Sounds Local: A band that formed by accident: Poor Monroe headlines Whately’s first annual bluegrass showcase, with Mamma’s Marmalade and Mile Twelve
|Published: 11-29-2023 3:25 PM
The local bluegrass band Poor Monroe played its first formal gig together at the Whately Town Hall in 2022 in celebration of the town’s 250th anniversary. At the time, the members didn’t even consider themselves a real band — they were just a group of friends who all happened to be accomplished musicians who had come together to play bluegrass during the pandemic.
A little over a year later and having just released a self-titled debut album, Poor Monroe will return to the Whately Town Hall for Whately’s first annual bluegrass showcase on Wednesday, Dec. 6, at 7 p.m. Also performing at this event will be local band Mamma’s Marmalade and the group Mile Twelve from Boston.
This mini bluegrass festival is presented by Watermelon Wednesdays and it is arriving at the perfect time of year. As we enter December and the early stages of winter set in, we could all benefit from the feel-good sounds of bluegrass music. The genre’s upbeat tempos, the harmonies shared by the musicians, and the skill at which they play make it impossible to sit still when this music is playing. (Being that it’s December they will not be serving watermelon — instead the more seasonal treats of apple cider donuts and brownies will be available.)
I recently caught up with Eric Lee, the vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, and songwriter for Poor Monroe, a band whose popularity continues to grow. Lee, who resides in Easthampton, was already a well known musician here in the Valley before creating Poor Monroe with guitarist Sean Davis, bassist Gareth Buckley, banjoist Chris Boucher, and mandolinist John Benjamin. Lee started as a folk musician; he was even a longstanding member of the house band for the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival and released the solo album “Heartache Town” in 2018. But he says has always loved bluegrass music.
“I was around 11 years old and learning to play the fiddle when I heard the album ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken,’ (by country-bluegrass supergroupNitty Gritty Dirt Band) but I never thought I was good enough to play it,” recalled Lee on being introduced to bluegrass. “It’s such an eccentric vernacular, especially for fiddle. I was learning more Irish stuff, but I liked listening to bluegrass.”
He eventually did start playing bluegrass when he moved to New York City in 2011 where he found that he was frequently offered gigs to play in the genre. A show opening for fiddle great Michael Cleveland inspired him to get serious about playing, and once he moved back to the Valley, he delved even further into bluegrass, playing in various bands and writing songs in the bluegrass style.
Right before COVID hit, Lee worked with the Philadelphia-based group Man About a Horse.
“We had a really good year,” he said, looking back. “We won the Fresh Grass contest, we toured England and had a record deal down in Nashville with Steven Mougin. I had all these songs written, and then the pandemic hit and it all sort of fell apart.”
In 2021, after a year of nothing but practicing while home alone, he received a phone call from mandolin player John Benjamin asking him if he was interested in joining him for a gig at a brewery in New Hampshire. However, there were some drawbacks — they were asked to play a three-hour gig in a hot parking lot with no sound system and little pay and Lee wasn’t sure it was worth it.
“But it was something, and it was playing for people, and maybe people needed to hear it,” Lee said. “And maybe I need to play with another person and not just a metronome.” The gig in New Hampshire turned out to be the start of Poor Monroe.
“The manager loved us and asked us back. I said for a little more money, we can invite my buddy Sean Davis to play guitar with us,” Lee explained. The manager agreed and ended up liking the band even better as a trio. Next time they asked for even more money and brought along bassist Gareth Buckley. This strategy continued and finally they added Chris Boucher on banjo.
They never intended to form a band, but before they knew it, they had assembled the lineup for Poor Monroe. Their varied backgrounds and combined years of experience made for a winning combination.
“I realized it wasn’t a very illustrious gig. The people there were more focused on their burgers, but I said to everybody ‘We don’t need just to phone this in. We can play stuff we never got to play with our other band, songs that we all love but are hard songs,’” said Lee of the process of developing their sound.
He said it freed them from overthinking the music and worrying if what they were doing “worked” or not. The members worked on tightening their harmonies and improving their chops and developed a repertoire of traditional and original songs. They were meticulous about it all and got better and better. They settled on the name Poor Monroe, taking it from a song by Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley.
Gigs started materializing throughout the region and they were soon festival favorites, playing at the Green River Festival, Podunk Bluegrass Festival, Ossipee Valley Music Festival, and so many more. They also received two New England Music Award nominations.
Next up was an album. Lee is pleased with the self-titled release, which came out in September. Bluegrass fans will want to add this one to their collection: It features 12 tracks, four of which are originals written by Lee, alongside traditional songs and covers. The songs range from Lee’s uptempo train-themed “Get Up & Get On Board,” to the gospel tune “We Shall Rise,” the traditional ”O’Death,” and “I Got a Name,” a song made famous by Jim Croce in the ’70s.
Expect to hear plenty off this new disc at the bluegrass showcase.
Lee feels there is a healthy local bluegrass scene here in the Valley. “It’s not as publicized and is small, but there are some great players here.”
It’s also a tight-knit scene. Many of the musicians from the three bands playing this night have shared various stages over the years. In fact, guitarist Sean Davis will be doing double-duty as he plays guitar for Mamma’s Marmalade. Lee once played in a band with a couple of the members of Mile Twelve where they played the music of the Stanley Brothers.
If you want to get a sense of what’s happening in the bluegrass scene locally and regionally, then head to this showcase. These young bands stretch the boundaries of bluegrass, adding elements of folk, jazz and country. They also display superb musicianship and play with a lot of energy and a great sense of fun. When you attend a bluegrass show, you are watching a group of musicians having a great time on stage and its infectious. Don’t miss out!
Tickets are $30 in advance and at the door. Advance tickets are strongly recommended as this show is expected to sell out. Tickets are available at Watermelonwednesdays.com. The Whately Town Hall is located at 194 Chestnut Plain Road.
Sheryl Hunter is a freelance writer who resides in Easthampton. Her work has appeared in various regional and national publications. She can be reached at email@example.com.