Venues for acoustic and folk music are scarce these days, so happy I am to have had the occasion to attend singer-songwriter Wil Maring and guitar virtuoso Robert Bowlin’s concert at the Independent Media Center on Saturday night. Certainly, I duly noted Bowlin’s excellent guitar work that added depth and complexity to Maring’s vocals. But for me (OK, I admit I’m not much of a singer-songwriter fan, in spite of my love for folk music) what mattered most that evening wasn’t the well-executed guitar riffs or heartfelt lyrics, but the very fact of being with a group of people who care about this type of musical happening in our community.
While folk music has always had “underground/outsider” status, these days it can be increasingly difficult for area residents to experience this music live unless they are privy to details about house-concerts, party/festival jams or barn dances in the area. There’s still something about folk music that resists commercial viability or doesn’t fit into profit-driven formulas that Nashville, venue promoters, or the indie rock folks champion.
Basically, you’ve got to intrinsically love the stuff and not give a damn about making a buck. That’s the rub. I still hear stories from older musicians about the C-U folk (and music in general) scene in the 1970’s and 80’s. The glory days still haunt venues like Channing-Murray (Red Herring) and Mike N Molly’s. Evidently, the Midnight Special‘s light shone brightly around these parts.
Yet, there still is a thriving folk scene in CU, in fact, it is all around us, although sometimes a little under the radar. Once found, however, the scene provides a refreshing music-scene alternative (quality is always variable, as it is in any genre, but take it from me, we have some amazing local folk musicians!).
In a single week, you might hear Irish sessions at Champaign’s Bentley’s Pub (most Wednesday nights), buskers at the Farmer’s Market, lively old-time jams in Urbana’s Victory Park (Thursday evenings), bluegrass pickin’ sessions at Lincoln Square (Tuesday nights), Celtic house concerts (Dean Karres Piper’s Hut series, singer-songwriters at Channing-Murray’s Sunday night open stage, live bands at UCD’s Friday night dances at the Phillips Center and folk and roots bands that can be found giggin’ at Huber’s, the Rose Bowl, the Iron Post, Kickapoo Landing, Strawberry Fields and a precious few other places (especially now that Aroma no longer has live music). And, most recently, you can catch folkie acts (and workshops) such as Maring and Bowlin, brought to the IMC via Ed Hawke’s booking initiatives.
Although, as I hinted above, I like my folk a bit more edgy and raw, I enjoyed Maring and Bowlin’s smooth, mellow tunes and came away from the concert on Saturday night wishing I, like Bowlin, owned a 1940’s-era Gibson model G. Bowlin’s flat-picked renditions of assorted fiddle tunes was remarkable in his ability to stylistically transform the tune on each go-around. Sometimes, he would “swing” it, then morph into jazz interpretations. Next, he’d take a bluegrass approach: lightning-fast, a bit blues-y, yet always technically precise. The transformation of traditional tunes was par for course for Marin as well: during the concert, she featured several traditional tunes refitted with contemporary lyrics, from the beautiful “Arkansas Traveler” to the tightly harmonized “St. Anne’s Reel.”
Underlying this musical innovation, however, was an emphasis on history and preservation. Playing upright bass while singing, “I am the Keeper of the Farm”, Maring’s rootsy, pillow-soft voice reminded the audience of their obligation to history. Certainly, a good part of their set included covers of tunes by such heavies as Maybelle Carter, Cole Porter, Jimmy Martin, Grandpa Jones and Stephen Foster.
Before the concert, had a chance to email Maring and ask her a few questions:
Smile Politely: How has living/growing up in Southern Illinois influenced your music?
Wil Maring: Growing up in a rural place that is so beautiful has a big influence on how you see the world and what things you value within it. I try to create that relaxing natural vibe that I felt from my surroundings here, in my music.
SP: Do you come from a family of musicians? If not, how did you get started out playing/writing songs?
WM: My father was a classical pianist, not professional, but there was a lot of piano music in the house. My mother had a great appreciation for music, and had a huge record collection of all sorts. All the 6 kids in the family play to differing extents, but I am the only one who has played professionally.
SP: Can you describe a musical moment in the past few years that has been pivotal for you?
WM: Maybe the first time I played with my duo partner Robert Bowlin and I realized how similar we are musically, and how it seemed to work so well and sound good without trying that hard. You only find a handful of musicians in life where you feel like the music is so effortless. I have been lucky that I’ve been able to play with a few people like that.
SP: Do you ever kick back and just jam on the front porch? If so, with whom?
WM: Yes, I try to do that as often as possible with as many different people as possible. Everyone has something to offer. I try to play with duo partner Robert Bowlin on an informal basis a few times a week when we are not touring, just jamming around for fun.
SP: Who has influenced your music?
WM: James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, John Denver, those were all people I listened to in my formative teen years, in addition to old-time, folk and bluegrass artists. I try to combine their songwriting skills with traditional roots instrumentation. Also, I am influenced by every band member that I’ve played with who has helped me grow as a musician.
SP: What other artists/genres are exciting to you these days?
WM: I have been listening to a lot of Celtic particularly Scottish artists like Kate Rusby lately, and also old jazz and blues. I really love all kinds of music and a lot of singersongwriter music.
SP:How would you describe your music?
WM: It is a fusion of bluegrass, old-time, and folk roots and instrumentation with more modern pop, country, and even jazz elements, combined with a singersongwriter approach to the lyrics.
SP: How did your experience in Europe influence your music?
WM: It was at times grueling, in terms of playing, but it was all good for me. In the western saloon where I was in the house band, we had to play every day from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and sometimes special shows at night too. So I had many hours to hone my skills as a singer and a player. The European systems takes good care of , and values musicians, so I didn’t have to worry about the day job for health insurance, and struggling to make ends meet, like you have to do in this country. I could just concentrate on the music and making people happy.
SP: Your last album came out in 2007….do you have a new project in the works?
WM: Yes, I have plans for a new solo cd, for which I have been writing the songs, and also, more importantly a duo cd with my current duo partner Robert Bowlin. We’ve started that already, but had to put it on the backburner because the gigs got too busy. I hope this summer we’ll be able to get back to it.
SP: Describe one of most formidable challenges for contemporary singer-songwriters. How have you negotiated this challenge?
WM: The biggest challenge for me has been to try to survive in a tough economy selling only “art.” How do you pay the bills, pay for your own health insurance, etc etc. when cd sales are dropping 30-40% and guaranteed pay shows are getting hard to find because traditional venues are closing down. I have tried to target the fans directly by playing a lot of house concerts, rather than traditional venues or festivals. I have also started painting again, which was my BA in college, in order to have something else to sell besides music.
SP: Is it possible to avoid the Nashville “power structures” in this business?
WM: Yes, you just don’t go there, and don’t write for that audience. But if you want to “hit it big” then you might have to do that.
SP: What kind of comments from fans do you appreciate?
WM: I like to hear how their lives have been touched, or changed by a particular song. Also to hear that they have decided to learn to play an instrument or try songwriting because they saw a show of ours.
SP: What has been one of your most memorable gigs? Why?
WM: Of course, our appearance on the Grand Old Opry was unforgettable. We played in a big band for that show, with 2 fiddles, clawhammer banjo, mando, 2 guitars, bass, and the sound was so big and grand that it was breathtaking for me. The crowd loved it too. I have played many memorable house concerts, small audiences who are really into the lyrics of the songs. I love that the best.
SP: Where are you off to next?
WM: We will be playing at the Peaceful Bend Americana Music Festival in Steelville Missouri, May 14-17, and will be part of a DVD filming there as well.
For more information on Wil Maring and Robert Bowlin, including recording availability, check out