Bruce Dalzell: Setting The Stage For Aspiring Talent

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Bruce Dalzell at The Front Room (photo: Grant Burkhardt)

No one is quite sure how long Bruce Dalzell has been managing Open Stage at Ohio University, including him.

"I’ve been doing it for about 25 years," he said. "But no one really knows."

But it’s likely that no one has done more to encourage and nurture young musicians in Athens than Dalzell. His website states he is the "patriarch of the Athens music scene," and this could not be more true.

Once a week, he leads a songwriting circle where students and local musicians gather to play original songs and give each other feedback. Dalzell also hosts "Brucie’s Athens Singer/Songwriter Series" at Donkey Coffee, where he and two other songwriters perform.

His commitment to assisting aspiring students dates back before the construction of the new Baker Center, where Open Stage is currently hosted. In the 1980s, open mic performances were held at the old Baker Center's Front Room and Bunch of Grapes Room, previously located at West Union and South College Streets, where the Schoonover Center now stands.

Bruce Dalzell performing in the Bunch of Grapes Room, located in old Baker Center (brucedalzell.com)

Back then it wasn’t held in a coffee shop. Instead of the $5 mocha lattes served at the current location, beer was the drink of choice. In 1989 the Front Room switched to caffeinated beverages when the legal drinking age changed to 21.

"It was a different time," Dalzell fondly remembered. "But it’s funny, they started making more money when they began serving coffee."

Dalzell is twice the age of the average Open Stage performer, which probably is for the best, since someone with experience needs to be in charge. With his thick gray beard and usual uniform of t-shirt/jeans, he vaguely resembles an hip, aging sailor.

The Athens native hasn’t always managed open mic nights. A folk singer-songwriter his whole life, Dalzell mastered his craft while traveling around the country. He and his wife, Gay, who is also an accomplished singer with The Local Girls, have lived in Boston, San Diego, San Francisco and many other places along the way.

Gay and Bruce Dalzell, (photo courtesy of Bruce Dalzell)

Dalzell has interesting memories of his days living on the West Coast.

"In 1982, folk music wasn’t very big in San Diego. It was mostly rock bands blasted out on cocaine," he recounted. "San Francisco was more laid-back and welcoming to folk music."

The Dalzells lived in the Bay Area toward the end of the psychedelic counterculture era. As a typical starving artist, Bruce couldn’t afford to attend concerts, but that gave him more time to write songs and perform.

"We were always too poor to go to concerts," he said. "Sometimes we’d say, 'Tonight’s a sweet potato dinner.'"

After Dalzell returned to Athens County, he formed the band Kings of Hollywood with fellow local musicians Scott Minar and Craig Goodwin. Their music had a harder-edge sound than most traditional folk music.

The Kings of Hollywood (photo courtesy of Bruce Dalzell)

The band, which released one album (Unfinished Sympathies, 1986), played 1970s-style rock along the lines of Crosby, Stills and Nash, with plenty of three-part harmonies.

After several years of playing with the group, Dalzell decided to return to his folk roots, performing solo and with Gay.

These days, when Dalzell isn’t performing or managing open mic nights, he works as the only piano tuner and repairman in Athens.

After graduating from high school, he knew he didn’t want to attend college, so he entered a technical school to learn the trade of piano maintenance. Business is brisk these days and he’s proud of his longevity in the field, outlasting all the competition in the area.

Dalzell dabbled with piano as a child, but guitar was his primary instrument. James Taylor’s sentimental lyrics and finger-picking technique had a strong impact on Bruce as a teenager, and continue to influence his songwriting to this day.

But unlike James Taylor, Dalzell has a gritty baritone voice, along the lines of Canadian-born singer Bruce Cockburn and British guitarist-songwriter Richard Thompson.

And like those well-known seasoned veterans, Dalzell is very comfortable being on stage. He has a number of jokes readily available in his onstage arsenal that he delivers with ease, guaranteeing a chuckle from the audience.

Bruce arrives at the Front Room Coffeehouse an hour before each open mic performance to set up the stage and equipment. Most performers sing solo with an acoustic guitar, but despite the perceived simplicity of the coordination, Dalzell works with surprising vigor to prepare for the evening.

He wraps up by testing the microphones while standing behind the mixing board. Hearing his voice rumble "check, check" throughout the rooom bears a similarity to the Wizard of Oz belting out his intimidating salutations from behind a curtain.

photo: Hayley Smith

Open Stage nights are more about the thrill of a live show, rather than the actual talent of the person at the mic. Still, performers often sing what’s popular, which can cause some repetition, according to Dalzell.

"There was a time when, every week, at least one person would sing (1995 Oasis hit) 'Wonderwall,'" he said. "I could probably go the rest of my life without hearing that song again."

Despite Bruce's avuncular presence at Front Room shows, he doesn't view himself as a mentor.

"I don't dispense sagely advice," he told WOUB's Mark Hellenberg in 2012. "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."

Dalzell labors over his own songwriting process as passionately as he serves the Athens music scene, spending months obsessing over the right lyrics or guitar parts for songs. Over the course of his songwriting career he has developed a process, but he admits it’s an imperfect science.

"I usually start with the lyrics, sometimes by hearing something that someone said," he explained. "I’ve learned I can’t stay committed to a certain melody or rhythm."

Dalzell has mastered the techniques favored by his folk heroes and taken them a step further. He is fluent in finger-picking and often uses open tunings that create haunting chords and complex sounds. What makes him a skilled songwriter, however, is his ability to write diverse arrangements.

His song, "In the Fading Light," from his album, My Athens Past, is an instrumental piece with simple, but evocative, guitar work accompanied by an accordion. Whereas songs like "The Stuff of Dreams," from the album Where I Come From, takes a more conventional approach to songwriting, with a straightforward song structure.

photo: Elizabeth Held Photography

After years of songwriting, Dalzell says the process has become more enjoyable because he has found a comfortable writing style.

"I would spend months and months laboring over every word, and then I would have a crisis of doubt over what I had just written," he explained. "I’ve learned to have more fun with it."

Folk music is having a revival of sorts in popular music, and although Dalzell is rooted in traditional folk, he’s appreciative of the new wave. Pop-oriented groups like Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers have enjoyed massive success with a wide range of audiences. And in an era where you only need cowboy boots and a steel guitar to be a country singer, mainstream folk music only requires a banjo and vintage clothing to be taken seriously.

But unlike many of these acts, Dalzell believes Mumford and Sons have the musicianship to accompany their suspenders.

"People say something’s cool until it becomes popular, but I love Mumford and Sons," he said, without the slightest hint of hesitation.

Bruce Dalzell has accomplished a lot in his music career. He’s released four full-length albums, composed soundtracks for three independent films, produced seven volumes of Brucie’s Athens Singer/Songwriter Series recordings, and played (and hosted) countless number of shows. He is content with his place and seems appreciative of how folk music is being redefined in mainstream culture.

Regardless of the trends, Dalzell no doubt will continue to help foster young Athens musicians and songwriters, no matter how skilled they are. After all, he's been doing it for more than two decades…but who’s counting anyway?

photo: Hayley Smith