The Path to “A Very Fine Line”
For three decades, my core occupation has been conveying stories about the environment and other subjects through journalism, books and blogging. But there are some subjects, situations and feelings that just cry out to be sung instead of typed. That fact has led me back to one of my first loves – music. “A Very Fine Line,” a collection of 10 of my songs, was recorded and mixed from February through September, 2013, in the Beacon, New York, studio of Joe Johnson, with contributions from a batch of brilliantly musical friends, including the songwriter Dar Williams, mandolin wizard Mike Marshall and virtuoso fiddler Bruce Molsky. You can learn about all of the contributing musicians below.
My musical journey began with my parents, who both enjoyed singing informally – mainly folk songs and sea songs they learned through their shared love of sailing and my dad’s time in the Merchant Marine. My father’s baritone rendition of the Banana Boat Song – “…come mister tallyman, tally me bananas…” – echoes in my mind as I type this.
Another influence was geography. I grew up in Rhode Island, a bastion of folk music and the blues. While in high school, my brother and I began learning guitar, at first sharing my mother’s nylon-stringed instrument. I instinctively (if unwisely) played the guitar upside down, creating my own chord fingerings by placing whatever fingertips felt best on the locations indicated by the black dots in a chord book.
And of course there was radio. I came of age in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, when you could listen to WPRO and hear, in the span of an hour, everything from Dylan and the Beatles to the Four Seasons and Herb Alpert. This album has traces of all those sounds and styles.
At 17, I bought my first guitar. It was in pieces – an old acoustic that was sitting half mummified in crumbling masking tape in the corner of a music store in Halifax, Nova Scotia. (I was visiting that city as a high school junior traveling with a friend’s family to a youth sailing competition.) The guitar looked like it had been through a bar fight, but I could see it was a Gibson, so I swooped.
At first, the shop owner said it wasn’t for sale. But then, perhaps realizing he had a lot of work ahead of him to restore it, he sold it to me for $35. When I got home, my dad, a practical and thrifty man, didn’t hide his anger. How could I pay $35 for a broken guitar? If I didn’t fix it by summer’s end, he said, he would throw it away.
I buckled down in his wood shop and fixed it, replacing a shredded side with thin mahogany plywood that I steamed into shape. I still have that beaten, bruised, but booming 1949 sunburst Southern Jumbo (yes, and a few others now).
I quickly learned basic mandolin and banjo, as well. I made my first “serious” money as a musician (up to $100 a day!) busking in Newport during the Bicentennial celebrations of 1976 with my friend Mike Bonaiuto, who had an attention-grabbing hammered dulcimer. Then journalism took over for the most part.
In the early 1990’s, going through a rough patch, I began writing and performing songs – about everything from piles of bills to an epic fight with a bigmouth bass, and of course love and loss. But I never got around to recording seriously until now. I was spurred in part by a 2011 stroke – a very lucky stroke in my case – that for about a month deprived me of the use of my right hand (playing left handed, that’s the one that does much of the work).
As the title song of this album goes, “Most of your life you spend walking a very fine line.” I didn’t want to waste any more time.
Life is a Band
I was mainly a solo performer from high school on beyond college, but shifted increasingly to playing with other musicians, particularly after moving from Brooklyn to the Hudson Highlands north of New York City in 1991. It’d be hard to live in this region and not play with others, given that the others include Pete Seeger and the galaxy of talented singers and players for whom he has been a lodestone. You can get a taste of this scene on the first Friday evening of any month on the Beacon waterfront at the Beacon Sloop Club. Pete wrote out the musical notation for “A Very Fine Line” for me after he first heard that tune at the club years ago. Click this link to see his scribbled ideas for some suggested tweaks to “Arlington,” my song about the uncertain future of the national cemetery. From this same musical circle came David Bernz, a longtime Seeger accompanist who recently produced two of the folk singer’s Grammy-winning albums. David offered valuable ideas on several of my tunes. More important, he introduced me to Lisa Mechaley in 1993. We married not long afterward, and this album is dedicated to her.
In the early 2000’s, when I was commuting to The New York Times regularly on the Hudson line, I got to know several musicians frequenting the Garrison train platform. Peter Rundquist, a great guitarist and blues singer, was a jingle composer. Jerry Krenach, who’d drummed with the likes of Lou Reed and Chris Whitley, was a music arranger, producer and supervisor. Art Labriola, a piano virtuoso, was scoring films. We all craved twangy delta blues and country tunes and began regularly jamming and then performing what we ended up calling “simple music for complicated times.” Our band was called Uncle Wade, after the stage name of Wade Ward, a frailing banjo player. (We never played any of his music as a band; we just liked his name.)
The rule of thumb was that we’d each mainly play the instrument we were least good at. For me that was mandolin and screechy fiddle. Soon we were joined by Al Hemberger, a bass player, songwriter and owner of a reknowned Bronxville studio, The Loft. Our favorite gig was playing each June on the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater during the Clearwater Festival. You can see and hear us here and here. Click here for a show we did in the cozy back room of Philipstown.info, a homegrown newspaper. Uncle Wade is no more, but the mixes of “Bills, Bills, Bills” and “Arlington” on the album are built around a couple of Uncle Wade recording sessions. “Black Bird,” my song about a miner’s death, was inspired by the true story of the untimely death of Jerry Krenach’s great grandfather.
Another influence on the texture of this album was the monthly musical gatherings at Guinan’s, a family-run store and vest-pocket pub that graced the Garrison waterfront for many decades but is now a memory. You can learn about Guinan’s in “Little Chapel on the River,” a fine book by my friend Gwendolyn Bounds.
