Home News and Features Mark LeGrand’s Journey of a Thousand Notes, With Pitfalls Along the Way

Mark LeGrand’s Journey of a Thousand Notes, With Pitfalls Along the Way

0
Sarah Munro, left, and Mark LeGrand perform in October, 2023 at Bent Nails Bistro Music Festival Fundraiser in downtown Montpelier to help raise funds for the bistro’s flood recovery. Photo by Jeb Wallace-Brodeur/Times Argus.
Sweet forgiveness brings redemption

Heals the things we dare not mention

Separates us from our tension

Like water from a cloud

When Mark LeGrand conceived those lyrics he’d been playing music for 15 years; he’d worked in bands in southwestern Vermont where he grew up, and in central Vermont and Burlington after migrating northward. He had pondered everything Greg Brown, Rodney Crowell, Willie Nelson, and others had to say in their lyrics, and how they said it. But he’d never written songs himself.

And then his life changed. He had been playing in a trio called Nightingale with his first wife, making ends meet because, as a couple, they could claim two-thirds of every paycheck.

“But that era came to an end, pretty much,” Mark recalled recently, propped up on pillows in his bed as he recovers from major cancer surgery. It gives him plenty of time to think.

“Gail and I had divorced, a lot due to my alcoholism. I was playing in bands all the way up to when I got sober, which was 37 years ago, in 1987. Sarah [Munro, his partner for 36 years and wife for 26] and I had gotten together and had a child, and when that child was nine months old was when I got sober. I was still playing in bars, but I’m praying to God … I got one foot in recovery and one foot in the bar scene where people are drinking like crazy.

“And that’s when I started writing songs. And I start to process my life through my music, the way I’d heard these other people do it, like Greg Brown, where it’s just getting into the real person, yet universal stuff. And get a little humor in it, maybe twist it a bit. I knew what the kind of art I wanted to create was, and I just went to work on it for 30 years.”

The passage, above, that offers the concept of “forgiveness” bringing “redemption” was the first verse of “I Know What Makes the Rain,” the first song he ever recorded. A hundred or more were to follow, but none has eclipsed that first one in terms of its meaning to him.

“That’s like everything I ever try to write. It’s, like, try to put a spiritual white light around something.”

The “something,” he knows more than ever now, is life; it’s community; it’s family.

It’s music.

* * *

Which isn’t to say that all his songs gleam with moral clarity and insight. There are plenty of cheatin’, lyin’, drinkin’, kickass, lovesick songs as well. Because music is about life, and life is about trouble. (In fact, one of his songs is titled “Don’t Trouble Trouble.”)

He got started in music while still in high school, down in Bennington County. He taught himself the electric bass and played pop music with a band called The Herd. They were pretty busy, and one particular memory sticks with him for its sense of validation.

“I’d made 10 bucks playing at a high school dance and left it on the kitchen table. And my dad said, ‘Did you make that playing music?’ My dad was an old World War II disabled veteran and he didn’t express a lot. But I saw something when he realized I had made that money through art. As opposed to labor. It was a great moment.”

He moved north in 1975 to attend Lyndon State College, although he only lasted one semester; then he caught on as a sales rep at Silo Music, a distribution company in Waterbury that specialized in folk and acoustic music. The music scene here was different from anything he had experienced before.

“There was Rachel Bissex, the Whitehearts [a vivacious commune-slash-string band from Marshfield], and you guys [this writer played with Banjo Dan and the Mid-Nite Plowboys]. I was really attracted to roots music. So I sort of left Led Zeppelin and The Who and all this stuff from high school, and embraced that.”

Basically, he went country, in a New Age sort of way: think “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down” (Kristofferson) and ”You Were Always On My Mind” (Willie Nelson). “It sounds old and new at the same time, and tells a great story. And the lyrics are killer.” 

It was an intense time for music in central Vermont. There was the Country Cuzzin in Barre, the Rustic Lounge in Northfield, and a handful of bars in Hardwick with live music.

“Here I was, this semi-educated kid from Arlington, and all of a sudden I’m playing in bands, and most of the people are better than I am. Which is perfect.”

Until it wasn’t. 

* * *

Creativity didn’t arrive gift-wrapped and beribboned when he got sober. His self-esteem was virtually nonexistent, and to tap into one’s vision of the world and of existence and then express that vision with a sense that it’s valid and valuable, one needs a measure of confidence. A resource LeGrand found for getting to that place was Julia Cameron’s book, “The Artist’s Way: A Course in Discovering and Recovering Your Creative Self.” 

