From Elvis’ employee to Seattle bluegrass quartet in just 70 years

3 Play Ricochet, a Seattle-based quartet that plays bluegrass, blues, jazz, old-time music and more, will perform Saturday night at Traditions Cafe.
3 Play Ricochet, a Seattle-based quartet that plays bluegrass, blues, jazz, old-time music and more, will perform Saturday night at Traditions Cafe. Courtesy photo

Playing in a band is Bonya McGarrity’s fourth or fifth career, one she started at the age of 70. Her first job was as a secretary to Elvis Presley.

McGarrity is one-quarter of Seattle “bluegrass and beyond” outfit 3 Play Ricochet, playing Saturday at Traditions.

“It’s the only band I’ve ever been in,” she said in a recent phone interview. “I’m a real late musician.”

The band is led by Peter Langston, who’s played all over the place with many bands and many musical legends and who runs the Puget Sound Guitar Workshop and the American Banjo Camp, among others.

If Langston is a fixture of Northwest bluegrass, though, McGarrity is a newcomer with a storied past — and Presley is only one short chapter. She’s the daughter of bass player/comedian Gilbert “Speck” Rhodes, a regular on “The Grand Ole Opry.” As she puts it, “Music is in my veins.”

Yet it wasn’t till she was 50 that she began to play bass, learning on her father’s instrument, which he gave her before his death in 2000.

Her inspiration to play music came after she retired from selling real estate and fulfilled a longtime dream of being as a ski instructor. She and her husband, Gene McGarrity, moved to Colorado and became friends with a group of musicians. She took lessons and discovered a new dream.

Five years ago, after the couple moved to Seattle to be close to their first grandchild, Bonya McGarrity met Langston at a party. He invited her to sit in with 3 Play and then asked her to join him, Tina Webster and Ron Haas in the band.

(Asked about the “3” in the name, McGarrity laughs. “We joke about it,” she said. “Four play would not be a good name.”)

She’s having a great time with 3 Play, which performs regularly in Seattle and is known for a wide repertoire of acoustic music, from old-time and ragtime to bluegrass and blues.

McGarrity sings as well as playing bass, and while she has two instruments, she’ll be playing her dad’s at Traditions.

It’s the same bass he played in Porter Wagoner’s band on “The Porter Wagoner Show” and “The Grand Ole Opry.” He’d been a musician all his life, playing in a successful family band with his siblings, some of whose children also grew up performing together.

With that kind of background, why didn’t McGarrity take to music earlier?

“My mom saw my aunt and uncle put these little kids on stage,” she said. “She knew she didn’t want to do that with us. They would miss school.”

McGarrity did take piano lessons for a while, but didn’t keep up playing as an adult. Instead, she looked for practical work, starting as a secretary at Graceland.

From 1961 to 1963, she answered the King’s fan mail — a big job. She didn’t interact much with Presley, who was often away filming movies in California.

One of her most vivid memories is how he kept out of sight at a party held to introduce Priscilla Wagner (later to become Presley) to family, friends and staff.

“He sneaked down the steps and went into the dining room while she was being introduced to everybody,” McGarrity said. “I thought that was pretty sweet. If he had come in the room, everybody would have thrown their attention to him.”

She also recalls Presley inviting staff to attend late-night movies and visit a local amusement park with him.

“He couldn’t go to public movies,” she said, “so he would rent the entire movie theater after it closed and invite all of his friends, and he would always let us come.”

3 Play Ricochet

What: The Seattle-based quartet — playing bluegrass, blues, jazz, old-time music and more — makes its Olympia debut.

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Traditions Café, 300 Fifth Ave. SW, Olympia

Tickets: $15 general admission, $10 for students and those with low incomes

More information: traditionsfairtrade.com, 360-705-2819