Local Boy: A Chat With Bruce Dalzell

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There is a lot of music that happens during a week in Athens, Ohio. Besides the weekend bar bands, the weekly Irish and Old Time jam sessions and the occasional concert at Ohio University, at least five open stages are hosted by local musicians in the coffee houses and taverns around town. 

Singer, songwriter, producer and engineer Bruce Dalzell hosts the town's longest-running open stage in Baker Center's Front Room coffee house. He is not only a mainstay in the Athens music scene, but also to many, its patriarch.

As a young man in Athens in the 1970s, Bruce learned the art of playing, singing and songwriting at open mic nights. Today, knowing the importance of that experience, he is in the position of encouraging younger talent to hone their craft and become better and sometimes, professional, musicians.

Bruce lives with his wife Gay in Stewart, Ohio, where he runs a piano tuning and moving business.

MH: I was listening to your performance of the song "Local Boys" on a Mountain Stage recording from 2005. A couple of things struck me about that. It sounded like you were having a ball being the hometown boy, having the Mountain Stage Band back you up. Also the song itself, about growing up as a townie in a college town. What can you say about those two experiences?

BD: The Mountain Stage show was a blast. I understand I have you to thank for that. Ron contacted me about them backing me, but I let it go, thinking they had bigger fish to back up. He eventually called asking, so I said OK. Ahmed Solomon is a monster, and I nearly peed myself telling Bob Thompson to take a solo. I walked offstage to Jorma Kaukonen and Leo Kottke standing in the wings applauding. Wow. Jon Loomis co-wrote the song. We wore tractor hats, drove pickup trucks–anything to disguise the fact that we were faculty kids. But oh, we loved college girls.

MH: As a kid in Athens back in the '60s and early '70s, who were your major musical influences?

BD: I found a kindred depressed spirit in James Taylor. Me and my buddies used to drive around singing John Prine songs at the top of our lungs, out the car windows to the college girls. I went off to Boston and found Steve Goodman, Michael Cooney, Jim Hall, Tony Bennett, then came back and found Gay Gehres. She greatly impacted my musical tastes.

MH: You were a member of The Kings of Hollywood, a trio that came out of a collaboration with two other solo singer/songwriter types, Scott Minar and Craig Goodwin, in the 1980s. It must have been a blast, not only singing three-part harmonies on everything from Crosby, Stills and Nash songs to the Hollies, but also being able to do full-blown arrangements of originals and covers. What's the history of that band?

BD: I met Craig at–what else–an open mic at Bojangles and told him to look up Scott. They got on famously. They came to visit me at the old Hobbit House where I was bartending and we found we had a harmonic blend. We worked up five songs, including "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" and played a party on the South Green. The response was so overwhelming, we were unable to stop.

MH: You seem to be sort of a musical jack-of-all-trades in the Athens music scene: Performing solo gigs, singing with your wife Gay, doing the open stage thing, hosting songwriting workshops and last, but not least, moving and tuning pianos?

BD: Athens has a great music scene, but unless you tour constantly, you can't make a living from it. Pianos are my day job. Open Stage is a great job to meet folks and stay sharp…well, as sharp as I get. Accompanying Gay is my life's work. The Songwriter Circle has been as instructive for me as anyone. We all struggle with this form of self-expression.

MH: Your wife is also a mainstay in the Athens music scene and a member of the all-female swing trio, The Local Girls. When, where and how did you guys meet?

BD: I moved back from Boston in '75 and found work playing banjo in the Appalachian Green Parks Project. Gay was a singer and actor with them. I spent a year watching her from the orchestra before she noticed me.

MH: It seems as if you've been hosting the Front Room Open Stage in Ohio University's Baker Center for ages. You must enjoy doing it and also enjoy being kind of a mentor to younger performances who are just starting doing the coffee house singer/songwriter thing for the first time.

BD: I wouldn't call myself a mentor; I don't dispense sagely advice. I do my best to create a safe, supportive performing environment where folks can figure out if they want to pursue this behavior. I do love watching people find and develop a voice.

MH: It must be exciting to see musicians from the Front Room move on to greater heights. I can think of Carrie Elkin and Kim Richey, to name a couple. Who else can you add to that list and who do you think we'll be hearing more from in future?

BD: Those two are the most successful alumni. We had Claudia Emerson, the 2006 pulitzer prize winner in poetry and a great songwriter, and her husband Kent Ippolito, come through. I remember a very young Adam Remnant (of Southeast Engine), denim-jacketed, sporting a harp rack, playing some excellent Dylan. Even then he had something special. Adam Torres used to come play while still in high school. When Laura Nadeau first started coming, she sang pop songs with her roommates, then disappeared for a while, and returned with a suitcase of great tunes and an amazing voice. My favorite right now is named Rachel Figley. She writes cool, jazzy tunes, and is a soulful singer.

MH: How many Athens Singer/Songwriter CDs have you put together and how did that project come about?

BD: Billy Rhinehart and I had been doing our show ("The Billy & Brucie Show") for a while when we tried a Bluebird-type "in the round" songwriter showcase. A similar-formatted recording seemed the next logical step. Only occasionally successful, I made seven of these recordings before it ran out of gas. Seven discs, four songwriters on each: a nice snapshot of local music from '04 to '08.

MH: Tell me something about the project you did a few years ago for Athens Historical Society's "Athens Past In Athens Present."

BD: When Kelee Reisbeck was head of the Historical Society, she found a slide and audio show about Athens County made in 1976 for the Bicentennial. She decided to transfer the whole thing to DVD and asked me to replace the stock music with something more local. The present administration did not care for it and shelved the project. It was wonderfully nostalgic and dated and I loved working on it. I released the music myself; it's some of my favorite work.

MH: You write a lot of originals, but you're not shy about singing covers of songs that you like. What singer/songwriters do you admire and what are your favorite songs in your repertoire written by other folks?

BD:  Songwriters I cover include Dylan, Bruce Cockburn, Richard Thompson, Mike Doughty, Fats Waller, Harlan Dalzell, Jeffrey Foucault, Jim Phillips, Bruce Springsteen, David Wilcox, Jesse Winchester and John Gorka. I like my solo acoustic arrangement of Springsteen's "Rosalita." Ambitious. I do Bob's "Love Minus Zero/No Exit." Good memory exercise. I close every show with "When You Wish Upon a Star." To not sing the songs of others would be like not recognizing the color red; they are a part of who I am.

MH: Of all the songs you have written, which ones are you particularly proud of? It must be exciting to hear other people doing your songs.

BD: I've long felt the highest compliment a songwriter can receive is to have a song covered by a peer. "I Am Alive" has been done by some very nice folks. As far as songs I've written, "Sorrows of Late Day" from Where I Come From is one of my favorites. I just wrote a nice tune called "Song of Flying." "Local Boys" still gets requests, and "The Stuff of Dreams" is very popular with college girls.

MH: What other projects have you done and what are some things would you like accomplish in the future?

BD:I have written music for film and would love to do more of that. I'm planning a CD of local songwriter covers and I hope to work with my son, Harlan, sometime.

For more information about Bruce Dalzell, visit www.brucedalzell.com.