Pictured Above: The front entrance of the Newtown Theatre in Newtown, PA.  Borderline will be the headline on September 15th.  Photo Credit: Newtown Theatre’s Facebook page.

At Home and All Bluegrass With Borderline

By: Lori Goldstein

Writer Lori Goldstein breaks bread with the Bucks County bluegrass trio Borderline, talking creative paths, history, upcoming shows and more. 

Who woulda thunk? That in a tidy home on a quiet street in Yardley Borough resides half of the spirited bluegrass trio known as Borderline. Wife and husband Terry and Bob Sutor welcomed me into their home, where I also found Bob Harris, their bandmate with his wife Cyndy Huang, sitting comfortably on the living room sofas, eager to talk to me about the music they live for and love.

 

Borderline wowed an enthusiastic crowd in Yardley, during their August 5 performance at the Music Off Main outdoor summer series.  They’re set to do the same at Newtown Theatre on September 15.  Their first album, “Borderline Unleashed,” includes their versions of  popular bluegrass tunes, such as Roseanne Cash’s “My Baby Thinks He’s a Train” as well as Bob Sutor’s original song, “Unleashed.”  Terry sings lead vocal and plays the bass guitar. Bob Sutor plays the banjo and also sings lead vocal. Bob Harris plays guitar and sings back-up vocal.

[For the sake of clarity, I’ll refer to the two Bobs by their last names.]

I was curious about how each of them found their way to bluegrass music.  Working at Snipes Garden Center when he was 23, Sutor first heard a banjo in a band hired to entertain at a Snipes party. “The guy had a gold banjo and I just fell in love with it,” he recalled.  A guitarist originally, Sutor went into a music store to buy guitar strings and came out with a banjo. He played it for two weeks, said to himself, “I can’t do this,” and gave the banjo to his cousin.  There were no banjo teachers around, so Sutor’s cousin gave the instrument back to him after two weeks.

 

Sutor tried to learn from Earl Scruggs’s book, but found it wasn’t geared toward beginners.  So he listened to an album of Carolina banjoist Doug Dilworth and taught himself three of his tunes.  With those songs in hand, he joined the Bucks County Grass band.  “We got a gig every Friday and Saturday night at the Gaslight Beef & Ale in Morrisville, as well as Jenkintown’s Around the Bend Tavern. Sutor wasn’t satisfied with the fact that he’d made it into a band; he wanted to be the best banjo player he could be. 

Borderline “Who Needs You”, along with Bob Sutor (banjo) & Terry McCrea-Sutor (bass guitar) are Jeff Propert on mandolin & Ed Krizni playing guitar.

“I can either suck every Friday and Saturday night,” he said to himself.  “Or I gotta learn to play this thing.” He put a lot of time, i.e., practice, into it, recalling that “I was ok, I wasn’t great, But I was ok and it was fun.”

 

Sutor’s wife, Terry, tells me she comes from the midwest and southern states.  “My dad was career military, primarily Kentucky and Kansas. He couldn’t read a note of music, but he could play any instrument you put in front of him. He started playing square dances when he was ten. So we always had music around the house.  We didn’t always have a television set, but we always had music.  So I grew up listening to country and bluegrass music.  Every Saturday night the Grand Ole Opry was on the radio.”

 

During the ‘60s, Terry gravitated toward the music of Joan Baez and Judy Collins. Yet when she got away from home, Leavenworth, Kansas, she returned to her roots: bluegrass.  “I love the drive and energy of bluegrass, the power of it.  And it’s happy music. We talk about this all the time: the words may be a little miserable, but it’s always happy music. I can’t sit still when I’m listening to bluegrass.”  

Pictured Above: Bob Sutor of Borderline on the banjo. Photo Credit: Contributed.

How she met her husband is a tale of serendipity.  They met at a music course they both took at Bucks County Community College.  After the course ended, they didn’t see each other.  In 1979, Terry bought the house in which she and Bob now live. 

 

“One day I got a call from the landscape company Lawn Doctor. They said they’d like to assess my lawn and give me free grass seed. I never do that kind of thing [accept unsolicited business], but I said, ‘Sure, come on out.’” Bob showed up at her door.  “He didn’t have the promised grass seed, I must say.” Yet they sat and talked about bluegrass music for hours, and have been married for 35 years ever since. Terry and Bob performed as a folk duo until Bucks County Grass broke up, at which time they started their own band, originally called Border Ride 40 years ago. They had a guitar player, a bass guitar, and someone on fiddle off and on. “When the bass player quit, they gave me two weeks to learn to play it before we had the next gig,” Terry remembers. There was also a mandolin player, but he moved away after they finished their first CD.

 

The Sutors have known Bob Harris, songwriter and guitarist for 35 years. It was just seven years ago when he teamed up with them to form Borderline.“He’s not just a bluegrass picker,” says Sutor. “He plays jazz, blues, rock–all rolled into one.” 

“I’ve been playing music my whole life,”  Harris tells me.  I think I started when I was two-and-a-half or three years old.  My parents went to church and my uncle bought a little organ, I don’t know why.  When they came home, I started playing the church songs on the little organ, and they flipped out.”

