Doctor Oakroot was born in a taxi with no brakes, and, he says, "I been rolling ever since. I rolled right down to Hell, pulled up the devil by his tail and brought back some dark, dark songs."
And he plays those songs on quirky guitars that he makes himself. "I have an inner conviction that I should make my own instruments. My grandma made her own dulcimer and I make my own guitars - it's a tradition."
Oakroot's guitars are decorated with pyrography (wood burning). He says, "I can't draw worth a damn, but I do it anyway." The designs inspire the names of his instruments - The Goblin, The Cyclops, The Weeping Goddess.
Folks get a big kick out of Oakroot's quirky creations whenever he plays... and an even bigger kick when he pulls out a very simple two string instrument, plays a couple of songs, and then gives the guitar to a lucky audience member - a regular feature of his shows.
Oakroot comes from a musical family. His mother had some success as part of pop singing group, the Ross Sisters, in the '50s. His father sings in a church choir and, for many years, has performed opera with the Durham Savoyards - performing in every Gilbert and Sullivan play over the years. Oakroot's sister is a concert violinist with credits including prinical second violin in two state orchestras and a brother is an accomplished if unpublished songwriter.
Oakroot himself first picked up a ukulele at the age of 3, switching to guitar at age 10. After a few years playing rock, blues, and folk guitar, he went on to study classical guitar with Jesus Silva at the NC School of the Arts, as well as summer programs there in flute and string bass.
Throughout his childhood, Oakroot built instruments as well as playing them. "Usually, I would see an instrument from another culture in a museum - like a shamisen from japan or a (reconstructed) cythara from Rome - and think 'I want one of those'... so I'd go home and build it."
For several years, he played primarily for his own entertainment, until 1990 when he joined the somewhat informal folk performing group, Common Sounds, in Kalamazoo, MI. On his return to NC, he founded in 1995, with Lighting River and Hawke, an alt-rock band, Emrys in which he played bass and sang - mostly back up but some leads. "Emrys was especially interesting," says Oakroot, "because the three of us were coming from such different places musically - me from blues, Lightning from punk and alt-rock, and Hawke from metal."
After the break up of Emrys in 1997, he put together a new band, Dr Oakroot's Tonic. The new band released Bars and Churches produced by the late legendary reggae drummer Winston Grennan, who is known for creating the "one drop" beat. "That first record had quite a bit of holdover from Emrys and came out as sort of a rockabilly thing transitioning to the blues." The band went through several lineups, releasing the raw acoustic blues CD Bosnujo and recording, but not releasing Devil Take My Blues, before finally breaking up in 2000. Oakroot remembers, "that final Dr Oakroot's Tonic line up was so good, I just didn't think I could put together a band to match it, so I went solo."
Oakroot had already been performing solo in Esperanto as Radikulo (Esperanto for "root man"), so he just adapted that act to English language songs. And he still does occasional songs in Esperanto.
In 2004, Oakroot began to recover his childhood interest in building instruments. "I was getting bored with the music I was making on my perfect high-end production guitars. So I started making clunky cigar box guitars. I find that working within a limitation enhances creatitivy." If you are interested in this whole cigar box guitar thing, you can click here to visit Shane Speal's Cigarbox Nation. "It's a friendly group with lots of advice available for beginners."
Note: CDs released before 2004 were recorded with conventional instruments.
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