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Richie Stearns' Autobiography
See The Horse Flies(FRC602)
and The Renegades(FRC605)
Banjo Player with "the Horse Flies"
and "the Renegades"
got into playing music at 14 in junior high, with a pack of like-minded
hippie kids. (A typical beginning, eh?) Except the kind of music
we were exposed to was string band and jug band music. Locally there
were some very active bands in these genres, while on our record
players we had Lou Reed, Bob Marley, the Beatles, the Stones, Doc
Watson, Jimmy Rogers, Hank Williams and the Skillet Lickers. The
doors were wide open in those days. We went to experimental free
schools that fostered creativity and independence above all. So
while we were being tutored and steeped in acoustic fiddle music
by mentors we found in the local music scene, we were also sent
early on the road to thinking for ourselves, making our own kind
The Horse Flies
A bunch of us put together our own fiddle band in 1974 which carried
me to the doorstep of my next band, The Horse Flies (Tompkins County
Horseflies was the name we first used when we started doing fiddle
music gigs locally in '79 or '80. The original band included Judy
Hyman, Jeff Klaus, John Hayward and myself.) After a few years,
we started reinterpreting the traditional compositions, adding our
own music to some songs, or changing the words in others, and then
writing our own compositions from scratch. I was one of the principal
writers in that group. In 1985-86 we made Human Fly, our experiment
in merging modern influences with traditional Appalachian fiddle
music. People liked that record, and shortly thereafter we added
a percussionist, Taki Masuko, and a keyboardist, Peter Dodge, to
further experiment and to try to duplicate live the vision we had
drawn in the studio for Human Fly.
Donna the Buffalo
At the same time this was going on, I continued to play with my
childhood buddies. We found ourselves naturally morphing away from
the traditional towards the original in yet another direction. This
band was to become Donna the Buffalo.
Roots with a twist
My wife Jennie and I had met and married in '85; she too was writing
and singing and playing, and was another a big influence on me.
I liked having two bands but I was getting spread too thin, so subsequently
I left Donna the Buffalo to be able to devote more energy to The
Horse Flies. My arrangement of "Hush Little Baby," along
with other songs from Human Fly, picked up some interest internationally,
and we were signed by British indie label Cooking Vinyl. On a very
small budget we made a bitchin' good video! MTV picked it up and
we were featured on one of their music news shows. We toured with
10,000 Maniacs, and also the South African band, Johnny Clegg and
Savuka. We toured Europe a number of times and played in Berlin
before the wall came down. We played all over the States in the
late '80's and made a record for MCA. We got dropped, and started
moving back towards our roots in traditional music, but still with
My desire to be in other creative music situations led me to play
with various other projects during this time. I experimented with
adding clawhammer banjo and my own style of playing to other traditional
and non-traditional sounds like Irish (with Kevin Burke), Cajun
(with Beausoleil), and bluegrass (Farm Report with Tony Trischka).
Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs invited me to play their final
show with them on MTV Unplugged, along with David Byrne and Jerry
Marrota, who plays with Peter Gabriel. (The show was later released
as an album and video/DVD). The Horse Flies subsequently did two
soundtracks for independent movie producer Jay Craven. Of the two,
Where the Rivers Flow North enjoyed a pretty good ride in the theatres,
video stores and on flights round the globe.
In the early 90s, my wife Jennie also left Donna the Buffalo,
shortly after I had, and we started putting together an outlet for
our ever-growing collaboration. She and I shared the writing and
direction of Tin Roof, which featured the great rhythm section of
Horse Flies bass player John Hayward and Ward Puryear on drums.
I started working a new instrument, the tenor guitar, combining
my banjo and electric guitar styles. The tenor guitar was to me
the missing link that would galvanize my songwriting style into
its current form.
Valleys and hills
In 1997 John Hayward, our beloved lifelong friend and musical
cohort, succumbed to cancer. This was a dark stretch; we were all
thrown into our lonely future without a bottom. Jennie and I were
raising our two young boys, and we concentrated on them and on playing
and writing together. The remaining Flies met and played casually
once in a while. We licked our wounds.
Then things got busy again. In spring 2000, Natalie Merchant hired
Judy Hyman and me to support her musically in an endeavor to merge
her pop band with traditional fiddle music. After six weeks on the
road with Natalie, I rejoined Donna the Buffalo as their keyboardist
and banjo dude for a year. We toured on our own and played backup
band to Peter Rowan and Grammy-award winning Jim Lauderdale, and
jammed with Vassar Clements, on stage a few times.
Since I left Donna the Buffalo, I've been busy. I've been pursuing
my own music, releasing a solo
CD and writing material for another one. Jennie has re-included
me into her musical dream; she's been touring solo, with me, with
Gabe Tavares, and with her full band to promote her most recent
I've had some other old-time side groups along the way, including
the Renegades and the Improbabillies, in addition to Ti Ti Chickapea
(avant garde improv trad-originals with Hank Roberts and Eric Aceto).
I did studio work with Mary Lorson and Billy Cot, the Samples, John
Doyle and Jim Lauderdale, among others. Along the way did a stint
off-Broadway with famed dance troupe Second Hand Dance.
I still teach banjo and fiddle, and am learning how to use a letter
Whatever's next, I'm ready.
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