Buddy Merriam: Disasters both natural and technological have failed to deter him from his appointed rounds. ‘Everybody in the world doesn’t know who I am, but that’s not really my goal. The goal is to share this music with people.’

Lightning Strikes!
30 years after being cooked by a bolt out of the blue (after meeting Bill Monroe), bluegrass mandolin master Buddy Merriam celebrates an anniversary with his first all-instrumental album and a clear sense of purpose
By David McGee

We’ve all heard about people talking about the moment when lightning struck and cleared a path for them to move on to pursue their dreams with purpose and energy anew. Bluegrass mandolin maestro Buddy Merriam knows about such a moment and what it can do to and for a person. And he’s got the scars to prove it. See, Buddy experienced both a metaphorical and a literal lightning strike—he really was cooked by a bolt out of the blue, and during his recovery gained a new purpose in life. Or rather, a purpose. Which is one reason he’s now, almost 34 years later, talking about his solid new, all-instrumental album, Back Roads Mandolin, the sixth long player of his career (all released on his own Lily Pad Records label) and planning the next step in his musical journey.

It was 1976, a cloudy day in upstate New York. The first Berkshire Mountains Bluegrass Festival was going on, and Buddy, then 24 and haphazardly pursuing a musical career in bluegrass, was in attendance, drawn to the event by the presence of the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe. Born in Connecticut, raised briefly in Massachusetts before the family relocated to Long Island, New York (“I’m really a Long Islander,” he says, noting that he’s never left since his family moved there), Merriam started out playing guitar in his youth, but moved to mandolin fairly quickly because “Everybody in the world plays guitar, so I wanted to find a more obscure instrument and see if I could make a statement on it.” A Grateful Dead fan, he points to a 1972 Jerry Garcia side project, the roots oriented Old & In the Way, as “leading me mainline right into” bluegrass. “I was into Clarence White and Doc Watson a little bit before that; I saw Frank Wakefield and the Good Old Boys with Dave Nelson on guitar; that was one of the first real bluegrass things I saw in person, and that was wild. They were just so powerful and great, and the mandolin really captured my attention. So I went out and got one and started learning.”

Buddy Merriam and Back Roads perform Merriam’s original mandolin tune, ‘Extra Special,’ on Sept. 20, 2008, in Poughkeepsie, NY

From there it was mainline right into the music of the master, Bill Monroe, and when Merriam actually laid eyes on Monroe, on the Berkshires stage, “that just did it for me. It was what I was looking for. He had Kenny Baker, Bob Black on banjo, Ralph Lewis on guitar, a good band. I couldn’t take my eyes off the mandolin or off him, and every bit of drive he put in there—it just blew me away.”

A few hours after Monroe’s performance, Merriam met Monroe face-to-face in the parking lot, and Mr. Bill graciously and generously offered the fledgling picker a few quick tips about playing mandolin. “It was a short and sweet,” Merriam recalls of that first meeting, “and very good advice about getting good tone, making every note count, keep good time. The whole thing couldn’t have lasted more than five minutes, but I walked away on cloud nine.”

Returning to the festival grounds, Merriam took up residence in front of the stage for the evening’s entertainment. Some time later he awoke in a local hospital and learned he had been struck near his head and neck by a bolt of lightning. His heart had stopped a couple of times and he had been revived, he had burns on his body, most seriously around his neck where a chain and peace cross he had been wearing had been melted by the lightning strike.

Oh, and he awoke to find he was deaf, too.

Then came his metaphorical lightning strike. “I was a pretty young guy, and I had no plan for the future,” he says in reflecting on his life’s turning point. “It was almost like from gig to gig, you know, took everything pretty laid back. But laying there in the hospital—I very easily could have died—I thought, Gee, I haven’t really done anything with my life on this planet, and if I had died, no one would have even known that I had lived, really. That was important to me.”

As for the hearing, doctors assured Merriam it would return, but there was nothing to be done but wait for that day. Which did arrive, to an extent, and allow him to start playing again. Even today, his hearing is dicey—“I don’t hear real good, especially if there’s a lot of noise around me, and I watch people’s lips a lot, and kind of what I hear in my head and what comes out is not accurate, sort of”—and he believes the lightning strike must have put a charge into his body that causes equipment to go buggy on him: “I don’t know how electro-magnetic forces work or whatever, but I’ve had a lot of problems with electronic stuff—it just seems to crap out on me a lot more than it does for normal people.”

After returning to the active list, Merriam did have some good things happen to him, though. Foremost among these was the start of a warm friendship with Bill Monroe, with whom he would visit every time Monroe came through for a show. Monroe eventually started sharing his wisdom about mandolin playing, and even gave Merriam a new song, “Frog On a Lily Pad,” to be the first to record.

