Home Arts Until He Doesn’t  . . . Recalling music’s role in a changing Vermont

Until He Doesn’t  . . .
Recalling music’s role in a changing Vermont

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From left, Pine Island String Band musicians David Gusakov, James McGinniss, Tim McKenzie, Dan Mahoney, and Gordon Stone playing up a storm. Courtesy photo.

We got the news on Monday, July 13, as we were driving south on Interstate 95 toward Portland, Maine. Vermont and Maine had reached a compact whereby residents of “safe” counties could visit without quarantining, and my wife, Nancy, and I had jumped at the chance to spend a few days tucked away with “bubble” friends on the secluded Downeast coastline. Now, as we started home again, the scenery got boring when we reached the interstate, so Nancy resorted to her phone for stimulation while I drove. Her first stop was her email file.

“Uh-oh,” she said. “What’s this?”

“What is it?” I asked.

“It’s from Irene. It says, ‘So sad about Gordon Stone.’”

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“Oh no,” I groaned. There are times when you don’t need much information. I thought then, and often think, of that early dawn of September 9, 1996, when our clock-radio awoke us to WDEV’s morning news program, “Once Around the Clock,” and the first sound was Chubby Wise’s achingly sweet fiddle playing the opening strains of “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” I sat up in bed and wept. It could only mean that Bill Monroe had died.

Similarly, I didn’t need to hear what Irene had written. But as Nancy read her message aloud we learned that Gordon had passed away a few days earlier, in Montpelier. Irene Racz, an old friend (and a member of The Bridge’s board), assumed we were at home and already knew. Years — decades — ago, she had been a fan of the central Vermont music scene, and had often gone to hear Pine Island, the Burlington-based bluegrass band through which Gordon, playing banjo, had launched what became one of the most important and admired musical careers in Vermont. She knew I would have known Gordon because I, in those days, played with my brother, Dan Lindner, in the other prominent bluegrass band, Banjo Dan and the Mid-Nite Plowboys.

It was sobering to learn that I had outlived him. Inevitably, I recalled meeting Gordon in the dimly lit dining room of the Deer Run Restaurant in Jeffersonville. It was the early winter of 1972–1973, and we Plowboys had landed our first gig, playing every Wednesday for an all-you-can-eat beef stew-a-thon. Gordon and his housemates in nearby Cambridge sat each week at a table to the right of the cramped stage while we launched our fledgling repertoire and introduced sounds long associated with the Southern Appalachians to the stark, snowy, hard-bitten Lamoille Valley countryside.

From left, Danny Coane, Sam Blagden, Will Lindner and Dan Lindner. Courtesy photo.

It was weeks, if not months, before Gordon, who was friendly and funny but slightly reserved, mentioned that he was a musician. He played the piano and had a fondness for Scott Joplin. Meanwhile, other musicians also were showing up for Beef Stew Night. Billy Patton, who was playing bass for the John Cassel Band, introduced himself to me as a fellow mandolin player, and as such, some 25 years later (in 1998), he inaugurated the acclaimed gypsy-jazz outfit, the Will Patton Ensemble. And a young fiddler and bassist named Gene White happened by. Gene would figure into nearly all the prominent bluegrass, country, and country-influenced bands in the region for decades to come. He and Gordon, who were unacquainted then, probably sat near each other in the Deer Run’s wood-paneled dining room; in later years, they worked together in the Cadillac Cowboys (Gordon on pedal steel) and, for more than a decade, the award-winning bluegrass band Breakaway. In fact, Gene joined the Plowboys for a two-week trip to Russia in 2001, then stayed on with us for a couple years.

For a while, Jeffersonville, the après-ski rooms up at the Smugglers Notch ski area, and the nightclubs lining the mountain road between them constituted home base for groups like ours and, even more, the very danceable John Cassel Band. But, by 1975, the scene began to shift to Burlington, where Yoram Samets refurbished an old armory on Main Street and opened the Yankee Pickin’ Opry. In 1977, Samets and his partner, Warren Hardy, renamed it R.W. Hunt Mill & Mining Company. Between Hunt’s, as it was called, and Nectar’s, three blocks away, there were wonderful music opportunities for listeners and players alike in the Queen City.

