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Western Omelet serves up diverse music

By Dan Kuchar, March 1996

Warm. Unpretentious. Enjoyable. Tasty bordering on delicious. Made up of many different things that you like. All these terms describe the classic American dish known as the western omelet.

They also describe the Boston-area group of the same name. Western Omelet is a group of New England musicians brought together by their mutual love of traditional American music.Like their namesake dish, their music is an eclectic blend of ingredients that you wouldn't ordinarily think go together. Their self-released debut album, "Now's the Time," is a blend of bluegrass, blues, folk, jazz and western swing music.

Since the disc's release six months ago, it has received regular air play on college and public radio airwaves and become the daily special on the menus of Boston College's radio station and the popular "Hillbilly at Harvard" Saturday radio program.

Within the two short years since the group was formed, Western Omelet has become regulars of the New England's burgeoning coffeehouse and folk music circuit.

The group had its origins when John Johnson and his wife vocalist Terri Morris were invited by a mutual friend and fiddle player to an informal get together to play some folk and old-time music. This jam session resulted in them meeting dobro player Geoff Freed.The jamming felt and sounded good, but they needed a bass to round out the sound so Morris invited bassist Scott Clark to subsequent sessions. At one particular meeting, Johnson started playing a Sons of the Pioneers song. Everyone else joined in and it was immediately clear in the chemistry of that moment that the potential was there for much more than the occasional informal jam.But the original fiddle player decided that western swing was not her cup of tea. Freed recruited fiddle player/vocalist Paula Zeitlin to join the group. A few rehearsals and open mike nights later, and it was decided that they had the makings of a permanent band, and Western Omelet started cooking.

"As soon as we started playing, it just clicked." explained Johnson.

Although known for their vocal harmonies, Western Omelet is not light on instrumental chops either. Zeitlin studied classical violin in high school, went on to play bluegrass fiddle and is a graduate of Berklee College of Music in Boston.

"It didn't ruin my playing, either," she said, laughing. "I actually had to unlearn a lot of stuff I knew from when I went there (to play in Western Omelet). However, I think it helped my listening skills, and I learned some things about harmony that have helped me in this band. It also freed me up to try things that are a little further out than when I was playing bluegrass."

Freed, the dobro player, started his musical career as classically-trained pianist.

So how does a person gravitate from classical piano to dobro? Johnson said, "The same way you get to Carnegie Hall (laughs). I think the bluegrass banjo was in the middle there. He (Geoff) played old time banjo, too. He took that pretty seriously. He grew up loving bluegrass music, but decided that he wanted a sound more distinctive than a bluegrass ensemble, and dobro players were pretty scarce. He was drawn to that instrument and taught himself to play to performance level within a couple of years."

Western Omelet draws its sound from its many and varied influences. They all credit Roy Rogers and Sons of the Pioneers with being their primary vocal influences. Instrumentally, Bob Wills, Johnny Gimble, a member of the Texas Playboys, Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli are some of their musical heroes.

As is typical of debut albums, "Now's the Time" presents a group still in the process of defining itself and its style. "I'd say that all of us really like the western swing and other kinds of swing, so that's probably the direction we're headed in," Zeitlin said.

Johnson elaborated that part of the reason that they held on to the name Western Omelet is because it does elude to being a combination of many different things and that the group was founded on the premise that they would play whatever they had fun playing.

However, the road ahead clearly leads down that narrower trail known as western swing. "We'll always play some manner of a mix", Johnson promised, "but we're leaning towards more complicated vocal harmony with more of a Sons of the Pioneers style."

What's ahead for the Omelet? They are in the process of selecting and rehearsing material for their next album, which they hope to begin recording this summer. There is also talk of a tour. So, if you're in the Boston area and hungry for some good old-time western swing with a dash of humor on the side, look for Western Omelet. You won't leave hungry.