“That was a really big honor,” Merriam says softly in understatement.

Buddy Merriam and Back Roads, with Ernie Sykes on lead vocal, Jerry Oland on banjo on ‘Another Place, Another Time,’ at the Hudson River Arts Festival

It was 30 years ago this year when Merriam assembled his first incarnation of his band, Back Roads. Through the years he and the group have worked steadily in the northeast corridor, playing clubs and festivals; right now the group appears every first Tuesday of the month at the Checkmate Inn near Stony Brook University, not far from Merriam’s home in Sound Beach, NY. Honoring his anniversary as a band leader, Merriam realized a long-time ambition on Back Roads Mandolin by releasing an all-instrumental album. He’s not a singer anyway—mercifully, he claims—and feels his compositional skills are best suited to instrumentals anyway. Given all that’s happened to him, it’s almost comical when he describes how a trove of songs—meaning lyrics and music—were literally drowned into oblivion and impressed upon him the need to stick with instrumentals.

“I’ve never had much luck with songwriting,” he says. “I’ve tried, and I’ll get a verse or chorus going, but then, I don’t know if I try to force the song through or whatever, it seems like it goes right down the tubes. I had a whole suitcase full of songs and I had a flood in my apartment and it was all lost. I was bummed for awhile, but I don’t think there was a ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’ in there anyway.”

You think that’s unfortunate? Consider the calamity Merriam faced during the recording sessions for Back Roads Mandolin: “The first version of this album was on a hard drive in the studio that crashed and we lost everything. Honestly I had about ten tunes done a full year before we finished this, and the hard drive in the studio crashed, and to make a long story short, I lost everything. And I really felt like it was just happening—everybody was so full of life, everybody was right on the money, now how are we possibly going to re-do this?”

Buddy Merriam and Back Roads: (from left) Jerry Oland, Buddy Merriam, Ernie Sykes, Kathy DeVine. ‘I really think Bill Monroe helped me as much as he did because he knew that at some point he was going to be gone, but he could count on Buddy, in my part of the country, in my region, to keep a traditional sound that’s a lot closer to his conception of the music than what other people are putting out there.’

But re-do it they did, and having to take another run at it turned out to be a blessing in disguise because, according to Merriam, he gave some hard thought to what was on the lost tracks and decided on a completely different approach to the new version. “On the first record I started every tune on the mandolin, took a solo, ended it with the mandolin. As I had time to think about the whole project over that year and we finally went back in, I really wanted to pass it around and have a couple of fiddle tunes, have a guitar tune and a banjo tune, couple of double fiddle things. As a result, I think it makes it a little easier for people to put it on again and again.”

Without hearing the first version there’s no way to compare and contrast it with what we hear now, which is a tight, precise band with great energy and an impeccable sense of the moment, knowing when to lay back and when to charge hard through it all. Stylistically it touches down not only in bluegrass, but also tips its hat to Django Reinhardt’s gypsy jazz in the multi-textured “Gypsy Tears of Joy,” on which Jeff Schmick (playing tenor mandolin) and Mike Sassano (playing mandola and mandocello) join Merriam in forming a mandolin orchestra that plays both wistful, aching blues before breaking into a high-spirited, jazzy romp; dips into two beautiful, stirring waltzes (“Harmony’s Waltz,” for his daughter; and an exquisite, touching evocation in tribute to his mother on “My Dear  Mother’s Waltz,” featuring a gorgeous, Bob Wills-style twin fiddle chorus and a plaintive, laid-back five-string banjo solo as well); gets into a rollicking, joyous polka on “Riverhead Polka,” a tune Merriam wrote in tribute to his fans in Riverhead, L.I. and its Polish Town & Festival; and add an Irish flavor to the mix in “Glenshane Pass,” a fiddle-fired tribute inspired by the band’s tours of the Ould Sod.

Apart from the beautiful lyricism of Merriam’s tunes and the collective Back Roads boundless, buoyant spirit in bringing them to life, one of Back Roads Mandolin’s most endearing qualities is the absence of ego on the band leader’s part. Merriam is an exceptional mandolin player, but on many songs his is the third or even fourth solo, as he gives great leeway throughout to Jerry Oland (five-string banjo), guitarist Bob Harris and fiddler Gary Oleyar to bring their own personalities to bear on the proceedings, with no small assist on bass from Ernie Sykes, whose unflagging thumping brings both punch and ballast to the repertoire. Oleyar is called on to kick off the hard charging tribute to the Monroe style, “Batchin’ It,” before giving way to a dizzying, rolling banjo run by Oland ahead of Merriam stepping in to up the ante with a fleet, impeccably picked solo, which itself steps aside for some hot guitar pickin’ by Bob Harris. Even when Merriam kicks off a tune, he seems quick to cede the spotlight to his bandmates: witness the fireworks of “Putnam Valley Flash” (the title is Oland’s nickname), which begins in a flurry of mandolin before Oland enters with a tasty, lyrical solo and then makes way for Oleyar to stir things up with a frenetic fiddle solo before Merriam returns—it’s impossible to sit still through playing as rich in feeling as this.

