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Delicious Old-Time Stringband Music


Squirrelheads in Gravy

The Squirrelheads play old-time tunes for contradances and square dances of the North Texas Traditional Dance Society and regional dances in Texas and Oklahoma. We've been playing together since December 31, 1991 when we first found each other while jamming at a New Year's Eve party. Stay tuned for news of delicious old-time music at future Texas-region contradances.

Suffering from Squirrelhead-deprivation, waiting for our next gig? Squirrelheads in Gravy appears on two tracks of the ATLAS Resonance double-CD featuring the music of physicists working on the ATLAS experiment at CERN. You can download us in iTunes and help out orphans at the Happy Children's Home in Pokhara, Nepal. Head's up: the names of the tunes on our two tracks are interchanged.

ATLAS Resonance CD cover


Joe Izen got caught up in the old time music scene during the early 80’s after moving to Ithaca, New York. The WVBR Bound for Glory radio show and the Ithaca contradances provided a showcase for local talent such as The Backwoods Band, The Razor Lickers (with Horseflies, before they dropped the county from their name. Particularly influential was the clawhammer banjo playing of Mac Benford. By 1980, Joe had switched from guitar to banjo as his main instrument. In 1982, equipped with a Ph.D. and a Mike Allisoncopy of a Whyte Ladie banjo purchased with graduation present money, Joe headed off for post-doctoral work in Hamburg, Germany. While in Hamburg, Joe worked on techniques such as drop-thumbing, but most if all, he tried to capture the joyful sound of the music from Ithaca dances and jams. In Germany, he mainly played with friends, but made his first public appearance on banjo at the Blockhütte, a country bar in St. Pauli, Hamburg just off the Reeperbahn, about 20 years after the Beatles frequented the place. In 1986, Joe moved to Urbana, Illinois and settled into the old time music and dance scene in the Midwest. Two years later at a Swing into Spring dance weekend in Indiana, Joe plus a bunch Urbana-Champaign dancers took a band workshop together and the Saline Ditch Stringband was born. Within a year, they had a tighter sound, a much better name (“The Cradlerockers” after the tune, “Rock the Cradle Joe” – everyone in the band was a parent except for Joe), and they were playing regularly for the Urbana contra dance. Two midwestern banjo players whose playing influenced Joe were Steve Rosen of the Volo Bogtrotters and Dave Landreth of the Allen Street Stringband. Occasionally, another dancer, Neia Lively would stand in when the regular Cradlerocker guitarist wasn’t available.

IthacaCommonsContra.gifIthaca Commons, 1982

Blockhutte72dpi.jpgBlockhütte, 1984

Banjo_CERN.jpgCERN, 2011


Neia Lively Izen started her journey in old time music when she lived in Charlottesville, Virginia in the early 80’s. There, she jammed with the “Not So Well-fed Stringband” (not to be confused with the more experienced “Well-Fed String Band’) and immersed herself in the old time scene in Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina where she had the chance to spend time with Tommy Jarrell, Mike Seeger, Dwight Diller, and other old-time players. Cathy Fink, of the D.C. area, helped her along with her back-up guitar licks when she was first figuring things out. Neia settled in Urbana, Illinois (meeting Joe at the first contradance he attended upon his arrival from Europe) and continued playing old-time guitar and contradancing both in Urbana-Champaign and Chicago where she enjoyed the musical influence of the Volo Bogtrotters (in particular, Jim Nelson who was their guitarist at the time), the Allen Street Stringband, Lotus Dickey, Brad Leftwich, Dan Gellert, and other old time players who showed up at jams and festivals in the area. Four years later, after co-hosting a weekly radio show and settling how any children they might someday have would be raised, Neia and Joe decided to date. The rest happened rather quickly.

Neia and Joe hooked up with Ray Quigley to form the core of Squirrelheads in Gravy shortly after moving to Texas in 1991. (Originally the Raynormalization Stringband, the band was renamed with help from former Squirrelhead, Gary Washmon, a fiddler in Denton, TX). Joe and Neia tend to prefer a driving southern-style rather than the more melodic New England style. Ray, who cites Bruce Molsky, another southern-style fiddler as his major influence is amenable, but occasionally slips in a jig over Neia’s objections.

In addition to playing backup old time guitar, Neia sometimes sings folksongs and ballads when she has a hankering. She used to appear fairly regularly in coffeehouses and music clubs in her hometown of Buffalo, New York in the late 70’s and early 80’s and also performed at the Prism Coffeehouse in Charlottesville, Virginia and the Red Herring Coffeehouse in Urbana, Illinois. She is particularly partial to British Isles traditional songs with an Appalachian link but also likes to do singer/songwriter pieces that sound more traditional. When things get too serious, she is likely to break into raunchy blues or gross-themed songs. Joe says that he only sings when the band is amplified so loudly that no one on the dance floor can hear him.

When Joe isn’t playing banjo he is a physics professor at UT Dallas doing elementary particle physics with the ATLAS experiment at CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and with the BaBar expirement at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. After twenty years in Texas, Neia has taken an academic job in Virginia. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Special Education at George Mason University. When Neia tells Joe he's special, he doesn't know whether to worry.


Ray Quigley is married to Martha Quigley who calls for dances in Dallas. When Ray isn’t fiddling, juggling, or chasing round the country to hear Bruce – Molsky that is, not the Springsteen guy from New Jersey, Ray can be found in his lab pursuing water transport. We suspect Ray’s working on recipes for kidney pie, but he says it’s all to help very sick kids with kidney problems. Since he’s a pediatric nephrologist at UT Southwestern Medical Center, Ray's bandmates give him the benefit of the doubt.


The founding Squirrelheads were ever on the look-out for another fiddler to provide an Appalachian twin-fiddle sound. The search ended when Greg Breiland, a fiddler from Flower Mound joined the band in 2002. When Greg isn’t playing southern tunes, you might find him playing Norwegian tunes on his hardanger fiddle or breathing circularly while playing digereedoo.

Prior to joining Squirrelheads in Gravy, Greg fiddled in Chicago with the Chicago Spelmanslag and helped found the Great Lakes Scottish Fiddle Club.


Leon Ashley Peek was dragged back into the band to play stand-up bass against his better judgement in 2006. He said that only a crazy person would become a Squirrelhead twice. Since Leon's a forensic psychologist, we regard that as a professional opinion. Leon can also be heard playing for Le Not So Hot Klub de Denton (jazz), Tuberville (Irish). Oui Bis (Old standards, Latin American jazz, Parisian Gypsy Jazz, both Northern and Southern American Old Time, Irish Traditional, and music from written by modern performers).

Our Name, Squirrelheads in Gravy

...is a corruption of the name of a fiddle tune called Squirrelheads and Gravy. It's a tune in the key of G denied by Chris Germain.

Ghosts of Squirrelheads Past, Present and Future

During the late 90’s another Denton fiddler, Gary Washmon was a member of Squirrelheads in Gravy until a medical problem temporarily interfered with his fiddling. Gary tells us he's been cured, but you will have to judge for yourself as he's mostly playing bluegrass music. Jack Izen was a Squirrelhead from 2003-2009.

When the number of fiddles in the Squirrelheads grew, Joe thought the banjo section was getting short shrift, and he made a pitch for another banjo. Joe's bandmates had a different kind of banjo pitch in mind. They told Joe he played so well that there was no need for another banjo. Joe is mollified for the moment.