“I play by ear.  When I was about sixteen years old, we moved to New Jersey during my junior year of high school. I had no friends and I went to the church and found an older guy who liked bluegrass music.  So he started to indoctrinate me.”

 

He invited Harris to his house and started playing bluegrass.  “I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is the greatest music.’  He said, ‘Do you wanna go see bluegrass music live?’ and I said, ‘Sure.’” They went to the Englishtown Music Hall to see “my first live performance, by the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe.”

Pictured Above: Terry Sutor on the base of Borderline. Photo Credit: Contributed.

It was 1977, and Harris had been heavily into folk music–Steve Goodman, John Prine.  However, after hearing those giants of bluegrass, he never looked back. “I’ve played other kinds of music, but I’ve always loved bluegrass the most.” 

 

In 1989 Harris moved down to Nashville to become a country songwriter.  Harris was a country songwriter for three different publishing houses in Nashville. One of his songs, “Bone Dry,” was recorded by Nancy Sinatra in 1995. “The last guy that I published with was Jerry Foster, the most awarded singer in the history of country music. A big-name country artist in Las Vegas will be signing on to a major record  label, and he will be cutting two of Harris’s songs.

 

Harris’s wife of four years, Cyndy Huang, started laughing when she heard Sutor’s banjo playing–it was the first time she’d heard a banjo. She’d say, “That is a very funny sound.  What is that instrument?”  

“[Now] when she says he’s very funny, she means he’s very good,” Harris interjects.  With a beautiful voice of her own, Cyndy has begun singing with the trio.  “Her harmonies really round the sound out,” says Terry.

 

“Bluegrass music is very deceptive,” says Harris. “You can hear the bass, and you go, oh, that sounds really easy. And I go, okay, let me see you try it and see how you do, because it’s not really easy. You’d be surprised at all of the jazz players that go to bluegrass music, that can’t play it.

  

Sutor concurs: “Classically trained people have a hard time with it.” 

“What’s the challenge?” I ask.

Pictured Above: Bob Harris on the guitar of Borderline. Photo Credit: Contributed.

“The challenge is playing ahead of the beat, keeping it ahead and not speeding it up at the same time,” explains Harris.  “It sounds so simple, and the thing is your note has to be on the edge of the beat, the leading edge of the beat. It can’t be way back there, playing behind the beat too much.”

 

Sutor agrees: “I do that all the time with the banjo, playing ahead of the beat all the time.”

 “So we all play ahead of the beat, we’re all leaning like this,” says Harris.  “It’s hard to understand that lean.”

 

“Like a trompe l’oeil (trick of the eye), bluegrass is a trompe d’oreille (trick of the ear). Would that be a good analogy? I ask. They like that.

Terry humbly adds, “I’m a steady bass player, not a fancy bass player.”

Implying it’s her accuracy that matters, Harris says, “It doesn’t need to be fancy.”

 

Sutor similarly praises his wife: “I can play a thousand notes on the banjo and sing.  I cannot play the bass and sing, I don’t know how she does it.” Terry’s voice is at once strong and gentle, clear as crystal..

 

Buoyed by their compliments, Terry says, “I rock.”

 

“Normally in a bluegrass band, when the banjo player starts singing, he just completely stops playing, ok?” says Harris. “‘Cause it’s very hard to pick the banjo and sing at the same time.  Let’s think about all the [well-known] banjo players, even [the ones] singing harmonies, they stop playing, right?” 

Sutor concurs with a simple “Yup.” 

“But Bob [Sutor] is one of the two lead singers in this band (I just sing harmony) and Cyndy sings harmony.  Bob plays the banjo like there’s a guy concentrating on banjo, and he’s the singer.  He does both of them at the same time.  It’s miraculous.  I get a lot of people saying about you, he’s one of the few banjo players that will keep the roll [finger-picking pattern] and the rhythm going on the banjo and sing at the same time.  It’s like having two musicians in one band.”

 

Sutor interjects: “At the same time, I gotta say it, how can you not?”

“The thing is that when you stop playing the banjo, it’s like the whole band sounds naked,” says Harris. “But there are times when you do stop, for dynamics.”

 

Sutor agrees: “For dynamics, yeah… And going into a chorus where we’re all singing, I sometimes stop.  In “My Baby Thinks He’s a Train,” on [the word] locomotion, I just tap it.  I try not to take away from what we’re singing, but I’m moving that song just about the whole time.”

When a large pizza with sausage and mushrooms arrives, I don’t stand on ceremony and ask, “Don’t we want to eat it when it’s hot?” We move to the dining room, my phone recorder at the center of the table. 

“Basically what we’re doing with the band that’s unique about it, all three of us sing and Cyndy fills in harmonies,” explains Harris.  “We’re not just standing up there playing songs, we have a show going on…just being ourselves and having a nice rapport with the audience, telling them some interesting stories, or some offbeat things about a song.”

 

Terry says, “We’re pretty off the cuff, whatever comes out.”

