Day 50: Interstate Tour 2018
The Original Dulcimer Players Club was founded in 1963 and its first festival took place in 1973. With a focus on hammered dulcimers, the trapezoidal melodic percussion instrument, the club quickly grew, as did attendance at the festival. Now, the ODPC Funfest is the largest dulcimer festival in the world with thousands of annual attendees and dozens of workshops covering a wide array of instruments and disciplines.
Folks come weeks early, camp out at the Osceola County Fairgrounds and play music all day, visit with friends and count down the time until Funfest, when the fairgrounds explode with kinetic energy. Jams everywhere you look, lots of good food to enjoy, your camper not far away at any time, fabulous concerts and tons of vendors selling everything from instruments to accessories. A number of fellow instructors had been telling me about the Evart, Michigan event for a while, “man, you’ve GOT to go to Evart,” they said. It was the wildest dulcimer festival ever, they said. From all of the glowing reviews, it was starting to sound like a bucket-list thing.
I recall Butch Ross describing how he was teaching workshops with 80 people in them. I thought he was exaggerating. He was not, I discovered, when I finally made it here.
For a few years, I just couldn’t justify driving up to central Michigan just to experience a festival and make the rounds - this region wasn’t within striking distance of my usual routes at that point - so I just continued to hear accounts and see amazing pictures and video. Then, one year, workshop head Sharon Skaryd contacted me about teaching. There was no pay, she said, but the exposure to thousands of festival-goers was what attracted many of the performers who also teach, plus, you could vend your wares. I signed on, and she gave me the contact info for Gail Perna, Stage Show Chair, and Jim Rathbun, Vending Coordinator. With my vending situated and place in the concert assured, I heeded the advice of instructors to “bring everything you have, and then some” and rolled into Evart for the first time in 2013.
I haven’t missed a year since.
When I first arrived, mountain dulcimers had been gaining ground at a festival that plainly stated it was all about the “original” dulcimer and, true, they’ve got an advantage in the legacy department. They’ve been around a lot longer than mountain dulcimers. But, thanks to the efforts of Annette Lindsey, more and more mountain dulcimer workshops were being offered and the instrument was slowly becoming less an instrument of derision (one emcee actually referred to Butch’s mountain dulcimer as “kindling” that first year I was there) and instead turning out to be a highly popular choice. In past years, I’ve taught workshops of over 100 students!
It’s just a gas, man, Evart is just a gas.
Each jam has its own personality, or sponsored by a band and you can find all kinds of music being played at them. But it was pretty evident, early on, that consensus led to people saying The Squirrel’s Nest was where the hottest players were. Similar to Carp Camp at the Walnut Valley Festival, but with its own unique flavor and population, The Squirrel’s Nest is an all-senses, long-running musical fireworks show complete with costumes, special lighting and themes. The players are a tight-knit group of folks of all ages, lots of kids and teens as well as older folks, having a blast, loving the music and playing with dizzying skill.
The first time I experienced this, I stood on the outside and just watched, amazed, thrilled, entertained and pretty darn sure that I’d always be standing just outside the circle, observing but totally not worthy to hop into the middle of all that.
As it would happen, The Squirrels are a quite welcoming group and they enjoy bringing people into their circle and indoctrinating them in the ways of Squirrel-ness, which is to say, have fun, make music, be cool to people and forego sleep in the process. Lots of kids and teens, all very proficient in their instruments, are all through the Nest, jamming alongside the adults and it's a wondrous thing to behold.
So, after my concert on Thursday night, I was formally inducted as a Squirrel, with my own “Thing Bing” t-shirt and the singing of a song called “Bing Futch” sung to the tune of “King Tut.” What a welcome!
Over the years, I’ve spent many an hour in the company of the Squirrels and have thoroughly enjoyed every moment. I always leave Evart feeling inspired, charged-up, refreshed at the same time that I’m spent, dragging and in need of some lie-down time. I finally relaxed after a while and, after a particularly amazing jam one night, invited The Kaiser Family, one of the more prominent Squirrel-affiliated, yet autonomous, groups, and Jason Yannity to join me on stage for a rendition of “Promentory” from “The Last of the Mohicans”, which was expectedly epic. Mother and father Ken and Lynne Ellen hold down rhythm on guitar and acoustic bass while siblings Greg and Kelly bring, respectively, guitar/banjo and fiddle. Jason plays the Bodhran, which was perfect for this tune - and it was such a spectacular mix that I invited them to be the core band at the heart of the now-legendary “Bricks” performance in 2017.
After a day of teaching rock ‘n’ roll dulcimer and Native American flute, I chipped away at some more work and then headed over to The Squirrel’s Nest since I hadn’t sat down and jammed with them yet. Many of us are still bathing in the afterglow of that memorable, magical finale from last year with some 34 people all on stage jamming to Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall Pts 1, 2 and 3” and as I called out and led some fiddle tunes, requests from my oeuvre begin to come in and we ended up playing through “Promentory”, “Big Alligator”, and “Never Too Late”, a song that I contributed to the “After The Fire” CD that was created to benefit one of the Squirrels and her family when their new home burned down.
”Never Too Late” is from “All Songs Lead To The Gift Shop”, which is a strange beast, recorded with the Bear Meadow Concert Grand MIDI dulcimer. Of all the songs on that CD, “Never Too Late” has attracted a loyal group of fans and it’s become one of my most requested tunes. I wrote it because the news cycles were just so depressing and I wanted to write something that held onto hope and kept its head up, all the while bringing an old-time Appalachian high-lonesome vibe to the table. Hearing it, fully orchestrated with real, not digital, instruments, was absolutely incredible. Did I mention that these folks are all fabulous musicians?
I told myself that I’d leave at midnight and get some decent sleep before the next full day of festival, but I hung out till 2:30 am or so, when we all sat around giggling over the “Big Butter Jesus” song, and I knew that it was time to take it home or I’d be losing a little pep in my step.
Time to sleep and dream of some new plans that were made. This sort of conspiratorial stuff always seems to happen in The Squirrel’s Nest.