Some people go through life doing exactly what they enjoy. Others spend their lives wishing they had pursued their dreams. Bob Shelley and Mark Sanchez found a way to do both.
Friends since elementary school, Shelley, 67, and Sanchez, 68, have been playing music in the Santa Ynez Valley for more than 50 years.
“We’re lifetime residents,” Shelley said of their devotion to the Valley. “We grew up here.”
“We were in Cub Scouts together,” Sanchez recalled.
Shelley takes the next line on cue.
“Both our dads were involved in Scout leadership,” he said.
The two started jamming together at Santa Ynez Valley Union High School in the mid-1960s, when Shelley was a freshman and Sanchez was a sophomore. Today, they’re co-leaders of the T-Bone Ramblers, a local favorite since the early ’80s. The rock 'n roll/rhythm and blues band has been through numerous changes since Shelley and Sanchez discovered they liked the same music in high school.
In addition to Sanchez and Shelley, the T-Bone Ramblers lineup includes Chris Jacobsen on drums and Jeff Sgobba on guitar and vocals. Sgobba arrived in the Valley in the early ’80s, when Sanchez formed the T-Bone Ramblers.
In the 1960s, Sanchez, who plays lead guitar, started his first band with a few classmates. Later, he recruited Shelley to play bass.
“He was a good guitar player,” Sanchez said. “But we needed a bass player.”
Sanchez, who started taking guitar lessons when he was 14, explained he was at his music teacher’s studio near Solvang, where he grew up, when Shelley walked in to audition.
Shelley, who also grew up in Solvang, lives in Buellton today. Sanchez resides in Los Olivos.
Long before the wineries started sprouting up, when Solvang’s Danish-theme town and the Old West vibe of Santa Ynez dominated the Valley, Sanchez and Shelley started playing LP records from British bands like The Animals.
“My parents gave me a Sears-Roebuck classical guitar for eighth-grade graduation,” Sanchez said, recalling how grateful he was for the gift. “They knew I liked music and they surprised me with it.”
Although bands like The Rolling Stones were hitting the music scene with songs about not getting any satisfaction, it was The Beatles that turned Sanchez and Shelley on to the idea of forming a rock ’n’ roll band.
“That’s right when the Beatles came out … when I started playing guitar,” said Sanchez, a retired contractor who worked for an engineering and grading firm in the Valley for decades while playing guitar in local bars and clubs at night, and on weekends.
Shelley, an insurance underwriter for Westcap Insurance Services in Solvang, was playing trombone in junior high school when he picked up his first guitar. Today, he is comfortable plucking a bass — either his rare and well-worn Ernie Ball Earthwood acoustic model — or a solid-body Fender electric.
Like most lead “axe” players who stick with their craft, Sanchez collects guitars. He likes his Fender Stratocaster, but he’s also fond of Telecasters, certain Gibson electric models, and a cadre of acoustic guitars, including his mandolin.
Today, Shelley does most of the talking. That seems fine with Sanchez, who listens carefully, interjecting key facts, dates and figures. Occasionally, the two complete each other’s sentences.
“In the ’70s, I met a fellow named Ron Churchman,” Shelley recalled. “He played guitar and sang. We were called Santa Rosa.”
Fast-forward to the mid-1980s, when Shelley reunited with Sanchez and joined the band that would become the T-Bone Ramblers, with Sgobba singing lead vocals and playing rhythm guitar. Jacobsen, who later joined the band on drums, has now been with the group for 10 years.
The name, T-Bone Ramblers, reflects the group’s affinity for all kinds of music.
“We were playing at Zaca Creek in the late ’80s when we came up with T-Bone Ramblers,” Sanchez said, explaining T-Bone reflects their passion for blues and funk, while Ramblers reminded them of country music, which they also enjoy playing.
The name change, and their gig at Zaca Creek Ranch, coincided with a paradigm shift occurring throughout Santa Barbara County during the 1980s — the emergence of vineyards, wineries and tasting rooms.
Days of wine and T-Bone
The wine industry has been good to the T-Bone Ramblers. Since their appearance at Zaca Creek in the late ’80s, the band has shifted from playing primarily at bars and clubs to appearing at wineries and major events throughout the Valley, from Fourth of July celebrations to old town festivities.
“The cool thing is the wineries have opened up and given us more opportunities to play,” Shelley said. “They’re really fun, and part of that dynamic is they have some really nice venues.”
Although they expressed fond memories of playing late nights at clubs in Santa Ynez, Shelley and Sanchez said they’re happy to perform on weekends in local parks, or at the many wineries throughout the Valley.
“The events usually start in the afternoon or early evening, so we don’t have to stay up late like we did at the bars,” said Sanchez. “Wineries are really nice settings — and people bring their kids, so it’s generational.”
“The little ones will always be the first ones dancing,” Shelley said of the crowds at local wineries.
What do the kids dance to?
Rock ’n’ roll and rockabilly, country, rhythm and blues — you name it.
“Every time we go somewhere we have to kind of cater our music to the people we’re playing for,” Shelley said, noting older crowds tend to like country western music.
Sanchez and Shelley named “Hold On” by Sam & Dave and “Dixie Chicken” by Little Feat as personal favorites.
“Our harmonies blend really well, so we focus a lot of our stuff around three-part harmonies,” Shelley said. “Back in the day, we did a lot of Beatles songs. We used to do a lot of [the] Byrds when we were in high school. Early on, the Animals were probably 50 percent of our repertoire … I really love Eric Burdon.”
“We’re basically fans, like anyone else,” said Sanchez. “I started playing Eric Clapton and John Mayall and took it from there … B.B. King. I just like the whole blues genre.
“I think it’s like being a pro ballplayer,” he continued. “I kind of gave up on the idea of being a rock star pretty early on. Now, I just enjoy playing.”
And play they do — especially in the Valley, where the T-Bone Ramblers regularly entertain the Elks and Rotary clubs, tourists and locals of Solvang and Santa Ynez, as well as patrons at wineries, from Los Olivos to Lompoc.
The band has been featured at Solvang’s 3rd Wednesday concerts as well as the city’s summer concert series at the gazebo in the park.
“We’re playing for Danish Days this next year,” Sanchez said with pride. “The last time we played Danish Days was 1967 … I was 18 and Bob was 17.”
The T-Bone Ramblers recently played at The Warehouse in Santa Ynez; but it’s the local wineries that can’t seem to get enough of them. They’ve played gigs at Firestone Vineyard’s summer concert series in Los Olivos; Presqu’ile Winery in Santa Maria; Rideau Vineyard in Solvang; Foley Estates Vineyard and Winery in Lompoc; and Carr Winery in Santa Ynez.
“The wineries are good for the T-Bones,” Shelley said. “When you get good gigs … that makes you keep playing.”
“It also makes you a better player,” said Sanchez. “It makes you more cohesive as a band.”
Returning to their alma mater, the band mates said one of their favorite gigs was a fundraiser for SYVU High School’s music program. They raised $10,000 for the school’s musicians at “Valley Stock,” a music festival organized by their friend Rick Lee.
“The music program at the high school is often an afterthought, and we helped them out,” Sanchez said.
Asked if he has any advice for aspiring musicians at the high school, Sanchez replied, “Keep at it. It’s something you can do your whole life.”
“Mark and I have played together for 53 years,” Shelley added. “I just hope we have many more years ahead of us … it’s my favorite thing to do.”
Taking a cue from his bass player, Sanchez said, “It has to be a lot of fun because you don’t make that much money, and there’s a lot of work involved ... but it is fun.”