• Preview
  • News

Stringtown Sessions EP Release this Friday at Crow's Nest

Album art by Rome Ntukogu at Far-i-Rome Creative

As a contributing writer for CincyMusic, I have reviewed albums, profiled bands, and wrote reviews for shows I attended in the Queen City. That is a cool and exciting thing to do as a person who loves local music and also likes to write. I have also been in the shoes of the musician, hoping to read kind words of praise for whatever project gets covered by local writers. I won't worry about any kinds of reviews for the moment as I am pretty biased when I tell you my little trio just made an EP that sounds pretty great. Instead of going into that I'll tell you about the experience of making Stringtown Sessions. Hopefully those kind words will come from other posts.

I fell into songwriting about 9 years ago as a hobby to try out. I was in this weird point in life when changes needed to happen and I didn't know what or when, and it turned out that creativity was going to play a big role. I had been to some open mics in town and eventually found a vibrant scene for original music. I used to pull out a phone in those early days to record songwriters at open mics so I could go home and learn the lyrics. I bought cds of local music and started a library of local bands, and I barely listened to anything else for many months. I used those songs to learn how to play folk and bluegrass music, so everything about my sound will forever have Cincinnati soaked into it. I didn't know at the time that I would begin a music career with songs of my own. I just thought I was learning new songs to enjoy playing and to show my friends. Eventually I met some local songwriters in the folk music community who regularly met to try out songs on each other and gave writer's prompts to start new songs. I was invited to join in, and I love talking about that first meeting because there was never another one like it. Something like 15 people, all local musicians from solo to national touring bands were in the room and I was intimidated as hell. I heard songs played that night that weren't finished, but months later I would hear entire crowds sing back to the artist on stage. The luck I have experienced in finding these people at the time that I did cannot be understated. I don't think I would have put the effort into my first handful of songs if I wasn't so nervous to play something I wrote for these people. I just didn't want anyone besides me to cringe. After a few weeks I was less nervous and more excited to share what I wrote. The first time people in the room smiled and clapped after one of my songs was a high I hadn't felt before.

I dug in and cranked out dozens of songs over the next few years while attending songwriter's groups. Most of the songs from my first two LPs were products of those groups. With a writer's prompt and a deadline, some songs felt like homework and they were turned in just to be on time. They were often boring, but sometimes they hit on something and I liked the song. About a year after I wrote my first song I made an LP of the ones I liked best where each song had someone different playing along with me, selected based on their connection to the song in some way. I intentionally recorded the songs without a metronome and without much rehearsal so the songs would have a loose, natural feel to them. Later, I made an LP of original songs with a band I had been gigging with for 18 months before going into the studio,and I intentionally chose to record everything live to showcase how tightly we had worked out these songs. I invited guests who regularly jammed or sung with the band to sit in and add their tones. I listen to that album now and it brings me back to all the great times I had working with that trio and the immense amount I learned about arranging and performing. In both cases, I had successfully captured a time capsule of who I was, what I was feeling, and who I was around the most for their eras.

Bands and band members shift and change, and now I find myself with a different trio of people. I have learned through experience that the core of a good band is basic compatibility. Musicianship and skill are important, but small organizations work through contribution and cooperation. It's great to find the greatest musicians in town, but it's no fun to be in that band if you all can't stand the ride to the venue together or if you can't hang out at the bar between sets. I work best with people who make me feel comfortable overall, and that has a lot to do with why I have played the past 5 years with Hank Becker. I first saw Hank play guitar at an open mic in 2013, and I was impressed with his songs, his skill, and his presence. Then he picked up his banjo and played Jimi Hendrix songs. Then he put down his banjo and plugged in his Telecaster. Good lord, what a force of nature this guy was. I was just discovering Cincinnati music and I had not written a song yet. When I heard Hank play I went and bought all of the Rubber Knife Gang albums Hank played on and I taught myself as many of his guitar parts as I could pull off. One night when Hank was at the bar during my turn at an open mic, I played one of his songs for him. He was tickled and loved it, but also showed me where I was missing a note or two in the main riff so I'd get it right. There have been many little interactions like that with Hank over the years, where just the right bit of help or encouragement at the right time made the difference in a song lyric chosen, a twist to an arrangement, the next song to play, or a quick edit to an article draft. We don't play together because we are trying to get rich or famous. We just like it, we like the songs we are playing and we like the way we sound together. We have ridden to lots of gigs together and spent more time setting up, tearing down, and resting at the bar than most other bands have been on stage. I can't tell you the number of times I have heard people utter the phrase, "good ol' Hank" when talking about his loyalty, friendship, and reliability. I am looking through my calendar to find exactly where it's going to fall, but somewhere this fall will be our 100th show together.

