A musical blast from the past

  • Whole Wheat Contributed photo

Published: 9/17/2020 9:15:16 AM

The spring of 2020 was going to be a busy one for local musician Michael Nix. He was preparing to debut material from his new classical banjo project and also gearing up to host the first-ever banjo festival to be held in Greenfield. But in what’s now an all too familiar story, the pandemic hit and his plans were put on hold.

“When COVID arrived, I decided ‘I’m not going to make myself crazy over COVID — I’m going to get to work on some of the languishing projects on my to-do list,’” Greenfield resident Nix said in a recent phone conversation.

One of these projects involved revisiting his musical past and preparing the release of a 1983 concert recording by Whole Wheat, a bluegrass band that Nix co-founded in the 1970s. The CD was released in June.

This might come as a surprise to those who only know guitarist/banjo player Nix as a classical musician, but back in the ‘70s, when he was a student studying music at Keene State College, he co-founded a successful bluegrass/newgrass band that became quite popular in New England.

“For a long time, I had a two-track career where one night of the week I’d put on a tux and go play classical and the next night I’d put on my cowboy boots and go play some bluegrass,” said Nix.

It started in 1974, when Nix and musician Charlie Moser, whom Nix continues to work with, attended an acoustic guitar convention in Peterborough, N.H., where they met a fellow student, a guitarist named Rick Fiske.

After some casual jamming with Fiske, Nix said they discovered they shared a love of all types of music and acoustic instruments and had an intuitive way with two-part vocal harmony.

Whole Wheat formed in 1975, featuring Nix on banjo and Fiske on guitar as its core members.

It didn’t take long before the group was regularly playing at colleges and ski resorts throughout New England, and even though they were a string band, they did not limit their repertoire to folk and bluegrass, but ventured into rock, country and blues, which was quite novel at the time.

As time went on, more gigs followed. In 1980, the group was accepted to the New Hampshire Council on the Arts Touring Programs, which led to even more shows. Some were only duo shows, but for larger venues, Nix and Fiske had a revolving cast of musicians they brought into play with them. Moser frequently joined in to provide bass and mandolin.

“We played all over New England, and were making money,” said Nix of Whole Wheat and the almost 20-year run the band had. It reached the point that, by the early 1990s, Nix and Fiske were making plans on how to reach a national audience.

“I thought we were poised for this because we were experimental and not just playing one genre,” said Nix. “I was working really hard on my banjo style to make it sound (unlike) anyone else — part Pete Seeger, part Earl Scruggs and part Jimi Hendrix. I wanted the banjo to sound like a rock lead guitar.”

But those plans changed when tragedy struck.

In 1992, Nix received a phone call telling him that Fiske has been killed in an automobile accident. He was devastated.

“You get a 3 a.m. call that your partner has died. It rips the fabric of your life,” he said, adding that they had a string of dates lined up to play at the time of Fiske’s death. “Once Rick died, I didn’t play with another bluegrass band. The classical career was taking off and I was playing at colleges and spending time there.”

A few years after Fiske’s passing, Nix was teaching at Keene State when he was notified that two reel-to-reel tapes recorded on a Sony tape deck from a Feb. 4, 1983 show that Whole Wheat had played at the school had been discovered. Nix remembered the show was a benefit for the college’s classical guitar orchestra. Moser was on hand playing mandolin and another frequent collaborator with the group, Mark Eaton, had played bass.

“It was a blast from the past,” he recalled about receiving the tapes. “And tapes don’t always wear well, but these were in good shape.”

He knew he had been handed a treasure that he needed to do something with, but it was too soon after Fiske’s death and he was not emotionally ready to tackle such a project. Nix set the tapes aside and vowed to do something with them someday.

Years passed by and Nix became busy composing, teaching, recording and performing on mandolin, classical guitar, banjo and Banjar, an instrument he designed that is a seven-string banjo that combines elements of the five-string banjo and classical guitar. Some of his material has appeared on the PBS series “American Experience” and numerous independent documentaries and CD projects. Locally, he formed the Pioneer Consort in 2005 and is an active member of the Franklin County Musicians Cooperative.

But when the pandemic hit and live music stopped, Nix suddenly had time on his hands.

“I knew I had to do a memorial CD for Rick’s daughter, who is almost 40, and her children,” said Nix. “And there’s a lot of people my age who remember us playing all over New England. It would be a trip down memory lane.”

He enlisted Moser for the laborious task of re-mastering the music and getting it onto a CD. It was a big job but Nix was thankful that whoever had recorded the show did a very good job of it.

The CD, “Outstanding in Their Field,” was released on June 1 and is dedicated to the memory of Rick Fiske and Mark Eaton. It features 21 tracks, a few originals from Fiske and Nix alongside an assortment of covers. What the listener will instantly notice is how good the disc sounds, considering it was taken from old reel-to-reel tapes. And you’ll also hear how ahead of their time Whole Wheat was. Today, genre-blurring string bands like the Punch Brothers and Crooked Still are relatively common, but not back in the early ‘80s. There’s plenty of traditional bluegrass here, but they also cover rock tunes like “Pinball Wizard” by the Who, pop gems like “I’ve Just Seen a Face” by the Beatles and ‘70s folk-rock like “Lay Around the Shanty” by Jonathan Edwards. The disc closes with two humorous songs by Fiske that were taken from an old cassette recording.

It also sounds like they were having a good time, which Nix confirmed.

“It was a gas,” he recalled. “Rick was so funny. He was a punster who was really sharp with the words. It was quite a time in our lives. For what we did, we were in the right place at the right time.”

“Outstanding in Their Field,” by Whole Wheat, can be purchased at nixworks.com.

Sheryl Hunter is a music writer who lives in Easthampton. Her work has appeared in various regional and national magazines. You can contact her at soundslocal@yahoo.com.

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