When Shelby Eicher brings his quartet, Mischievous Swing, to the Wauseon Homecoming for a free show on Saturday, July 30, don’t try to pin him down to one musical genre. He likes to mix it up.
While he’ll honor the group’s title by playing Western swing, his audience can also expect some pop, jazz, Cuban sounds, acoustic tunes, and some of his original music. Band members will include his wife, vocalist Janet Rutland, his sons Isaac Eicher and Nathan Eicher, and Ivan Peña. His son Paul will sit in on guitar.
“There’s going to be a real variety of what we do,” Eicher said.
His performance at Homecoming will bring him back to where his musical roots were planted from his birth 56 years ago. The Wauseon High School graduate received his first violin when he was five, and began learning to play at his grandmother’s knee. At age eight he learned to read music, something few fiddle players did, and at 10 he started playing guitar and dabbling in mandolin.
In 1974, he played in a family band, Shelby Eicher and the Fulton County Sand Sisters, with his grandmother, Alicejean Smith at the piano. The family had its own dance hall in Ottokee, and played a circuit of weddings, country music shows, and public functions.
During the same period, Eicher played with The Flatland Grass, a bluegrass band that took its act to Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, and Germany. He was a versatile musician, playing banjo, mandolin, and string bass, among other instruments.
“You name it – I played a bunch of things back then,” he said.
In 1978, he was accepted into the American Youth Symphony. And after high school he earned a two-year Applied Science degree in music from Claremore Junior College, now Rogers State College. Less than a year later, he moved to Nashville, Tenn., to play professionally.
It was a heady time for the Ottokee native, who at six months old posed for a photo with a string bass, and in a playpen moved next to a piano, so he could reach the keys. As he grew older, Eicher learned songs from listening to 78 rpm records and eight-track cassettes.
He realized his musical talent early on, and was told it was a gift he should cherish.
“Sometimes, you’re unaware of that gift of what you’re able to do. I don’t think I was aware how easy it was,” he said of his ability to play multiple instruments.
His first job in Nashville was a gig at the Grand Ole Opry each week with country music star Jimmy C. Newman. Then his friend, Diamond Rio founding member Jimmy Olander, told Eicher that another country music star, Mel McDaniel, was looking for a fiddle player.
“That was really kind of a step up. Mel was more current. He played better,” Eicher said.
Six months into that job, Eicher heard another top country singer needed someone on the fiddle. His name was Roy Clark. It was 1982, and Eicher had a phone interview with Rodney Lay, the country superstar’s band leader. A month later, he got a call telling him he was hired.
“Back then, you had to hire a certain quality of guy,” Lay said. “He had a good track record. We had guys come and go, but Shelby stayed with us. He’s a super fiddle player. He’s not your average guy, and he can play any genre of music.”
Eicher points to his past experience. “You have credibility once you work with certain people,” he said.
His career picked up immediately. During his 15 years accompanying Clark, Eicher played much larger venues across 49 states, Canada, Bulgaria, and other locations. He was featured on the long-running TV series, “Hee Haw,” which Clark co-hosted, played with Clark on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” and traveled with him in 1988 to perform in the Soviet Union. That concert was filmed and aired as a two-hour special on CBS.
But Eicher reached a point where time shared with his family became more important. “My goal was to get off the road when my kids were going to be teenagers,” he said.
A Fand Springs, Okla. resident for 20 years, Eicher currently oversees six separate bands, each delving into a variety of musical genres. They include The Tulsa Playboys, a nine-piece Western swing band, and Mischievous Swing, the gypsy jazz band he’ll bring to Wauseon.
Eicher still plays multiple instruments, but these days concentrates on violin, mandolin, and guitar. This fall, he anticipates widespread availability of the jazz mandola, an instrument he designed more than 20 years ago.
He credits his versatility with providing major opportunities in his life.
“Over the years, musically, I figured out how to do all these kinds of jobs. You have to know how to do more things,” he said.
And that includes plying his own interpretations of songs, bending and shaping them in creative ways so that no two concerts he performs are alike.
“To me, there’s something in the mathematics of it,” Eicher said. “I think of how the music works. And I think that’s how most musicians are. For me, I don’t want to do a John Mayer song and sound like John Mayer.”
He also teaches music and gives workshops. He tells his students that playing music can be hard and challenging, but also fun. He tells them to be driven by their own creativity.
“You want to be educational, to give them that desire. You want to share the joy of what that is,” he said.
Lay said Eicher “is going to be one of the top musicians you’ll ever see in your life. He’s the real deal. His sons are super players, too. They really learned from their dad. You’re going to be highly entertained, and the crowd will be very, very pleased. That’s a hot band.”
These days, Eicher busies himself with jingle work, up to 15 recording sessions a year with various artists, and has a CD of the Tulsa Playboys being released in less than two months.
He said many people with musical gifts are driven by them. “Almost anybody in music that really succeeds, they play two or three hours a day. Not because they have to. They have the desire to. I practice all the time, and I keep improving and improving.”
David J. Coehrs can be reached at 419-335-2010.