“He plays the autoharp and when he picks up the instrument, the entire room changes…a very magical world, a music never heard before.”
-The Chicago Sun-Times
By Frank Schier
Editor & Publisher
Just thinking about writing an article about Bryan Bowers rings many so strings in my personal music memories, I have a hard time finding the right key to bring you to him. This cacophony has been playing on for more than 40 years with great friendship and admiration of his talent and character.
As I put these mental notes together, I think they will read best served on the staff of chronological time, with a few flash forwards and flash backwards. I’d like you to hear a BBB key that continues a unique scale of musical history.
I first met the phenomenon of the Triple B, Bryan Benson Bowers in Rockford’s now passing legendary folk club, which gained national and international fame, Charlotte’s Web.
Sadly begun, but with great results, Charlotte’s Web was created in the honor of a beauty of talent in my sophomore class at Boylan Central Catholic High School, Charlotte Powers. And powers she had; she was a sparkling gentle being of amazing promise who was killed in an auto accident. Charlotte was on her way to play one of the leads in the school’s production of the musical, George M, when a drunk driver hit her car head on. With her brother Ken barely surviving the crash, Charlotte Powers’ eldest brother Steve dropped out of MIT to start an enterprise to keep alive his sister’s love of folk music. His efforts first began in 1971 as the Orpheus coffee house, which then grew to Charlotte’s Web through the patronage of philanthropists Bill and Karen Howard. Steve went on to form Mountain Records, and the Howards, fondly known as Gus and Ruby Sky, with the able assistance of many like Jack Pine, grew the legacy the Powers produced.
That legacy began with performers Biff Rose, Bob Gibson, U. Utah Phillips, Steve Goodman, Jim Kweskin, Spider John Koerner, Ron Crick, Ron Nigrini, the Rose Hip String Band, Dick Pinney, Frank Hall, Mark Henley, Megan McDonough, James Lee Stanley,Tom Dundee, and Susan and Richard Thomas, to mention too few.
Then the venue’s drawing power really began to roar with performances by (again, this is only a few) Timothy Leary, Vassar Clemments, Norman Blake, Odetta, Stephan Grippelli, Gamble Rogers, Martin Bogan and the Armstrongs, Bill Monroe (the Father of Bluegrass), Leon Redbone, Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy Rich, Koko Taylor, Kenny G, Joan Jett, John Hartford, Paul Winter Consort, Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, Micheal Johnson and Bryan Bowers.
When all the old/new bluegrass and folk music was breaking out in the ’60s and early ’70s, I was a troublesome high-schooler who followed the supposedly “rebellious” trends from greaser, to surfer, to long-haired hippie. Lost in the non-rules of unconscious conformity, I pompously decided my lifestyle could no longer coincide with my mother’s, Cecile Schier, so I decided her lifestyle would have to coincide with mine. Our first visits to Orpheus and Charlotte’s Web surprised me because she knew more of the traditional music than I did, and all of the performers liked her better than they liked me. Dang. In addition to effect of the innate ease of her company and intelligence, the affection of many of the road-burnt performers’ fast-food stomachs expanded because she stuffed them at our house with home-cooked dinners. She became known as “Ma” Schier at the Web.
Ma always liked to sit “down front” as she called it, so she could focus a little better through her trifocals. “The front tables are the place to be, Francis,” she’d gleam through her turquoise, horned rimmed glasses. “You can really see them perform.” She also had a bad knee and walked with a cane, and “down front” was also more comfortable.
So the first time we saw Bryan Bowers performing at the Web, she leaned over and said, “Francis, he is really good; the songs he knows!” And not too long into his first set, he asked, “Who is this little lady sitting down there grinning at me?”
“Ma Schier,” she proudly and loudly replied. “And this is my son, ‘Francis!’” Everyone laughed. I was thinking of the entire sixth-grade class I had fought, losing a few, to be called “Frank.” Observing my discomfort with a big smile, Bowers replied, “I’ll visit with you at the set break.”
He did that, and next thing I knew he was coming over for dinner the next day. My friends (we all had nicknames, I was “Francois”) Tim “The Gnome” Fane and Gary “Fox” Day went pheasant hunting very early in the morning and brought some rabbit along. They and about six or so of “The Animals” as some called us and our junior associates, descended with Bryan to surround the living room table and Ma’s cooking. After dinner, Bryan gave the first of many “house concerts” I have had the pleasure of hearing.
Soon after, Ma bought an autoharp and began to play, much to Bryan’s pleasure. I think Bryan has started more people on the autoharp than anyone can imagine. Ma and I started going to see him and other Web performers at Chicago’s Old Towne School of Music, Holstein’s, Wise Fools, Somebody Else’s Troubles, Evanston’s Amazingrace and various shows in Beloit and Madison. Some trips were made with Bryan’s friends Lou (great photographer and autoharper) and Annie Koch. After I left town, Ma saw more music than I ever did. I’d get phone calls, “Oh, Francis, Koko Taylor came over to dinner, and Micheal Johnson was here last week. I’m going to Amazingrace tonight.” Well into her late 60s, she was a regular Charlotte’s Web groupie.
