10. The Massachusetts Walking Tour (Mark Mandeville and Raianne Richards)
Webster, Massachusetts // December 2018
Mark Mandeville and Raianne Richards are folk musicians based in southern Massachusetts. In 2010, inspired by a surge in gasoline prices, they decided to try something new: a foot-powered tour across the entire state, from the Berkshires to Boston, during which they’d get everywhere by walking while carrying everything they needed, instruments and all, on their backs. Despite the brutally punishing circumstances of that first walk (they describe them below), they kept trying the walking tour again and again, blazing new routes with new combinations of musical companions across all corners of the Bay State each summer, and next week, the Massachusetts Walking Tour will celebrate its tenth anniversary with a walk along the Ten Mile River watershed in southeastern MA.
The Walking Tour project seized my attention the very first time I heard about it, and I’ve only grown more fascinated and inspired by it ever since. Most importantly, as Mark and Raianne describe below, it has provided them with an opportunity to give concerts that bring whole communities together in the way they feel that folk music should do and too often doesn’t. It also enables them to cultivate a sense of regional awareness and community engagement, not only in their widely various audiences, but in themselves: what better way to know a place the size of Massachusetts than to walk across it, again and again and again, along a new vector and through new little towns every time? There’s both an authenticity and a sense of duty and commitment to their work that I deeply admire and wish more musicians could emulate.
More about the Massachusetts Walking Tour, including details for this summer’s performances and information about previous tours, can be found here.
We recorded this rambling yet frank conversation last winter, at a new cafe in their hometown called the Rose Room which Mark and Raianne seemed keen to promote.
Mark Mandeville: And suddenly… wow, there's a place in town that makes a good cup of espresso. I can't believe it. What am I to do.
Raianne Richards: Mark has been longing for this for I don’t even know how long. We both have. SO long.
MM: They’d better stay open, is all I can say.
Ben Cosgrove: Well, you're doing your part, right? You’ve dragged an out-of-towner in to drink a ton of coffee…
RR: Yes. Yeah. Drink up!
BC: Well, I guess we should say: we're in Webster, Massachusetts—
MM: We're in Webster, which is our hometown. Which is the bottom of the middle of Massachusetts.
BC: It’s right around… well, it’s the home of the lake, right? The unpronounceable lake!
MM: That’s correct. It's the home of the lake.
RR: Do you want to try and say it?
BC: Oh, I absolutely do not.
RR: Mark can say it.
BC: Let’s go.
MM: Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg. Incidentally, we found out last night that Ethel Merman had recorded a song, during her time period, her heyday, about our lake.
BC: How is it?
MM: Well, it's, ah… super not appropriate for today. [laughs] So it has a lot of uh, questionable invented words that are meant to sound sort of… Native American-esque?
BC: Ah, yikes.
RR: It’s not really politically correct.
MM: Not. At. All. But – I mean, I'm not making fun of the lady back then, of course; I'm not one to like, beat up Grandma…
BC: [laughs] That’s a nice thing to know about oneself.
MM: Ha! Yeah. However… I'm thinking when I heard it, like, wow. I think our town had recently like, an incident where… well, the local football team is called the Indians and some naive teenager at the high school found the old school mascot. Which is of the type that many places in the country used to have and still have – it's, you know, a very upsetting, racist Native American caricature that looks more like an ogre or… god, what does it look like? It's like a… I can't think of the name. It just looks like a… a rough character.
BC: Uh huh…
MM: Yyyyyep. Well at any rate, so this teenager found it, found this old mascot, put the costume on, and ran out onto the football field and like, the whole crowd gasped in horror, like “oh no, they found it.”
BC: This thing was just lying around?!
MM: Deep, deep in the closet. But then this sort of had the effect of – well, good things happened. There’s a museum nearby that's run by the Nipmuck tribe, and they came down, and said like, “yeah, we're going to have to take that thing.”
MM: Yeah, like, “that’s… we need that. That’s not for you.” And it was a good lesson because I think they brought them all out to an assembly, all the kids, and made them apologize and they had a heartfelt apology and a good conversation. Of course anyway, to your point, yes. Honestly, I now have no idea how I got to this story. I guess just from the lake name and the Ethel Merman song. But maybe it’s sort of illustrative in its way. [laughs]
BC: It’s really cool that there is a museum.
RR: It's not here, it's in Grafton, but yeah! Yeah.
MM: We're going to have a museum soon, but it's going to be one dedicated to Samuel Slater, who's buried in town.
BC: Oh yeah? The, ah — the mill person?
MM: Yep. He's the guy who brought the blueprints for textile mills to America, you know, in his head.
RR: His first mill was built in Webster.
BC: Oh cool, I didn’t realize that! Yeah, I guess, we're technically in the Blackstone Valley, aren’t we? I mean, I guess, is this the edge?
RR: This is part of it. We're not, you know, right on the lines of the National Park corridor. But we are definitely part of that history. Sadly, that mill got taken out by a massive flood, in – I can't remember if it was in the 30s or the 50s. There were two that were really bad in this area before we had the infrastructure for it – like around a lot of New England, the Corps of Engineers have built all these dams. And around here they did that in part because there were these crazy hurricanes that would come up the coast, come inland, and just wreak havoc. And there's pictures of like -- where we are right now, basically it was underwater, the whole downtown was underwater.
BC: Huh. I wonder if it was the 1938 Hurricane.
RR: Mm, yeah I think so. It was either that or there was a big flood in ‘55. And there’s newspaper articles about that all over the place.
MM: Two very similar situations.
BC: Yeah, I suppose you’re sort of — there's not much between you in the ocean except for a little bit of Rhode Island.
RR: Yeah, which… come on. [laughs] And you know, it’s also… we have a lot of rivers here—
MM: We don't have any fun since the Army Corps of Engineers showed up and built all those dams. Used to be we could do a lot more canoeing through the streets of downtown. [laughs]
RR: —and obviously they wanted to use the water to power the mills, so they built right on the river. And then, like, Samuel Slater for example, he built a lot of housing for his workers, all right on the river. So the area that really should be floodplain was developed. You being into landscape, you’d probably appreciate this.
BC: Mm, yeah, that sounds like a familiar problem.
RR: A common problem in a lot of places. Yeah! But it's because back then they didn't know that it was going to do that. He had one mill that went up like literally went all the way across the river. I don’t know if it was a causeway or what. It said “Samuel Slater Mill” on it. But man, it just got blown out by water.
BC: Ha, if nothing else, a cautionary tale about physically attaching your name to stuff that might become a symbol of disaster.
BC: Huh, you know, I feel like I once played at something called the Slater Mill, but it was in in Rhode Island… Pawtucket, I think?
RR: The other place — yep, I was going to say: after he developed here he went to Rhode Island and started building there, too.
MM: That's where the museum for that is. Or no, where it formerly was. My understanding is that they've gotten stuff from that museum to put into this new location.
BC: Oh, interesting.
MM: Yeah. The same sort of format, though. The whole place is changing, though, this whole town. Because like – well, for instance, another one of the mills that we had in the town, they demolished it to move the Price Chopper supermarket across the street.
BC: I just bought peanuts at that Price Chopper! I feel somehow complicit.
RR: There used to be a big brick mill there, Cranston Print.
MM: Another one of our mills, there was a giant fire – a suspicious fire. Took down the whole thing.
RR: Yeah, if you want to see it, if you go down this little street right here you dragged like not even a mile down there and you'll see all this twisted metal. Because it's so hot that it melted the frame of the building.
RR: Yeah, it's crazy.
