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Forest Beutel pushes Americana for a livin'

Serious banjo

Forest Beutel, right, and The Rusty Cleavers perform at Bob's Java Jive Oct. 11. Photo credit: Pappi Swarner

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Tacoma musician Forest Beutel is a rough looking dude. He looks kind of like a cross between Lemmy Kilmister and Sabretooth from the X-Men - but way more redneck. Many peoples' first impression of him is that he seems like he can beat the shit out of anyone at whatever bar they might have met him at.

And he probably can.

But anyone who's ever played with him will tell you that he's a big softy with an artist's heart. Beutel is a fixture of Tacoma's bluegrass scene, playing banjo for both Barleywine Revue and punkgrass outfit The Rusty Cleavers. And last month he released If You Label Me, You Negate Me, his first solo album.

His new release and his branch into solo-musicianship have been a huge step for him.

"I really wanted to transition into this full-time musician role," Beutel explains.

It's no easy task. He tirelessly looks for gigs so he can get a paycheck. He's the only one in any of the bands he plays with that's a full-time musician. But he insists he does OK.

"My ends usually meet," he says.

A native of Rhode Island, he came out to Washington as a student at University of Puget Sound. He decided he needed a change of pace from the East Coast life. Tacoma turned out to be the perfect fit.

"The beer turned out to be good and so was the Chinese food. So I stayed," he deadpans.

He's had next to no formal musical training. As a kid he took some piano lessons, a small chapter of his life he summarizes succinctly. "I hated the piano," he tells me. But that didn't stop him from pursuing music. He began playing the drums in punk rock bands.

When he started west, his drum set was too big for his Toyota Camry. So he left the drums back in Rhode Island and began teaching himself the guitar. He also brought a banjo his grandfather had given him.

"He's a very raw musician," says mandolin player Kevin Shintaku, his bandmate from Barleywine Revue and The Rusty Cleavers. The two met as DJs at their college radio station. When Shintaku began forming Barleywine Revue, he recruited Beutel on a whim because "he seemed cool and he had a banjo."

But Shintaku didn't realize Beutel had never actually played it before.

"The way he is he just taught himself," Shintaku explains. The two approach music very differently. Shintaku's formal training as a jazz musician stands in stark contrast to Beutel's self-taught punk rock roots. Shintaku said he would write out melodies and approach music in a very clinical way. Beutel would push back.

At first this caused some friction, but Shintaku says that the Beutel's emotion driven playing style had a fundamental impact on the way he approaches music himself. Though Beutel's approach may appear more relaxed, that doesn't mean he's anything less than serious about his music. "He really pushes the creative process," Shintaku says.

It was that creative drive that pushed him to explore new routes and start recording a solo album. "I had a collection of songs that just didn't fit with Barleywine or The Cleavers," he says. He says it's refreshing being able to have full creative control. He says that being solo, there's also a bit less pressure. "Rather than dealing with five flaky musicians you only have to worry about one," he quips.

But his heart is still in playing with bands. He continues to do shows regularly with both Barleywine Revue and The Rusty Cleavers. As much as he enjoys his solo work, he feels energized by the collaborative process and playing with other people. "Playing by yourself just isn't as much fun," he says. "There's no one to drink with."

Shintaku has played in a lot of bands and with a lot of other musicians. But he says Beutel stands out. "I stand with him. I play with him. I respect him," he says. "And that's something I can't honestly say about a lot of other musicians."

You can find If You Label Me, You Negate Me on Bandcamp

THE RUSTY CLEAVERS, w/The Pine Hearts, The Cottonwood Cutups, Redrumsey, 8 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 11, Bob's Java Jive, 2102 S. Tacoma, Way, $5, 253.475.9843

BARLEYWINE REVUE, w/Shotgun Kitchen, 8:30 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 16, The Swiss Restaurant and Pub, 1904 S. Jefferson, Tacoma, 253.572.2821

FOREST BEUTEL, 8 p.m., Friday, Oct. 24, Northern Pacific Coffee Co., 401 Garfield St. S., Tacoma, no cover, 253.537.8338

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