That was after Boylan and RVC, when I attended American University in Washington, D.C. One night I was listening to the local NPR station, WAMU. I was excited to hear Bryan was opening up for John Prine and Steve Goodman at Constitution Hall. He was friends with “Afternoon Delight” composers Starland Vocal Band, who lived in the area, and I got to go backstage and meet everyone. It was a big deal to haul all his harps out on stage. He used to play with about 10 different harps, each in a different key, and watching him tune before shows was a trip. He’d have a running “manic” monologue of stories and a running stream of visitors before and after the show. I have lunked many a trunk of harps, “merc” (CDs for sale), and various instruments up and down stairs from and to his vehicle. It’s part of the “Bowers Experience.” He loves to be on the road.
When he first began driving around the country looking for gigs in his home-made RV, a 1966 Chevy panel truck known as “Old Yeller,” the nation’s capital really provided his entry into a professional life in music. One night he went to see The Dillards at The Cellar Door because mentors Phil and Vivan Williams knew them and said if possible he should play a song for them. He made his way to their dressing room and played “Battle Hymm of the Republic, showing how his five-finger method of playing. After he was done and introductions were made, he realized Sam Bush, Curtis Burch and Courtney Johnson of the New Grass Revival were in the room. He said later if he knew they were there when he started probably couldn’t have played. The Dillards then invited him to him to a bluegrass festival in Berryville, Virginia. They brought him out for their encore, thinking he just had the one song, He had more, and his career took off.
I left D.C. in 1977 because of an incompatibility with academic writing and international politics, beginning a hitch-hiking sojourn that rolled me into a job at the Hilton Harvest House in Boulder, Colorado. Perusing the local press one day, I saw Richie Havens and Bryan Bowers were playing at the Blue Note. I couldn’t believe it. What a show that was, listening to Bryan kick the show off and sitting a few feet from Havens as his big thumb open-corded out the song “Freedom” from his Woodstock Festival fame. He was a string buster.
Bryan was his usual big friendly (he is six-foot-four), and asked what I was doing. I said nothing much, just traveling for a while. He said I should come and see him at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in the summer. I hitchhiked down there through our family’s Loveland Pass (Ma’s maiden name was Loveland) and found a job in a bar called the Moon Gypsy. The festival started, and Bryan introduced me to the world’s best mandolin player, Sam Bush, and his buddy Long John Picker, who is no slouch as a mandolin man either. Bryan said I was looking for a place to stay, and Picker let me stay in his cabin up in the mountains above Telluride. That was one of the best times of my life. This was typical of the “Bowers’ Connection Mode” for his friends. He does this for people all the time to this day.
Bryan then asked if I’d like to come and work on his place in Seattle; and when the summer was over, I hitched up there. Many stories could be told of the three-story, “Bowers Towers” that was built as a lumber baron’s mansion on the Madrona Ridge. The people who lived there when I did or passed through really were a joy, Charlie Hollins, Tom Dundee, Claudia Schmidt, Sean Bowers, The Gnome, and Barney Munger. You never knew who would roll through Bowers Towers. I even played pool at the Comet Tavern with John Prine.
Besides jacking up the entire house a wall at a time to replace the sill beams, cutting a massive number of cords of wood for the four wood stoves, we expanded a deck up on the third floor roof. Imagine a view of the 22-mile-long Lake Washington and its two floating bridges. Just to the south, the clouds dissipating from the 14,417 feet of Mt. Rainier creates local happiness. As Bryan says in his View from Home album, “When the mountain lifts her skirts, the view from home will flat out melt your mind.”
Speaking of mind-numbing, Phil and Vivian Williams lived down the street. Phil was Bryan’s lawyer on the 35th floor of the Sea-First Building by day, who made replicas of Gibson F5 mandolins in his 1940s recording studio basement by night. Vivian was the Woman’s Fiddle Champion for the U.S. and Canada. Phil and Vivian started the Seattle Folk Society with John and Irene Ullman. I remember Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys’ famous bus pulling up in front of the William’s house and emptying out into a living room session. “Pill and Slivian,” as I called them, are so generous with their hospitality. They put up with me and Bowers. Wherever Bowers goes, the course of music friendship and history flows.
Bryan was born in 1940 in Arlington, Virginia. He has a famous story that as a boy he was loved listening to the rhythmic chants and songs of the gandy dancers as they set the railroad tracks straight in the countryside. I have always seen that story as a foreshadowing of another story he would tell from stage about getting off track. Those gandy dancers may have set him subconsciously on his real track in life.
As the tall youth he was, basketball became a passion. He went to college and became a “walk-on” for the college team with great hopes for more. But he had to work at a brickyard to support his new family. Then he was arrested for marijuana possession. His train of life was now derailed. In the early ’60s the common sense of legalization was unheard of, and Bowers was sent to prison. He has a very strong song about being released from prison and his unfulfilled intentions. I hope you hear “Prison Song” someday; it’s on his For You album.
