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Backpack troubadours

They’ll be hiking to musical gigs at small, local venues

Some musical groups take private jets from show to show. Others ride in posh tour buses, with all the comforts of home. Some fledgling acts travel in minivans packed like sardine tins.

Then there’s Mark Mandeville and Raianne Richards. They travel in comfortable shoes.

“We carry our instruments, our gear, food, everything, on our backs,” said Mandeville. “We don’t have a support vehicle or anything; we’re really roughing it.”

When they’re not beating feet on the path, they’re tapping them in time to the tunes they play.

What kind of tunes?

“It’s a bluegrassy, peach-eating kind of vibe,” said Richards. “We play fiddles and guitars, banjos, ukuleles, tin-whistles and harmonicas.”

Richards, 27, and Mandeville, 32, have made music together for about 10 years, cutting albums as a folk duo, as solo artists, and as part of the group The Accident That Led Me to the World.

In 2010, they founded the Massachusetts Walking Tour. Each year, they tackle a new trail, joined by different musicians. Some nights, they pitch tents right outside their venue, others, they camp out trail-side.

From June 15 to 29, the tour will wind its way down the New England National Scenic Trail from Royalston to Longmeadow, playing free shows at small venues along the way, and they might just be cutting through your neighborhood.

Mandeville and Richards are excited to hike the newly minted NET. Usually, they research the trails they’ll use and make their own maps to follow. The NET, however, presented a bit of a challenge.

“It was part of the Monadnock-Metacomet trail and people had written volumes about it, but they’ve changed it all over,” said Mandeville, who hasn’t hiked either trail, or spent much time in Franklin County.

Richards, who grew up in Athol, is a little more familiar with the area.

“I used to walk through the Tully Lake Campground, in Royalston, where we’ll play our first show,” Richards recalled. “Sometimes, I’d ditch my bike and hike out to Doane’s Falls.”

She said she liked the laid-back atmosphere of the area.

“The area has a totally different vibe,” she said. “People aren’t in such a rush and it’s less crowded.”

She and Mandeville got the idea for their walking tour from other musicians who had embarked on “people-powered” tours.

“One man I met had done a canoe tour of the Hudson River, others have done scooter and bike tours, all just trying to take gasoline out of the equation,” Mandeville explained.

“We travel all over the country, to places like Nashville, and see these really culturally enriched places,” he continued. The walking tour, he said, gives them a way to bring that culture back home, to small, sleepy towns like Webster and Dudley, where Mandeville and Richards hang their hats.

Their touring lifestyle — and the ups and downs of trying to make it in the music world without compromising their integrity — serves as inspiration for many of their songs, said Richards. When he’s not touring, Mandeville makes ends meet by teaching music, as well as playing gigs with Richards and others.

Richards supports herself by working at Isadors, an organic market in Oxford, and at the Kitchen Place, a specialty home goods store in Marlboro.

For their inaugural tour in 2010, Mandeville and Richards loaded their rucksacks and hiked from Becket to Boston, joined by musicians Christopher Bell and Jenny Jade Albert, playing free shows all along the way.

The 116-mile, 17-day hike was gruelling, especially with 40 pounds of gear on each of their backs.

“We hiked so much, Raianne was losing toenails,” said Mandeville. “We just didn’t know any better that first year.”

The first hike of the 2010 tour started in Becket, and took them 18 miles up the steep Jacobs Ladder Trail to Huntington.

“The first day of that tour, we were running on pure excitement and adrenaline,” said Richards. “We ended up two hours late for our first show, at the Four Main Street Bar and Grill in Huntington, but we still got to perform.”

The little town of about 2,000 didn’t mind waiting a couple extra hours.

“There hadn’t been a concert in Huntington for 25 years before that,” said Richards. “We try to target small towns that don’t have a lot going on. That was a big motivator; it kept us going.”

Bringing music to small towns and raising awareness about the trails are the wandering minstrels’ missions and they try to get everyone involved. The troupe also invites local schools, as well as area artists and musicians, to participate in their shows. Anyone’s welcome to hike alongside them.

“We’ve learned a lot about long-term hiking through the tour,” said Mandeville. “Since that first year, we’ve cut our hikes down some.”

Now, they try to keep each day’s hike between 8 and 12 miles, starting early in the morning and finishing in the early afternoon, giving them some downtime before each show.

Though long hikes can be tough in ideal conditions, this is New England and the weather can be cruel.

“Last year, there were a few days when it got close to 100 degrees and we were walking in full sun all day,” Richards said.

“The second year it rained for three straight days,” Mandeville said.

“You can literally go crazy from the rain running down your face all day,” added Richards. “I don’t know what’s worse — the excruciating heat or constantly being wet.”

Though hiking in the heat and rain can be tough, not walking during the 2012 tour dampened Mandeville’s spirit.

“Last year, I couldn’t walk because I’d slipped a disc (in my back),” he said. “I was laid up for quite a long time. Last year, I drove along the route and carried gear in the vehicle.”

“I performed at the shows last year, but it just wasn’t the same,” he said.

When you’re in a car, you’re somewhat removed from the world around you. Along the trail, said Richards, the troupe often encounters other hikers, has friendly run-ins with trail-side landowners and encounters random acts of kindness.

“We’re always really humbled, and almost overwhelmed, with the amount of kindness we see on the trail,” said Richards. “People will see us walking and offer to fill our water bottles. Others have left coolers full of cold sodas on the path, with ‘trail magic’ written on them.”

“We find people on every hike,” said Mandeville. “Hiking the Mid State Trail, in 2011, we ran into some Connecticut kids, who came off of their route, hiked with us, saw the show and spent the night before we went our separate ways.”

“People are so nice and so supportive and, every year, it snowballs,” she continued. “What we’re doing really sticks in their minds. Art and music are so important to people.”

This year, many of the towns the tour will visit helped to sponsor the shows with grants from their local cultural councils and donations from local organizations.

Mandeville said he and Richards hope to cut an album about the old mill towns of Massachusetts by traveling to them and talking to their people. He said he’d also like to start a folk music festival in his hometown of Webster. It’s got a large concert venue, Indian Ranch, which regularly hosts country music concerts by the shores of Lake Chargoggagoggman-chauggagoggc haubunagungamaugg, also known as Webster Lake.

They’re also looking forward to the release of a documentary of the first year’s walking tour, filmed by Paul Gandy, who followed them on the 2010 and 2011 tours. They hope to eventually air it on TV, through PBS affiliates or local-access stations. For now, a trailer can be viewed on their website, www.masswalkingtour.org, which also has their schedule and contact information.

This year, Mandeville and Richards, on banjo and ukulele, will be joined by Boston musicians Mark Kilianski and Amy Alvey on the guitar and fiddle.

The quartet will start out at Tully Lake Campground, in Royalston on June 15 and end up about 55 miles away, at Longmeadow Green, on June 29.

For more information on the New England National Scenic Trail, visit
www.newenglandtrail.org

Staff reporter David Rainville has worked at The Recorder since 2011. He covers Bernardston, Leyden, Northfield and Warwick. He can be reached at drainville@recorder.com or
413-772-0261, ext. 279.

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