Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Rest in peace, Hazel McGee...

Hazel & Mac McGee performing with White Mountain Bluegrass
at the 2011 Jenny Brook Bluegrass Festival.
On Monday, we learned that Hazel McGee of White Mountain Bluegrass passed after a lengthy battle with cancer.  Along with her husband of nearly 60 years, Mac, Hazel was a founding member of White Mountain Bluegrass (or, WMB) -- one of the most-loved Bluegrass bands in the Northeast.  A person only needed to watch one set of music performed by WMB to know that Hazel was calling all the shots -- in the best way possible.  This was a lady who knew how to sing, and she surely knew how to keep all of her band members (including her husband, Mac, and their oldest son, Herman) in line.  Hazel respected the audiences who would come to see WMB -- for instance, she'd insist that the band members always dress neatly on the stage -- and the audiences loved her right back.  Hazel and Mac have both been recognized as "Pioneers Of Bluegrass" at the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, Kentucky, and were honored by the Boston Bluegrass Union a few years ago, as well.  

While researching a bit more background information on White Mountain Bluegrass for this past Sunday's radio show, I came across a nice article that was written by a long-time WMB admirer, Robert Fraker, several years ago.  Originally, this piece was likely published in the old "Bluegrass Guide" published by Candi Sawyer, but it can now be found on the White Mountain Bluegrass website.  Even though the article is a few years old, it's still well-worth your time to read.  Hazel was a true treasure, and she will be -- and already is -- greatly missed...

