Doc Watson’s dazzling bluegrass guitar. A harmonica-playing older brother tragically struck down in his youth. A midlife notion to play string bass. These three inspirations led to the unlikely combination of the Doornails: flatpicking guitarist Mike McMann, veteran blues harp player Ted Hennessey, and upright bassist Gene Lemme, who had their debut CD release party last Saturday night at the Ale House in Troy.
You could say their story began with Rob Hennessy, a 6-foot-4 teenager from Holden, Mass., with a shock of red hair, who towered over his kid brother, Ted, who remembers him as “an incredibly gentle guy.” Among Rob’s interests were the harmonica and bicycling. In 1974, the 19-year old was pedaling through Nova Scotia when a car took a sharp turn right in front of him. Rob Hennessy was killed in the accident.
Ted decided to honor Rob’s memory by taking up blues harp, and it’s no small measure of his love for his departed brother that in time he developed into an accomplished harmonica blower, which is no small feat, as blues harp is difficult to play well because of the many tricky techniques you have to employ.
In the late ’80s, Hennessey began playing with the late guitarist Bill Hesch in the Generic Blues Band and was just an average player until he met one of the greats of blues harp. “One night at Iko’s in Saratoga, James Cotton stepped up onstage and played my harmonica through my microphone,” he says. “I realized there was a lot I still didn’t get. I saw that I was going to have to work my ass off or quit.”
Hennessy sought out more advanced players in Buffalo, Syracuse and Poughkeepsie, and beefed up his chops under their tutelage. By the time he joined up with Scotty Mac in the Rockin’ Bonnevilles, he was a far stronger player. Today Hennessey, 48, also performs with Graham Tichy in the Shakin’ Bakers.
Mike McMann, 45, grew up in Troy and took up guitar at 15. At first he wailed on electric, studying the solos and techniques of ’80s metal bands. “I used to play along with the turntable . . . Van Halen, Kiss, and AC/DC, everybody. I taught myself that way,” he says. As it has been for many, McMann’s road to bluegrass led through Jamband Nation. “I started listening to the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia, and he opened up all this Americana music for me,” McMann says. When he heard a bootleg tape of Doc Watson performing at the Rolls Touring Company in Troy in the late ’80s, he was knocked out by Watson’s brilliant picking, and changed course musically. “I got a Doc Watson instructional video and stated teaching myself fiddle tunes. It taught me to appreciate the melody in a song.”
Knowledgeable guitarists consider bluegrass the most difficult country style because almost every note is individually picked, and often at very fast tempos. McMann learned it well. When I saw him a few years ago at the Ale House’s monthly bluegrass jam, which McMann hosts, I was impressed by his speed, melodic ideas, and the accuracy of his pick as it kept up relentlessly with his galloping left hand.
Gene Lemme, 56, a producer at Fox 23 TV, had been a bluegrass fan before he decided to learn string bass at age 50. “I was down to a Del McCoury show at the Egg with my nephew,” he recalls. “On the ride home I looked at my nephew and said, ‘Hey, Joey, I think I’ll learn a musical instrument. Maybe upright bass.’ My nephew said, ‘Uncle Gene, you don’t have arthritis yet. Maybe now’s the time.’”
Like McMann, Lemme got an instructional video and started to practice. For someone new to playing music, his progress was amazingly quick. There are, of course, no frets on the neck of a standup bass, which requires that the player have a sharp ear to play in tune. Even jazz great Ron Carter has said he teaches himself where the correct pitches are all over again every morning. At the Ale House jams, Lemme started backing McMann and the various jammers, and he sounded like he had been playing for 20 years.
Through his work as a grant manager for BOCES, Hennessey met McMann’s wife, Kim, who gave him Mike’s 2007 acoustic CD Streamside. Impressed, Hennessey showed up at a jam run by McMann at the Fox Hollow Restaurant in North Petersburgh, and the two connected musically. A few months later, McMann invited Hennessey over to his house in Stephentown, and after some parlor picking he suggested forming a band.
Hennessey saw the rhythms of bluegrass and country music as his main challenge in the new project, which often involve fast even eighth notes as opposed to the looser swinging eighths, triplets and frequent syncopations of the blues. He prefers sparser phrasings to the more-typical running-eighth licks.
“I’m not one of those guys who play a million notes,” Hennessey says, and commenting on his stylistic shift from the Mississippi Delta to the Appalachians, added, “It’s good to have to do something for a million years and then have to do something differently.”
The two met Lemme at the Ale House jam, and the trio took shape. It all led up to their debut CD Back Porch Daze, consisting of 12 tracks of rootsy covers and originals, with contributions from steel guitar eminence grise Kevin Maul and backup singers Karen Gilpin and Peggy Lecuyer.
Recalling Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, the disc opens with “Mountain Boy,” an instrumental jam in which MacMann, Maul and Hennessey trade hot licks over a modal chord line. Next thing you know, McMann, in a country drinking ballad reminiscent of George Jones, is waking up on the barroom floor—again. In Stan the Hot Dog Man, Hennessy offers a frank look at his dream career with a bit of hot-doggerel. The band also deliver capable covers of songs by Hank Williams, Tom Waits and Busby Meyers.
“I think the band has given each of us a chance to do something that we had wanted to do, which is exploring some music we love,” Hennessey reflects. “And taking the music seriously without taking ourselves seriously—that’s what it is.”