The sessions there ranged from ragged to remarkable, but were always profoundly musical and heartfelt. They were mostly led by Jack McAndrew, an accountant by day but an earnest and passionate lover of Irish tunes on those Thursday evenings. His inconsistent tempos were more than compensated for by his spirit and smile. Like Jim and John Guinan, the father and son who were the cornerstones of the place, Jack has passed on. My song “Between the River and the Rails” is dedicated to these three fine souls.
The Songs and Musicians
A Very Fine Line, a song about life’s close calls, features Joe Johnson, who’s much more than a mix master, on electric guitar (the whimsical slide licks were recorded on George Harrison’s birthday). Joe has a great ear for the right note at the right time, whether tweaking tracks or playing his own guitar lines. Al Hemberger played bass and Eric Starr is on drums. Harmonies are by my friends from Motherlode Trio – Stacy Labriola, Patti Pelican and Terry Textor Platz. I play guitar.
This song and three others derive their energy in large part from the keyboard tracks contributed by Joel Diamond, a composer and longtime session player who was introduced to me by Joe Johnson. There’s a fun short film about him by Anne Trauben.
Arlington, my ballad about the fabled past and uncertain future of the national cemetery, features Dar Williams as guest vocalist, Ben Neill on trumpet and Motherlode Trio on harmonies. Also playing are Art Labriola on piano and organ, Mark Murphy on upright bass, Jerry Krenach on drums and Peter Rundquist on guitar. I play guitar and banjo.
Blame it On Biology became something of a tribute to Herb Alpert after Ben Neill started experimenting with some fun trumpet lines. Also playing: Joel Diamond on keyboards, Joe Johnson guitar, Eric Starr on drums, Mark Murphy on upright bass. Motherlode Trio and Al Hemberger sing harmonies. I play guitar. Ben, best known for his pioneering digital “mutantrumpet” compositions, can play with simple grace, too. Listen closely to Arlington when I sing “bugles blow.” Thanks to Ben, it feels like you’re standing in the misty hills there.
Breakneck Ridge is my ode to the Hudson Highlands, featuring master pipe maker (and player) Seth Gallagher on uilleann pipes, Steve Kent on bansuri flute, Al Hemberger on bass, Joe Johnson on guitar and synthesizer, Eric Starr on drums and Al Hemberger and Motherlode on harmonies. I play guitar, mandolin, banjo and fiddle. There are a couple of magical notes from Seth's pipes in the “breakdown” section that, to me, have all the growl and bend of a great rock guitar riff.
Black Bird, inspired by a true mining tragedy, was initially recorded by Joe Johnson as a solo live performance by me at a Cold Spring songwriters’ circle, with Ken Veltz providing light percussion on cajon. I invited the great fiddler Bruce Molsky and bassist Mark Murphy to enrich this recording in the studio. I hope you don’t mind having a live performance with studio tracks added after the fact. I pledge we’ll do this tune live together soon!
Grandpa’s Cadillac, a celebration of an amazing car, features Joe Johnson on electric guitar, Art Labriola on pedal steel guitar and Joel Diamond on keyboards. Also playing are Al Hemberger on bass, the versatile Eric Starr on drums and yours truly on guitar. In this photo, Eric is working out his part on Breakneck Ridge. You can check out his jazz side here.
Bills Bills Bills features Art Labriola on dobro, with Peter Rundquist on guitar, Mark Murphy on bass and Jerry Krenach on drums. Al Hemberger and Peter Rundquist sing harmonies. I play mandolin and guitar. This was a standard tune from our days in Uncle Wade and was in part recorded in a kitchen session by Joe Johnson several years before this full recording was completed. Every time I hear it, I miss that band.
Liberated Carbon, a three-minute history of humanity’s energy choices, features Joe Johnson on electric guitar and Joel Diamond on keyboards. Also playing are Al Hemberger on bass and Ted Hemberger on drums. Al Hemberger and Motherlode provide harmonies. I play guitar. Terry, Patti and Stacy really brought this song, and five others, to life.
Between the River and the Rails, recalling the splendors of a bygone Irish pub, features Steve Kent on penny whistle, Bruce Molsky on fiddle, Seth Gallagher on uilleann pipes and the climate scientist Raymond Pierrehumbert on accordion. Joe Johnson added guitar and keyboards. Al Hemberger played bass and Eric Starr drums. The grand chorus is Motherlode Trio along with Al Hemberger, Russ Cusick and the singer-songwriter Derek A. Dempsey. I play guitar, mandolin and banjo. That green neon shamrock still glows in a lot of people’s memories.
Song for Lisa features the amazing Mike Marshall on mandolin and Mark Murphy on upright bass, with yours truly on guitar and Eric Starr on drums. I met Mike in 2008, when we both attended a meeting in Woods Hole, Mass., on the role of the Internet in fostering global progress. I brought my guitar of course and he ended up joining me, with hardly a warm-up, on this instrumental. I explored various options for mastering the album, considering engineers from Los Angeles to Nashville, but kept things local in the end after I found Matthew Agoglia, a talented émigré to Beacon from New York City and the major-league outfit Masterdisk.
Gratitude: This album owes much to Joe Johnson, who worked with me from February through September on every sonic detail, and also to each of the musicians above. Many gentle listeners helped me refine these songs and productions, including Pete Seeger, David Bernz, David Bayer, Dean Friedman, Steve Gillette, Cindy Mangsen, Vince Bell, Susan Werner and Leo Sacks – and my patient wife, Lisa Mechaley. Any remaining warts and glitches are my doing. I snapped this picture when Joe and I wrapped the final tweak on the last song. That’s a wrap – for now.
- Andy Revkin, Garrison, New York