BC: I mean it's interesting. Like I think I’ve talked to you guys about this in the past, but I grew up in the Merrimack Valley, which is like—
RR: A lot of mills as well, right?
BC: Yeah I feel like it's kind of a fraternal twin to this area. You know? Like, a different river, on the other edge of Massachusetts, going at the directly opposite angle, but still with all these big old mill buildings — though I guess up there it was primarily textile mills.
RR: So in New Hampshire? Or lower?
BC: Eh, right on the border. Where I mostly grew up was by Lawrence, and Lowell, not too far from Nashua, all that stuff. My town was Methuen. But a thing they’ve had to deal with up there is that all those towns still have these crazy, gigantic brick mill buildings that are, you know, historically significant and iconic, but very hard to find a use for that isn’t… you know, producing textiles in the 1800s.
RR: Oh yeah, there’s that real big one right on the river there, that you can see from 495, right? And they’ve put in like restaurants and there’s like a clinic maybe?
BC: Yeah! It’s an interesting thing to see.
RR: There’s a venue in Lowell actually, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, The Hearing Room?
BC: Huh, no, I haven’t!
RR: Pretty cool spot.
BC: That's interesting. You know, it’s weird, I haven’t really played much at all in the immediate area where I grew up… probably any psychologist would have a great time unpacking that. [laughs]
MM: Ha, yeah. I mean, they say you can't be a hero in your hometown. Boy howdy, is that true.
BC: [laughs] I mean, I guess I left it on pretty good terms and I don't want to ruin it. But has that been your experience?
RR: I certainly don't think what you're doing would ruin it.
BC: Ah, thanks, that’s nice of you.
RR: Were you close to – I’m going to mispronounce it – Tewksbury?
BC: Yeah. Little bit.
RR: Did I say it right?
BC: Ha, yeah, I think so. That’s what I would have said. Definitely not “touk,” and not “tuck” exactly, but like, the past-tense verb “took.”
RR: We had a good experience there at their library – the library in Tewksbury has music. And it was actually very well-attended.
BC: So that’s actually one thing I wanted to be sure to talk to you guys about.
BC: Well yeah, but more broadly, this general idea of aiming your music at audiences that are larger and more diverse than, say, a particular folk music crowd. I immediately felt a kinship with you guys because I feel like we both do a lot of our work by playing in small communities. And a lot of them. And very frequently. Which I think is not necessarily the experience of a lot of musicians, and I wondered if you could talk a little about that – whether it was a decision you made, or if it just worked out that way, or what. Did you always approach touring and performance this way, or is it something you came to through experience and careful decision-making?
MM: Well… I think that—
RR: (to Mark) Be nice…
MM: Heh. Well, then we first started, we fell into the trap of thinking that we needed to play all the hot spots. I felt like Raianne and I were like, collecting baseball cards of folk venues sometimes, or going on a museum tour of the folk revival. You know?
BC: Ha! Yes…
MM: Yeah, it’s like – a lot of these rooms, folk music rooms, folk coffeehouses – they used to be these communities where anyone could play, and everyone would show up, because they were interested in music, and spreading ideas at that time. During the 60s and 70s, I guess that’d be.
But these rooms now? These rooms don't do that anymore. These rooms are — you basically bang a bar and they're going like, “okay, what’s your draw?” And when somebody asks me what our draw is, I think that indicates that their business isn't doing so hot. Because if they don't have a community that we can play for, what’s the benefit of us playing for there except for having some weird brand recognition? You know, with having played that place.
BC: Yeah I feel like I may know a couple of the places you're talking about—
MM: And I'm not badmouthing those places because, like I said, we have an extreme historical reverence for those places, and for what those places did for all the people that we appreciate musically. However, the fact is, they're not doing anything for us today. They are not! And in playing them… I'm just becoming less and less interested in it, because I want to play for communities; people who are getting together, living together, and doing things together.
I also want to play for younger people, and I haven't figured out how to do that yet. You know, because a lot of people who are showing up for folk music nowadays are the same people who have been showing up for folk music things since the 60s! And the 70s. And they're aging. You know, and I love playing for those people, but is it sustainable? And what does that say about communities? Is there actually one there?
BC: Yeah, that’s an interesting take – that it all sort of flies in the face of these, well, in the nominal point of folk music in the first place too. You're supposed to be kind of – well, giving voice to something that’s common to everyone, and bringing people together around ideas and experience.
MM: I sometimes feel like we shouldn't point that out though because a) it is extremely obvious and b) people will get really defensive really quick when you start bringing that up.
RR: Yeah, a main reason we’re losing interest in those venues is that they're not serving younger people so much.
BC: Well, have you guys played much in colleges and things like that?
MM: Well, we used to. What we found there — and I've actually thought differently since we last met. Because you said “well, I finally look old enough that they might respect me at a college.”
BC: [laughs] I mean, maybe the jury’s out on that, but yeah, I’m getting empirical evidence that suggests that I maybe finally look like a credible grown-up.
MM: Ha, well, I took what you said seriously and I thought, maybe there's some truth in that. And I've started contacting colleges again because you said that! And unfortunately, we've had no luck. But again, it's not like I have this romantic idea that – well, like Pete Seeger played colleges when he got blacklisted. He went right to the youth. But he went to the youth at a time where the youth wanted to listen to folk music and hear ideas about… well, about folk music.
And why they wanted that. And I still think the young, the youth, need that. You know? They need to be talked with by a multitude of people with a multitude of ideas so they can listen. But there's a lot of reasons why I'm not sure that works anymore. It’s attention spans or whatever.
BC: Well what about – well, when you do the walking tours, and you put yourselves into these spaces that are kind of novel and maybe weirder than your average gig? Do you find the crowds there are more representative of the actual communities you’re walking through?
MM: Like playing at libraries or a public park?
BC: Yeah I have to imagine that – and in my own experience this has been true – in those public places you would inevitably round up a more random and diverse crowd of people.
MM: It is more random. And it makes me think – well, what we see through that is we see a lot of families show up. So we see people our age finally. At those concerts. But they bring their kids. Because they’re parents. So that's the reason why they're not coming the shows! They can't leave your house because they have tiny children.
So we're not seeing teenagers, mostly. But. What it makes me consider is that -- we can't lose hope in what we're doing because you never know what's going to happen in the next five or ten years. All those people that are our age, most of them have kids, or at least many of them have kids. And once they become free again and are reintroduced into society, these parents — [laughs] They're going to go, like, “when can we see Mark and Raianne again, we remember them, etc.”
BC: [laughs] Maybe that’s it, yeah. Maybe right now is just a period where you have to battle through the trenches because your immediate peer group has suddenly been taken out of commission
MM: Eh, they’re sort of busy. And I can’t hold it against them. But it certainly makes it hard to function. For us right now, because we're dealing with, you know, a lot of snotty attitudes from – [pause] well, so I want to say this: I don't – I'm not mad at any of these old guard folkies that book clubs or book folk music coffeehouses or book house concerts. Because the thing is that their opinions are valid, because people make decisions based on self-interest. Whether they like the human being that they're inviting to the house or venue, or whether they know somebody who likes this other band, or like – not all of these people are making these judgments based on what they think their community needs. Or wants. Or even have like a rubric for what they book at their club. They're doing it based on like, “oh that's cool right now” and “I know somebody who told me this is cool right now” and – they're just making decisions like they always make decisions
BC: Well, I’m sure on some level too, a lot of those places are just trying to stay above water, right? And in a lot of cases, these venues are like non-profits or run by volunteers.
