One of my favorite things about living in the greater Rogue Valley is that I believe we are spoiled when it comes to great musicians. They're everywhere. I've never visited a place with a higher per capita number of upright bass players or guitarists who understand jazz chords. I suspect that we have in our midst an unusually high number of musicians with big-time, big-city credentials who, like folks from a lot of other professions, moved here to escape the rat race.
The real benefit to local music lovers, in my opinion, stems from the fact that this unusual amount of talent is juxtaposed over an unusually laid-back music scene. We have all these fantastic musicians who just amble into the bar or restaurant or winery tasting room and set up a small, stripped down P.A. rig in the corner — all the while exchanging hellos with the familiar faces in the room.
When I interviewed Robbie DaCosta for this column a few months ago, he told me about cutting his teeth in the music business playing multi-week runs at clubs in Reno and Las Vegas. At one club he remembered, the stage had a theater curtain. The bands' contracts stipulated that this curtain would open at a certain time and close at a certain time. Any band that was not playing music within 15 seconds of the curtain opening or who did not continue to play until the curtain closed forfeited their pay for the night.
We don't have anything like that around here. A benefit of this scenario, in my mind, is that the music scene is open to longtime pros and less experienced amateurs alike. I've long been interested in the nature of cultural activities when they are presented as participatory events rather than as spectacle. It first came to my attention through thinking about sports. A hundred years ago, grown men with jobs played organized baseball on the weekends. Today, grown men with jobs watch televised baseball on the weekends.
I think that something similar is true in music. An element of modern life is that we get most of our music from distant professionals via radio, recordings and, occasionally, big-budget stadium concerts. The first year that I was old enough to have both lawn-mowing money and an interest in spending it on concert tickets was 1988. I was a freshman in high school and the first three concerts I went to were giant nostalgia events. I saw Bob Dylan in a 10,000-seat theatre, the Rolling Stones in a football stadium, and Paul McCartney in a basketball arena. I bought T-shirts at all three shows.
I had a great time but, as a 15-year-old, I thought that rock 'n' roll had to be a big show put on by famous people. There were plenty of garage bands at my high school, but we mostly just rehearsed a lot. Performances were typically limited to playing at someone's party or at a battle of the bands event held in the school gym. We didn't expect local, amateur bands to be any good. We didn't think of local bands as the real thing.
I can't help but contrast that with what I see strolling around downtown Ashland during the First Friday Art Walk every month. Musicians and bands of all ages and experience levels are crammed onto makeshift stages all over town. In the space of a city block you can go from the deep knowledge and experience of someone like Bil Leonhart or Ed Dunsavage to a group of high school kids playing their first gig. I think it's fantastic.
I got to thinking about this stuff two weeks ago after bringing my band up to the Green Springs Inn to play at the West Coast Country Music Festival. I'm nowhere near the hardest workin' guitar player in town, but I like to think I play a lot of shows — 30 or so a year for the last dozen years, I estimate. Not a ton, but enough that I feel like I've put in some time and learned a few things.
It was humbling, therefore, to share a stage with the kinds of full-time touring musicians who make up acts like The Caleb Klauder Country Band and the Scott Law Trio. Observing these guys move on and off the stage and getting to watch them perform from 10 feet away was an education. From the condition and organization of their equipment to the seasoned stagecraft of their performances, I got a small taste of the difference between 30 shows a year and 30 shows a month. (OK, 30 shows a month is probably an exaggeration, but you get the picture).
What I love about this line of contemplation is that it has caused me to stop and consider the sheer good fortune that I and other Rogue Valley music lovers share by living in a place where seasoned professionals play alongside a spectrum of fellow musicians that runs from semi-professional to rank amateur — and everyone involved is capable of appreciating what each group has to offer. We are capable of being awed just as much by a child's first piano recital as by the exquisite skill of someone who has dedicated an entire lifetime to mastering an instrument. We're awed for different reasons, but awed just the same.
Jef Fretwell is a musician and freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.