriter, Mark Becker, told me. “We’ve been an evolving band over the years,” with an impressive roster of musicians. The core of the band, Mark (guitar, vocals), Rick Ednie (guitar, vocals), and Jeff Hayes (standup bass, vocals), all Santa Cruz Mountain dwellers, have been playing together for years, starting out at the Strawberry Music Festival at Camp Mather setting up camp year after year on a knoll they named, “Heathen Hill.”
Known around the valley for hosting Sunday Bluegrass jams at the Boulder Creek Brewery, and lately playing 4th Fridays at the Felton Trout Farm, their first big performance together was at The ShobeFest acoustic music festival in Santa Barbara. Familiar faces at the Brookdale Bluegrass Festival, the original foursome kicked off with Mark, Rick, Jeff, and Dave Kaufman on mandolin. “Dave contributed his originals to our covers before he moved to San Francisco…he could jump in on the guitar, banjo, and piano in addition to mandolin,” Mark said. “Since the Brewery burned down, we ended up ultimately going into our current configuration.” Randy “Rando Mando” Hudson recently joined the group with his lightning fast fingers.
Mark and crew travel in a wider family of esteemed musical company, so much so that several of the Heathen Hill Americana/Bluegrass bandies also have a hand in Homebrew Jam, a new local Americana/Folk outfit. “We play with so many talented folks, it was better to put different styles into two different bands.” Homebrew Jam was one of the last bands to play at the Trout Farm, on a sweltering first Friday in June, filling the room to the rafters with lively toe-tapping down-home music. A fine sendoff, indeed, as the Trout Farm succumbed to fire two days later.
Heathen Hill plays with a warm, welcoming upbeat energy. “It’s part of what we like to do – we started at the Strawberry Festival with the idea of having fun, lending that festival feel to create a good atmosphere.”
Heathen Hill is gaining momentum in the mountains. “Most folks like our sound. We have a good following and we get people out to come see us. We’re happy to be local.” This year they were invited to play at the Redwood Mountain Faire, sharing a stage with legendary performers such as Harpin’ Johnny and Larry Hosford.
Mark said, “After the ShobeFest there was talk about getting us into shows in LA and into the studio in Santa Barbara to record a CD…no way we could do that with our day jobs and family. Sounds exciting but it doesn’t offset the money you’d make at your regular job.” While a locally produced CD is certainly being considered, he says it’s rewarding to play just for the success of improving, working on new material, and being with good people. “The real payback is the camaraderie and having people really enjoying themselves when you’re playing for them.”
Heathen Hill plays a mix of original and cover songs in the Americana style with a progressive Bluegrass edge. Powerhouse singer/songwriter, Rick Ednie, contributes much of the original material. “Rick has his solo album [White Turtle Dove] and we do a lot of his material.” With his roots in Rock, Mark wrote “Work” and “We’re Flying on the Wind,” “Keep on Dancing,” and “The Hot Tub Song,” among others, in the Americana vein with catchy choruses, almost a Country feel. “I try to run the gamut, mix it up quite a bit.”
An evening with Heathen Hill promises good times and good sounds. “We like to throw in a Dead song or two.”
Heathen Hill plays at LuLu Carpenter’s in Santa Cruz about once a month, and Mark says they’re hoping to become regulars at the Summit House up on Highway 17. “We had the great treat and good fortune to be invited to play at Redwood Mountain Faire…maybe in the future we’ll be asked to play at Roaring Camp.”
“All I can say is my heart just aches for the folks at the Trout Farm, the staff, the whole family working there. It is an oddity that a couple of places that we’ve played at have burned down. I’m hoping they’ll be able to get back on their feet quickly.”
“We live and play in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Performing is our way of generating and sharing festival energy all year long.”
On the Web: heathenhillmusic.com
On Facebook: www.facebook.com/HeathenHillMusic
Julie Horner is a writer and Irish style musician living in the Santa Cruz Mountains, CA. This story was originally published in the Santa Cruz Mountain Bulletin, June 2016: http://mountainbulletin.com/article/heathen-hill-american-roots-music/