MM: That's still making excuses for the draw. Who can we bring to fill seats? That's not a community. That's consumerism. That's different. A community will show up. Because they like being there and they need that space. That's not community
BC: Have you — well, ha, I’m actually going to use that as a sort of ungraceful pivot because I want to make sure to ask you—
RR: Pivot away!
BC: Could you guys walk me through the development of the Walking Tour? Was this – this dissatisfaction with folk venues that we’ve been talking about – was that part of why you guys started this project?
RR: Well… in 2010 gas was almost five bucks a gallon.
RR: That was a major reason we started doing it. And we had a friend who had done a human-powered canoe tour. From Buffalo to New York City, on the Erie Canal and the Hudson.
BC: Whoa. Wait… who was that?
RR: Christopher Bell?
BC: Oh. Yeah!
RR: You know him?
BC: Weirdly, yeah! I met him a few years ago at a concert we both played at in Maine, and we talked about the canoe tour. Sounded wild.
RR: He used to tour, like... a lot.
BC: That's so funny. He's from the same town as two of my of best friends.
RR: Jamestown, New York?
BC: Jamestown, New York! Well my friends are from Bemus Point, but same deal. Lake Chautaqua.
RR: We were just there!
BC: Really? How satisfying.
RR: Yeah. Our friend opened – well, we started going out there because a new, cool coffee shop opened that had music.
BC: In Jamestown.
RR: Yeah. And then all of a sudden it became this sort of destination for DIY touring bands that did everything from, you know, what we were doing to crusty punk to like, weird experimental. They were just like a house for everything. And now he has a bar upstairs from that place, with craft beer and everything, like -- it's amazing. How that little speck of culture just kind of transformed that town and all these other people started getting motivated and we said, “you know we could have a lot more cool stuff around here.” So we just kind of kept going there and kept seeing it evolve. It has been like 10 years. Or more.
Yeah. So Chris, being the crazy person that he is, also after the canoe tour, he did a bike tour from Buffalo to Chicago, just bicycling and stopping in towns and performing.
BC: That – okay, so doesn’t he play the cello…?
RR: So back then he played viola.
BC: Oh, okay. That’s a little less… masochistic.
RR: But, I mean, he still had to put that in in a boat and bring it down the river. And like I drive over the Tappan Zee Bridge and I look down and I'm like, “how did you not die?” This river is huge, and there's huge barges on it, and it's dangerous and scary, but you know, he's — he's a badass.
BC: Huh, I should find him. It would be really interesting to hear about all that – I seriously only met him that one time in Portland like four years ago.
MM: He's hung it up. Hung up being a musician.
RR: He's in Nashville now, teaching cello lessons.
MM: He's somebody that got to a point in his career where he's like, “fewer and fewer people are coming to my shows; this is not the way I envisioned it.” So. You just stop playing. Now he gives lessons.
BC: I mean, good city to do that in, though.
MM: Yeah. So I mean I think we'd like to say that like, of course we started the Walking Tour with this crazy vision in mind. But then I think what happened is, the longer we did it, the feedback from our community – meaning the people we wanted to pay for it, the Cultural Councils, the various organizations, the fans, and friends, and the state – all these people helped make us feel like it was an important thing to do. And so then we just kept doing it, and it kept shaping around what they wanted to celebrate.
BC: Did you think of it that way yourselves at the time? You know, “this is hard, but it’s important, and we’ll keep rolling this snowball until—“
MM: After the first year we absolutely wanted to give it up. [laughs]
RR: The first year was insanely hard.
BC: Ha! Yeah, didn’t you do, like, all of Route 9 or something insane like that?
BC: Yeah, that seems… hard and largely awful. And you started where?
RR: Becket. Dreamaway Lodge!
BC: Ah, cool. That’s a great place.
RR: Yeah. So we walked from the Dreamaway Lodge all the way to Huntington in one day.
BC: Oh. God.
RR: It's almost 19 miles.
BC: Hilly miles. And there are, like… instruments.
RR: Yeah, and we had like, HUUUUGE packs. Because we didn't know what we were doing. So we brought – I brought like four books, and all these clothes that I wasn't even going to wear. MAN, my back, my pack was probably like, I don't know, probably 75 pounds maybe more? It was insane.
BC: [laughing] And, oh man, the walk from Becket to Boston… on ROUTE NINE… would get worse… like every single day.
RR: It became steadily more urban as we got closer to Boston, which meant that we were walking down commercial strips and that kind of thing. Not ideal.
MM: [also laughing] There was a reprieve, because in the middle we took the, ah, the bike trail.
BC: Oh, like through Hadley and Northampton?
MM: Yeah. And oh, some of it was filmed! So we had a guy filming us, the entire time. And after that first walk, we almost disbanded. Because it was just so difficult. And on top of it, like – well, so Chris was with us, with his girlfriend. When we got to each venue, we didn't get to the location at the same time. You know how nowadays, the Walking Tour ethos is like, “Our Troop Arrives Together?” And then we perform together? Not then. Back then it was Raianne and I performed separate, then Chris performed separately, with his girlfriend at the time. But we did not get to the destination at the same time. They were like a mile behind us. Because we all walked at different paces. We didn't take into consideration, which we do now, the psychological impact of being left behind.
BC: Hm, yeah. Quite literally.
MM: Right. Yeah. Sometimes if — like, in 2011, I remember specifically, because that year it rained like a bunch of times in a row – there was just three of us walking that year. It was us and this guy Matt Fox, and we all walked at different paces. And Raianne was in the back of the pack most of the time…
RR: I walk very slowly.
MM: And I would walk really fast! But sometimes I'd get somewhere and I'd wait like 15 or 20 minutes and no one would show up. And then you start thinking, “oh crap, did I take a wrong turn?” You put your pack down and you run back because you feel like, “oh no -- I lost everybody! Maybe I screwed up, like what happened to them??”
RR: Plus it was raining like eight days straight.
BC: This was still year… one.
RR: This was year two! Year one was insanely hard, and then year two it was like “we’re just going to rain on you for the whole trip.”
BC: Wow, it really is amazing that you guys kept doing this.
MM: [laughs] We were working out the kinks.
BC: Where was the second year’s route? The rainy one?
MM: The second year was the Midstate Trail.
BC: Oh, no way! Very cool.
RR: Our first hike on a trail.
MM: Yeah, we wisened up right away and realized we should work with trail people. It was really amazing; it helped so much. And the shows were much better-attended.
BC: Did you go north to south?
RR: South to north. Which I don’t recommend. Start at the top and work your way down.
BC: Jeez, that seems counterintuitive.
MM: Well, we did it that way because we started from home!
RR: Yeah, because it starts right down here in Douglas. Right on the Rhode Island line.
BC: Yeah! It winds up not far from where my family lives, actually. I think it ends in Westminster – or no, Ashburnham, it must be — and they’re right over there in Fitchburg. Oh wait, doesn’t it end at the top of Mount Watatic?
RR: Yeah, and then you can hike from Watatic to North Pack Monadnock along the… another trail. Wam… puck?
BC: The Wapack Trail! My great-aunt cut that trail!
RR: What? That’s amazing.
BC: Yeah! I actually wrote a short essay about her for an online journal a few years ago. She died about a month before I was born, so I never met her, but she really had this amazing life. She was the New Hampshire Women’s Woodchopping Champion—
BC: Yep. So anyway, in the twenties, she was working on this farm in New Ipswich, New Hampshire, and it was right while these local conservation movements were sort of starting to percolate, and so these two men – one was with the local Forest Society and another wrote a book about Mount Monadnock – approached them to propose that she and this guy Frank Robbins, who she’d eventually marry, mark out a footpath along this ridgeline that they’d been running cattle over for years because they knew it so well. And they did!
