Jeff Berkley recalls his first musical instrument. "A white upright piano. My parents got it for me when I was three or four. My father was a minister, and it was handed down from some old church -- all dirty, cracked in a bunch of places, and I think it leaned to the left. I messed around with that until I was old enough to set up boxes to play with wooden spoons, after I decided to become a drummer for a while. It didn't cost me anything. Since it came from a church, it was a gift from God."
Calman Hart recalls his as "a red-and-yellow electric guitar. I can't remember the brand, but it wasn't very expensive. It wouldn't stay in tune, and the action was too high. It wasn't until I got an acoustic guitar that I took it seriously, but I have pictures of me holding it and looking all rock and roll. I was 12. You'd have to ask Santa how much it cost."
Berkley ("I'm one of the rare native San Diegans") and Hart ("I moved here from Utah in the early '80s") joined forces as Berkley Hart in October 1999. Berkley thinks it's their third album, 2004's Twelve, that best captures their rootsy Americana sound. "About a year ago we built a new home studio, so that was our first entirely self-produced effort. I've been producing records for a while but never had my own equipment. Now that I'm engineering, I've been listening to a lot of older records and learning how the great bands got that actual sound you know them for." Twelve received a San Diego Music Award for "Best Americana Album."
In the gap between records, Berkley Hart has played some oddly themed shows. "We do it just to put a different spin on things," says Hart. "For New Year's 2001, we did '2001: A Berkley Hart Odyssey,' which was the film music with a smoke machine. There was the 'Harvest Moon Party' -- all Neil Young songs from that album with a bale of hay and a scarecrow onstage. We once played an entire album by Gregory Page, The Romantic Adventures of Harry, including an outtake that wasn't on the album. Gregory was there and played with us at the end of the night. We even did 'Berkley Hart Bingo,' where we put all our song titles on bingo cards. As we'd play a song, you'd mark it off and jump up and yell if you got bingo."
The duo is known for their recurring show called O Berkley, Where Hart Thou? in which they perform music from the film soundtrack O Brother, Where Art Thou? and similar classic Americana songs. Hart says, "We love that music and, as soon as we thought of the name, we couldn't resist."
O Berkley, Where Hart Thou? was filmed for a DVD and CD (released in 2006), featuring a live concert performance with special guests including the 7th Day Buskers, Eve Selis, Gregory Page, and more. The CD was also nominated for "Best Americana or Country Album" at the 2007 San Diego Music Awards.
The duo's 2006 album is Pocket Change. They play around town, as well as performing a series of area house concerts. In August 2007, they celebrated ten years together with an anniversary concert at Acoustic Music San Diego in Normal Heights.
Their full-length Crow was released in July 2011. “We had originally wanted to call the CD American Crow,” says Berkley. “That's the title of the picture Calman found online that is the cover. There was something perfect about the way the picture fit the music. It was my 13 year-old daughter, Dakota Crow Berkley, who said ‘That picture is awesome, how ‘bout just Crow for the title?’ At that moment, all of the different meanings of the word ‘crow’ started to bubble up in our brains. In some cultures, the crow symbolizes despair and darkness, while in others it’s a harbinger of hope and light. This contrast seemed to fit the yin and yang of the songs on the album, both musically and lyrically.”
“Additionally,” says Hart, “the title has personal meaning for Jeff, because it speaks to the Indian side of his heritage. His Osage family's surname is Crow.”
Both players say the essence of what they do will never change. “What the audiences seem to really love is the two of us playing our guitars and singing our harmonies,” says Hart. “We've happened on a magical combination of voices and songwriting that has worked really well for us. What's new is where we've taken it this time. This record is dark and rich and full of flavor, like a Guinness. Like Jameson Whiskey, it's got a bite to it, as well as a big warm embrace. It's different than anything we've ever done song-wise, and I know folks will fall in love with these new stories as we have.”
In October 2014, the duo teamed up with Eve Selis and her longtime guitarist Marc “Twang” Intravaia as Berkley Hart Selis Twang. “It’s euphoric to sing in a four-part harmony band,” says Berkley. “It’s joyful and feels like you’re gonna lift off the ground. I think the audiences feel that, too. That’s the way they talk when we hang out after shows, anyways.”
Their 20-song album Fleur Des Li was released in April 2015. “The production and arrangements on this album feel very Louisiana Delta to us,” says Hart.
“It’s named after a song on the record,” says Berkley. “It’s an ancient symbol that’s been co-opted over the centuries by everyone from the church to the New Orleans Saints. Of late, it’s become representative of the Delta region of the U.S. This is why we used it. The song is about leaving your hometown. The character in the song is leaving Louisiana and wishing for a little more time there before he’s gone. The record is laced with the instruments of Cajun and zydeco music but is still Berkley Hart at the core. You’ll laugh, you’ll weep.”
At the end of 2016, Berkley reported "Berkley Hart Will do ten shows in San Diego [next year]. We will re-create each of our albums in reverse order [and] will end up early in 2018 with a re-creation of our very first album Wreck 'N' Sow." The final event Wreck 'N' Show was announced for the Poway Center For the Performing Arts, where a new album also debuted, While the Night Is Still Young.
"Calman wrote [the title track] with Eve Selis," says Berkley, "and it’s a great tune. We’re proud of the songs on this record. Co-writes with Dave Howard, Frank Lee Drennen [Dead Rock West], and Eve Selis and Calman and I wrote a few together too."
The While the Night Is Still Young release party doubled as a celebration of 20 years performing together. "There’s been so many magical moments," says Berkley, "like opening for heroes like Dylan, Ramblin Jack, Paul Simon. There’s the big shows of ours that were magical 'cause of big crowds, or were musically rewarding for some reason, or 'cause my daughter sang with me."
"I remember one time opening for David Wilcox at the Belly Up, he had us up during his set to play with him. It was a roller coaster! He had me changing between drum and guitar mid-song, and Calman playing harmonica and singing background on songs he didn’t know. At a certain point, he told his merch person to take his CDs down and put them away. He said if folks want to buy CDs, they should buy Berkley Hart’s CDs."