A pioneering band in Albuquerque’s Americana scene, the Squash Blossom Boys brings expert musicianship and rollicking energy to standard and original tunes. The squashies have played in various locales—bars, growers’ markets, on tour earlier this year opening for the Meat Puppets, maybe even at your backyard barbecue—and the band’s popularity is on a steady upward climb. But even fans may not know the winding path these bluegrass men have traveled.
On a sunny afternoon, I had the pleasure of drinking beers with the boys while they detailed their musical journey. They speak the way they play: in a synchronized fashion, supporting each other, chiming in, finishing each other’s thoughts. It makes sense—Kit Murray (banjo/voice), Dustin Orbesen (dobro/voice), Peter Lisignoli (upright bass) and Kyle Malone (guitar) basically grew up together. Murray’s dad, a musician, sometimes made his sons pick tunes against their will. “We didn’t want to,” Murray says. “We wanted to do more of the rock and roll thing.”
“We were all rock players but we got together in the Cibola jazz band,” says Lisignoli. “If you want to be a serious musician you play jazz or classical.” But, they couldn’t be limited to just jazz. “On the weekends we’d just go to Kit’s garage and play rock.” During this time, they picked up the name Squash Blossom Boys, although there is some mystery around how. It was definitely at a growers’ market, and possibly bestowed by a random vendor who sold “magic cactus.”
For several months in its infancy, the Squash Blossom Boys was a reggae band. Wait, what? Malone pulls out his laptop. “I got some reggae on here if you want to hear it.” The song “Gorilla Farmer” plays amid laughs and overlapping discussion about when the living room recording was made. The boys’ transition from reggae to bluegrass occurred at one fateful practice, Lisignoli explains. “Kit’s brother, instead of bringing his cymbals and his drumsticks, he brought what we call a master stack. It’s basically a notebook filled with bluegrass, old-time and folk tunes.” The brother announced they’d be playing bluegrass that day. “I didn’t know how to do it,” Lisignoli laughs. “The closest I’d heard to bluegrass was Primus.”
The Squash Blossom Boys became absorbed by the genre. Band members started attending festivals, picking up tunes and listening to other musicians in an attempt become better players. They noticed there was a larger audience for bluegrass than reggae. “Even though we weren’t very good, we started getting better gigs,” Orbesen says of the early days. “Plus,” Malone adds, “It didn’t take two vehicles to haul all our equipment.” These days the Squash Blossom Boys identifies as a bluegrass band but acknowledges a mixture of styles in its original material, including funk, swing and folk.
In recording at Frogville—a Santa Fe studio and record label for indie folk, rock and alt.country—the four squashies were joined by Sam Weiss on fiddle and Tristan Scroggins on mandolin. Outside Lookin’ In represents the band’s live performance perfectly—precise picking, every harmony clearly captured, yet there’s still that spontaneous feeling of tumbling along. The band took five hours in the studio, working in a relaxed fashion akin to a regular practice. It was an ideal situation for guys who love what they’re doing. “It was a terrific session,” Lisignoli says. “We did it all live where we just got in the same room and had a mic up to our instrument, and just played.”