MM: This is wild.
BC: It’s the first interstate hiking trail in America! I’ve read all these interviews she gave, later in life, when she talked about the process of cutting the trail, and there’s all this stuff like “we did most of the work on Sundays, when chores were few.”
RR: [laughs] That’s great. She’s like a pioneer of central Massachusetts.
BC: I’m really bummed that I so narrowly avoided meeting her. And yeah, after they cut the trail, she built and operated a lodge about halfway up the route, near where the Windblown Ski Area is now, where she’d like, feed and put up hikers who were going up or down the trail.
RR: This is all before, like, the AMC or the Appalachian Trail?
BC: So, not only that, but Benton MacKaye was one of the people who would frequently come and stay at the lodge – he lived just over in Shirley – and he always cited the Wapack as part of his inspiration for the Appalachian Trail.
MM: Wow. Ha, no way, that’s great.
RR: Your great aunt is royalty!
BC: I know, right? I always thought it was cool, but didn't realize, well, how cool until maybe like ten years ago or so.
MM: We’ve met so many people like this doing the Walking Tours, people who have spent their entire life, you know, working for a trail. And often it’s from working for an idea that turned into a way to go. Which philosophically is beautiful right?
BC: Yeah! Very much so. That’s well-put.
MM: Yeah. I really appreciate that kind of person. I talked to Al French this morning, who you remember from the show you played with us, right? He called just because — we've become very good friends, but I hadn’t heard from him for a long time. He called just to let us know that he was just on Chronicle. The program.
RR: What was he on there for?
MM: I don’t know, but just he sent me an email that said, like “TV Star Debut,” or something.
RR: [laughs] I love Al.
BC: He's in Northfield, right? That’s where that show was.
MM: Andover – he’s a Bay Circuit Trail character. He was there at that show, though, because he has a cabin—
RR: His cabin is in Northfield; he’s part of a timeshare there. That’s where we started off – that’s where the Walking Tour rehearsed for last year! But his house is in Andover, and yes, the Bay Circuit Trail goes through there.
BC: Ohhh, this all makes sense now. I had wondered why there had been a Bay Circuit Trail person hanging out in Northfield…
MM: Because he… hangs out in Northfield! [laughs]
BC: [laughs] Yes, it all makes sense now.
RR: In Andover, too, he used to run an outdoor store called Moor & Mountain for like thirty years.
BC: Oh! Yeah! I remember that store. By the train station!
RR: Yeah, that was Al’s! It was him and another guy, and then… they got older and didn’t want to do it anymore.
BC: [laughs] That seems like a very valid stance.
RR: But he was running that shop and blazing the Bay Circuit Trail at the same time.
BC: Wow, wild.
BC: That’s interesting though, what you were saying a second ago, about how walking along a trail can illuminate certain connections between places that you may not have put together before.
MM: That’s a real community. People who are coming together because of like-minded ideas, but growing because of their connection together. I just feel this after seeing this so much. I guess that's what you're sort of getting at with this – a question of like, is the Massachusetts Walking Tour sort of like guiding how you function as musicians? Writ large? And it kind of is because we're growing sour on the idea of a… well, the kind of shows that provide you know, a bang for your buck, brand-conscious, blah blah blah blah blah. It just feels like shopping at J.C. Penney or something like that. Versus, like, going to the place that just opened where they’re trying to locally source things. And the idea behind it, the new place, is a pretty sound idea, and a lot of people need to be turned on to these ideas. It's amazing meeting all these people that worked their whole life at something. That's why we sort of have a reverence for the coffeehouse people out there though. Because some of these coffeehouses and folk music things have been like 30, 40, 50 years old. They've been devoting their lifestyle non-profit pursuit of the community that's maybe dwindling now, but they remember a time when it was gangbusters and vital. And that's worth a lot, and that's worth respecting. You know. But it is worth wondering whether it is still a community. What you're doing — is it really still a community?
We've seen a lot of communities. Tonight we're going to North Attleboro, because one of the venues we’re working with next year for the Walking Tour is a church: a member of this church started a monthly coffeehouse open mic for students in the area, and it has evolved to a point where the students now run it. And they say over 100 kids show up. Every month.
BC: Hey, maybe this is exactly the silver bullet you're looking for.
MM: Yeah. Well it's crazy because it's – hey, here's a community that seems like it's functioning. They put it in the hands of the teenagers, so they form the committee, the teenagers run the thing. And then they raise money, five dollars a head to get in. Every month. And they've raised over seventy five thousand dollars, and they get to choose the cause they send the money to. It's – to me it's just like, well there's a community that's functioning, and it's young people, and I'm sure older people go too and they get inspired. That’s what these things should do, how they ought to operate. Anyway, I'm curious, so we're going tonight to see that.
BC: Wow, well, report back. Speaking of that, though, can you remind me where you’re going for this year’s tour?
MM: We’re doing the Ten Mile River watershed. And it's another one of Marjorie Turner Hollman’s books – she did the Easy Walks in Massachusetts books. So she wrote one about the Ten Mile River watershed and it's from… where the heck does it start, it's from Holliston to Seekonk.
BC: Huh. Yeah. That’s interesting – your route this year will precisely transect single part of Massachusetts that I know least well. [laughs]
MM: Well that's sort of the fun thing about this stupid tour, too, is that, like — I never went to the Cape before as a kid. So the year we did the Cape, I had never gone to any of these towns! So it was like Disneyland for me. It's just like —it's so different geographically, yet in the mindset you're in, and you're meeting all these people that are seasonal and you… I really had no idea this thing existed.
BC: How do you choose — I mean like, what is the process every year, and what do you… do you kind of finish one and then immediately have to brainstorm the next year’s route?
RR: So sometimes people like Charlie Tracy show up and say “Hey, I have this trail…” And then we do the New England National Scenic Trail, and then he says “Hey I have another trail called the Bay Circuit Trail that you guys should do.” So we just kind of followed his advice for a few years. And then, every year, just do outreach. Other people hear about us and act. Like this woman Marjorie Turner Hollman, who we've worked with before and we're working with again next year — Mark mentioned her a minute ago. She writes these books called Easy Walks in Massachusetts. So she she goes to this festival in Mansfield, the New England Folk Festival and then it’s been going on for like 70 years. It's just -- it's a very community oriented, so it's really cool. And we showcased there for several years, and during one of them, Marjorie happened to walk into our room. And she heard us talking about the Walking Tour, and she was like – well, she kept at us for like two or three years wanting to work together and finally we were like OK. [laughs]
BC: So that'll be next year. I wondered – well, actually, would you mind just going down the list and telling me where they’ve all been? Just for the record here.
RR: So he first one was Becket to Boston.
BC: Ah, yes, the infamous Route 9 year we were talking about.
RR: Ha, yep, Berkshire Mountains to Boston. Second year was the Midstate Trail. Third year we called the Modest Loop.
BC: [laughs] Because you’d learned to calibrate your ambition for these things?
MM: Ha! No, certainly not; we walked all around Central Massachusetts.
RR: So we actually started -- this is only one of the only times we've breached state lines – we started in Woodstock, Connecticut.
MM: That was the year I threw out my back, and the only use for me was: I can perform, and I can drive around, and I can hang arrows. I’d drive ahead and hang these little arrows for everyone. It made it easier for them; they’d just look for my arrows. And I felt… useful.
RR: We weren't walking a marked trail, which is a little more difficult; you have to pay a lot more attention to where you are and where you need to turn and all that sort of stuff.
