Ask Regents Professor Bruce Thomson to design a water treatment plant and you could expect quality water as a result. Then he could pick up a fiddle and write a tune about it.
Thomson started teaching civil engineering at UNM in 1978; he teaches environmental engineering. He retired in 2013, but continues to teach graduate classes and conduct research on water resources and the relationships between water and energy. And when he steps out onto the stage with his fiddle, he is energy in motion.
Bruce Adobe? Toby Thomson?
Thomson’s alter ego is Toby Adobe, one of the bluegrass musicians in the Adobe Brothers, “A band of identical quadruplets born to different mothers a long time ago,” according to their website.
Thomson started playing bluegrass on guitar when he was in college at the University of California-Davis. “At that time, there was a lot of bluegrass music on the west coast,” he said. But while in graduate school at Rice University in Houston, he met fiddler Bill Northcutt and made the switch.
“Texas has a rich history of fiddle music. Every little town and county fair has a fiddle contest. Most of the best fiddle players in the United States got started playing for fiddle contests. Bill was one of them,” Thomson said, adding that other states have competitions, but not like Texas.
The Adobe Brothers were formed in 1979, with a few personnel changes through the years. Banjo player Wayne Shrubsall or Moby Adobe - the Great White Adobe - has been with the group 35 years. “He came up with the Toby name,” Thomson said. Toby Adobe also performs on guitar and vocals.
“Our philosophy is, if it sounds good and is fun to play, we’ll play it” – Bruce Thomson
Thomson drags the bow across the strings to produce lonesome, haunting or raucous and jubilant sounds, depending on the nature of the tune. Other times he plucks it. Sometimes, however, “Songs need percussion. You can get some of that effect strumming the fiddle. It produces a sound not too different than a mandolin. It’s good for rhythm,” he said.
Another UNM Adobe
UNM can lay claim to another Adobe Brother: “Moby - or Wayne, earned a Ph.D. in American studies at UNM. Peter White, professor emeritus of English and American studies, was his advisor.
Shrubsall’s dissertation focused on the role of the banjo in American popular culture. In the course of conducting his research, he perused the John Donald Robb collection of New Mexico folk music in the UNM Fine Arts Library. Robb served as dean of the UNM College of Fine Arts from 1942 to 1957 and amassed a large collection of Hispanic and other folk music from around the state.
“Wayne [Shrubsall] found several tunes from the collection that were tied to oral tradition. We learned them and include them in our performances,” Thomson said.
White recalled that Shrubsall was teaching many sections of writing at CNM while working on his Ph.D. “It took up a lot of his academic energy. He puts his creative energy into the banjo. He is a living legend who should be considered for a National Heritage Fellowship,” he said, adding that Shrubsall has filled the South Broadway Cultural Center giving solo performances of the role of banjo music in American culture.
White retired from teaching English and American studies at UNM, where he also served as dean of University College and a brief stint as the state’s higher education secretary. He hasn’t retired quietly, however. He continues to run the New Mexico Musical Heritage Project, through which he teaches people how to make violins. He made Toby Adobe’s violin, I mean, fiddle.
“I wrote a song in honor of Peter White: Peter Eat Your Heart Out,” Thomson said. White isn’t the only character in the song. Fiddle Bill is a character who hangs out near the Frontier Restaurant or at UNM. “Fiddle Bill has a purple violin that he stained using prickly pear cactus juice,” Thomson said.
In good folk music fashion, the song tells a story. Peter, the trained craftsman, is told to “eat your old heart out” because Fiddle Bill carved his fiddle that “looks kind of gritty, but it sure sounds pretty.”
And the song ends, “Last night, I had a dream and it happened right in the square,
Bill and Peter they were playing on their fiddles and the notes just filled the air,
Bows were flyin’, faces smilin’, people all gathered round.
And they all started dancing, singing and prancing, the soul of the city was found.”
Thomson likes his fiddle and its maker. He said, “Not only does Peter make gorgeous violins, but he’s a great teacher. Students worship him. He’s done a lot for the folk music community. He deserves a lot of credit.”
White said that he and Thomson are probably in a small community of faculty from English and engineering who are friends and collaborators. White also consults with Thomson on physics and engineering, having to do with structures and tension in violin making, as well as chemical compounds for varnish.
He tries to go to as many Adobe Brothers performances as he can. “It is satisfying and rewarding to hear Bruce play. He’s very versatile in his ability and brings a lot of energy. I can’t believe he makes my fiddle sound so good!” White said.
Other current members include Jacoby Adobe, or Jimmy Abraham, on vocals, guitar, fiddle and harmonica; and Pierogi Adobe, Terry Bluhm, on vocals and bass. Abraham is quite the song writer and has several award winning songs to his name. Bluhm is one of the most sought after bass and guitar players in New Mexico.
Thomson said that Abraham served in the Peace Corps and later earned a master’s in Spanish.
The Adobe Brothers are not locked into one particular musical genre or style. “Our philosophy is, if it sounds good and is fun to play, we’ll play it,” Thomson said. Their repertoire consists of bluegrass, old western, L.A. Cuban, Finnish, Spanish language tunes and more.
The guys get together once every couple of weeks. “The other guys are fabulous musicians who can learn quickly. We practice once for a show,” Thomson said.
Get Your CDs!
The group has recorded two CDs - one titled simply, “Adobe Brothers”; the other “Adobe Brothers: Our Name is Mud”. “We sell them at our shows and a couple music stores have them,” Thomson said, adding that they sell enough CDs to cover the cost of the recordings. “With CDs going out of style, the songs are available via download.”
The Adobe Brothers can be found at clubs around Albuquerque. Once a month they play at the Student Union Building at UNM. They play for contradances, traditional American folk dances, at UNM, the Albuquerque Square Dance Club and for parties. And White said they play at the Faculty Staff Club, too.