“Train on the island, thought I heard it squeal,” goes the first line of the song we’ve been invited to re-imagine for a tribute to the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music at the Northwest Folklife Festival in Seattle. “Go tell my true love: I can’t hold the wheel,” the second goes.
Could there be any vehicle more powerful and impractical than a train on an island? All that fire and steam just to huff around in circles? Beautiful. And then there’s a declaration from the person in charge: this handsome bulk of flying greased parts and kinetic energy is a thing far too powerful for me to steer. I can’t hold the wheel.
After those long ago-written lyrics came out of my mouth at rehearsal yesterday I had to put down my banjo, round end on the ground. Too familiar a sentiment: I can’t hold the wheel.
Stellarondo could be a sort of a train on an island. We are beautiful, powerful, impractical, unlikely. A band of musicians who have (mostly) come up playing in bars, yet we have created work that is virtually undeliverable in a bar. On paper we might be mistaken for a country band, the kind of band that could be on a track to big earnings. But those are not the rails we’re riding.
This band works. Man, do we work. You have likely seen Travis play upright bass and drums at the same time. But have you seen the frenzied Tetris game that is him packing the van, somehow remaining sensitive to the vulnerable necks of stringed instruments? To watch Bethany get her bearings on cello in service of finding just the line she’s listening for on saw is to catch a momentary glimpse of the unknowable. Likewise unknowable is how she manages to play a late bar gig and then show up at an 8am meeting with the Missoula County Public Schools to convince them to let Stellarondo visit local classrooms. Gibson’s wallet would likely survive a couple extra meals while we’re on tour, yet he puts in calls to restaurants and secures sponsored meals for our entire lot and has been caught cheerfully awake– hours before any of us—txting inside jokes to the band from an auto garage while having a strange van noise checked out. And then he sits at the pedal steel and somehow chooses a path of surprising notes that combine into a revelation of the human spirit.
I had no idea two years ago when I started assembling the group what a force it would become. It would be foolish to even try to hold the wheel. The energy created and exerted at Thursday rehearsals could power the Rattlesnake Valley. You should see the mountains of food the team tears through. Sort of counter-intuitive that the music itself is so quiet?
And then there’s Rick. Politely throwing a blazer over my psychotic cat when it attacks him during rehearsal. Responding to doubt or caution with a txt “WE DIE SOON!” Missing a turn on a 6-lane Portland street, bringing the van to a dead halt, honking the horn rhythmically as if it were a back up signal, taking a look behind us, and throwing the rig into reverse. Rick hauling our amps up the stairs to Type Foundry. Using gaff tape to reserve the front-row of the Panida Theater for the wife and young daughters of Scott Daily, a dear friend who passed away last summer, then reading a eulogy for Scott during the show that not only changed the color of the air in the room, but transformed every song and story shared after into something crystalline. Rick, short-sighted enough to curse about shitty Portland waitresses, long-visioned enough to not be fazed by the hemorrhaging of money we experienced on the road. It is only money. This is just our first trip. Rick feverishly typing during down time, using all five fingers of his right hand and only two of his left. Before a meeting with an enthusiastic publicist, Rick coaching us to be sure and protect our “quiet artist lives.” Rick inviting us into his already-whole stories with faith that together our music and his words would create something bigger than either could accomplish alone.
We are making this record because the scored versions of Rick’s stories need a home. Giving habitat to Rick’s scored stories is a step on our Road to the Ryman quest, which is also about finding a home– if just for one night– for Stellarondo’s powerful and impractical sound.
The recording part is done. What was it like to record? Imagine being chased or making out for nine consecutive hours. Three days of highest arousal. We know that what we made during that time is remarkable, and we want you to be able to visit the stories. In order to make that possible, we need to let Adam Selzer mix them, have them mastered by Carl Saff, employ Yogesh Simpson for cover design, and have Crave Dog Manufacturers print and press physical copies. We have done our best. We believe that these people with whom we want to work for mixing, mastering, design, and manufacturing are the people absolutely best for the jobs. The cost for all this is $8,000.
We can’t hold the wheel. We are grateful to the friends, family, neighbors, students, and fellow musicians who have backed us so far. Really, you are all teachers, teaching us that it is OK to ask.
We can’t hold the wheel. We are asking, with great incentives, for you to help us. Only 4 days left.
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