Another person I met way back in that first songwriting group is Elia Burkhart, a prodigious musician whose first love is the bass, but whose money is often made on a guitar. Or drums, tuba, piano, ukulele, accordion, or a blade of grass, three rocks and knowledge of how to play some obscure Mongolian music genre. When I was looking to put my first band together at 41 years old, I didn't really know what to look for. Elia told me, "If you are not the worst musician in your band then you need a better band," which I took as gospel and it explains how I ended up being the third best guitar player in my own trio. I'm not mad about it. The combinations of instruments we have ended up playing together either for my songs or someone else's is pretty varied. Elia and I have been the rhythm section for our friend Pat Kennedy on numerous occasions, and Hank and I have been Pat's backup singers just as many times on different nights. We have played as a trio and in different pieces together recombined with other musicians and bands in more ways than I could keep track of. When I am playing music with either or both of these guys I feel a sense of friendship and connection, and when the music comes out of the speakers the audience can hear it. Some of the most fun there is to be had is the stuff we talk and laugh about behind the microphones between songs.

So here I am, having just turned 50. I'm going to keep playing music, but over the years there are certain things I just can't do anymore. Like 4 hour shows, or two 3 hour shows on consecutive nights, or 4 fingerstyle songs in a row without my fingers going numb. I've had surgeries on an elbow and in both hands, and regular bouts of tendonitis, arthritis, bursitis, and laryngitis to boot. I'm too old to keep going like I'm going, but any slowing down will only be as much as I have to. Things have been going well lately, and with the trio tight and a little bit of rare extra cash I decided to make one more time capsule. I didn't have the catalog of unrecorded songs I had for my first two projects, and since borrowing from local artists and paying tribute was always kind of my thing we chose a few songs by local artists to add to mine so the Stringtown Sessions could be an EP. It's named after one of my original songs, which happens to be one of my favorites of anything I have written. Stringtown and Oskaloosa are both songs that I wrote after my last trio broke up, and so there are elements to both songs that are the way they are because of Hank and Elia's contribution. I wanted them recorded the way they are played with these people so they would be preserved the way they should be and I couldn't be happier with the outcome. There is one song that was from a writer's prompt called Walt's Waltz, which showcases my love of tricky wordplay and double meanings. It was written for a friend named Walt Sample who was fond of murder ballads, so I told him I would write something he would be proud of. The other two originals, however, are more personal because they were written after I had spent a few years learning the craft of writing songs. Both are stories of love and friendship and fond memories. When I wanted a way to remember how I felt in those moments, I wrote down words while I was feeling the feelings, and when I picked up a guitar I managed to find the right sound to fit. On purpose. I hear those songs and marvel that they came from me, while at the same time realizing that the longer I wait to record them the more I risk not getting them down while the songs, the band, and I are ready. Those two songs are usually played alongside a Harmed Brothers cover called Bottle to Bottle when we play live. The keys and tones and themes seem to work together, so I asked Ray Vietti if we could add it to the list of songs and he was gracious to give us his blessing. All I can say is if my songs blend in with his like we are peers in any way then I will feel all the satisfaction I need as an artist. I also got to pay respects on this project by covering both Will Kimble and Pat Kennedy, two musicians who taught me more about music than everyone I have ever met in my life combined.

What you will hear on Stringtown Sessions is 5 years of work, practice, experience and friendship. I got to capture more than some songs with this EP. I got to capture some of the best sounds I've ever made with a band at its best. I got to showcase friends I have jammed and sung with, like Sleepy Andy Tracy, Joe Macheret, Rob McAllister, and Jamonn Zeiler. I get to record Elia Burkhart on a tuba, which may be mildly traumatizing to anyone who attended a certain folk festival in 2018, but that's a story for another song. When the Dan Van Vechten trio releases Stringtown Sessions out into the world this Friday, we will be in a local corner bar frequented by friends, as its reopening under new ownership and management is also a part of our time capsule. Our shows this summer will be the usual venues and a few new ones, but for the most part life will go on. Hank and I will hit our 100 shows and we'll be content to pause for the celebration and then keep right on going.

Drop by the Crow's Nest Cincinnati to hear us play my songs and songs by our friends. Meet good folks. Get a Stringstown Sessions CD, even if you don't have a CD player anymore. Buy a shirt with my name on it. Experience local music the way we love to play it. We'll have a rowdy good time.