Falltown String Band celebrates 30 years

  • The Falltown String Band before performing at a square dance at Bernardston Town Hall. From left to right, in rear: Ed Phelps, Jack Arensmeyer, Mike Risch, Jason Burbank, Beverly Phelps, Marvin Shedd, Sue Shedd. Children in the front: Mike Shedd and Danny Shedd. Contributed photo

  • Jason Burbank, left, and Jack Nelson perform with the Falltown String Band at The Rendezvous on Thursday, Sept. 07, 2017 in Turners Falls. RECORDER STAFF/DAN LITTLE

  • The Falltown String Band performs at The Rendezvous on Thursday, Sept. 07, 2017 in Turners Falls. RECORDER STAFF/DAN LITTLE

  • Sue Shedd performs on the flute with the Falltown String Band at The Rendezvous on Thursday, Sept. 07, 2017 in Turners Falls. RECORDER STAFF/DAN LITTLE

  • Jack Nelson plays the upright bass with the Falltown String Band at The Rendezvous on Thursday, Sept. 07, 2017 in Turners Falls. RECORDER STAFF/DAN LITTLE

  • Jason Burbank performs on the keyboard and vocals with the Falltown String Band at The Rendezvous on Thursday, Sept. 07, 2017 in Turners Falls. RECORDER STAFF/DAN LITTLE

  • Guitarist Marvin Shedd performs with the Falltown String Band at The Rendezvous on Thursday, Sept. 07, 2017 in Turners Falls. RECORDER STAFF/DAN LITTLE

  • An early band promo photo of the Falltown String Band. From left to right, back row: Marvin Shedd, Steve Alves, Jason Burbank and Jack Nelson. Front row: Marcia Day and Sue Shedd. Contributed photo

Recorder Staff
Published: 9/22/2017 2:08:57 PM

As men and women chatted over the bar or ate dinner in The Rendezvous’ booths Thursday evening, a group of four played the flute, guitar, fiddle, bass and keyboard in the dim light.

The melodies, particularly from the commanding sound of the flute, carried through peaks and lulls. The old-fashioned tune was one that inspired thoughts of country fields and chirping birds in its listeners.

Once in a while, Marvin Shedd’s singing, drawn out and a little gravelly, would break to say “Once more, altogether” or “Let’s hear some of that honky-tonk keyboard!”

When a listener they knew well began to walk toward the door, all four paused to wave goodbye. “We’ll see you next month,” Shedd said when the clock struck 10 p.m.

The Falltown String Band, founded in 1987 to spread folk music to local coffee houses, nursing homes, historical societies and other venues, plays monthly at The Rendezvous in Turners Falls and Cameron’s Winery in Northfield. This fall the band celebrates its 30th anniversary.

“I certainly don’t believe (Ed Phelps) ever anticipated 30 years later we’d be sitting here tonight,” Shedd, a fellow Bernardston resident, said of the Falltown String Band’s founder while on break at The Rendezvous.

Keeping old tunes alive

When the band first came together under Phelps’ direction, Shedd, a 27-year member, said the purpose was to keep old songs — particularly folk music — alive and to have people simply have fun listening to them.

However, it was not always known as the Falltown String Band. Originally, the group primarily visited nursing homes and was called The Happiness Sharers, according to band member Jason Burbank, of Montague Center. Shedd remembers how when he joined red gingham shirts were the established dress code.

The three original members — Phelps, Pam Allen and George Nolan — eventually branched out from coffee houses and nursing homes, adding square dances, granges, church suppers and historical society events to their list of venues. From the reconsideration of where the group would play came an accompanied change of name, Shedd explained, and the Falltown String Band emerged.

Some members have come and gone, but not before helping to mold the band in a new direction.

For example, Steve Alves, who played guitar and sang, was the first to move the band’s repertoire to include more modern music like rhythm and blues songs, Beach Boys songs and country standards like “Act Naturally,” Shedd said. Likewise, his girlfriend, Marcia Day, was the first and only person to play the mandolin on her lap like a slide guitar, and was also the first to play an electric guitar.

