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Wildfire gets hot

By David McPherson, November 2005

Forgive Phil Leadbetter for feeling a little disorganized. The man - who is a menace on a Dobro (and even has a signature series Gibson named after him) - has had an eventful year to say the least. First, there was the recording and release of his critically-acclaimed solo record "Slide Effects" in March, and then without a rest he was back in the studio to record the latest Wildfire disc ("Rattle of the Chains") with his four bluegrass brethren, just released on Pinecastle Records in late September."I might have to start leaving myself better notes!" he laughs, as he talks about the juggling act that this year has brought with two discs and lots of touring and promotion.

"My record just totally wore me out," he adds. "The record company came to me ... we were wanting to do a Wildfire record, but they told me 'we want you to do a record,' and they gave me a date...then, as soon as mine was done it was like 'wow I'm glad that was over with. Then two days later, it was man we need to get into the studio. I found myself back in the same sound booth and started all over again. This is the first time I've done two major things that I've been this consumed with in a year. I figured it could be done...you just got to do it."

Catching up with Leadbetter at home in late October, he's taking a rare breather before heading to Nashville for the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards show later that week where he received some more news.

He took home Best Dobro Player and Instrumental Album of the Year. Leadbetter also performed his number one single from Slide Effects "California Cottonfields" at the awards show. This is the resonator guitar slinger's sixth year being on the Dobro Player of the Year ballot."For me, it's just good to be nominated," he says. "I figure I've always won anytime I've been on the ballot...that the people think enough to get you on there...that's as good as winning."Joining Leadbetter in Wildfire are a bunch of finely tuned veteran pickers: guitarist/vocalist Robert Hale, mandolin player/vocalist Darrell Webb, upright bass player Curt Chapman, and banjoist Barry Crabtree.

The 5 members have more than 100 years of playing experience.

Leadbetter, Hale, Webb, and Chapman are all veterans of the bluegrass and country industry - having played in numerous bands over the years. One of the major ties that bind is that they have all been part of JD Crowe & the New South. Leadbetter and Chapman even earned Grammy nominations in the best bluegrass release category for their participation in the Crowe ' album "Flashback."

When these five pickers met and decided to form a new band five years ago, the first thing Leadbetter knew they had to do was separate themselves from JD Crowe and the New South's sound.

"When we started the band five years ago, most of us except for one at the time (Crabtree), had worked for JD Crowe and the New South," he explains. "At the time we all left Crowe's band, I knew that we were going to have to sound different than we sounded with him. I didn't want people to go, 'that's just JD Crowe with another banjo player, which I laughed at an article a couple of years ago that said Wildfire is JD Crowe and the New South and I thought 'these people have not heard us because we tried real hard to hang a hard left and be totally different because that's what I felt you need to do to succeed...to have a different sound."

Part of achieving that sound that is different is having a variety of influences and listening to a wide range of music - something Leadbetter says many bluegrass purists don't do, and so it shows in the originality of their music."There are so many in bluegrass...many of my friends are in bluegrass, and they don't listen to anything else," he says. "You ask them: 'Who do you draw from?' and they reply: 'Hey, I got this song from Doyle Lawson, so it must be a Doyle Lawson song...well, maybe, but this might also be a song that was an old rock 'n' roll tune or a country tune, but since they don't listen to anything else, they don't realize where it came from."

"The thing about us is that all the guys in the band listen to a lot of different kinds of music," Leadbetter adds. "We listen to so many things...things like Delbert McClinton and James Taylor and all different kinds of people...Chicago, Hank Williams. I think that's where a lot of our different influences come from. We got all the bluegrass we listen to too...all of us really cut our teeth and grew up on that, but we wanted to expand the box a little bit. You've got to do that."

"Rattle of the Chains," dedicated to the memory and the music of Jimmy Martin, is Wildfire's third release on Pinecastle Records, and it continues to expand the box.

The disc follows their debut "Uncontained" (2001) and "Where Roads Divide" (2003).

The title of the disc comes from a line in the track "I Wouldn't Mind the Shackles" written by country singer Darryl Worley. The band members are all big fans of Worley's songwriting. "Rattle of the Chains" continues to show that these bluegrass boys are for real. They are constantly evolving and developing their own, different sound, which mixes tempo and adds some non-traditional bluegrass instrumentation.

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