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The Blue, Blue Grass of Home

St. Louis singer/songwriter Gen Obata makes unassuming but gorgeous music

It's hard to square Gen Obata's music with his persona. With his wiry frame, heavy helmet of black hair (nearly imperceptibly flecked with gray), thick glasses and almost Sephardic features, Obata looks more like a physicist than a folk songwriter or flashy flatpicker. But his guitar playing has the emphatic muscularity of Lester Flatt and the illuminating melodicism of Doc Watson, who, like Obata, developed his style on old fiddle tunes transposed to guitar.

"I wanted to be Bob Dylan or Elvis Presley in high school," Obata says. "I started writing songs right away, in 11th or 12th grade, back in '73 or '74. After I graduated from high school, I started taking music lessons from Jim Renz, an incredible flatpicker who taught lessons down at Music Folk. He taught me straight fiddle tunes. That's all we did."

Over the years, Obata has managed to capture the best of the American singer/songwriter tradition and the best of the country instrumental legacy. He has played with the Katie Kirkhover Band and continues to gig monthly, both with Raven Moon and as a solo act or with Jeff Suits accompanying him on bass. His voice and flatpicking can also be heard with one of the area's best bluegrass bands, Seldom Home, "After high school, I kept playing guitar and writing songs, and then five or six years ago I decided this was really important to me and began playing out more. Four years ago I started in the Seldom Home bluegrass band. Jeff Moley, the mandolin player, saw me at an open mic at Music Folk. He tapped me on the shoulder afterward and said, "I'm thinking of starting this bluegrass band. Would you like to play with us?' I said, "Sure.' He said, "Come over tomorrow and practice.' Then he said, "Next Saturday we're gonna enter this bluegrass competition." I said, "What?' We practiced a few tunes and did the contest. We lost to a 12-year-old fiddler."

Along with Doc Watson and David Bromberg, Obata identifies Norman Blake as one of the forces that pulled him back into music. "Five years ago, I saw Norman Blake at the Focal Point. He makes it look so simple, but so much comes out of his guitar. It doesn't look like he's doing anything, but there's this incredible sound. He also writes these beautiful songs" -- as has Obata, whose compositions have been standouts on the recent Elbow Grease compilation and whose forthcoming album (judging from the rough mixes) will feature at least one certifiable classic. "I Never Meant to Lose Your Heart" couldn't be simpler or more evasive or more gorgeous: The melody -- carried by Janice Reiman's cello, Jeff Suits' bass and Obata's poignant guitar lines -- is both familiar and hard to place, and the lyrics are little more than the repeated plea of the title. The effect is hypnotic. On St. Louis' hit-or-miss singer/songwriter scene, Gen Obata may never have any hits, but his music should not be overlooked.

 
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