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Young violinist racks up impressive résumé; new R&B reissues

By Ron Wynn

MAY 3, 1999:  At 14, Franklin violinist Billy Contreras has already built a reputation that would make musicians four times his age envious. He's been a featured performer at Lionel Hampton's annual jazz festival in Idaho for the past two years, and during this year's closing ceremonies, he played in an all-star aggregation alongside Hampton, guitarist Herb Ellis, and trumpeter Roy Hargrove, among others.

He's cut two LPs as a leader, one of them produced by Western swing mainstay Buddy Spicher, with whom he plays almost every Wednesday night at Wolfy's. Contreras has also worked extensively with the Texas Playboys, has done sessions with country legend Hank Thompson, and appeared with Hampton and his big band two years ago at the Chet Atkins Musician Days celebration.

When asked about playing with so many magnificent musicians at such a young age, Contreras emphasizes how much support he's gotten from these legendary figures. "[Hampton] always encourages me to open up on the bandstand," the youth says of playing the bandleader's Idaho festival. "He's a great player, but he's very open to what you introduce when you're playing with him. It's a great experience to work with him, and it's encouraged me to find out more about jazz and do more in that field."

Another great musician, fellow violinist Mark O'Connor, assesses Contreras this way in the liner notes of the young musician's first LP, Wild Fiddler: "He's a natural musician, playing with ease the ideas he collects as he encounters new musical influences."

Currently a student at Freedom Middle School in Franklin, Contreras says his first musical influence was Charlie Daniels, whom he saw on television. "I was watching a video on Country Music Television and saw Charlie Daniels playing the fiddle, and I got hooked on it after watching him."

He started playing classical music, then gravitated to bluegrass, country, and jazz. Currently, he's studying piano and taking instruction in classical violin from Mary Kathryn Vanosdale, concert mistress for the Nashville Symphony. When asked what it's like to pursue so many different musical disciplines at once, Contreras says he enjoys the looseness and fluidity of the non-classical genres. "Jazz playing is a lot freer; you don't have to stick to the song's melody as much. When you're doing classical, they want you to do it right by the book. Bluegrass and country, you can also play a lot more fluid runs, more smooth melodies, while in jazz you have more variations in styles, breaks, and tempo."

Though he's an ardent soccer fan who also enjoys hiking and traveling, Billy Contreras is focusing most of his energy these days on music. He and Hampton maintain communication by correspondence, and he looks forward to appearing at the vibist's festival in 2000. He's also been in touch with the head of the string department at the Berklee music school in Boston. All in all, it appears that he's got a bright future ahead.

Wisely, Contreras doesn't want to be typed as a jazz or bluegrass or Western swing player, though he loves all these sounds. "I want to play everything I can," he says. "I just want to become as good a musician as possible."

A story worth telling

With its remarkably diverse roster, Excello Records was once among Nashville's premier independent record labels. Though R&B and down-home blues were its forte, the label cut everything from gospel to rockabilly to doo-wop. A pair of new compilations, The Excello Story Vols. 3 & 4 (Hip-O) pick up where the first two volumes left off, offering vivid evidence of Excello's amazing range and quality.

Volume 3 covers the years 1957-1961, opening with straightforward doo-wop from The Gladiolas and teen pop from Nashville's own Crescendos. The collection then segues into blues, swamp, rockabilly, and soul, concluding with a lesser-known Slim Harpo number, "Rainin' in My Heart." Lazy Lester, Lightnin' Slim, Lonesome Sundown, Roscoe Shelton, Al Garner, Warren Storm, and Arthur Gunter are among the disc's highlights.

The fourth volume surveys the years 1961-1975 and includes Excello's best known hit, "Scratch My Back" by Slim Harpo. The 20 selections range from zydeco and Cajun-flavored cuts like Tabby Thomas' "Hoodoo Party" and Charles Sheffield's "It's Your Voodoo Working," to more intricately arranged soul selections such as Marva Whitney's "Live and Let Live," Eugene Kemp's "The Power Is Gone," and Roshell Anderson's "Snake Out of Green Grass."

By the '70s, the emergence of the urban contemporary sound, with its emphasis on highly stylized production, cut into the popularity of regional companies like Excello. But as these two discs attest, the music has incredible staying power. Hopefully, Hip-O's reissue series will bring more attention to Excello's vast catalogone of the great treasures of Nashville music.

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