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Coast to coast with the Rattlesnakes

It's two days before Thanksgiving and Rainy and the Rattlesnakes have come to a local rehearsal studio to meet the press. A lone cameraman is busy setting up his equipment as the band walk in out of a bright and sunny — but cold — November afternoon.

It is a family band with father Ray Miatke on guitar and daughters Lela, 12, and Rainy, 10, on fiddle and mandolin, respectively. This is their second gig of the day. They've come straight from the weekly farmers market in Ashland, where they played outdoors in sub-50 degree weather.

As they shake off the cold and get tuned up, the filmmaker — who is shooting scenes for a nonprofit organization's promotional material — tells them to relax and to not feel intimidated by the camera. He doesn't need to worry. The Miatkes have been the subject of film coverage before.

Two years ago, at a bluegrass festival in Susanville, Calif., a different documentarian talked them into spending an entire afternoon "miked up." With wireless microphones clipped to their shirt collars, the girls spent an anxious day trying not to say anything they wouldn't want recorded.

More recently, they attracted the attention of a film crew that was documenting street musicians in New York's fabled Greenwich Village. The Rattlesnakes were in the midst of a nine-week tour of the United States. Try to picture it: A fiddle-tune-picking family from Southern Oregon, in New York for the afternoon and with time on their hands, busking in the neighborhood where Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Doc Watson and any number of American roots-music legends came to make their fortunes.

So when the guy with the camera instructs them to "pretend I'm not here" and warm up with a few songs, they are in familiar territory. After a cursory discussion, they decide on a tune and begin.

Most fiddle tunes are so old and exist in so many subtle variations that people have long since lost track of who wrote them. They come down to us from a line of cultural substance that predates industrial-commercial life. They derive from European folk songs that traveled into the North American interior and evolved in isolation from the traditions that spawned them. African influences affected that evolution, adding to the mix, among other things, instruments like the banjo.

Lela kicks off the tune on the fiddle and her father and sister join in. The first time through, Lela and Rainy play the song's melody together. On the second trip through the chord progression, Rainy drops into the rhythm section with her dad while Lela steps out front, playing a solo, or "break," that expands on the original melody.

When they get back to the song's beginning again it becomes Rainy's turn to take the lead. These tunes were built to be played this way, with any number of players sitting in a circle taking turns playing the breaks. Last August, the Rattlesnakes loaded a 1985 Volkswagen van with music and camping gear and hit the road, playing a series of house concerts and venue stages that took them down through California and across the country to the East Coast.

They jammed on the front porch of the house where Bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe grew up and at the Bluegrass Hall of Fame. They played a set at the National Flatpicking Championships in Winfield, Kan., and sat in for three nights with a band called The Manatees in Philadelphia.

They busked along the way — picking lively city street corners and playing to passersby for tips. They played their last show outside of Boulder, Colo., in an old schoolhouse. In Boulder — two days from home — the van faltered for the first time. They sprang for a new set of CV joints and headed for Oregon as the first October snow began to fall.

After they've each played a few breaks for the camera in the rehearsal studio, Lela and Rainy fall back into playing the song's melody together again. They play the tune through one last time before ending with a flourish. Now there is a funny silence that fills the space where — were there a crowd — the audience would go wild. The girls glance at each other and smile, holding their end-of-song pose long enough for the filmmaker to get his shot. Their father, sitting just slightly behind his girls in the picking half-circle composed for the camera, beams down at them with pride in his eyes.

Rainy and the Rattlesnakes will perform at 1:15 p.m. Friday, Nov. 29, on the Ashland Plaza stage during the annual Festival of Lights celebration.

Jef Fretwell is a musician and freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at jeffretwell@yahoo.com.