When Chris Stuart was in the eighth grade, Lynyrd Skynyrd performed at one of his school dances.
In fact, several Southern rock bands including the Allman Brothers, .38 Special and Molly Hatchet started out in Stuarts hometown of Jacksonville, Fla. Yet, Stuart preferred banjo to electric guitar, bluegrass to Southern rock.
I liked it, he said of Southern rock. But from my point of view, everybody was doing it, so I wanted to do something else. And I kind of discovered this hillbilly music that really excited me.
Decades later, hes still playing bluegrass though most of the banjo duties have gone to his partner, Janet Beazley.
The two will perform along with guest musician John Mailander at the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden on Aug. 26.
While Stuart grew up in a nesting ground for Southern rock, his upbringing had typical bluegrass roots. His father was a minister and his mother a teacher who played piano. When he was a child, a sister gave Stuart his first guitar. But while she was into folk music, movies like Deliverance and Bonnie and Clyde both featuring memorable banjo music led him to banjo.
All my friends were listening to Led Zeppelin, he said.
As he approached college, though, he decided to major in medieval history.
I just never thought of myself as being a music major, he said. I didnt feel like I wanted to be academic.
After getting his degree, he wound up working in computer programming.
I actually made a living at it for a good 15 years, at the same time playing in bands and trying to write songs, Stuart said. Ive always managed to play in bands that were at least getting out, traveling a little bit.
After working at Cornell University, Stuart and his then-wife moved to California. In San Diego, Stuart quit performing and focused on work for about six years.
But you cant really get completely away from it, he said. So I started playing with a local band, and it became fun again. Then I had a bunch of songs.
Around that time, he met Beazley, who represented an anomaly a banjo player with a Ph.D. in music. Initially, Beazley produced Stuarts album Angels of Mineral Springs.
That was all I was going to do, he said.
But then the songs started getting airplay, which encouraged Stuart and Beazley to form a band and hit the road.
And before we knew it, our whole lives had changed, said Stuart, who is now in a relationship with Beazley.
Initially, they toured as Chris Stuart & Backcountry, but lately theyve taken to a more pared-down group usually just them with maybe a guest or two. They also teach harmony vocal workshops. While several of Stuarts songs have been recorded by other bluegrass artists, both Stuart and Beazley have day jobs Stuart as senior writer at the University of California, San Diego, and Beazley as the manager of a music store, where she also teaches music.
Its a nice balance now because Janet and I can go out and play gigs and teach workshops and travel a little bit, Stuart said. But were not on the road all the time like we were before. And we have benefits.
Their music is mostly traditional bluegrass, with folk, Americana and early music thrown in. While medieval history doesnt make its way into the songs, Stuart will occasionally write about historic events such as the Civil War or train robberies.
Stuart, whose song Dont Throw Mamas Flowers Away (co-written with Ivan Rosenberg) won the Bluegrass Music Asso- ciations Song of the Year, said he usually writes songs for a womans voice.
I prefer hearing a female voice to a male voice, he said. I dont know why. When I write songs, I dont necessarily hear myself sing them.
Beazley often takes on lead vocals, but harmonies are an integral part of their sound and the reason why theyve done three harmony workshops in England.
While bluegrass roots can be traced to England, in the States its better known in parts of Appalachia. Still, Stuart said, Southern California does have a traditional bluegrass scene, led by musicians like Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen.
Its not as big as far as the number of people go, but its good, Stuart said. California really does have a long history of bluegrass/country/old-time music.