One rarely gets lucky enough to thank the people who have had a profound influence on their musical life. I have been able to do just that recently.
In 1978 I had the unbelievable good fortune of studying guitar with the legendary acoustic guitar player Bill Shute. Bill was a stalwart of the traditional and folk scene of that time. He released two extraordinary albums with singer Lisa Null, “The Feathered Maiden and Other Ballads” and “American Primitive”, both on the newly formed Innisfree Green Linnet Records (soon to be just Green Linnet Records, the label for Celtic music, which was founded by Lisa).
Bill completely changed my view of the guitar. Through his thoughtful and patient guidance I entered the world of open tunings and finger style playing. I haven’t left that world yet. Through a cloud of our cigarette smoke we would set Irish harp tunes and traditional songs for the guitar. It was hard for me at times because all I ever wanted to do was to listen to him play!
I studied with Bill for about 6 months. My lesson time was his last of the day so we usually stayed a bit later and just played guitars. I learned many tunes but more importantly, I learned how to be a guitar player. I had already been playing for 7 or 8 years but I realized very quickly I didn’t have a clue.
We lost touch when I moved to Massachusetts in 1980. We ran into each other in 1982 at a festival but I have not been in contact with him since. Any time I play acoustic guitar in open tunings I think of him.
Flash forward to a few weeks ago. I am the founder of the Upper Valley Music Festival here in the beautiful, verdant Connecticut River Valley of Western Massachusetts. As this year’s preparations got into full swing I began to feel very reflective of the incredible musical life I’ve been able to live. We all must take stock. My thoughts, as they have many times before, drifted to Bill.
I Googled him but most of what I found was about Bill and Lisa and his career back in the 70s. I wondered if he was still of this earth. I found Lisa on Facebook and messaged her. I told her how much Bill had meant to me and explained that those two records she made with him were so important to my development as a player.
She responded right away. Bill was still around and living in Danbury, CT, my old hometown!
So, last Friday I gave him a call and left a message on his voicemail. Later that night he called me back. We had a lovely chat and I was finally able to thank him for all he did for me. His voice is still the same, rich, deep and husky. He speaks in the same measured cadence. He is well. After what, 35 years, I was finally able to thank him. He was a bit embarrassed, I think, by the rush of compliments I gave him.
I feel my personal universe is right again. Jimmy Page once said, “no matter what you do or where you go there’s no denying your roots.” I was finally able to again touch the tree from which my roots have grown.
During my correspondence with Lisa Null I was able to tell her how much her music meant to me as well. After hearing from her I put on my old and much loved LP of “The Feathered Maiden” and was taken again by the beautiful, clear voice that so perfectly accompanied Bill Shute’s brilliant guitar work.
Such singing, so many fond memories! I devoured the album the day I got it from Bill all those many years ago. And although my old LP has the sounds of hamburgers cooking from the endless trips to my turntable it retains its magic. Her settings of the songs, particularly of the Child Ballads are still as vibrant and heartfelt as the first time I heard them. Her voice is singular in its ability to convey the emotion and meaning of a song without the gimmicks and frivolity that so many singers employ as a way of covering their lack of understanding of the song they are singing.
In these ensuing years she has continued to sing. She taught at Georgetown University, founded Green Linnet Records and produced the first broadcasts of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion. I felt an immediate kinship and connection with her although we have never met.
I audaciously asked her if she would want to come and perform at the Upper Valley Music Festival. Our festival is an all volunteer event to raise money to fight cancer. Everyone from the artists to the stage hands graciously volunteer their time so we can donate every penny to the American Cancer Society. Lisa now lives in Washington DC and I figured the trip north for a pro bono event might not work out for her. Well, I was wrong!
So, on July 21, 2012 I will get to hear her amazing voice again! Lisa has agreed to lend her considerable talents to our event. As a cancer survivor herself she feels strongly about what we’re doing and wanted to be a part of it. It will be an honor for me to announce her name to an audience who may not have heard her yet but will never, ever forget her!
The universe has smiled on me so many times in my life and I am truly grateful for the life of music I have had the good fortune of living. I think the universe gave me an extra grin, wink of the eye and a nod when Lisa and Bill Shute first entered my life and now again that they are in it once more. Cheers to them both!
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