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[whitespace] The Hot Damn String Band
Strung Out: The Hot Damn String Band played a summer season at Roaring Camp, here pictured in 1971, with originals (from left) Bruce Bratton on washtub bass, Jim Reynolds on guitar, Mike Johnston on mandolin and Dick Hough on banjo.

That Damn Band

With a literary lineup and a 27-year history, the Hot Damn String Band plays like a cultural icon

By Rob Pratt

IF ANY BAND can rank as a local cultural institution, I submit the Hot Damn String Band as a prime candidate. During its nearly 30 years of playing, the admittedly sloppy bluegrass and old-time-music outfit has watched the region grow from funky backwater to wired Silicon suburb, along the way performing (almost literally) at two of the epicenters of Santa Cruz County's music and arts scenes.

"They were one of the first groups we had in here," explains Tom Louagie, who in 1969 bought Club Zayante and turned it into a mountain hangout that hosted notable locals like Lacy J. Dalton and Bob Brozman. "It was a hippie place, with a nude swimming pool that's still here. They fit right in."

Though busy during their early years, the Hot Damn String Band anymore only gets together a couple of times a year. For the past 18 years, the main performance has been playing for Bookshop Santa Cruz's anniversary parties, which the downtown literary institution this year celebrates beginning at 7:30pm Friday.

It's a perfect gig for the eclectic group. With a lineup featuring local literary leaders like Annie Steinhart on fiddle, James D. Houston on bass and Metro Santa Cruz columnist Bruce Bratton on washtub bass, washboard and "humpbacked Zayante horn," it's a group that has as much fun with words as with sound.

"There's really not a literary angle to the band at all," novelist Houston jokes. "You're never going to get a gig because you're a writer."

Houston had played upright bass during college, and when he graduated and moved to Santa Cruz, it was as a musician that he earned his living for four years before selling enough writing to make it doing that alone. Bassists tend to get gigs just because they own an upright bass, he adds, and for a long stretch he backed up a piano singer at Capitola's Shadowbrook Restaurant.

"His book Gig is about a piano bar," explains Steinhart, who "hopped on board" with Hot Damn while playing with '70s local sensation Django. "So maybe there's some crossover between his music and writing."

It was mandolin player Mike Johnston and guitarist and singer Jim Reynolds who formed the band when the two Williams College dorm mates both found their way to Santa Cruz. With banjo player Dick Hough, the Hot Damn String Band started playing almost weekly gigs at Club Zayante by 1972, Johnston explains. Bratton, long a folk, ragtime and vaudeville-style performer at San Francisco's legendary Hungry i and Purple Onion, had started jamming with bands in Zayante.

"My wife met Bruce," Johnston says, "and she said, 'Gee, Mike, there's a guy down there who can play everything, the washboard, the comb, Victrola horn.' "

With a repertoire of bluegrass and country standards and other oddball fare, the band certainly plays more for fun than to make a musical statement.

"It's tongue-in-cheek to the max," adds Steinhart.

The Hot Damn String Band plays for Bookshop Santa Cruz's anniversary celebration Friday beginning at 7:30pm. No cover.

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From the November 3-10, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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