“Do you guys like pickin’ and grinnin’?”
That was the first thing Bruce Ambler said when he met Dustin Bentall and Trixie Berkel after they moved to Clinton last year. Their answer — a resounding yes — led to the formation of the Blue Wranglers, a bluegrass band that also includes mandolin player Dan Fremlin of Green Lake.
The group recently played their third concert together in Clinton on July 23 to raise funds for the people of Lytton.
“I feel fortunate to be able to have become friends and pick with the talent I’m picking with,” Ambler says. “All three of them are very talented musicians and singers who have all picked professionally. I’m the only one who hasn’t.”
Ambler, who has spent his entire life in Clinton, says he’s always played musical instruments as a pastime, especially the guitar. At the “ripe old age of 50,” he told his children that he was going to become a professional banjo picker and perform on the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville by the time he was 65. Ever since then he’s been looking for new ways to hone his skills and work towards that ultimate goal.
“My picking and singing is meant to enhance my band members and make them sound the best they can be,” Ambler says. “The banjo picking style I do is three-finger picking, modelled off of Earl Scruggs.”
To learn this technique, Ambler listened to tracks by Scruggs and other famous banjo players. Now he feels he’s nearing the point where he can consider playing his own unique style, and that developing it is all the easier when you do it with friends.
Bentall says there was a “mutual feeling of excitement” as he played together with Berkel, Fremlin, and Ambler. It felt natural to play together, he says, and by the time this summer came around, he felt they were ready for the stage.
He adds that he’s seen a vast improvement in Ambler’s skills, and believes he’s already a world-class banjo player. Berkel agrees, noting that Ambler is an amazing musician who just hasn’t had the opportunity to play a lot. Now that the band has begun performing live, that’s liable to change.
“The show we did here [in Clinton] was an amazing night. There were like 350 people in our yard, dancing in front of us, and it felt like a big extended family affair,” Berkel says.
She says she’s welcomed how much music is a part of the vibrant cultural identity of Clinton. In addition to writing music, Berkel is a trained classical pianist who considers herself “a hack of all trades,” able to play a wide range of instruments instinctively, including the accordion.
With two young children at home, and in the absence of touring due to COVID-19, the group began to meet as often as they could at each other’s homes to play together. It was Ambler who invited mandolin player Fremlin into the band, as he’d heard him play at a music festival about a dozen years ago. Berkel has dubbed Fremlin “the Unknown Cowboy,” describing him as a humble world-class mandolin player.
The band’s overall ability to harmonize when playing together, and each individual’s ability to lead a song, is where their strength lies, Ambler says. Bentall says that both Ambler and Fremlin are experienced in playing bluegrass music and have been teaching him how to play it. He feels he and Berkel bring a more traditional country vibe, creating a bit of a hybrid sound.
As to where they’d like to see that band end up, Berkel and Bentall agree with Ambler that the Grand Ole Opry is a potential goal. In the meantime, they’d like to continue to perform in community halls across the South Cariboo and get people up and dancing.
“It’s been inspiring playing with Bruce, particularly because he’s the one who picked up the instrument later in life, and he’s so motivated and works so hard at it,” Bentall says. “That really drives all of us to work harder.
”It’s pushed me to believe in myself more and work harder at playing the guitar. As for Dan, he’s straight up a world-class player who can play circles around anything.”