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"Simple Music" Thrives At Old Town

"Simple Music" Thrives At Old Town image
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One of Ann Arbor's original "townie" bars, the Old Town opened in 1867. During the week its high tiled ceilings, wooden booths and tables, and long bar make it a prime gathering place for working people who stop for a cup of coffee or a beer after a hard day's work. But on Sunday evenings the Old Town becomes host to one of Ann Arbor's longest-lived musical traditions.

I walked in early on a Sunday evening last month and found a handful of patrons at the bar and a few tables of people having dinner. Most of them were waiting for the music to begin. Soon, two musicians made their way over to the big round table in the corner marked "reserved" and began to play quiet tunes.

As the evening progressed, the number of musicians grew to eleven. They each came in with a guitar, banjo, violin, harmonica, mandolin, bass, or something more exotic. The number of patrons grew, too. The lights dimmed. There was a hum of people talking and sometimes the background noise level even exceeded that of the music. But any doubt that people were listening was dispelled by the applause at the end of each song.

Much of the music played is obscure, traditional, or written by local songwriters (including the musicians present). One may also recognize tunes by Torn Paxton, k.d. lang, Dougie MacClean, Archie Fisher, Gram Parsons, Hank Williams, Jimmy Rodgers, or a whole host of others. The types of music played include country, bluegrass, Cajun, swing, Irish fiddle, Scottish fiddle, classic rock 'n roll, or, as musician Gary Reynolds puts it, "folk music in the widest sense."

"When I lived in Kentucky I saw a lot of this in the hill bars," commented bartender Jeff Sisson. "A lot of old guys were doing folky bluegrass music in the mountains. Up here it's a dying breed of music. It's folky, but it's a northern genre of folk. It's fantastic - it's very original. It's country with a story to it. It's music about simple living, simple life and the stories that can be told about everyday experience. This reminds me of folklore."

Numerous musicians have participated in these informal jam sessions over the years. There is a core group, however, that has been coming down for years. They come from all walks of life and find a common thread in their love for the music. One music night stalwart is singer songwriter Jay Stielstra. Stielstra has written five musical plays since 1981 (including the highly acclaimed "North Country Opera") and over 150 songs he characterizes as "country." Stielstra, who taught American history and geography in the Ann Arbor public high schools for 31 years, now works as a carpenter and occasionally performs his songs at festivals and benefits.

Guitarist/fiddler/vocalist David Menefee, who was born and raised in Ann Arbor, is a stonemason. Guitarist John Green, who has been playing at the Old Town for at least nine years, is a procedures analyst at Mathematical Reviews (the journal of the American Mathematical Society). Fiddler Sally Horvath, who used to work with Michael Moore at the "Michigan Voice," is now an editor for "Archeology Works" at the UM Museum of Anthropology. Banjo and guitar player Gary Reynolds, formerly a music instructor at lnterlochen School, is now an instructor at Herb David Guitar Studio.

Some of the regulars are members of well-known local bands. For instance, David Mosher, who plays fiddle, mandolin, dulcimer and guitar, is a member of the RFD Boys (one of the midwest's most famous bluegrass bands), the Mike Berst Ensemble, and Barnstorm (a country rock band). And Myron Grant - on guitar, harmonica, mandolin and bones (a hand-held percussion instrument) - plays with the bluegrass band, Footloose.

There is also a younger generation of musicians carrying on the folk tradition at the Old Town. They are typified by bassist Roy Eider, who began participating last September. He and fellow Sunday night musician, mandolin and fiddle player Colby Maddox, play in The Deadbeat Society, a bluegrass quartet (see them at The Ark May 1). Eider, who is working on his teaching certificate at Eastern Michigan University, is known to have hiked to the Old Town on many a snowy night, carrying his bass. For Eider, as for the others, Sunday nights are an opportunity to participate in a relaxed jam and to play music he can find nowhere else.

Many of the Sunday night players are cast members in Stielstra's "North Country Opera." This musical is a love story that takes place in a bar in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Written in 1980-81, it was first produced in 1982 and was performed each year through 1986. After a six year hiatus, the cast regrouped this past February for its 10 year reunion performance at Lydia Mendelssohn Theater. They will perform the play again May 3 at the Aura Inn in Pleasant Lake.

No one is quite sure exactly how or when the music sessions began on Sunday nights at the Old Town. When I raised this question there last month, I heard as many answers as there were musicians to tell them.

David Menefee traces the beginnings back to 1978. He recalls one Sunday night when he was sitting at the bar with his buddy Charlie Weaver. They were passing Menefee' s guitar back and forth, debating how to play a song called "Tarnished Love," written for them by their friend Drew Sparks. Playing in the bar on Sunday nights then became a somewhat regular event for them. Friends such as Stielstra, Green, and Connie Huber (of the Chenille Sisters) began dropping in to join them and the music nights were born. Weaver, who has since moved to Grayling to be a river guide, still drops in for an occasional Sunday night.

Sally Horvath recalls the music tradition beginning at Mr. Flood's Party (a defunct bar on Liberty St.), where her friend Michael Smith played on Sunday afternoons. Horvath, her husband Stielstra, Weaver, Menefee and others would join in. In 1979 or '80, when Smith's gig ended, the group moved their music over to the Old Town.

Over the years the Sunday night group has seen many musicians come and go. They have even been joined by such notables as Connie Huber, Grace Moran and Cheryl Dawdy (the Chenille Sisters), Stan Rogers, Jim Post, Marty Somberg, Dick Siegel, and Tracy Komarmy.

Now, more than a decade since the Sunday night tradition began, it carries on as strong as ever. The first time I wandered into the Old Town on a Sunday night, I was immediately hooked. The music is the kind that magically carries one off to another place and another time. So come down, explore this pocket of an all-but-forgotten (at least in Arm Arbor) piece of American culture, and see if it's for you. And please keep in mind that the music is best heard in quiet surroundings.