RR: And we just — we linked together some roads and we used the Wachusett Greenways bike trail for part of it. So we kind of went up and around the Wachusett reservoir and then came back down through Worcester. And then the fourth year was the New England Trail. That was when Amy [Alvey] and Mark [Kilianski] jumped on board. Hoot and Holler.
MM: The New England Trail year was — that was tough. That was one of the first years that it was being branded as the NET, and there were still some sections that were tricky to get through. Yeah. Oh man. That's — that was Charlie Tracy sort of like, “I got an idea,” and we just went with it. It was… it was very difficult hiking.
RR: That was the most backcountry trail the Massachusetts Walking Tour’s ever done.
BC: I guess that’s true. There's some sections…
MM: The Seven Sisters? We did the Seven Sisters in a day.
RR: We did the whole Massachusetts section of the trail.
BC: Oh man, with all of your stuff, too? The instruments and everything?
RR: Actually no, we had somebody take the instruments. I think it was supposed to rain. And they would have slowed us down too. But yeah, that was insane. And then after that we did the Bay Circuit Trail—
MM: For two years.
RR: …yeah, exactly, then we did the Bay Circuit Trail again because it's a 212-mile trail. That's too much for one trip.
MM: One year for the north section. One for the south section. Yeah.
BC: I’m interested in that trail — it kind of roughly tracks with 495, right?
RR: Yeah, sort of. The second year that we did it, we – so the Bay Circuit is also called the Outer Emerald Necklace. This is back when, like, Benton MacKaye was developing it originally — it was going to be an auto road.
BC: Oh, huh – he was involved? I didn't know this history at all.
RR: We’ve got to hook you up with Larry Anderson. He’s involved with the trail and he wrote a biography of Benton MacKaye. He’d definitely be very interested in your aunt. And probably you too.
BC: Oh definitely; I’d talk to anyone about Benton MacKaye.
RR: The book is, uh, long. And sorrrrt of hard to get through.
BC: Ha — eh, I'm a nerd, I’ll give it a shot.
MM: It's well-written.
RR: Yes. Yes. So, sorry, we did the Bay Circuit Trail for two years, and for the second year, we did the Emerald Necklace parks in Boston and then took the T out to Framingham, and got on the Bay Circuit there.
BC: That's cool.
RR: Yeah, that's something that I've always admired about that trail. It has so many access points where, if you lived in the city, you could get on the train and get out and without much trouble at all. So you don't have to have a car, you don't have to get dropped anywhere. You do have to figure out where you're going to camp, because it's not really set up for through-hiking, but…
BC: It does seem to run through an unusual amount of public land for the area it’s in.
RR: Yeah. Well it goes to – pretty much the entire trail except for the road walking is stuff like state parks, wildlife conservation areas, Audubon land, forest preserves, town parks. It’s interesting.
BC: That’s really cool – it’s not like… well, one doesn’t necessarily think of eastern Massachusetts as a place where you could depend on so much conservation land. It's pretty neat that they're all – that you can circumscribe a two-hundred-mile line 20 miles outside of Boston and hit so much green space.
MM: Yeah. Well it was intentional! That was the very intention behind the development of the trail.
BC: Huh, can you say more about that?
RR: So Larry can fill you in on this, because he’s way more of an expert, but essentially, Olmsted and then later MacKaye, all these visionaries -- they wanted this series of parks as a buffer, because it would help prevent sprawl from the city. It would create a green area where people could recreate and get out and appreciate nature. And they knew that if they didn't do this, then all of the land would just – the development and the sprawl from the city would just seep and spread and continue to consume the whole state.
BC: That's so funny; I was just — so I just did a thing with the Emerald Necklace Conservancy in the fall, a kind of performance piece. And I was doing a bunch of research about the sites in preparation. And Olmsted has a bunch of very, very prescient comments about — just as you said — like, “the Boston of today is a mere germ of the Boston of future generations.”
RR: Yeah. You're right. He was right.
BC: It's just interesting that… well, his bulwark against that was the Emerald Necklace, which is now completely, completely surrounded by Boston in every direction.
RR: Yeah. Yeah.
BC: And then Benton MacKaye’s equivalent idea, seventy years later, is this much farther-away thing, that by now is also completely surrounded, in that case by all those eastern Massachusetts suburbs. It’s pretty wild.
MM: I mean back then it was – the philosophy was so intertwined with their actions. I guess it's that way now, too. But I guess what I mean is that then it seemed to be for the betterment of people and not for, you know, the dollar.
BC: Well, yeah, I think MacKaye had similar frustrations.
MM: I'm like, right now it just seems like, you know, “let's bulldoze a whole bunch of stuff and turn it into other stuff where we can buy things.” Whereas on some level, they at least were thinking things like, “whoa, wait, hold on a second -- let's carve out this corridor where we're not going to do that. We're not saying you can't do that but we're saying people need… to walk around.”
BC: Yeah, to see trees eventually.
RR: So originally Bay Circuit was going to be an auto road, and through that, these parks would all be connected together. But then the Great Depression hit, so it never really got fully realized and developed that way. But a lot of those parks were conserved or at least conceptualized. And luckily other organizations stepped up like AMC, the Audubon Society, the state, to manage that land.
BC: I am — I cannot believe I didn't know all this. I’m ashamed and astonished.
RR: Well, why would you? Unless you research the Bay Circuit Trail.
BC: Still! I mean. This is blowing my mind. So like yeah. Harold Parker State Forest, all these tracts…. There's like — I wonder if that’s why all that state forest land was…
RR: Yeah, you can look at the timeline but I think I think they were all probably within ten or twenty years of each other. There was a big push for that too, I think it was after World War II. We had a lot of guys from the military who came back here and needed jobs so they started doing things like that like state parks
BC: Yeah, and as you said earlier, the Corps of Engineers.
RR: Yes! Developed dams, so on. But yeah, that's when all that stuff happened. That's when they built the Quabbin, in the forties. And so part of it was like they needed jobs. And part of it was also people know visionaries who knew that that land was important. And it needed to be saved to protect it. So yeah.
MM: We should finish that thought –
RR: I'll get to that! I'm not going to lose it. Yeah. But just one more thing about the Bay Circuit Trail -- so lots of the parks were established, but the actual corridor lay pretty dormant for a long time. But then in the 90s, Al French is who turned it into a path. He did a lot of elbow rubbing, did a lot of talking. He had a lot of support and a lot of friends – like he and Charlie Tracy hiked that whole trail together several times.
BC: Ha! That’s awesome. Man, Charlie shows up everywhere.
MM: They had t-shirts made, I believe. “Trek 2000.”
BC: Yeah, I would totally watch a documentary about those two walking the Bay Circuit Trail.
MM: [laughs] Wow, that would be wonderful. Just Charlie and Al walking for 212 miles. Eighteen years ago!
RR: Yeah it's pretty cool! You know, years ago -- if you had some interest, we can definitely connect you with Larry, but it might be interesting to actually get him and Al together at the same time. Larry also did at least one of the treks with Al, so he's got some good stories.
BC: Oh, yeah, I’ll bet. Wow, yes, I’d love to take you up on that offer. Thanks again.
RR: Well, OK. So we did the Bay circuit trail. And then we did Cape Cod and the South Coast. We mostly used the Cape Cod Rail Trail -- not the one that goes to Falmouth but the one that goes between Wellfleet and Dennis.