The Heart and Soul


White Mountain Bluegrass

By:  Robert Fraker

It’s Sunday morning at the Thomas Point Beach bluegrass festival, one of the most difficult days of the year to get up at a reasonable hour.  But get up I do, pull on some sweats, grab a cup of coffee, stumble bleary-eyed and half-awake from my campsite to the stage area and settle down into someone else’s lawn chair.  It’s something I’ve done every Sunday morning of the many years I’ve been coming here, because soon White Mountain will begin their gospel set, and for the time they’re on stage, I’ll be in heaven – bluegrass heaven that is, listening to some of the best straight-up, old time singing and picking to be heard today.
For over thirty years now Mac and Hazel McGee and the band have been performing their distinctive brand of traditional bluegrass throughout the Northeast, in Florida and in the Mid-Atlantic states, and in Europe as well.  Based in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Mac & Hazel are part of the tradition of transplanted Southerners like the Lilly Brothers and Don Stover, who brought an early awareness of bluegrass to the area’s country audiences, establishing a particularly keen regional enthusiasm for the music that continues to this day.  Hazel’s father died when she was five, and soon after, her family moved from Tennessee to join relatives living in Phoenix, NY, a small town in the Syracuse area. Her mother Ginny Cote, whose grandmother was a cousin of A.P. Carter, sang in a country band with her uncles, and when she was older, Hazel joined in from time to time.  Mac had come up from Georgia to join his brother in Boston, and they eventually moved to Phoenix for work.  Mac knew of Ginny and her band and one day showed up on her doorstep with a guitar badly in need of tuning.  Ginny invited him in and helped him tune his guitar and Mac began hanging out with the family.  Mac and Hazel started dating, going to the country music shows in the area, and singing together.  They formed a country band, with a lap steel and electric guitars, and performed the hits of the day, the classic songs of the 50′s greats, Hank Williams, Web Pierce, Lefty Frizell, Kitty Wells and Red Foley.  Bluegrass wasn’t in their minds.  Mac claims to have disliked it then.  “I thought it was the worst stuff in the world, if Bill Monroe came on the radio, I’d turn it off!”  Hazel adds, “Well, we were doing some songs at the time that were bluegrass, but we didn’t know it.”
Mac and Hazel married in 1957, when Mac was finished with military service in the Marines.  The following year they moved to Portsmouth, where Mac began his life-long career as an independent trucker, hauling gasoline.  The two continued playing old-time country informally with friends, occasionally performing in public.  But the move to Portsmouth ended up being a musical move to bluegrass for the couple as well.  The town’s proximity to Pease Air Force Base and the Kittery Navy Yard just to the north in Maine provided a source of bluegrass musicians from other parts of the country, servicemen homesick for the music and eager to play.  “They’d come into the local music store and ask around who was picking,” Mac remembers.  As a result, in the late 60′s Mac and Hazel met Roger Greene, a mandolin picker stationed at Pease, whom Mac credits as “a big influence in turning us on to bluegrass…   A nice guy, he taught us a lot.”  Pease AFB would later introduce them to mandolin builder, John Paganoni, a long-time friend and member of the band while he was stationed there.
Bluegrass was gaining momentum in the Northeast, and the McGees were definitely among the converted.  “Something abut bluegrass, just gets under your skin…” says Mac, describing a phenomenon that the music’s fans know all too well.  White Mountain Bluegrass was formed in 1970, with Mac and Hazel, Joe Pomerleau on fiddle, Jeff Lind on bass, Bob Frost on banjo and Sam Garris on mandolin.  Like so many others, the band started with friends playing informally, then as things started to come together and requests to perform began coming in, a band was born.  They played the usual round of pubs, pizza parlors and coffee houses.  At the time, the two main venues for the music were Jarvis’ Restaurant at the Portsmouth bus depot, and the Stone Church in New Market.  As time went on, the band’s reputation gained wider attention.  “A lot of people came to see us…  Don Stover, Joe Val, Bea Lilly,”  Mac recalls.  The era of festivals was developing and White Mountain were regulars at those started by Jimmy Cox and Fred Pike.  They performed at the very first festival at Thomas Point and have been at every one since.
It was Joe Val who recommended White Mountain to the Dutch country promoter Rienk Janssen for his ‘Strictly Country’ series of European tours.  Making the overseas journey a remarkable six times, White Mountain Bluegrass has played in Holland, Germany, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Denmark and Sweden, performances sampled in the band’s Aragon Mill:  Live in Holland CD.  Mac and Hazel recall the trips fondly:  “You can’t believe the warm reception you get, how they treat you like royalty….And they’d listen, every show you could hear a pin drop.”  Current mandolin player Jackie Greenwood adds “Holland is like home for White Mountain.  Everywhere you go the people request their songs, you can see them singing along with every word…”
Over the years the band has made seven recording projects, and see numerous personnel changes, numbering some of the finest pickers from Canada and the Northeast.  Of the many fine musicians, three deserve special mention for their longevity and contribution to the defining the classic White Mountain sound.  Mac and Hazel’s oldest son Herman McGee joined the band in the mid-70′s, with a powerful banjo attack and a distinctive cross-pick lead guitar style.  He is also a fine baritone singer, helping to create the band’s beautiful trios, and the band’s chief sound man.  Dobro player Roger Williams is recognized as one of the virtuosos of the instrument, his forceful and lyrical solos a key element in the band’s drive, and his low-range lead and harmony singing a crucial vocal contribution.  And last, the late and greatly missed Bill Sage, whose spirited, bluesy fiddling and wild antics on stage keeps the audiences alternately amazed and amused.  Mac and Hazel met Bill when he was playing with Don Stover.  An offer from Bill to fill in on fiddle when needed turned into a 12 year membership in the band.
How to account for a band that has lasted for over a quarter of a century?  “I think it’s because it’s just me and Hazel singing,” says Mac.  “We do all of the singing, whoever plays the instruments just fits in to our style.”  While other band members do sing occasional leads and harmony, Mac is essentially right.  His and Hazel’s singing is at the core of the White Mountain experience.  Their combined voices are what bluegrass soul is all about.  Mac has an airy weariness and a tinge of sadness to his voice that give to bluegrass songs, with their stories of heartbreak and lost homes and family, the ring of truth and experience that inspired them.  It is perfectly matched with Hazel’s soaring bluegrass tenor, a powerhouse of a voice that cuts like the best in the business, effortless and unadorned.  Both voices deliver with directness and honesty, both have a similar approach to singing.  When asked about their own vocal heroes, Mac mentioned Hank Williams right off.  “But I never tried to sing like anybody,” he continued, “You gotta sing with feeling, that’s all.”  Hazel agreed.  “You just open up your mouth and let it come out.”
In the end, though, what keeps a band going over thirty years is dedication, the year in – year out rising to the challenge of balancing music with work and raising a family.  “There was one year we were off only two weekends.  Sometimes I’d get home from playing and get in the truck and take off,” remembers Mac.  A good sense of humor is important, too, and there is no band that has more fun on stage.  Sets are informal and relaxed, with a joke or two, and often with surprise songs or performers.  Mac and Hazel are quick to agree that the greatest reward for their years of performing are the many friends they have made, both on stage and off, on both sides of the Atlantic.  And most satisfying, Hazel stresses, has been the participation of their sons Keith and Herman.  “It’s meant so much to us over the years.”  A question about the future of the band gets an answer that is both expected and reassuring.  Mac thinks a moment and replies, “I guess we’re going to be in as long as we can, it’s in our blood.  We’ll keep on it even if it’s just Hazel and me.”  Lucky for us, I think to myself.

No comments: