A new band, formed later in life, is, like remarriage, the triumph of hope over experience. For many, if not most musicians, the hard experiences of the music business can only barely be offset by the near-euphoria of finding a simpatico group of new musical partners. When that happens, however, the buzz can be intense and the hope powerful.
Storefront Congregation first played publicly (under the name Sam Hill) at a Tuesday night open stage at the Lighthouse January of 2001, again in February, then they disappeared for a while before reappearing with a bang: a full-house Derby Eve show at the Rudyard followed by a packed CD release party at the Kingfish Restaurant on River Road in May 2002, celebrating the release of their first 13-tune CD, Renaissance. Since then, they have been working around town and promoting Renaissance to bluegrass radio programs around the country. LMN caught up with them at the Farnsley-Moreman Landing for a sit-down interview.
For the four veterans gathered around the plastic-wrapped picnic table under the outdoor pavilion at Farnsley-Moreman Landing on a rainy afternoon, the description of how musical hope was reborn began with a detailing of past experiences, intermixed with comments about musicians past and present. As is often the case among Louisvillians in general and Louisville musicians in particular, the interview frequently went off on a tangent, as one or another of the participants mentioned somebody or something from the past and the conversation went that way. This group also had a tendency to finish each other's sentences, which in the case of Ivan and Lauren Guernsey is no doubt a result of their marriage.
Lauren Guernsey: "I was in a West Virginia band called Redwing. We won the Kentucky State Fair in 1980 [as] Newgrass Alliance with Jimmy Mattingly, who's playing with Dolly right now. We kind of took the name from (Lonnie Pierce's) Bluegrass Alliance."
Murrell Thixton: "I was in New Horizon. We won the KFC Festival in 1980. I played with Hugh Hill's band last. I was just a sideman for bunch of others, though."
Kent Houchin: "Oh, you might need a couple of pages: Wild Horses, Neon Cowboy with Hank Rose, the Mac Daddies now, a stint with Karen Kraft, Robert Morse ..."
Ivan Guernsey: "He's just a rhythm prostitute, Kent is."
LMN: (To Ivan) "What about you?"
Houchin got up about then and went in search of some fudge he'd seen for sale.
Ivan Guernsey: "I was just basically a sideman, played with a lot of different people, whenever somebody needed somebody to sit in."
LMN: "Everybody played with New Horizon at some point?"
Ivan: "Yeah. When did Kent leave New Horizon? '81? That's when I started with them. We opened for Ronnie Milsap down at Murray State once. That was fun."
Lauren: "I graduated from YPAS (Youth Performing Arts School), but I don't tap dance. That was a great experience."
Kent returned with a tub of the homemade fudge and passed it around. The reminiscing continued, ranging over a big section of the Louisville music scene and musicians before coming back to the topic at hand:
LMN: "So how did you get together this time?"
Lauren: "Murrell was ready to get back into music. I kind of prompted him."
Murrell: "We won't get into that . . . Hugh (Hill) kind of talked me into it at a Thunder of Louisville Show and I started playing a few shows with them. It got to be kind of regular. Kent and I had been talking about it. We wanted to put something together like we did years ago, do it for the music's sake, not doing it just to go out and do a few gigs and get some spare change. And we thought about these guys [the Guernseys], we thought they'd be a perfect mix but we didn't know it they'd want to pick or not."
Ivan: "I was talking to Kent at IBMA about four years ago and he was saying that y'all were talking about getting together and I said, well, my wife plays bass and sings and I play dobro and he kind went . . ." (mimicked eyes opening wide).
Lauren: "We'd talked before at the IBMA about getting together to pick ..."
Kent: "We talked a good long time down at the IBMA and got together and picked a little there. I guess it was a week or two after that we went up to their place. We spent a lot of weekends over the next year rehearsing, working on it. We didn't play [out] for a long time, a year-and-a-half, I guess."
Lauren: "Talking about goals, recording and writing. That was fun."
Kent: "This was an opportunity for us to explore doing our own thing, our own original stuff. We wanted to take that angle. We'd all been in a studio doing stuff for other people before but we'd never been there doing a project for ourselves, so this was the first time. That was one of our goals. We were real excited to get that goal past."
