Buddy Merriam - No Turning Back
By Hermon Joyner
During 2010, Buddy Merriam is celebrating 30 years in bluegrass. In a business like music, where bands, players and musical styles come and go, his bluegrass band Buddy Merriam and Back Roads has stuck it out.
Not only that, but instead of coasting, Merriam seems to be hitting the gas pedal. He's writing, performing and recording more than ever, and he has become the go-to guy for bluegrass music in the Northeast. Merriam's story is one of personal drive, Bill Monroe and lightning.
Buddy Merriam began life in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1952. Like most young people in America growing up at that time, Merriam listened to the Beatles. He picked up electric guitar in high school and played in a soul-music band. It wasn't long before one of his bandmates introduced him to Doc Watson and acoustic music. This led to Clarence White and then to the classic 1972 Jerry Garcia and David Grisman recording, Old and In the Way. It was a revelation to Merriam. He said, "That really turned me on. Where did they get these songs from?"
After that, he searched for the original sources for that music and which led him to Bill Monroe and bluegrass music, along with the Stanley Brothers and Flatt & Scruggs. Though he loved all of the music, Merriam had a special bond with Monroe. He said, "I was pretty much a Monroe guy from the beginning, just the mandolin and the power and the drive he put in there. It really connected with me."
It was early on that Merriam happened to catch Frank Wakefield in concert and saw his first F5. "When I saw that F5 mandolin up close, I thought it was just the coolest-looking instrument in the world. I had to get one. I had to learn. That was kind of it for me." Merriam was 20 when he started playing the mandolin.
There weren't any bluegrass mandolin teachers in the Northeast in the early 1970s, so Merriam learned on his own. He said, "I just bought the records — a lot of Bill Monroe records — and I just played through them and put them on again. And then I would go out and see people play. Got a front row seat and took it all in. When you see experienced professional players play, you can really learn a lot. That was how I learned in the beginning."
A few years later, in 1976, two things happened that would change Merriam's life: the first bluegrass festival to be staged in the Northeast and Merriam was there to see it. It was the first Berkshire Mountains Bluegrass Festival in Ancramdale, New York. By this time, he was a confirmed Bill Monroe fan and was on his way to being a bluegrass mandolinist, and it was here that he first saw Monroe perform live.
"When Bill Monroe hit the stage, I just couldn't take my eyes off him. He just drove that band and every little thing he did meant something. I was so blown away from the power behind it. I thought, 'This is what I want to do.'"
Later that day, Merriam ran into Monroe in the parking lot. They shook hands, talked, and Monroe even offered him some advice and encouragement. Monroe looked down at Buddy's mandolin and asked him, "You're going to learn to play that right?" Then he told him to "keep good time; get good tone, and make every note count." It was a dream come true for Merriam and advice that he would take to heart.
That evening, during a set by Jim and Jesse McReynolds, the weather turned dangerous. The storm was so severe that the concert was stopped and everyone told to take cover until it blew over. On the way to his Volkswagen van, Merriam was struck by lightning in his neck and thrown ten feet. His neck was severely burned. His heart stopped and had to be restarted. His ear drums were blown out and he couldn't hear anything. Lucky for Merriam, a nurse and a lifeguard were at the festival, immediately rendering first-aid to him. He said it saved his life.
Merriam spent weeks recovering in the hospital from the burns and the massive hearing loss. "I saw my banjo-playing friend ask the doctor, 'Is he ever going to be able to play again?' And the doctor just looked down at the floor." Watching the doctor and reading his lips, Merriam saw him say, "We really don't know." It was a month and a half before his hearing returned, but he was far from being back to normal.
Just before the accident, Merriam had bought a Red Allen / Frank Wakefield Smithsonian record. After he went back home from the hospital, he tried listening to it, but something was wrong. "The first time I put it on, it almost sounded like Chinese music or something. I remember thinking, 'Man, am I ever going to able to do this?'" It took four months before his hearing was close to normal. Even today, his hearing isn't quite what it was before the lightning. He's thankful for electronic tuners.
But it was when he was laying in the hospital, that Merriam reexamined his life. He said, "If I had died, which could have happened, who would even remember that I was alive or that I walked around on the planet? I hadn't really done anything. It became important to me to do something with my life."
And then he thought back to seeing Bill Monroe on stage playing bluegrass music. Things began to fall into place. "I thought, 'This is what I want to do.' And then laying in the hospital, not knowing if I was going to ever have the chance to do it." It turned out to be just the incentive he needed. If he recovered his hearing, Merriam was going to dedicate his life to bluegrass and the mandolin. And that's exactly what he did.
From that point on, whenever Bill Monroe came through the Northeast, Merriam made it a point to seek him out. Monroe was more than willing to meet with the man who had survived being struck by lightning. Merriam remembers his meetings with Monroe.
"I'd meet with him and eventually we'd start playing and he'd have me play for him. Basically, all I would play was the tunes he played the last time. If I wasn't playing it right, he'd immediately take the mandolin from me and play it and shoot the mandolin back at me. I'd have to spit it back at him and he was very particular. Sometimes it was just a subtle thing, like one little harmony note, but he really wanted it in there. If I didn't get it, boy, I'd take it home and the next time I saw him, I would have it down."
