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Magnolia Street String Band Makes Its Philadelphia Debut

It’s been years since Matthew Backes has played a rock club. But when he does again this week in Philadelphia, it’ll be with a different kind of band for, he hopes, a different kind of audience.

Backes is a founding member of Magnolia Street String Band, which is actually a bluegrass band, playing first fiddle and now mandolin. The band grew out of jam sessions in central and northern New Jersey, and got its stage legs at festivals at Snipes Farm in Morrisville, and is playing at Bourbon and Branch in the Northern Liberties section of the city on Wednesday.

Magnolia’s lineup spans generations, includes something of a legend from the iconic New York City folk scene from the 1960s, and regularly plays wineries, fairs and outdoor festivals.

It’s also a lot of fun.

“Bluegrass is very social, it’s not about a performer onstage. Even people who don’t play are still involved, they’re singing or just sitting in the circle,” Backes said. “It’s very different from, ‘We worked out this song and now we’re gonna present it and you can tell us if you like it or not.’ ”

The music is in a way a connection to his roots, or, at least how things were before he played electric guitar in rock bands: growing up in Yardley, where there was still an undercurrent of countryside beneath the subdivisions and suburban sprawl; playing acoustic guitar on his own; and seeing Doc Watson play in New York City when he was a graduate student in the late 1990s.

“At the time, when I first got into it, it was just weird. There were no cool New York kids into bluegrass at all,” he recalled. “Now there are, there’s a Brooklyn scene, a new interest in it.”

But, that’s not where he picked the music back up. Instead, it came to him — literally, almost — when a fiddle arrived at his house in Lawrenceville, New Jersey a few years ago.

It was his now ex-wife’s childhood instrument sent to her by a relative, but Backes soon found himself woodshedding on it at night, in the room in his basement that used to serve as his band’s rehearsal space.

“I became kind of obsessed with it, I just started learning American old-time fiddle tunes,” he recalled.

Through mutual friends, he found some local jam sessions and players, many of whom were much older than him, and who’d also play at parties and informal get-togethers at their homes. “They had this vibe, they were people who had made a life of managing to not become square and part of it was because of the music,” he said.

They’re the kinds of places where he could meet a contemporary like Sheila Shukla, who invited him to other events and eventually formed Magnolia String Band with him. He could also play alongside someone like George Price, who books musicians for Snipes Farm, and convince him to give his fledgling band a spot in their annual bluegrass festival.

“I like that Snipes Farm is in a space that’s wedged between Route 1 and a shopping center. It gets packed with people that like this sort of mountain, hill country, backwoods music,” he said. It reminds him, in a way, of growing up in Yardley: “There’s a cultural memory to an earlier time, a farm connection, in these places. Even people now living in McMansions who maybe grew up in some backwoodsy sections, they still have an identity to them.”

Perhaps there’s a bit of nostalgia, he suggested, for people who maybe vaguely remember the farms and strawberry fields growing up. But, then again, there are events like the Mercer County 4H fairs, where Magnolia plays every year, where that farm culture is still alive — and where a band like that can meet someone like Paul Prestopino.

Prestopino, who plays dobro, mandolin and banjo in the band, was a fixture in the New York City folk scene of the early 1960s. He played alongside John Denver in the Chad Mitchell Trio and much later with Peter, Paul and Mary. And, during his long career at the famed Record Plant Studios in New York, he’s amassed credits playing on songs with everyone from Neil Young to Aerosmith.

But in the band, and at those jam sessions, said Backes, ”He’s just this modest guy who wears overalls and plays all these instruments really, really well.”

The band asked him to sit in at their first Snipes Farm appearance and were pleasantly surprised when he decided to stay on. And, true to form, the band doesn’t capitalize on his history at all, even if his presence inspired Backes and Shukla to “raise their game” a bit.

And, that game has now taken them from county fairs to Bourbon and Branch, where another bluegrass band, the Jersey Corn Pickers, has started a monthly bluegrass series.

It’s an ironic return to form for Backes, who’d played spots like this in Philadelphia and New York for years between graduate school and Magnolia. But, he eventually traded in those stages and formal shows for loose jams and easygoing gigs .

“I got into bluegrass because it’s fun. People play it on porches and in backyards or festivals or apple picking — laid back, feel-good events,” he said. “There’s a part of me that’s sort of scared I’m gonna be back in front of people with their arms folded trying to decide if the band is as cool as the band they saw yesterday.”

But, he’s also feeling ambitious: “There’s this new crowd of people that like this music, and I feel like our band’s pretty good, so they should know about us.”

Jack Firneno