LMN: "How long did it take you to decide what tunes to use?"
Lauren: "For the CD?"
Kent: "A decade."
Lauren: "About nine months."
Ivan: "If not longer."
Lauren: "We had them pretty well nailed down with arrangements and everything. Fifty percent of the songs on the CD are originals, so it was quite an undertaking. Rather than just doing what somewhat else had done [on a song], it was so fun, working that out, including getting the right feel for the tune."
Kent: "Going back to the beginning, we sat around and didn't pick up an instrument the first couple of times we got together. We just talked about where we were going to go. We didn't want to go out and do the bar circuit. We wanted to put something together at this point in our musical lives where we played what we wanted and if people liked it, that'd be a bonus. If they don't, well, we would have had a real fine time making something of our own.
"After that, I think we did a really good job of following our timeline, `cause we had short-term goals that were quarterly and medium and long-range goals. When you set goals personally, you never do them, you know. We actually wrote stuff down . ."
Lauren: "... and said, we'll have tunes selected by this date, we'll have them worked out by this date, we'll go in the studio by this date and have the project complete by this date. We did pretty good."
Ivan: "It didn't hurt that we had an actual executive secretary to keep us on the path." (referring to Lauren. Everybody laughed at that).
LMN: "How'd you come up with the money to pay for the project?"
Lauren: "We paid for it all ourselves."
LMN: "Now that you have a CD and you're promoting that, how's that going?"
Murrell: "That's going better than we planned, actually. We've gone through our first batch [of CDs], we're real close to getting our second batch."
Lauren: "And people are already asking about the next one." She groaned a bit. "We're getting airplay on the CD, some in the U. S. but more often out of the country. "
LMN: "Have you thought about touring in Europe? Louisville musicians make a lot of money when they go overseas."
Murrell: "We're going to be the featured artist on a show in Australia."
Ivan: "That's where I want to go, across the Big Water."
Kent: "You have to have somebody who knows what they're doing to set that all up."
Murrell explained that they had a tune on a radio compilation CD that Lexington's Michael Jonathon, founder of Woodsongs OldTime Radio Hour, had done and that they were getting some new stations playing the project every week.
LMN: "Where did you record the CD, by the way?"
Kent: "In Hodgenville, with Mark Goodman."
Lauren: "It's really pretty down there . . "
Ivan: "...it's set up in an old church. And they have church in there on Sunday morning."
Lauren: "But he's got it set up right, though."
The discussion lapsed into chatter about various studios around town, with stories about other engineers and musicians before returning to the question at hand.
Lauren: "We're looking to check into some other markets, aren't we?"
Murrell: "Yeah, we've tossed back and forth the idea of getting somebody to work with us and for us. Some sort of business manager, `cause it's at a point, it's become... We'd love do this fulltime..."
Ivan: "There's one wrench in the cog, that's my business. [Guernsey builds dobros]. I'm covered up. Are you into woodworking? Need a part-time job?"
Lauren: "That's not the only wrench in the cogs, everybody has one."
Murrell: "That's what we'd like to do, anyway."
Lauren: "We want to get more regional. Because we all work day jobs, we don't have time to devote to the business side to develop those relationships and follow up on those kinds of leads. But we are doing that national thing ..."
Murrell: "That's coming up. Food TV has a show where they go to different cities and the host of one of the shows ["Food Nation"] explores some restaurants in the city. One of the features on the show is they pick up a band from the local area. We're going to do that."
Lauren: "And everybody I tell about this is so excited for us. September 24th is when we're taping but I'm not sure when it'll air. They're doing something down at Finchville Ham and then they're going do something with Chef Joe Castro [at the Brown Hotel] and the lady [Cathy Cary] at Lilly's. They're going to each one of their homes."
Murrell: "We're going to follow them around and pick out in front of their house, I guess."
The conversation wandered off again, this time into the recent history of music in Louisville and where was a hot place when and who has recordings nobody has every heard, which lead to a discussion of their name, which was taken from the name of a noted music club on Bardstown Road, run by Ken Pyle and Sheila Joyce in the early Seventies.