It wasn't long before Merriam started taping his one-on-one sessions with Monroe in order to get the most out of them. "For a guy like me to spend time with someone who's one of the most important musicians to have ever lived, I just thought, man, I'm going to do everything I can to learn as much as I can from it.
"Every time we'd meet, I would tape it on a tape recorder and every night I'd come home and I would just go into my studio and work on it. And for about 15 years, all I wanted was to be the closest to Monroe on the mandolin that's humanly possible." If Merriam wasn't working his day job or playing in a gig, he was practicing the mandolin up to eight hours a day.
Bill Monroe didn't only teach Merriam his well-known tunes, sometimes he'd play unfamiliar ones. Merriam said, "He'd play tunes, and I was somewhat familiar with most of them, but then he'd play one and I'd never heard that one.
"I wondered what record it was on. And it would be something he'd just written, or I'd ask, 'Gee, what's that one called?' and he'd say, 'I ain'ta gotta no title,' or 'I've had that one a long time. That's a real old number.' And he wouldn't even have titles for some of these tunes. So I thought that it was a little bit of a responsibility having these things and if I go out to play them I have to play them right."
Bill Monroe even influenced what Merriam wore on stage. One time Merriam was playing with his band at the Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival in Indiana. They were wearing new blue jeans and denim vests with matching plaid shirts. Backstage, Merriam was talking with Monroe while they waited to go on.
"Bill looks over at me and says, 'When do you work?' And I said, 'Well, Bill, we go on right after these guys.' So he pulls his wrist watch out, he looks at it and goes, 'Well, you still got time to get into your stage clothes.' Well, I felt about this big. On the way home, I said, 'Tuesday, we're meeting up in Brooklyn and we're buying suits.'" For a long time, he and his band all wore matching three-piece suits and ties.
It took a while for Merriam to see what their get-togethers meant to Monroe. "I don't know how many times I'd been on that bus and then one time some people were knocking on the door and [his people] went out there and said, 'Sorry, Bill's with his friends right now. Could you come back later?'
"And I was sitting there and it was just me and him, and I was like, 'Well, they're talking about me!' I just never thought of it that way. That's when I really started hitting it hard. If he would put the time in with me like that, it wouldn't be right if I didn't give it everything I had."
From the very beginning, Merriam has not only been a performer, he's been a songwriter, too. Most have been bluegrass tunes. "I kind of put Bill's style into my own music. And my best tunes pretty much are right out of the hardcore Monroe style." To his best estimate, Merriam figures he has written close to 750 songs.
His latest CD, Back Roads Mandolin, is a testament to a life in bluegrass. It's fine showcase for Merriam's Monroe-flavored mandolin technique and songwriting. He wrote the songs as guitar tunes, fiddle tunes and banjo tunes, and he allowed his band members to shine. In his words, it is a "fair and balanced" recording.
Merriam felt this is more in keeping with Monroe's own approach. Merriam said, "That's what he would do, too. I want to feature each one of the guys anyway, so I thought which would work best for them. I think it makes it a little more interesting than just, 'Okay, here comes the mandolin again.'"
All of the tracks on the instrumental CD are written by Merriam. He said, "I was trying to really make it about the melody of the songs. And that's what I wanted out of the guys who played it. Somebody could have come in and blew hot licks all over the tune — and that could be really fantastic — but it might not have that much to do with the melody and the song.
"That's what we were going for here. I like stuff that hits me right in the chest with a little edge to it." Merriam likes tunes that stay with you and he strives for those "ancient tones" spoken of by Monroe.
Part of Merriam's mandolin sound is linked closely to the mandolins he plays. He happens to play two of today's best mandolins — a Monteleone Grand Artist and a Gilchrist F5. While his first professional mandolin was made by Wayne Henderson, it was the Monteleone that really changed his life when he bought it in 1982.
Merriam had known John Monteleone for several years — since they both live on Long Island — when he placed his order for one of his mandolins. When Merriam went to pick it up, he was a bit dubious. He wasn't crazy about the color. It had more of a brighter reddish-burst finish than the darker sun-burst of an old Gibson, but with the first chord he played on it, he knew it was special.
"The Monteleone is so well balanced and it rings. I now use that one for the jazzier stuff, but it plays bluegrass just fine. It's been such a great mandolin for me."
But the Gilchrist he bought in 2002 is his dream instrument. Not only does it match the Cremona sunbursts of vintage Gibsons, but it sounds like them, too. To Merriam, it is the ultimate bluegrass mandolin, aside from those rare F5s with the Lloyd Loar signatures.
"To me the Gilchrist sounds like an old dry, woody Gibson mandolin. It's got that Gibson tonality." But no matter which one he plays, and sometimes it's a hard choice, he acknowledges with a laugh, Merriam knows that he's "lucky to have two really nice mandolins."
In Merriam's lifetime, he has faced several crossroads and has had to make a decision of what to do with his life. Time and again he has chosen bluegrass music as his calling and his mission. It's the power and vitality of the music that attracted Merriam from the beginning and that hasn't changed at all, no matter what direction bluegrass takes as an art form.
"I don't want to see bluegrass music become a museum piece. It's so alive right now, from progressive to hardcore traditional and everything in between. It's got to grow and it's got to evolve — even Bill Monroe would want that, I'm sure."
The way is clear for Buddy Merriam. He will continue to play the music that has shaped and given meaning to his life. He will be performing and writing bluegrass forever. He pauses and adds, "There's no turning back."