It took a young Beppe Gambetta some time to figure out his musical niche. But once the Genoa, Italy, teenager found his passion for American bluegrass music he proved a quick study, mastering the music and eventually creating his own identifiable style.
Now the Stockton, New Jersey, resident is an internationally praised flatpicking guitar expert and sought-after musician at folk festivals throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe — including his annual May sell out performances of American roots music in Genoa.
But area audiences can hear him closer to home when he performs an evening of Italian canzoni (or songs) on Sunday, October 9, at Dorothea’s House, the Italian-American Club of Princeton. Admission is free.
“I love to work with Italian-American associations and clubs,” Gambetta says during an interview at his home near the Delaware River. It’s a place he shares with his second wife, Federica, a classical guitarist who gave up her performing career to boost her husband’s profile on the international American roots music scene.
With his Italian-accented English, Gambetta talks about his repertoire. There’s the familiar Italian songs like “That’s Amore” and “O Sole Mio,” but, he says, “there is so much more good music to play, American bluegrass tunes.”
Born in 1955 in Genoa, the home town of Christopher Columbus, Gambetta was the son of a banker-cashier at an American Express Bank, and his Austrian and multi-lingual mother was mainly a housewife, but later worked part-time. He has an older sister, Manuela.
Since Genoa is a seaport town recordings from America would often arrive at the docks and in local record stores via people who worked on ships that sailed to New York and Boston. And the young Gambetta began finding his musical inspiration in the Beatles and Led Zeppelin.
“When I was 17,” he says, “a friend brought this album of roots music from Newport Folk Festival on Vanguard Records. It had all the performers on there, Doc Watson, Mississippi John Hurt, two tunes by Flatt and Scruggs, two tunes by Skip James, and so on.”
“Later I got a hold of four albums by Doc Watson and four albums by Norman Blake, and I learned everything on them, note-for-note,” wearing the grooves out, he says.
From the time he was 17, Gambetta kept dreaming about going to America and meeting some of his heroes. And since there was a paucity of information in Italy about American bluegrass music, Gambetta wrote a book about the flatpicking guitar style when he was 28.
Flatpicking is the technique of striking the strings with a pick held between the thumb and one or two fingers. The book was well enough received in Italy that later editions were published in English.
“I knew there must be other Italians who wanted to know more about this music and wanted to learn more about bluegrass music,” Gambetta says. “At the time it came out it sold 5,000 copies, which was fantastic.”
Called “The Flatpicking Source Book,” it cites all of his American roots music heroes, including African-American bluesmen John Hurt, Skip James, and others on the Newport Folk Festival album.
Not surprisingly, as anyone who has attended one of his concerts will tell you, the college-educated Gambetta — nearly four years at University of Genoa — always sets up his tunes, offering some background and history about various musicians and tunes that he interprets his own way. His annual concerts at the Prallsville Mill in Stockton, orchestrated by WPRB-FM DJ John Weingart, are now legendary shows, as he is often paired with other American roots musicians for off-the-cuff musical collaborations on stage.
“I went three-quarters of the way to my degree (in business economics) and did really well in the examination, but then the music became too strong,” he says about his decision to drop out of college. “So I slowly started to travel with my band, Red Wine. Over the next few years, the other members of the band slowly understood that life as a musician was not so easy, so one became a lawyer and the other became a surgeon. I started solo, traveling and being a full-time musician.”
After years of working and honing his craft and abilities as a flatpicking guitarist, Gambetta, at age 33, finally saved enough money to make his first trip to America — “to see how it is” and “where I can fit in with other bluegrass people.”
Gambetta says he remembers his first trip to the States in the 1980s like it was yesterday. “I met with some players, and (guitarist) Joe Carr from Texas told me, ‘You need to record something here in the U.S. because no one will think of you as an artist if they don’t hear you on records.’”
Gambetta says he was trying to figure out how to record his music and maybe even play with some of his heroes when a Swiss reporter showed up with a portable tape recorder able to record on the scene. “Boing!” he says. “It went off in my head.”
Gambetta says he eventually borrowed a tape recorder and “knocked on the doors of all my heroes. I traveled from L.A. to Nashville and Colorado and Texas and the south and met all of my heroes.”
Most, he says, were flattered he knew so much about their lives and music and were happy to record with him in their living rooms.
Today Gambetta’s albums include releases on a variety of smaller folk and American roots music labels in Europe and the U.S. His most recent recordings are for the Vermont-based Gadfly Records. While all of them are notable, fans still seek out his 1992 collaboration with Garden State-based banjo pioneer Tony Trischka, “Alone and Together,” for Brambus Records.
Pressed about musical influences, Gambetta says number one is the late North Carolina-based guitarist Doc Watson, with whom he collaborated and recorded. He also talks fondly about a visit with the late Pete Seeger at his house in Beacon, New York.
“I really loved how this man who was really old was incredibly positive and emanating great vibes. Sometimes old people are generally cranky and they think they have become not famous enough, but Pete was the opposite way, the proof that the old wise man can exist.”
These days, Gambetta — who has a 35-year-old musician son from his first marriage — is being reflective. “When you reach a certain age you wish you wouldn’t be with a suitcase in your hand every day,” Gambetta says, adding that from Stockton he has relatively easy access to New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia.
Now thinking about the upcoming Dorothea’s House concert — “Canzoni — Poetry in Italian Songs and Melodies,” — he looks forward to being “in contact with a nice community that loves Italian culture,” but in his case, that includes “American bluegrass and some blues tunes too.”
Canzoni, Italian-American Club of Princeton, Dorothea’s House, 120 John Street, Princeton. Beppe Gambetta, solo guitar. Sunday, October 9, 5 p.m. Free. 609-924-9713 or www.dorotheashouse.org.