Buddy Merriam and Back Roads at the Checkmate Inn, Setauket, NY

Merriam considered cutting the album in Nashville and hiring the A team session pickers, but thought better of it, not so much for budget’s sake but rather for the soul of the music. “These days you can have anybody on your record. You pay them to do the session,” he explains. “Some cats are going to cost more than others. A lot of people who play bluegrass, they’re not doing it full time; they’re working a regular job, and they have some money to dump into their record. They don’t feel it quite so much. So if you want to get Michael Cleveland or Stuart Duncan or almost anybody you want, you get them in and you have that name on your record, and you have some great playing for sure. But as great as that was gonna be, it was gonna be people who really hadn’t played the tunes. So you sit around and play the songs a few times and they play some amazing stuff, but I wanted it to be more about the melody to the tunes. I wanted the tunes to stick with you a little bit, not be so complicated that you couldn’t sort of hum the song. That was one reason to do it my own band. And the other reason is that these guys have played most of these tunes with me and have played them on stage. But also, I didn’t want it to be filled with hot licks—there are some hot licks on there for sure, not necessarily by yours truly, but on the guitar and the fiddle, those guys are crazy. So we had that, and then Jerry Oland, the banjo player, he knows all my tunes, and he plays the melody, he plays the tune just like I like it, and the other guys balance it off with a little more adventuresome playing. I think it works. And Ernie Sykes on the bass really just holds everything down. The one thing you don’t get to hear is what an awesome singer Ernie is; that’ll be the next record.”

Merriam has other goals in mind, too. One is to continue to promote the music that has meant so much to him, not only via his own concerts and recordings, but also on a weekly bluegrass radio show he hosts for WUSB 90.1 FM in Stony Brook (high and low bandwidth streams are available at http://wusb.fm/node/6095). Beyond this, he’s undertaking a massive project to digitally archive and transcribe some 700 of his original compositions for mandolin; in 1991 he published his first mandolin book, Back Roads Mandolin, containing 30 transcriptions, and he’s now updating and correcting that volume, adding tablature to it, and hopes to have it on the market by this summer. This is not simply make-work; it’s driven by a desire to leave something to show for his life’s work.

“I have diabetes and some other ailments that go with my age and how my past lifestyle was, late nights and not eating right, little too many adult beverages, stuff like that. I had no energy and all these symptoms and I was thinking, I’m gonna die! And I started thinking about, again, what I’d done with my life, and what I’ve done is I’ve written mandolin music. I had these cassette tapes scattered all over in boxes, and basically I didn’t want it to get lost. Getting it catalogued and transcribed will be an undertaking for the rest of my life. But like I said, I didn’t really plan it all out this way. Now I’m starting to look maybe towards the last part of my life and I want to tie up all the loose ends. I want this music to live on. It’s an incredible amount of money to get it all transcribed, and I don’t have it. But I’ll peck away at it.”

This is not to be confused with Buddy Merriam inflating his own self-worth. Rather, he senses a greater mission for him as a musician, and it all goes back to that first meeting with Bill Monroe.

“That really focused my life,” he states emphatically. “I really respected him a lot and I felt like if he was going to take the time with me, I had to work as hard as I possibly could to be a success at it. Everybody in the world doesn’t know who I am, but that’s not really my goal. The goal is to share this music with people. That’s why I do my own radio program on WUSB, because there was a chance they weren’t going to continue doing the bluegrass program, and that’s when I stepped in. I just couldn’t see it end. It’s another way to propagate the music I really love that has also given me a fantastic life. You know, you want to see a new generation come into it and see the music live on. I really think that’s why Bill Monroe helped me as much as he did, because I think he knew that at some point he was going to be gone, but he could count on Buddy, in my part of the country, in my region, to keep a traditional sound that’s a lot closer to his conception of the music than what other people are putting out there.”

Back Woods Mandolin and other Buddy Merriam CDs are available for sale at www.buddymerriam.com.

Listen to Buddy Merriam’s Wednesday night ‘Bluegrass Time’ radio show online at http://wusb.fm/node/6095.


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