PENN YAN — Despite experiencing some Hollywood success this past year, Dundee native Bobby Fitzgerald’s feet are planted firmly on the ground.
Barefoot that it is.
Temperatures didn’t reach double digits last Sunday morning, but Fitzgerald, a 2005 Dundee High School graduate, greeted well-wishers at the Lake Street Plaza Theatres in Penn Yan in his bare feet. He was in town on one of the coldest days of the year for a special screening of the new movie Pitch Perfect 3, which features his Austin, Texas-based band Whiskey Shivers. Fitzgerald plays the fiddle in the band.
There was no shivering inside the movie theater, however, which sold 128 tickets for the 10 a.m. showing and meet-and-greet beforehand. The event raised $384 for the Dundee Music Boosters. Fitzgerald also visited his alma mater Monday to visit with students.
Fitzgerald, the son of Carol Fitzgerald of Dundee and Robert Fitzgerald of Penn Yan, was home-schooled until his senior year, but was always active in the school’s concert and jazz bands (he played the trombone), chorus and the drama club. He also plays the bagpipes, which earned him a partial scholarship to the College of Wooster in Ohio.
But his real musical love is the fiddle, which Fitzgerald started playing at age 11 following a family trip to Ireland. Carol Fitzgerald said her son became enamored of the fiddle while visiting the Emerald Isle and used the souvenir money he had saved to buy one.
Luckily for Fitzgerald, down the street lived the fiddle-playing Roy Litteer, an old-time square dancing player.
“[Bobby] would just watch and play and learn by ear,” Carol Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald lovingly recalled jamming with Litteer Tuesday nights in his kitchen, and told the audience that Litteer would often cover for him when his mom called for him to come home.
“It was really fun and it felt good; it felt like something I should be doing,” he said.
Litteer arrived a bit late to the Sunday showing, but when he did Fitzgerald invited him to leave the shadows in the rear of the theater and join him in front of the movie screen. Fitzgerald then enveloped his mentor in a bear hug.
Once he left that embrace, Litteer shared some stories about his former playing partner.
“Bobby and I used to play music together,” he said. “He came up to my house with a violin in one hand and the bridge in the other, saying ‘I think this is part of this.’”
“I told him, ‘Hell, I’m not a teacher but I’d be glad to show you how I play it.”
Litteer told the crowd how proud he was of his former jamming partner and that “the moral of this story is it’s possible to just go next door and have the old guy teach you what he knows.”
Fitzgerald attended the College of Wooster in Ohio, where he studied psychology and philosophy and played in a bluegrass band — all things he said helped him in his journey. After graduation, he returned to Dundee for a month then moved to Austin for its music scene, founding the band in 2009.
Although some members have come and gone, the band’s name — and philosophy — has remained intact.
Fitzgerald told the audience that Whiskey Shivers plays to have fun and creates music that satisfies them.
“As long as you’re putting out real stuff, that’s when [people] will respond,” Fitzgerald said.
And respond they have.
Here are reviews from some heavy hitters (taken from the band’s website, www.whiskeyshivers.com).
“Austin’s Whiskey Shivers are bluegrass-fueled Americana for a generation that grew up listening to punk rock. This group of 20somethings plays banjos, fiddles and washboards at breakneck speeds while singing high, lonesome harmonies about love and video games.”
— Washington Post
“Chops away at traditional bluegrass constraints with a mischievous cleaver, mixing in shadows of Delta swamps and New Orleans basements ... the fierce inertia of Old Crow Medicine Show, the ramshackle folk punch of Felice Brothers and the punk energy of a pre-sobriety Deer Tick.”
— Rolling Stone
“They’ve been killing it in Austin for a few years now. They have that spirit of busking, that punk spirit of ‘let’s lay it on the line, let’s play our instruments hard and messy and just have a great time.’”
— Ann Powers, NPR World Café
But the band’s foray into moviemaking was born of a personal connection. Pitch Perfect director Trish Sie is friendly with the band’s friend Nick Garza and through him came to know their music and quirky sense of humor. Sie invited the band to submit a demo when she learned she’d be directing the third movie in the popular series — which centers on a diverse bunch of female college students who enter the world of competitive singing with their a cappella talents.
“They chose our own cover of Ex’s and Oh’s, that is how we got picked up for the job,” Fitzgerald said.
In the movie, Whiskey Shivers plays a band named Saddle Up. Submitting the demo was a challenging experience, as the band had to reinterpret pop songs from their bluegrass perspective.
“It was all about having to stretch yourself and break it apart ... and take that hit and bend it to your feeling and interpretation,” Fitzgerald said. “It was an awesome experience.”
One audience member asked about working with the cast. Fitzgerald said he and his band mates especially enjoyed working with the other auxiliary bands in the movie, as well as stars Rebel Wilson and Anna Kendrick. In fact, Whiskey Shivers plans on a future collaboration with rapper Trinidad James, who also appeared in Pitch Perfect 3.
“So now we’re branching off in this whole new area,” he said. “I never saw this coming.”
Another person asked how often the band practices.
The answer: “As much as you can, any spare minute you have,” Fitzgerald said. “Practice is hard work and hard work is what gets you where you want to be.”
And about those bare feet ... Fitzgerald’s mother said Bobby always liked to go without shoes from a young age, starting when he’d be outside playing.
“Now the whole band plays barefoot when they’re onstage,” she said.
Fitzgerald’s return to the Finger Lakes was brief, as Whiskey Shivers was heading out on a Western states tour last week. But Fitzgerald seemed more than happy to be home sharing with his young audience the story of his success and what they might be able to take away from it.
He encouraged them to not only work hard and believe in themselves, but to appreciate the community and family support surrounding them.
“No one can do this alone,” he said. “We have to help each other.”