Chapel Hill, NC
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I was born in Potsdam, NY. Stringed instruments had me hooked from a very early age. My first memory of anything to do with the guitar was when I saw my brother's cigar-box banjos that they made for their Boy Scout merit badges. I remember being fascinated with the rubber band strings.
Like most of my generation, watching The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show in February of 1964 was a pivotal moment in my life. I was very young, but I had a feeling that what I was watching was not some silly fad. I think it's safe to say I had that one right!
My grandmother bought me my first guitar. One day we went to the circus, and after we came out, I begged her to take me to the local five and dime. I don't remember how I persuaded her to buy it for me, but she did! I was very happy, and on my way.
We moved to Rochester, NY about 1965. I played on a series of toy guitars, and finally learned to tune properly when I was twelve. I remember my father buying me my first electric guitar. It was a "Zenon," and it cost $39.95, including a little amplifier. A little later I bought a Hagstrom for $50, then finally, in December of 1971, my first Gibson --- a 1963 SG Special. It cost $200 at the House of Guitars. I had saved $100. I told Dad that if he gave me another hundred bucks as my combination 18th birthday, Christmas, and high school graduation presents, then I could get it. I did, and I still have it today!.
While in High School in Penfield, NY, I got my first real taste of performing in the high school stage band . I had the good fortune of having a very supportive music teacher named Ned Corman, and having a bona fide genius named Barry Kiener as a bandmate. Barry was an amazing pianist from a very young age. He turned me on to jazz. I can still remember going to see Count Basie and Oscar Peterson with Barry at a great Rochester club called The Top of the Plaza. The first jazz guitarist I heard was Herb Ellis, on the old Oscar Peterson Trio records. Then I heard Charlie Parker, and he remains my favorite jazz musician to this day.
At the same time, another classmate turned me on to recordings by John Hartford, and Mississippi John Hurt. I soon grew to love American folk, blues and traditional country music every bit as much as Jazz. I can still remember learning how to fingerpick my first song --- "My Creole Belle." Around 1971, I heard Leo Kottke, and then, John Fahey. For a period, I was obsessed with Fahey. His music had a profound influence on me, mostly in the way he changed my thinking of technique being far less important than emotion. In addition, Son House was living in Rochester, and I got to spend two unforgettable days in his presence.
Not long after graduating from high school in 1972, I moved back to Potsdam (better known to most in those parts as "the North Country"). In that area of upstate NY, there were four colleges, and lots of young musicians. I had no interest in going to college. I wanted to play guitar. I played in a series of rock, country and pop bands. About 1974 or so, I made the acquaintance of a great guitarist named Paul Meyers. Paul and I started playing in a rock band together, but it didn't take long before we both turned to jazz, playing some duets and as part of a quartet called the Birdlanders. This was a golden time in the North Country with all kinds of musicians, and places to play. Renee Fleming, the current opera diva numero uno, was a student there at the Crane Music School, and performed regularly at Alger's Pub. There were so many kinds of good music, and I tried to take all of it in. I did take a few lessons from Richard Stephan, who instructed guitar at Crane, but most of my learning came from listening to my ever-growing record collection, and from playing with other musicians.
In 1979, I formed the Racquette River Rounders with John Kribs and Michael Hadfield. The Rounders were hard to pigeonhole. We did a little bit of everything --- original songs, blues, old country stuff, new-grassy sounds, swing, celtic. I simply thought of us a new kind of string band - one that took in everything, and didn't worry about labels. We also played as an electric band with Frank Carcaterra and were called the Rolling Clones. We did a fair amount of traveling, made two albums, and made a lot of very dear musical friendships. While on a trip with the Rounders in 1980, I took 2nd place at the National Fingerpicking Championship in Winfield, Kansas.
In 1983, I began playing mandolin with a bluegrass band called Summit. We did some traveling as well, and our banjo player, Chris Leske, took 1st place at the 1984 National Bluegrass Banjo Championship. Craig Vance played guitar and is one of the finest flatpickers I have ever known. Steve Joseph played the bass. It was a great band, but we couldn't catch a break. We did one album, but we simply couldn't find enough work to get by. Around 1985, I bottomed out. I was totally disenchanted by the music business.
In 1986, I took a break. I started my BA in English at Saint Lawrence University. While going there, I recorded an album of traditional Christmas music with a wonderful folksinger and guitarist named Barbara Heller. I also hosted a weekly acoustic music radio show on the local NPR affiliate.
I finished my BA in 1989. In 1990, I moved to Chapel Hill, NC, to pursue an MA at the University of North Carolina. My Master's thesis was an audiodocumentary about the life of Mississippi John Hurt. Among others, I had the pleasure of interviewing Pete Seeger as part of that project. While completing my MA, I went back to teaching guitar to augment the meager TA stipend provided for me by UNC. When I graduated in 1992, I was getting by on my teaching, so I simply continued on.
There is a peculiar arc to my professional life. When I began attempting to make a living as a musician, I found out in short order that performing wouldn't be enough, so I began to teach. After I took my detour through two college degrees, it flip-flopped: I made teaching my primary focus, and performing the secondary one. Teaching guitar became my main income. Not only is it a totally acceptable way to make a living, it also allows me the freedom to perform the kind of music I like, when and where I choose to.
The practical part of me --- the part that needs to pay the bills! --- is the teacher. But the artist in me has made the record album my main artistic outlet. I attempt to make my albums as close as I can to a perfect performance. My goal is to make all of my albums as musical as possible, and as interesting as possible. I have put enormous amount of effort into my four solo albums: "Luzerne," "Old Friends," "Guitarheel," and "Sundays." I am very proud of all three. My plan is to hopefully make at least one new album every year.
For my performing side, I have various projects in several styles, and do solo shows every now and then. My two favorite gigs are playing as sideman to either Tom Paxton or Peter Ostroushko. I don't do performances with these guys very often, but when I do, it's as good as it gets.