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Biology student, banjo picker takes chance on Nashville

By Amy Agronis on May 9, 2003 in University

Blake Shester is fascinated by evolution and might someday make a career of paleobiology. In the meantime, though, he is focusing on a passion that predates his biological studies: banjo playing.

Blake Shester, a graduating senior in biological sciences, has been playing the banjo for more than six years and will be taking his act to Nashville, Tenn., in the fall to pursue a music career. But before that happens campus community members will get plenty of opportunities to hear his bluegrass picking at several local venues, including a performance at 2:30 p.m. today and at 12:50 p.m. Sunday as part of Whole Earth Festival activities on the Quad.

Shester also will perform tomorrow during campus staff member Bill Wagman's Saturday Morning Folk Show on KDVS.

The 21-year-old began playing on a whim when he was 15. He was at home checking out his father's old banjo and decided to give it a try. "It was curiosity that caused me to pick it up and start strumming it, and it sounded horrendous," he said. "But it just ignited my passion." Encouraged by his father, he began taking lessons soon afterward.

Shester first began playing gigs last year when he joined a bluegrass band made up of musicians from throughout the area, including Lake Tahoe. Then in March, he started his own local band -- the Mad Cow String Band. The group plays regularly at Davis Farmers Market events and plans to play during Picnic in the Park 5-8:30 p.m. Wednesday. The Mad Cow String Band also plays 7-10 p.m. every Tuesday at the Delta Venus Café on B Street in Davis.

Shester is still focused on biology though. As a student assistant, he divides his work time between the Comparative Pathology Laboratory and the Center for Laboratory Animal Science in the School of Veterinary Medicine. He expects to attend graduate school eventually, but he is using music as a break and a chance to decide what he wants to do. "I'm not forgetting why I came here and got a degree," he said. "I just need some time off."

Born and raised in Carlsbad, Calif., Shester spends his summers guiding children ages 10 to 16 on canoe trips in the wilderness of Northern Ontario, Canada, where he teaches survival skills that emphasize confidence-building and self-esteem. He will lead his fourth trip this coming summer. After the summer, Blake plans to move to Nashville, where he hopes to join an existing band or start his own.

"I want to do something exciting while I'm young, take a few risks and pursue my passion," Shester said. "This is my dream."

Shester's parents are behind him all the way. In fact, they even recommended that Blake make the trip. His father also played the banjo in high school but decided to go to medical school and never got a chance to pursue music. Blake was encouraged not to make that same decision. "My parents are the reason I'm doing this," he said. "They believe in me."

Media contact(s)

Amy Agronis, Dateline, (530) 752-1932,