 

Harris continues: “We haven’t scripted it, so we’re talking on the stage and having a good time.  As far as the sound of the band goes, a bluegrass band will normally have at least a four-piece (mandolin being the fourth), and we lost our mandolin player. He moved, we didn’t lose him, we know exactly where he lives [we all laugh].  

“We decided, this was before Covid, we were struggling with having too many people in the band, it’s hard when you have too many members.  We talked about it, let’s try doing it with just the three of us and see what happens.”  

“So we did it, and it actually turns out that we kind of fell into a different sound with bluegrass music that you normally don’t hear. It’s actually a more powerful sound, believe it or not, by getting rid of that one instrument.  It put another job on me as the guitar player, but instead of playing the regular bluegrass guitar that everybody does, I do it completely differently.  And it just came into being that way.”

 

“I used to play with a famous violinist, world-famous–Vassar Clements, says Harris. “He’d played with the philharmonic orchestras and crossed over to country.”  Clements was known as the father of Hillbilly Jazz, incorporating elements of American jazz, swing, and bluegrass fiddling.

 

“I was in Clements’ band for 15 years,” says Harris. “I was playing standard strumming bluegrass rhythm and he taught me how to play rhythm in a completely different style. It’s almost a jazzy swing rhythm.”

“I think it brings a lot of power to our sound.  We’ve turned into a rhythm-based band over a short amount of time, without taking anything away from the vocals.”

 

“It’s true,” says Terry. “People don’t miss the other instruments. Nobody says, ‘Wow, it’d be better if you had a violin or a mandolin.’” 

 

“I’ve never heard that, not once,” says Sutor. “We’re constantly hearing people say, ‘It doesn’t sound like three people up there, it sounds like a full band,’ which is kind of cool, I like that.”

 

“So out of a problem came a nice solution,” says Harris. 

 

When Borderline covers a song, they change the tempo. “We warp it so much, it’s not even the same song,” says Harris. He asks me, “Have you heard Roseanne Cash’s ‘My Baby Thinks He’s a Train’?. It’s a very slow song, but we play that at warp 10.” 

 

“It’s a train song, it’s supposed to be fast,” says Terry.

 

When we were doing this song, I never heard her version,” says Harris. “I played it with you for a bunch of years, and it was only until a year ago that I heard her version, and I said, I can’t even believe it’s the same song.”  [It’s on their CD.]  We’ve been doing that song for years.”

“Another song like that is ‘Memory Bound to Ride,’” says Sutor. “We’re doing chord inversions, substituting chords, moving chords around and putting chords in between—we’re adding a lot of stuff that didn’t exist. That’s what we love about bluegrass. You can play things the way you feel ‘em.”

 

With the pizza gone, we head back to the Sutor living room. “How does Borderline create a setlist?” I ask.

 

Terry explains, “We put it together and then we change it when we’re onstage. [we all laugh]  A lot of it too depends on the audience. You do two songs, you kind of get a feel for what they’re into, what they want to hear.  It also depends on how warmed up these guys are.  You can’t go out guns a-blazing,”

 

Sutor jokingly says, “We should do that, go out guns a-blazing, Absolutely!”

 

Harris agrees: “Yeah, and burn ourselves up.”

 

Sutor drenches the metaphor: “Just completely burn out in the first five minutes.”

“We’re not as young as we used to be, so you gotta warm up pretty well,” admits Harris.  “What we consider fast is impossible for a lot of [other bands], the way that we’re playing some of these songs, they’re probably faster than they’re normally meant to go.  So even when we think we’re playing slow, we’re actually playing faster than what everybody else thinks.”

 

“We level it off,” says Terry. “We’ll do a couple of fast, then do a moderate, then do a slow.  But again, we kind of play it by ear. We have setlists that we’ve created, but we’re always changing everything around when we get onstage.”

 

You might think Borderline would have a seven-year itch.  Truth be told, ”We have never had a fight, we have zero disagreements, zero issues, there’s no drama, never a problem, everybody’s on time [to rehearsals],” says Harris.  “This is the best band that I’ve ever played in as far as reliable, no egos…there’s nothing. Zero.”

Sutor sums it up in three words.  “We have fun.”

 

 “And we encourage each other to play well,” adds Harris.

Terry points out that they’ve all played in many different bands for a lot of years. She explains why Borderline is so compatible: “I know for us we’re easygoing.  We love the music, we want to get it out, we want to have a good time playing.  Bob [Harris] is the same way.  And now Cyndy is part of this as well.”

 

Another three-word axiom from Sutor: “We’re simple folk.”

 

“Nobody wants to be the star, says Terry. “Nobody wants to be out in front.  Everybody gets a turn to do their thing.”

 

“We’re totally democratic, we don’t consider anyone a leader here, we all vote on everything,” says Harris.

“And everybody pitches in,” adds Terry.  Indeed, each of them will be writing original bluegrass tunes for Borderline’s second album.

 

Borderline will be performing Sept. 15 at the Newtown Theatre. Tickets are available at thenewtowntheatre.com.  On Sept. 17, they’ll be performing at the courtyard in Peddler’s Village from 12-3.

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