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On a Roll: Erin Inglish Spreads Her Musical Message By Bicycle

An inscription circles the circumference of Erin Inglish's banjo: "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender." Folk legend Pete Seeger first coined the sentence as a gentle response to Woody Guthrie's more direct "This machine kills fascists." But the sentiment seems equally suitable for Inglish, a San Luis Obispo singer-songwriter with a passion for progressive causes.

As Inglish explained during a recent performance at SLO Down Pub in Arroyo Grande, she's willing to go a long way to promote that message. During Earth Month, she'll tour the Golden State in support of sustainability -- and her new album "A Melody So Sweet."

Over the course of the tour, dubbed "Earth*Bike*Banjo," Inglish will travel roughly 1,000 miles by bicycle from Humboldt County to San Diego accompanied only by her sound engineer, Ryland Veesart, and her Yorkshire terrier, Olga. "

(Sustainability) becomes a word that gets thrown around," Inglish said, but it's more than a word to her. "It's a way of leading my life ..."

San Luis Obispo indie rocker Jody Mulgrew said her socially conscious attitude is typical of the local music community.

"Here on the San Luis Obispo folk circuit, issues of sustainability and social justice are really on the forefront of people's minds," Mulgrew said. "Folk music is a great way to spread that message."

Charles Duncan and his daughter, Ray, perform as the Cambria folk duo Ranchers for Peace. | Photo: Brittany App.

Cambria residents Charles and Ray Duncan, better known as the father-daughter folk duo Ranchers for Peace, said the protest music first popularized by the likes of Guthrie, Seeger and Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter in the 1930s and '40s still resonates with audiences today. "What we currently find is people have a hunger for this stuff that's not being satisfied," Charles Duncan said.
He originally formed Ranchers for Peace during the 1980s, performing with a female partner at rock clubs across Los Angeles. Duncan's daughter discovered recordings of their duets at age 10 or 12, he recalled, "(And) she really responded to them. She really liked the music."

"We started out at first (playing) for fun," Ray Duncan, now 17, said. But by summer 2011, they were performing full time.

According to Charles Duncan, the group's name stems from a 1982 New York Times article titled "5 U.S. 'Ranchers for Peace' Fascinate Russians." The Duncans don't actually live on a ranch or raise livestock, but the concept seemed fitting, he said. "It's a metaphorical ranch where we cultivate peace."

Meanwhile, the band's catchphrase -- "Are you are on the ranch?" -- has become shorthand for "Do you get it? Are you in sympathy with our perspective?" Charles Duncan said.

"We're not the kind of people that would walk up and down with signs that say 'Peace Now,'" he explained. "Peace is the byproduct of other things. In the absence of social justice, you have conflict and starvation and struggle."

That viewpoint can be heard on songs such as "Corporation Farm," about economic inequality, or "Walking Around Black," about slain Florida teenage Trayvon Martin. On the title track from their first EP, "Tell All the World," the Duncans ask, "Can freedom breathe/ Without an atmosphere?/ Tell all the world it'll still be here."

So far, Ranchers for Peace have shared their message at venues ranging from a Venice coffee shop to the Live Oak Music Festival in northern Santa Barbara and the International Folk Alliance Conference in Toronto. Their follow-up to 2012's "Tell All the World," the seven-song EP "Not Alone," is due out this summer.

"You start with compassion. You start with awakening somebody's feelings on a topic, and that opens them to receive information," Charles Duncan said, stressing that the duo writes songs, not essays. "If people are going to be moved to act," added his daughter, "music is a good avenue for advocating that."

Erin Inglish's banjo features an inscription coined by folk singer Pete Seeger. | Courtesy of Erin Inglish.

Inglish, a progressive folk troubadour who counts John Hartford, Peggy Seeger and Gillian Welch among her influences, inherited her love of music from her parents. Her father, Live Oak co-founder Duane Inglish, plays accordion in the eclectic Central Coast quintet Café Musique.

Although Erin Inglish studied classical singing while attending Atascadero High School, she didn't pick up the banjo until age 17 as a mechanical engineering student at UC Berkeley. There, under the tutelage of Bill Evans, Laurie Lewis and other Bay Area musicians, she studied folk and bluegrass music - modeling her picking style after late banjo great Earl Scruggs.

College also introduced Inglish to what is now Engineers Without Borders, a non-profit organization dedicated to environmental causes. She lived in Mumbai, India, for 13 months doing field research and educating communities about point-of-use water treatment systems.

"My mind was just blown away by how many problems humans in the world are facing that are so simple as far as solutions (go)," she recalled. "That's really the core of my passion for engineering - the ability to solve problems logistically."

After graduating from Berkley in 2007, Inglish spent three years in the Balkans as the regional sustainability adviser for Colliers International, pioneering energy and environmental consulting in 10 countries.

(Inglish, whose banjo accompanied her overseas, even authored a book, "The Potential for Green Building in the Balkans.") Back on the Central Coast, she worked as an energy manager and sustainability manager for the Lucia Mar Unified School District.

Jody Mulgrew and Erin Inglish as Heartbreak Hill. | Photo: Brittany App

In her spare time, Inglish made music -- collaborating with Mulgrew as the country-folk duo Heartbreak Hill, members of San Luis Obispo rock band Still Time as the blues-grass group Chuck Johnson Spur, and Colorado singer-songwriter Gabrielle Louise as the progressive folk duo Inglish & Louise. At the end of 2012, she decided to pursue music full-time.

"It was very challenging for me to walk away from a career that I had dedicated so much time and effort to," Inglish said, but she feels she made the right move. "I finally realized I'm not going to be on my death bed (saying), 'Oh I wish I was still at my 9-to-5 job instead of playing music.'"

Inglish recorded "A Melody So Sweet" -- which includes a ballad about Mother Earth,"Mama Like" - "off the grid" at a remote 1880s-era ranch house on the Carizzo Plain National Monument. "It's stunning out there. There's no noise. There's no distraction," said the singer-songwriter, who spent two weeks in March at the solar-powered home.

Now Inglish is heading on the road to share her music with a wider audience. Her Earth*Bike*Banjo tour includes benefit concerts for the UC Berkeley chapter of Engineers Without Borders, the Santa Cruz Bike Church and People Power of Santa Cruz County, as well as gigs at The WAV (Working Artists Ventura) and the Amgen Cycling Club of Thousand Oaks.

In May, she'll join Café Musique and two other singer-songwriters - Joe Craven of Davis and Kendra McKinley of Santa Cruz - on a musical cruise down Portugal's Douro River. San Luis Obispo photographer Brittany App, who created the "Mama Like" music video, will accompany them.

"Where she finds the time and energy for all this, I have no idea. It's inspiring and it's impressive," Mulgrew said of Inglish. "She's a force to be reckoned with. Each time I see her I'm blown away."

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