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Catfish in the Sky: Countryside Music for City Folk

When Ruth Shumway taught her classmates at Berklee a bluegrass tune by Steve Rosen called Nail that Catfish to a Tree, they were enthralled with the name of the song. So much so when they officially formed their band, they used a riff of the song’s title for the band’s name.

Ruth, a North Carolina native, has been playing fiddle since she was three years old. Like most young children who play the violin, she started with music lessons using the Suzuki method. Ruth took to the fiddle like a duck to water. “When I played my first recital, I loved it so much I didn’t want to leave the stage. I just kept bowing to the audience with my little violin.” Her violin teacher suggested that Ruth’s parents take her to a fiddle contest at Fiddler’s Grove, which was near their home. “I loved everything about it. My parents actually got into bluegrass because of my love for it. I dragged them all over to hear bluegrass music. I still go to Galax whenever I can.”

When she was eight years old, Ruth went on a trip to Boston with her parents, and she saw the Berklee School of Music. “I knew then that’s where I wanted to go to school someday.” Now Ruth is in her second year at Berklee. She met the other members of Catfish in the Sky as a freshman. “We all lived in the same dorm and became friends.”

Owen Miller, a Massachusetts native, is the percussionist for the band. He plays the Cajon, an instrument of Peruvian origin that resembles a big wooden box. The player sits on top and hits the front of the box, and depending on where or how it is hit, different sounds are created. “Although my Cajon is made in Peru, the type of Cajon I have is called a Flamenco Cajon, which originated when a Spanish guitarist saw the instrument and added guitar strings to the inside.” Owen is studying to be a music therapist. “He has a singer-songwriter background,” says Ruth. “Owen is very talented. The songs he writes are really wonderful.”

Sammy Wetstein is a multi-instrumentalist from Connecticut who plays cello in the band. He began playing classical cello in the fourth grade. He plays mainly classical, jazz and fiddle/folk music and enjoys learning about various types of traditional music and its role in cultures around the world.

Sho Humphries, from Connecticut, rounds out the band on the ukulele. A world champion ukulele player, Sho’s mission is to play the ukulele in a way that has never been done before while spreading smiles and infectious melodies. “Sho brings a fun energy to the band,” says Ruth.

In fact, Ruth describes the band as having incredibly high energy. “We couldn’t stand still on a stage if we had to,” she laughs. Because everyone in the band has a different musical background, the band plays a variety of music, from Celtic and bluegrass original tunes, and jazz. “Of course, jazz,” says Ruth. “We are, after all, from Berklee.” Putting songs together in an artistic way is what makes the band unique. “We always try to put a unique spin on whatever we are playing. We do a lot of fun covers of songs that aren’t necessarily bluegrass, but because I’m a bluegrass girl at heart, we give them a lively bluegrass feel. It always seems to work. Everyone is a stellar, off-the-chart musician.”

Catfish in the Sky can be seen playing in venues around the Boston area, in bars and other venues.

“We also play in shows throughout the school. And when the weather is nice, we all enjoy busking. We love any opportunity we have to play.”

Folks attending IBMA in Raleigh last fall had an opportunity to hear Catfish in the Sky play in a showcase. “I have been to IBMA several times, but the others in the band had never been.” It was a perfect way for them to be immersed in the music that had so heavily influenced Ruth’s musical tastes. “We drove from Boston to Raleigh, twelve hours, to play at IBMA.” Ruth recalls that Sammy’s cello wouldn’t quite fit in Owen’s car, which they drove from Boston to Sammy’s home in Connecticut. “Sho and Sammy rode the whole way in the back seat with the cello in their laps.” They switched cars in Connecticut for the rest of the journey. As difficult as that was, the trip back to Boston was almost derailed. “The night before we were going home, I had a fever of over 100 degrees,” says Ruth. “Sammy stayed up until 5:00 am and we were supposed to leave early that morning. Sho didn’t have a driver’s license, and no one wanted Owen behind the wheel. “I was a danger to myself and others,” he adds. But in the end, they were able to make the trip. “We had a great time at IBMA,” says Ruth. “We plan on going back again next year.”

The band is currently in the studio working on an EP. “It will have five songs,” says Ruth. “We are fortunate that Berklee has great recording studios available, and students who are learning production. We have some wonderful friends helping us.” The EP’s working title is “We’re a Wreck.”

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