His dreams of being a professional athlete were now on rails passed, and so he switched his interests to guitar. Then he heard a local player on the autoharp. He soon purchased his first harp and began to listen to the music of the Carter family, Mother Maybelle Carter in particular. The future tracks of autoharp music stretched out before him with a passion.
He went as far away from Virginia as he could get to make Seattle his home. He busked for street money in the renowned Pike Place Market and met Phil and Vivian Williams. He practiced relentlessly and learned fiddle tunes from Vivian.
True musicologists, the Williams play the music of the Oregon Trail around the Northwest, sponsored by state arts councils. Their talent and knowledge is legendary. Classically-trained Vivian truly amazes, and wily Phil stands as a master of subtle humor, droll looks and fine mandolin and guitar playing. Find these CDs: Phil & Vivian Williams, LIVE; Fiddle Tunes of Lewis and Clark; and Dance Music of the Oregon Trail. Bryan constantly cites their influence on his music.
Bryan continues to play guitar and has also played the mandocello, a big mandolin, for many years. I really like the mandocello, the deep tones, droning Irish cadences, reflecting to me the Emerald Isle’s Spanish and Moorish influences. He might laugh at such a comparison, and he’s famous for his crazy humor. His jokes (some very bad) are always a part of any phone conversation with him and his shows. Ask him about his song “The Scotsman” and his performances on the Dr. Demento Show.
Bryan Bowers’ songwriting (he wrote “Berkley Woman” for John Denver) and his instrumental talent have brought him to play on many other national artist’s recordings, including those of Emmylou Harris, David Grisman, and Jerry Garcia. John Prine and Sam Bush have played on his albums. Through the largess of one of his patrons, Ron Wall, Bowers assembled 55 of the nation’s best autoharp players and created the definitive three-CD set on autoharp music. From his time as a child in Virgina, Bryan has become the multi-stringed gandy dancer bringing out live and recorded tracks of original and historical music straight into the hearts of American musicology. He is an American Treasure.
Bryan was inducted into the Autoharp Hall of Fame in 1993, joining Mother Maybelle Carter, Kilby Snow, and Sara Carter. In 2006, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the famous California Autoharp Gathering. He is also included in Frets Magazine’s First Gallery of the Greats. He has appeared on the television program Real People, and he performed for Garrison Keeler’s Prairie Home Companion on NPR. He was also sent on tour as a cultural ambassador of the Arabian Gulf countries by the State Department’s US Information Agency.
One of the joys of knowing Bryan is when you are hanging out with him, the songs are popping out of him. “Hey Frank,” begins a phone call several times a year, “Listen to this one I’m working on.” That “one” is either a new joke (sometimes a groaner) or a few lines from a new song that comes over the airways as he drives down the road to his next gig, speakerphone engaged. I have been privileged to hear a few of those songs before they were recorded. You really should get his albums so you can hear him too as you drive along. Bowers’ tunes make for great road music. He’s lively. He’s intense. He’s intricate. And he’s sad sometimes, but mostly Bowers creates something you’d like your ears to see.
Well, as Ronald Reagan used to say, that’s my long-windedness about Bryan Bowers. Many of you have not had (yet many Webbies have had) 40 years of listening to and enjoying the “Bowers Experience.” So gandy dance on down to the marvelous Mandalay Room, 200 N. Church St. this Thursday night at 6:30 p.m. You might want to come early; could be crowded. Enjoy for yourself the “Bowers Experience.” Get ready for some jokes, some great stories, and some music that will take you through lost times and the talented soul of an American Treasure, Bryan Benson Bowers, the Triple B. He’s a friend for life.
Find these albums:
- The View from Home, Flying Fish, 1977
- Home, Home on the Road, Flying Fish, 1980
- By Heart, Flying Fish, 1982
- For You, Flying Fish, 1990
- Friend for Life, Flying Fish, 2002
- Bristlecone Pine, Seattle Sounds, 2006
- September in Alaska, Seattle Sounds, 2007
- Crabby Old Man, Seattle Sounds, 2011
- Sisters of the Road Live Concert, Seattle Sounds, 2016
- Thursday – 6:30 p.m. – Mandalay Lounge, 200 N. Church St. Rockford
- Jan. 15 – Two Way Street Coffee House – Downers Grove, IL
- Jan. 16 – WFMT Midnight Special Folkstage Concert Series – Chicago, IL
- Jan. 17 – House Concert – Columbus, OH
- Jan. 20 – House Concert – Indianapolis, IN
- Jan. 23 – Forest Park Nature Center – Peoria Heights, IL
- Jan. 24 – Legion Arts; CSPS Hall – Cedar Rapids, IA
- Jan. 29 – Shepherdsville Music Barn – Shepherdsville, KY
- Jan. 30 – Meadowgreen Park Music Hall – Clay City, KY
- Feb. 14 – Judith Arts Society – Hobson, MT
- Feb. 15 – Judith Arts Society – Hobson, MT
- May 19 – California Autoharp Gathering – Fresno, CA
- Nov. 18 – Princeton Folk Music Society – Princeton Junction, NJ
- Feb. 4, 2017 – Saturday Night Special – Calgary, Alberta