RR: And then, we crossed the bridge and went into Plymouth, to Miles Standish State Forest which is huge. And then from there we walked down into the South Coast region and we used as much of the South Coast Bikeway as we could --- it’s still… each section of it is kind of on a town-by-town thing. So some of the towns have it done and some of them are kind of unfinished. Lots of sections aren’t really paved or formal or anything yet. But they're going to be connecting that one to the Cape and they're also going to connect over to Providence. So you'll be able to ride all the way to Providence from Provincetown.
BC: It’s sort of crazy that you can’t already do that.
RR: You could, but you couldn't do it on a road bike. You could do it on a mountain bike. And you'd have to detour yourself a little bit. And then you still have to get --- yeah, you’ve got to go over one of the bridges, and I think only one of them has pedestrian access. The other one does not. So that's kind of a barrier too.
BC: Yeah, I always forget that the Cape is now, bizarrely… an island.
BC: Just this sawn-off limb of Massachusetts.
RR: Yep, the Panama Canal of Massachusetts. Yeah. Have you ever seen big boats going on the canal? It’s pretty cool.
BC: Yeah, so my grandparents – my father’s parents – they live in Falmouth, so we went down there a lot when I was a kid.
RR: Ah, gotcha. Yeah, we kind of did the other side of the Cape, like the inside of the arm.
BC: You went along the bicep, whereas Falmouth is sort of at the edge of the armpit.
MM: [laughs] Precisely.
RR: But yeah, you know, I mean with our goal of visiting every town in Massachusetts, we will have to go back down there someday and revisit that area. So we did the South Coast Bikeway, the Cape Cod Rail Trail. And then after that we worked with Marjorie Turner Hollman. And we used—
MM: That was the Blackstone Heritage Corridor
RR: Blackstone Heritage Corridor, and we used another rail trail for that, the SNETT. That's all going to be part of this Titanic Rail Trail.
BC: The Titanic Rail Trail?
MM: So it was a railway line, and it was active, but some of it was never finished because the guy who was building it – financing it – went down on the Titanic.
BC: I wondered what the connection to the Titanic name was gonna be. And that’s… uh, a surprising one.
MM: Charlie Hayes, he was the main financier of that railroad. Yeah. Died on the Titanic.
BC: [pause] I guess I’m just surprised that they're choosing to name it after like, the thing… that killed him.
MM: Well. You know it was a very famous story about — we can't eliminate all the bad things that ever happened. That's my thought. You know? Bad things happen and we need to be reminded of those, so you don't let them happen again. We're not pretending a natural catastrophe couldn't happen. You can't have a picture of an iceberg with a red circle in a line through it. That seems kind of—
BC: [perplexed] I mean, to me, that seems literally like if Lincoln, Massachusetts were instead to be called, like, Ford's Theater, Massachusetts.
MM: HA! I mean… okay, yes, bad choices. It is what it is.
RR: [laughs] Yeah we did -- we did that walk using the SNETT rail trail for Franklin and Milford, and highlighting all these different places that are in Marjorie’s books. And then last year, we did—
BC: This was a weird one, right? The surf ‘n’ turf tour.
RR: Yeah, we paddled boats for half the trip! You know, 50 miles of paddling on the Connecticut River, and we’d tie up the boats and hike in for the concert every night. And then from Holyoke on down we walked -- mostly road walking.
MM: And next year will be 10 years. Wow. The ten-year anniversary of the Massachusetts Walking Tour. How we age so.
BC: Yeah that really is pretty awesome. Congratulations to both of you.
MM + RR: Thanks!
BC: Yeah, I wish I could join you; if only I played an even vaguely portable instrument.
MM: Oh, excuses. You can carry an 8-bass and whatnot.
RR: Or a melodica!
MM: An 8-bass accordion wouldn’t be bad. Actually, it probably would still weigh a ton…
RR: We need a bass player – bring your sousaphone. Don’t you play the sousaphone?
BC: Ha, yeah, that had been privileged information, but I played a sousaphone in high school. Absolutely zero interest in walking for a hundred miles with that.
MM: You play a little bit of guitar right?
BC: Yep, yep.
MM: Next year might be an orchestra, man. Next year we've invited a friend of ours from a family place we got to – a farm outside of Farmington, Maine.
BC: Oh yeah. You were heading up there, I think, when I saw you a couple months ago.
MM: Yeah. So. We have a friend up there in Farmington named Joe, and he was recently like, “man, this Walking Tour sounds like a fun thing. I'd like to tag along sometime.” So we were like, hey, why not? So we could – you know, maybe next year we could be a parade. [laughs]
BC: I like that! Man, what an inspiring thing. I also like that you wind up with slightly different combinations of instruments every year.
RR: That was the idea when we met Mark and Amy, though by now they've been with us for six years. So it's – yeah.
MM: They're addicted.
BC: Yes they really seem to appreciate the spirit of—
MM: Yeah, and again, it's nice to have them because it really adds a lot to our music, and now that we've played for so many years together we do have real chemistry. A lot of people think we're like, a bonafide ensemble. We get complimented a lot on how we interact with each other.
BC: Yeah! Having seen one of your shows, I can verify that you all really do seem – I mean, you are a band.
MM: Yeah! And you know, if people ask us, “what's your name, man, what's your band’s name?” we’re like “Massachusetts Walking Tour.” And they’ll go, “yeah, I mean, I know that's what you're doing, but….” But then we’re like, “no, it's actually -- that's all.”
BC: Yeah. That’s really so cool. See? You're doing the thing that you love and that you’re good at doing, and – to tie this back to the things you were bemoaning at the start of this conversation, you have created a community, built around a family of musicians.
RR: Again. I mean it's it's really neat because. Now we have like we have like a handful of groupies, who -- it doesn't matter where we’re going in the state, they will come. And they say things like, “my summer hasn't started until I've seen you guys.” They look forward to it.
BC: Well yeah – it makes all the sense in the world to me too, why all these trails people and parks people would be psyched to work with you guys. Because the longer you do this and the bigger a following you build, the more you have to give to these places, to highlight a particular park or trail or region of Massachusetts. That’s such noble and powerful stuff.
RR: And hopefully we’re – well, yeah! Like last year we highlighted Sugarloaf and Mount Holyoke and stuff, and I know that there were people who came to those parks for our shows who had never been there, to those sites. So we're introducing them to a new audience.
BC: What do you think about the fact that – well, you mentioned that early on you were sort of surprised by the fact that people were finding it so compelling. Why did you feel that way?
MM: The Walking Tour?
MM: I guess because they wouldn't do it themselves. You know? It's very much sort of like, I like – sometimes people who walk with us go, “you know, you could just like get somebody to cart that stuff around for you, and then right at the last mile, show up and give you the bag to walk into town and stuff.” But you know, like… for me, that is the thing. Carrying the weight. For me, that’s important. The burden of it. It’s a symbol of what normal people wouldn't actually do. People say, like, “oh man, it's amazing what you do,” and it's like, no, we just carry something heavy for eight miles.
BC: Does it make you perform differently or think about the music differently? Having to do this physical work as part of every concert? I can see how it would maybe impel you to take the performances more seriously.
MM: I mean, I think, we're all different. Mark, Amy, Raianne and myself are all different. For me I don't mind the exhaustion. The exhaustion makes us – well, okay. I walk eight miles with all this stuff, and then we get to a concert. And what happens next is, I have to immediately want to correspond with the library director or the person in charge of the town hall, or the meeting place, or whoever it may be. So it doesn't matter how exhausted I am, I still have to be diplomatic and I still have to put on my best face, my best handshake for somebody. And then also then local performers start showing up. And we're putting on a show! So it's sort of a ridiculous amount of exhaustion because you have to mentally handle all those situations, and make sure everybody is getting what they want. And then we perform for 45 minutes. And we’re overseeing the whole damn thing.