Pine Island was certainly a major reason why. By then Gordon had formed the group with guitarist Tim McKenzie, bassist Jim McGinniss, and Dobro player Dan Mahoney — all Burlington natives. David Gusakov was the fiddler, and in time other players were brought in: Jim Ryan on mandolin; Susan Long-aker on vocals and guitar. We Plowboys (Dan, me, guitarist Al Davis, and fiddler Pete Tourin), by contrast, were central Vermonters, living in Duxbury, Marshfield, and Moretown (our bass player, Sam Blagden, lived a bit farther, outside Middlebury), so for us the trek home, well-past midnight in a snowstorm, could be an adventure, especially in those days when auto manufacturers hadn’t figured out that placing the heavy engine above the drive wheels would be helpful — except for Volkswagen, with its so-called Beetles; but they invariably threw a rod at 70,000 miles, and their heaters and defrosters sucked. (I could tell you stories….)

Because we were the two bands most prominently playing bluegrass, albeit with different approaches, there were implicit comparisons and competition between the groups. We wanted no part of it. So, on a memorable night when the Plowboys were playing at Hunt’s and Pine Island was booked at Nectar’s, we hatched a plan: At a specific time, both bands would finish a set, then discreetly pack up and head to the other’s venue for the next set (returning afterward). I remember walking swiftly up the hill with my compadres and waving across the street to the Pine Islanders as they barreled down in the other direction. Everyone — us, the audiences, and the managers at both establishments — loved it. It seemed quintessentially Vermont.

It was not often that either group played in central Vermont, because there was less of a bluegrass following here. No matter; music-lovers were well taken care of, with bands such as the rockin’ Throbulators, including Montpelier native Danny Coane (notably, now, of the Starline Rhythm Boys) copping an Elvis routine, and his wife, Kathi Finney, an excellent bassist; and in the country realm, Dick Sicily & the Country Boys and Coco & the Lonesome Road Band. For the latter, the lineup varied over the years but prominently featured lead singer Coco Kallis, Paul Miller (variously on percussion, bass, and rhythm guitar), Mark Greenberg on lead guitar, Rob Hykys on pedal steel, and Gene White (him again!) on bass and fiddle; other local “names,” including Paul Asbell, Mike Yates, and Bill Kinzie, also participated.

The Lonesome Road Band played, as they sometimes said, “up-home country music” — classics from singers such as Merle Haggard and Patsy Cline, with a shot of early rock and soul thrown in. They won awards from regional and national country music associations for their recordings and compositions, most notably for Coco’s original “New England Song,” which they recorded in Nashville.

But their greatest contribution to their friends and fans in central Vermont were the countless evenings of fun and that precious commodity of fellowship, which they generated at local establishments such as the Little Valley House just south of Montpelier, the Zodiac Lounge in East Barre, the Country Cuzzin’ in Barre City, and Tubbs, out in Plainfield. These were the seminal days of the demographic shift that reimagined Vermont; a culture birthed in a challenging climate, where a family’s livelihood had to be torn forcibly from the soil, was evolving into a generally progressive sanctuary and a refuge from American materialism. Music, though, was a common denominator. Mark Greenberg, holding down his guitar duties for the Lonesome Road Band, watched it unfolding before him at the band’s weekly gig at the Little Valley House.

“We played to a mixture of ‘real’ Vermonters, legislators and state officials when the legislature was in season, hippies, and back-to-the-landers.” 

I know the feeling. I saw it, too. 

And at a bar gig somewhere in Vermont one evening, an elderly man approached me and said that he had played mandolin with a band during the barn-dance days — the late 1930s and into the ’60s, when marvelous players such as Don Fields (fiddle) and Buddy Truax (guitar) held forth in converted barns, in Grange halls, and in pavilions scattered around the countryside, and performed on the airwaves before recorded music replaced live entertainment. I was fascinated. He had lived my life, in an earlier, even harder time.

That man, my forerunner, is surely gone now. And so is Gordon Stone. We take our turns, each of us, and, not intentionally, pass the baton to whomever comes next, who drives the roads, and plays the songs, and returns home in the dead of night to get ready for the next gig. Until he doesn’t. 

Will Lindner, a freelance writer, still performs with his brother, “Banjo Dan,” as the Sky Blue Boys and as members, with Danny Coane and Sam Blagden, of the VT Bluegrass Pioneers. He lives in Barre Town.

About five years before “Willy” and Irene knew each other personally, she hired the Plowboys to play at her wedding, held at the Little Valley House in August of 1978. Once the festivities ended in late afternoon, a good number of guests, some of whom got lost on the way, repaired to the Zodiac Lounge to close out the evening dancing to Coco & The Lonesome Road Band. 

What are your central Vermont music memories? Send them to The Bridge, and we’ll publish excerpts in the next issue.