He also made the decision — not an easy one for a musician accustomed to leaving the limelight to others — that he would perform under his own name, whether playing solo, in a duet, or fronting a band. He thinks of it as “building equity.”

And it has worked. He has created — again, his term — a “brand.”

Colin McCaffrey, who has helped bring Mark’s songs to life at his recording studio — The Greenroom — in East Montpelier, identifies signature elements of that LeGrand brand.

For one, there’s his sparseness. He pares his lyrics down to the essentials, which makes his songs relatable and also provides space for accompanists to decorate with their instruments and vocals. (McCaffrey credits LeGrand for inspiring “creative democracy” in the studio to allow this to happen; LeGrand, in turn, considers McCaffrey “a genius.”)

Then there’s the content of LeGrand’s songs. There are some joyful tunes (admittedly, the minority), and songs that explore spirituality, the earth moon and stars, and — mostly — human emotion.

But there are also the traps we’re born or fall into and struggle to escape.

“Mark is not afraid to stare into the deep, ugly side of addiction and the tough parts of human existence,” says McCaffrey. “Many of the characters in his songs convey that on a visceral level. And there’s a level of beauty because of that willingness to look right at it, to lay it out.”

Their most recent collaboration, a six-song CD released last summer, titled “Angel With a Broken Wing,” is particularly important to LeGrand, for it shines the spotlight on Sarah’s vocals. While she’s been a partner on many of his recordings — and, as a gifted visual artist, has adorned many of his album covers — this one, he says, is about her. Ironically, it’s now Sarah who is tending to the one with a broken wing.

But of course, this isn’t all about the music — by a long shot. It’s about Mark and Sarah as people and neighbors, and very much about community. In Montpelier right now there’s a heightened appreciation of community in all its manifestations.

Cindra Conison owns The Quirky Pet on State Street. Before his illness she frequently encountered Mark LeGrand on her morning walk to the store in the company of her shaggy dogs. “He is,” she says, “my definition of a really nice person. We would ‘chit-chat’ in such a positive and refreshing way, absolutely no snark, no cynicism.” It would set her up for a day of kind interactions with her customers. 

After her store was virtually destroyed by floodwaters last July, she commenced digging out. “But that never would have been possible without the incredible generosity of scores of people stepping forward to literally stand beside me. Many had never even been in my shop, but Montpelier was there with me when I needed them the most.”

She sees a similarity now. 

“Mark’s present moment of need dwarfs mine,” says Conison, who is pondering ways The Quirky Pet can participate in fundraising for one whom she cherishes. “I’m really hoping our community collectively demonstrates the same generosity of spirit they showed me and others with shops downtown. I’m honored to be standing alongside one of my most valued ‘casual’ friends, and I hope that all who read this do the same.” 

Over on Langdon Street, across from Bent Nails Bistro, Juliana Jennings, who owns J. Langdon Antiques and Art, similarly connects community spirit and human compassion. On the weekend of the benefit concert she has decided to contribute 20% of all her sales to the cause. She’ll be open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day (Friday, Jan. 26 through Sunday, Jan. 28).

“I don’t know Mark personally,” she says. “I’ve heard him sing many times, and after the way the community reached out to everyone who was affected by the flood, I want to be proactive in giving back. And clearly, he’s kind of beloved around here.”

LeGrand has a holistic view of the event being organized for him. He thinks it speaks of something larger than himself.

“It’s amazing. And I’d be lying if I said ‘Oh, I’m too humble for that.’ No, I like the attention, I love the support.

“But that’s the part about me. What I like even more is it could be any of us. We were never meant to be on our own. It’s tribal, and the music brings it into this tribal place. That’s how humans are supposed to be — interdependent on each other. 

“That’s what I think the real story is.”

He leans his head back on the pillows. His hair is whiter than it used to be, and longer. He’s lost weight, and his face, neck, and shoulders are leaner.

But guess what? He looks pretty good! He sounds good, too. His eyes are bright and he speaks with quiet, confident energy.

“We’re all characters in this story,” he says. “I happen to be the character in the bed. Would I prefer not to be?

“YEAH!”

And he laughs and laughs.

UNDERWRITING SUPPORT PROVIDED BY