Kent: "We checked with Kenny before we decided on it. He was okay about it. He even let us use the Storefront Congregation sign on the CD."
Lauren: "The first name we used was Sam Hill. That was the name we used at the Lighthouse." She remembered that I had seen them at the Lighthouse that night. "It was already taken, of course."
The conversation returned to the question of a possible manager:
Kent: "We haven't quite decided what we are going to do about that."
Ivan: "We need something. It's getting to where it's a job, there's things needing to be taken care of. It's business. We've got one or two folks we've been talking to about that, so we'll see."
LMN: Louisvillians are so blasé about new bands. Has that been a problem?"
Ivan: "That's where I think the Jam Fest is going to do well, `cause that's gonna be set up with so many different kinds of music that's it's gonna be like Merle Fest."
Kent: "Is that their idea?"
Ivan: "I think it's cool."
Whereupon the talk meandered off again, rehashing the problems that lead to the disappearance of the KFC Bluegrass Festival and the differences between that event and the Jam Fest.
Ivan: "I feel privileged to be playing that gig," to which everybody agreed. The subject turned back to the new recording.
LMN: "Are you writing more tunes for a new project?"
Lauren: "Yeah, I'm thinking [we`ll aim for] next fall."
Kent: "I think if we get comfortable with some things and we have some excess, we can just lay down some tracks. These days, you don't have to reserve blocks of time, you can just lay down some tracks and come back later and do more, at least technically. I guess they still do that in Nashville. though, lay down a three-million selling album in five or six hours. Chart it out and call in the A-team and do it all in a day."
Lauren: "I think we've kind of challenged ourselves to come up with material as good as our first CD, though, so we're not in a big, big hurry. We know that we have expectations."
Ivan: "Song selection is it, no doubt about that. You got to have a tune with some meat to it, that people can respond to in a personal kind of way. It takes time to write that kind of stuff. What you try to do is bring a tear to a guy's eye."
Lauren: "You know, for our band, the women seem to interested in what we're doing. I think we're grabbing hold of more women than typical."
Murrell: "Good." Ivan laughed.
Kent: "Women buy the records. They make the decisions about spending, so that's good."
Lauren: "We've got a lot of feeling stuff and women like that."
Murrell: "We're a lot smarter than we thought we were." They all laughed at that.
The fudge was finished and the afternoon was nearly gone. The band gathered themselves together and headed off to their van to get ready for their set a little later. Kent was doubling as the sound engineer for the rest of the acts, so he headed off to the tent to check up on Leroy Troy, who was entertaining an audience with his Uncle Dave Macon-esque show. The day's rain, though welcome after a long dry period, nonetheless dampened the crowd's enthusiasm and size.
I wandered around the Landing, admiring the antique tractors, historic house and homemade goodies before settling into a seat under the big blue tent where the music was being played. Troy wrapped up his set with an enthusiastic render of "My Grandfather's Clock" on banjo. After a short break, the emcee for the day, WFPK's "Sunday Bluegrass" host, noted bluegrass traditionalist (and LMN bluegrass ist) Berk Bryant got up to announce Storefront Congregation.
"I've heard a lot more about this band than I've heard this band," he said," so I guess we'll just have to see what they sound like. Ladies and gentlemen, here's Storefront Congregation."
The band took the stage and launched into a spirited bluegrass tune, not one on their CD. Berk took a seat close by to listen. Storefront Congregation got a good response from the crowd and during the break between songs, I leaned over and asked him if he was going to go down to the Blue Sky Jam Fest.
"Not if I can help it," he said.
Knowing he didn't care for Sam Bush or new grass, I asked him if Jerry Douglas wasn't of interest.
He said "Those guys just play for themselves these days. I like what they could play, I just don't like what they do play" and laughed.
About then, Storefront Congregation lit into a Keb Mo' song. Berk got up and wandered out of the tent, perhaps intent upon finding a doughnut.
Storefront Congregation will play their next show at the Rudyard Kipling on October 4. You can also keep track off them at www.storefrontcongregation.com.