Yeah. So it's like… by the end of the day, you really feel like you've accomplished something. And to me, that’s important. Because we did! From the ground up. We accomplished what we set out to do: we put on a community concert, a whole bunch of people all came out and hung out together, and they’ve all hopefully somehow been changed by it. And then on top of that, we also walked eight to ten miles that day. And I think having to work through that exhaustion makes you stronger, and makes you conscious of how important the work really is.
BC: And when you play in some of these smaller places, are you able to form lasting connections there? With the people, or with the local musicians, or the institutions you work with?
RR: Yes! Some of them have reached out and hired us back. Not necessarily the Walking Tour because it's such a limited time and area each year. But they'll have the two of us back. And of course, if we're coming back for a concert of our music we’ll mention the Walking Tour and we do have a couple of songs in our set that we use on the Tour as well. So we do try to connect the two together.
MM: And you know, it is pretty amazing that some of these towns stay with us. But I think also one of our goals is to show them that it can be done in the first place, you know? There are some places – some libraries, for instance -- where we might be the first concert that they've had in a long, long time.
BC: I mean, I can all but guarantee you that there are some towns you’ve played in where you must really be the coolest thing that has ever happened there.
MM: Yeah. Yeah but then what happens is like… some of those people we work with, we've heard that since we went through, they’ve started hosting recurring musical events in these spaces.
MM: Or community events of their own. Which is – I mean, that’s amazing. That’s the best.
RR: Yes, which is an unintended but really awesome result.
MM: And it’s important to point out that the whole point – well, it isn’t about “here is the Massachusetts Walking Tour concert and they’re all these groupies that show up and we have a quote unquote “draw.”
MM: Part of what we do is throw the town that we're working with a ball.
BC: A metaphorical ball.
MM: A metaphorical ball. We toss them this ball and it’s the ball of – we tell them, “we're going to come to your town, and we're going to walk to your town. And do this concert. We're going to make really great, eye-catching posters, and we're going to organize the whole thing, and get all these local performers onboard, and celebrate your local geography, provide all this outreach that you don’t have to do. So -- what are you going to do to help this be a really big success in your town?”
And some towns know what to do with it and they throw the ball back: they get a whole bunch of people, or suggesting local performers, or whatever. It's all different groups of people learning how to rally their community behind something. It's almost like a teachable moment where you say, well, this is how you have to be a guidance counselor. So, it's not just us putting on a show. It's us working as a community center. You know?
So it's definitely not about, “hey, guess it’s time to do this again.” We have to ask ourselves year after year whether we want to do this again. And it's a really big question because it is a huge amount of work and we’re basically functioning as a nonprofit. At the end of the day, all we’re getting paid with is in grants and the performances that we do. And that goes – we give everything to the musicians. I mean, there's no money being made for the yearlong organizational campaign.
BC: Which, I have to imagine, requires an awful lot of organization.
RR: Many, many hours.
MM: I mean I wrote over 30 grants this year. Just for the Walking Tour and also other communities in different towns because—
MM: It's another thing -- sometimes we’ll do one of those things and the town that enlists us will say, “hey, can you keep this going?” And I mean, that’s really our ultimate goal. We're not going to organize it for them. But with grant writing, I can help figure out how they can get the money which was there for them to get and they didn't know how to do it.
BC: Wow, that’s… that’s so phenomenal. Ideally you’re just leaving a trail of cultural, community engagement in all these small places around Massachusetts. Showing people how they can have this stuff where they are, without having to travel to Boston or anything like that – you’re renucleating the cultural geography of Massachusetts around these local communities rather than around broader regional ones. How can there be anything more important than that? Than leaving a trail of people who will go on to continue organizing events in their communities long after you’re gone?
RR: Yeah! It’s something we never knew would happen, but it’s really, really amazing that it does.
BC: You’re like King Midas. Or no, Johnny Appleseed! You’re Johnny Appleseeds of the performing arts.
RR: Yeah, you know, you’re up against this idea that you’re going to have to wear a pan on your head and everything…
BC: Hey, he’s from Leominster, man. A Massachusetts boy.
RR: Yes, indeed.
MM: Yeah. I mean, it's so amazing because we're still -- even after 10 years, still running into people that are like, “you do what?! We’ve never heard of this before.” And that's why other people in other states are like “you should do that in Maine, or you should do that in Virginia – you should do the Virginia Creeper Trail,” and we're like, “yeah sure, bud. We're busy – we're going to do all the towns in Massachusetts. Why don’t YOU do that?”
BC: Ha, yeah – “It’s a bigger state than you think, pal.”
MM: I mean, we’re not even half-done! We’re both going to be like, fifteen years older by the time we finally finish this thing. It’s absurd to think about.
BC: Yeah, there’s 351 towns, right…?
MM: Yeah, or 352 or 353, depending on who you talk to. And that doesn't include, like, the disincorporated towns like the ones at the Quabbin. We’d have to do like a scuba tour.
BC: Yeah, how are you going to do – you’re going to want to hit, like, Prescott and Dana.
MM: What we should do is do concerts for them, maybe somewhere on land though.
BC: You should. I – I would love to do that with you, actually. You could play at the New Salem Historical Society or something.
RR: The living residents of the Quabbin and their family members still have an annual town meeting.
BC: Yeah! I’m so moved and obsessed by this subject — I wrote an essay about the New Salem Historical Society for my college literary magazine, actually; it was maybe the first essay I published. I wrote about that building and how place and memory can be held in objects.
RR: The museum in New Salem. Did you get to meet Elizabeth?
BC: Yeah! Yeah, she showed me around. This was more than ten years ago, though.
RR: She's wonderful. I wonder if she's still around. I think she's got to be in her nineties.
BC: Well that's the thing. It's like, for all the people like her, who have any memory of living in those towns are really up there now, and they’d have to be, what, less than ten when the towns were disincorporated and flooded.
RR: For her it was her husband, right? Her husband was from one of the towns. But again, I think you're right, I think he was a child. Did you read JR Greene's book about it?
BC: [laughs] Which one? That guy has, I think, twenty million books about the Quabbin. That’s funny though. Have you talked to him? How do you know him?
RR: Well, it’s kind of like—
BC: Oh, wait, you’re from Athol!
RR: Yes, exactly.
BC: And he's from Athol. This all makes sense. I interviewed him once. What a guy.
RR: I used to go to the Congregational Church, and he was a member. He and my dad got along really well, and they would talk all the time when I was a kid. And then later, in my twenties, I took a class about the Quabbin Reservoir, and the required reading was one of his books. I was like “I know this guy!”
BC: He’s awesome — I remember… well, actually you guys might actually find this interesting in a way that almost no one else would, but my senior thesis in college was – well, it was a piece of music, but it was kind of a sound collage. And it was conceived as a pan from west to east over the state of Massachusetts; my operating theory was like, in a sense, the patterns of development in Massachusetts are shaped like the narrative arc a novel or a play.
BC: You know? It sort of builds in intensity through the western third, and there's sort of an Act One mini-climax in Springfield and then like a bigger one in Worcester and then it builds to this big moment in Boston, and there's finally this stretch of falling action or denouement as it dribbles off into the Cape and islands.
RR: Wow. That’s interesting.
BC: I was like 21, 22, and I think I’d do a lot of things differently now, but I still get a kick out of the concept.
MM: That’s grand. I like that. Can you still hear it? How did it come out?
