Of all the music floating around Austin, the banjo-heavy twang of old-time music is not the most common sound echoing in the streets. Tony Kamel and Dom Fisher, or The Gravy Brothers, have been determined to bring that style back to the current Austin music scene.
Throughout November, The Gravy Brothers are the artists-in-residence at Cactus Cafe. They play every Monday night at 9 p.m. after an opening act plays at 8 p.m.
Kamel and Fisher primarily play in a larger Austin-based bluegrass band called Wood & Wire, but they use The Gravy Brothers as an outlet to play a different kind of music.
“Old-time is more of a meditative kind of music than the hard-driving bluegrass we play [with Wood & Wire],” Fisher said. “It’s very repetitive. It’s more about the melody, and it has simple stories in the lyrics. It’s a very pared-down music for sitting around in a circle and playing and trading that melody back and forth.”
One of the defining characteristics of old-time music is a style of banjo picking called clawhammer, in which a musician picks up with fingers and down with the thumb. This is quite different from the three-finger style used in typical bluegrass bands, such as Wood & Wire, which has the thumb, index and middle fingers rapidly picked one after the other.
Although Fisher and Kamel have been playing music together for a long time, they come from different backgrounds.
Before their careers in music, Fisher studied jazz at Ithaca College in upstate New York, and Kamel worked full-time in medical sales selling orthopedic prosthetic implants for total joint replacement surgeries.
“It was a lucrative field, and I was good at it and I actually loved it, but this thing was growing fast enough, and I saw an opportunity to make a career making music,” Kamel said. “I am a firm believer in ‘you only have one life,’ and I figured I would just dive in and see what happened. So far it has worked out really well.”
Fisher said he and Kamel first met at Flipnotics Coffee, a small coffeehouse and music venue that closed earlier this year. Fisher was playing a jam session at the venue when Kamel arrived, dressed in his hospital scrubs and carrying his mandolin, asking whether he could join.
Kamel said his musical career has been a series of small steps toward progressively bigger things.
“I started small, I went to blue grass jams, I met other blue grass players, and I started a band that was just for fun called My Pet Possum,” Kamel said. “There’s nothing more important than practicing; if you’re going to compete in this town, you have to be good. I just happened to be passionate enough about it to practice really hard.”
Fisher said the success of Wood & Wire and The Gravy Brothers is partially because old-time and bluegrass music are not as common in Austin as other genres.
“Austin is a great community that fosters a lot of creativity,” Fisher said. “I am always noticing that most of the music in Austin is people trying to do something new or trying to offer a new perspective on a certain kind of music. It’s a great place for people to get together and be creative.”