Texas fiddle master Gene Elders doesn’t consider himself a mandolinist.
“I almost hesitate to even call myself one,” he laughs, adding emphatically, “don't ask me to do anything fast.”
But he plays three to four mandolin numbers at each gig, and seeing as those dates are with multi-platinum country music legend George Strait, we’re going to call Elders a mandolinist whether he agrees with the epithet or not.
A Chicago native, Elders actually began his eight-string career in 2005, 21 years after he’d landed on Strait’s payroll.
It was a simple matter of efficacy. The set list called for such—specifically on “I Saw God Today”—and the Ace in the Hole Band’s guitarists were busy with their own parts. Knowing Elders was at least familiar with the mandolin’s tuning, they inducted him for ‘other duties as assigned.’
Things grew from there, and he’s anchored both roles in the band ever since.
When he was assigned the mandolin chair, Elders actually didn’t even have an instrument. He contacted Weber to see what might be on the workbench and was soon learning to pick and fret (a pretty huge leap from bowing and fingering) on an oval-hole F-body Big Sky.
“Since I can't do a whole lot with the mandolin technically, I have to think a lot more about each note, keeping it simple and concentrating on tone. That’s one reason I really love this Weber. It sounds wonderful. It's got a nice fat mid and low, and it's got a smooth, sweet high end on it. It just sounds great.”
Elders, who also spent 11 years with Lyle Lovett, learned violin before he played fiddle, and he thinks that distinction had an important effect on his approach and his sound.
As a youth in Illinois, his progressive parents wanted their children to be cultured; Elders studied classical technique for 12 years. When his ear leaned towards percussion, at age 18, his parents were open to the change in focus, with one caveat, that he take it seriously.
Elders studied the craft at Chicago’s now-defunct American Conservatory of Music.
“I did that for a few years,” he says, “and came to the realization that it was a lot of stuff to carry around, and I missed playing melody lines. So, I got the violin back out.”
Meeting student bluegrasser Jimmy Crawford turned Elders’ violin into a fiddle.
“Then,” Elders recalls, “I began what actually turned out to be the hardest part, which was learning how to play that instrument without looking at a sheet of music. I spent a lot of time with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Will the Circle be Unbroken, which had just been released. That was my bible for a long time—Vassar Clements! I sequestered myself in a room and tried to copy everything I could on that record.”
When Crawford went back to his hometown of Roanoke, Virginia, Elders went with him.
“I lived there for about 10 years,” he says, “among other places I had gone to in the meantime for eight, nine months at a time.”
When he’d done all he felt he could in the Magic City, he lit west, with a nine-month layover in Chicago, landing in the Austin area in 1984, where he’s been ever since—making a home with his wife Betty, a noted songwriter whose work has been covered by Joan Baez, Eric Taylor, Sarah Elizabeth Campbell and others.
Strait had already scored a few number one smashes by the time Elders made the team. He almost didn’t, he remembers with a warm laugh indicative of his open heart.
“Soon after arriving in Austin, I got a call from Strait's people, and they were looking for another fiddle player and wanted to know if I was interested in trying out. I said sure and foolishly quit my painting job and started to woodshed all of George’s stuff. Well, I never got a call back! I had just about given up when the phone rang one Sunday morning.”
“It was Strait's people again and they said, ‘we just threw the fiddler out. We're in Houston, on our way to Dallas. We'll drive through Austin and pick you up."
“I said, ‘okay, I guess this'll be my audition, then.’"
34 years later, he’s still on the bus.
The gig is a good one, but with Strait’s enormous popularity, the Ace in the Hole Band is not given much room for creativity.
Elders has been scratching that itch of late with a recently-installed home studio, making use of the digital technology that has allowed millennials to fashion fully-produced albums on a shoestring. That same technology is allowing him to write with Nantucket resident A.W. Bullington. Despite a long friendship and a nice list of new songs, the two—who communicate online—haven’t actually been in the same room in almost 15 years.
Elders is using the studio as a laboratory to try out all kinds of new sounds, from the concertina to the flute.
“I’m totally making it up as I go along,” he says, “and I'm forced to keep it simple because I don't have the chops. It's been just an absolutely wonderful experience.”
One of his main tools when the light goes red is an F-body, f-hole Weber Fern octave mandolin.
“It's a wonderful instrument,” he says. “It just sounds so big, so rich and full, and the unison strings on an octave mandolin, at least on this one, are just magical.”
“I love it!”
And he says he’s not a mandolinist!