BC: It was… it was All Right. [laughs] But it was – what made me think of it just now is that one of the sonic elements I used was all these recordings I gathered of people talking about where they live. Giving directions to places, talking about where things are and where they used to be, that kind of thing. And he was one of the people I talked to, to get material for that Quabbin section. And he was… perfect.
RR: Ha! Oh, I’ll bet.
BC: I don’t even remember if I got to ask any questions. Like I think I just sat down and he just went for about two hours. I was just holding this recorder and letting him go and praying that I’d set it up right. I hope he’s still around and doing well; he was a really passionate and animated dude. Or at least he was when this happened, nine or ten years ago.
MM: So you've been doing this for a while now.
BC: Well, that was really—you mean recording conversations with people?
BC: Eh, kiiiiind of. But not really. In that case, it was for a very specific project. But I have always really enjoyed talking to people about this kind of stuff, for sure. The thing we’re doing this for now is something I’ve just been doing casually for the last three or four years and more formally for the last year or so.
MM: But this whole place thing for you, where does that come from?
BC: I don’t know that I know the root of it! I definitely figured out in college that it was something I was deeply interested in – it seemed like something that would reveal, you know, bigger truths about the rest of life and how people move and think and act and engage with each other and the world, the more you looked into it. And I still feel that way.
MM: So these interviews, these conversations, came out of that?
BC: Well, yeah, obviously I’ve been writing music about this kind of thing for a while, but this side project is because I think there’s so much to be gained by just directly asking questions of people who have engaged with this subject from whatever direction.
MM: I mean, we really, really appreciate your taking the time to listen, because I oftentimes think like – I know, or think, that we’re doing something important, I hope, but it boggles my mind sometime when you reach out to press outlets and they ignore us. You know, we’ll say, “hey, can you cover this story?” and we’ll hear nothing.
BC: Ha! I mean, please calibrate your expectations accordingly: I’m going to type this up over the course of several months and eventually put it on my website, where perhaps fourteen people will read it, so…
MM: No, but we appreciate it! If I were to write a book, it would be on the effects of feeling neglected or ignored as an artist.
RR: How about if we just say when you write the book? Because you’ve already been developing it in your mind for a while…
MM: I just think there’s something to be said – especially in educational pedagogy – for positive experiences having a positive impact. Like, how these experiences have an impact on one’s character or skill set or even one’s ability to function socially. So then, what effect does a consistent series of negative experiences have?
BC: Huh, I mean… I’m sure different artists react to it differently, but it also seems like learning to roll through disappointment is an inevitable, necessary part of the job, right? You can’t take it personally…
MM: Right, but some people become hardened, some people become jaded, and I wonder how you avoid those results without throwing in the towel.
BC: Hm… that’s interesting. I think… I hear you. But I also wonder if maybe having a lot of rejection early on maybe helped me… now? You know?
MM: Hm, say more about that.
BC: I sort of began my career by cramming instrumental piano music into a bunch of the least appropriate, diviest venues in America, and I think having to learn how to fit myself and my music into the widest possible variety of spaces may have been hard at the time but serves me well now? Maybe I was lucky in that I began my career without really knowing where I belonged, so it was a little like playing Battleship, figuring out all these surprising places where my music could go.
MM: Yeah, that’s interesting. So your expectations, your threshold for disappointment was fuzzier.
BC: Yeah, very much so. I think in the earliest years of doing this, I was just thrilled to find I was somehow getting away with doing it at all. Not that I haven’t felt wounded or petty when I’ve been turned down at various points, but I don’t think it’s really characterized or affected my experience all that much. Would you guys say that’s different for you? Maybe a few early disappointments make every achievement afterwards easier to appreciate.
MM: Yeah, that’s true! You do appreciate things more once you’ve hit a couple walls.
RR: Well I have got to say, one thing I’ve always loved and admired about working with Mark is that he never gives up. If something is not working—
MM: I’m very stubborn.
RR: —he will find another way around, he’ll find another way to do it. A way to make it work. Like essentially, the Walking Tour was a ridiculous thing to do, just a way to save money because gas was so expensive—
BC: Yeah, ha! I’m still so surprised to learn that that was the real origin story.
RR: There were a lot of bands that were trying it back then! There was a band that – they made boats and tried to sail down the east coast! And I think it failed miserably…
BC: I mean… because they were just a bunch of musicians? [laughs]
MM: [laughs] Ha, but still! The motivation. The passion! “We’re going to build boats.” “No you’re not.” “Okay!”
RR: But yeah, the Walking Tour, despite all that and despite everything, has become a real thing! It became something like – all right, so we're continually rejected by all these festivals and things that have the name recognition, and people are like, “why don't you guys play at this festival or that festival,” and some venues are that way too, and then just you have to tell them, we don’t! We can’t. And I don't think it's a reflection of our talent. I think it's more just that we're unknown.
BC: Yeah! Of course it’s not a reflection of talent; it never is.
RR: And so instead of just giving up and letting that be our story, we've used the Walking Tour as a way to find another way around and still reach people. And honestly, this experience for us is way more rewarding. And also, I think, for the audience. You know? These concerts are like – they’re very special.
BC: They are! I’ve played at one and it warmed my heart for weeks. And it's, not to belabor the point, but, it has the added benefit of – well, you're doing something that's more important than just playing some music. You’re doing the bigger work of drawing people together, showing them how to build something, and leaving something there that’ll be there long after you’ve walked on to the next town.
MM: Yeah. Thank you for saying so.
RR: You know and that's why when people ask what our band is or whatever we just keep saying Massachusetts Walking Tour. And all of us are writers, and all of us are acts under different names. But we don't have room for those kind of things, we don't have room for everybody's egos, we don’t have room for self-promotion. So everyone is: here's my little crew for the walking tour. We’re all doing that selflessly.
BC: I mean, that seems like a good way for a society to work.
RR: Yeah. Well it has a lot of good effects personally as well.
BC: Yeah. Oh, clearly! Hm, though – we should probably wrap this up, because I sort of need to hit the road pretty soon.
MM: Ah, yes, where are you headed again, Rockport?
BC: Rockport, yep. I have soundcheck… shockingly soon. Well, thank you guys very much for your time and your thoughts! This has really been wonderful.
MM: No! We really appreciate it.
BC: Is there anything else you want to say on the record before I stop recording? Or…
MM: [thoughtfully] I don't think so…
BC: No pressing thoughts about the state of Massachusetts…
MM: No! The thing – I guess the bullet points should be, like, well, the success of the Massachusetts Walking Tour and why this is gratifying for us, what we’re dealing with as musicians, all the things that are hard about this… and really, this right here, where we started, where we are right now! This funky little café that just opened a couple of months ago is doing really well right now. And it's what the town needs.
BC: How heavily symbolic. And it’s called… the Rose Room?
MM+ RR: The Rose Room.
MM: And it’s doing fine, but I’m worried it’s going be too good to last. Too good for a town like Webster…
BC: Hey, hey, just wait until a 70-page interview transcript goes up on a random piano player’s website, in which it gets mentioned at the very end. People will be flocking to—
MM: [laughs] The greater community of people who might read your blog will come streaming in.
RR: Well, yeah, and another thing to say to whoever might read this is that something we've definitely learned through this experience of the Walking Tour is that there's a lot more to Massachusetts than Boston accent and rude people.
BC: Hear, hear!
RR: It's a beautiful state. We have tons of beautiful places and wonderful people. Mark and I have been really fortunate in that we've gotten to meet and share our work with a lot of them. And we hope to continue to do that.
BC: Thanks so much, you guys.
RR: Anytime, buddy.