Today, the band consists of six members: Shedd and his wife Sue, Burbank, Jack Nelson of Turners Falls, Jack Arensmeyer of Vernon, Vt. and Wayne Helms of Montague City. The band’s repertoire consists largely of songs from 1910 to 1970, Burbank said.

“I like to say from A to Z we play everything from Roy Acuff to Warren Zevon,” Shedd added.

While the band is known for it’s folk music, Shedd said members “answer to a lot of genres.” Some of the most well-known songs the Falltown String Band plays come from Neil Young, Bob Dylan, The Marshall Tucker Band and Hank Williams to name a few.

The band has also had five CDs recorded in Shelburne and Turners Falls, including one with album artwork designed by Jim Lawson, an original artist for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Though the Falltown String Band is mostly a cover band, the group also has a collection of original songs, like Jack Arensmeyer’s “Bad News Blues.”

Three rules

Over the course of 30 years, Shedd estimates the band has played around 1,500 shows, including Bernardston’s Scarecrow in the Park festival, regular square dances in Chesterfield, a 75th wedding anniversary, and Bernardston resident Abby Burrows’ 80th, 90th and 100th birthday parties.

“We’re very big on 80th birthday parties,” Nelson joked.

Given the band’s significance locally, Shedd said the group has also had the honor of having a wine named after them. Cameron’s Winery has produced two editions of Falltown Bliss, an apple-pear-maple wine which will be known as Falltown Joy in future editions, according to Shedd’s wife Sue.

Three rules have always governed the musicians, Nelson and Marvin Shedd explained: don’t quit your day job, family comes first and press on regardless of who can attend a show.

“We’ve done gigs as the Falltown String Band with only two of us,” Sue Shedd recounted.

Still, members who are available to attend a show are committed to being there. Marvin Shedd remembers being on stage and watching banjo player Ray McIntire fumbling with a bottle of pills.

“He said ‘I think I’m having a heart attack, so I’m taking a nitroglycerin,” Marvin Shedd said. “He popped one and just kept playing!”

As the majority of the members have been playing together for over 20 years, they cite a great familiarity with each other’s talents and abilities. Following each other is easy, Burbank said, so much so that they have the ability to pick up new songs quickly even without rehearsal. Marvin Shedd compares the feeling to being on a basketball team.

“We’ve played together so long, we just know where the other’s going to be on the court,” he explained.

Sometimes, performing even became a family affair.

“Our kids starting playing little plastic guitars along with the band when they were tiny,” Sue Shedd remembered. “They grew up with (the Falltown String Band).”

“An intergenerational form of happiness”

Marvin Shedd said he’s always considered the band a community organization, and felt that by playing music, the group was giving back to the community. If the reflections of community members are any indication, their efforts have not gone unappreciated.

“They make music fun,” said David Neil, pastor at the United Church of Bernardston, where the Falltown String Band regularly plays at roast beef suppers. “It’s hard to not have a smile on your face when Falltown is playing … They just add a lightness and a sense of joy.”

“I think they recognize the music, and the other thing is they see we’re having fun,” Marvin Shedd said of the audience’s interest in the Falltown String Band. “I think that extends out into the audience.”

Indeed, the band recounts many enjoyable memories over 30 years. For example, Marvin Shedd said, whenever the band plays at Cameron’s Winery, owner Leslie Cameron calls her 92-year-old mother Peg.

“We all yell “Hello Peg!” and then play “Ain’t Misbehavin’” over the phone to her,” he said.

One woman loved the Falltown String Band’s version of Brandi Carlile’s “Keep Your Heart Young” so much, it inspired her to purchase Carlile’s CDs and get tickets to see her play at the Green River Festival, Shedd remembers.

And then, there’s the square dancers, who provide a different experience altogether, band members say.

“When dancers really get it together and are flying around the floor, and we can facilitate their flying, it’s a transcendental experience,” Burbank said.

Music, the group agreed, simply has a way of bringing generations together.

“Having such an intergenerational form of happiness really charges us up,” Burbank said.

Falltown plays at The Rendezvous from 8 to 10 p.m. on the first Thursday of each month, and from 6 to 8 p.m. at Cameron’s Winery on the first Saturday of each month.


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