Ray Chesna, 'Making His Own
Music', on the front porch of Tupelo Music Hall Bruce Bressack
Listen to the Hippo Podcast of this interview - part 1
Ray Chesna, Songwriter/Performer
Southern guitar-man warms up New England
By Bruce Bressack
“Chesna has the confidence and talent to take control of the stage even before
he speaks into the mic and he soon has the audience
wrapped up in his stories and song,” says Robert Haigh, open-mike host at The
Tupelo Music Hall.
And I couldn’t agree more.
After I saw Chesna perform at The Tupelo I turned to Haigh
and said, “This guy has just shown everyone in the room how it’s done.”
And he made that indelible impression in the span of just
two well-crafted, sweetly played songs.
Chesna's musical background
began in the late 1960's when he experienced the "tail end" of the blues/folk revival
centered in New York City that produced such legends as Bonnie Raitt, David
Bromberg, Paul Geremia, Rory Block, John Hammond, and Dave Van Ronk.
Chesna is an experienced
performer, an accomplished guitarist, a songwriter, a teacher, and a
string-instrument repair technician. For the last decade or so, he has lived in
Atlanta and has performed mostly around the Southeast. He is very
concerned with the history and underpinnings of the music he plays and puts a
lot of time and effort into mastering authentic techniques and learning songs
and tunes which are the cornerstones of their genres.
You moved to
Manchester from Atlanta last Fall just in time to experience our brutal
winters. What brought you to these here parts?
I’m originally from
the Northeast and we wanted to come home because we missed the Northeast
greatly. The South is wonderful and wonderfully warm all winter long. I forgot
how cold it actually gets up here. But, anyway, I came up to be a northerner
again. The music scene in this area attracted me primarily.
Being a recent “transplant”, how did you find out about The
Tupelo and what was it like to play at the Open Mike?
[Singer/Songwriter] told me that I should show up there. She’s a friend of mine
from up here. And then I heard about it from several other people, just in
conversation, that it was a great place. It’s so close to where I live up here
in Manchester so I was definitely going to find my way down to there. And once
I got in there I saw that it was one of the nicer, devoted to listening kind of
clubs. I was very impressed with the place. It was full of people who all played
music in the spirit of fellowship, and I really made a lot of friends the first
night I went there.
Did anything come out of your appearance there?
Robert [Haigh] gave me a couple of gigs out of it. That’s very cool. I’m going
to open for Chris Smither later in the year [October 21st], and on
June 30th I’m going to be the featured performer at the Open Mike
which is going to be fun because I’ll get to play more than two songs in a row.
That’s the thing about the Open Mike, you get to do two songs and
you have to get everything out in those two songs.
Well it is
twice as many songs as you get to play, let’s say, on the Leno Show. I remember
seeing a video of Sun House, the Blues player, and I noticed that he would take
a minute, literally just about five seconds before the tune, and just sorta sit
up straight, kinda pull his head back and his eyes would go back, and he would
get into that spot and all of a sudden he was there and burst out into it. I
can’t quite do that, but I can emulate it. I understand what it was he was
doing. He was getting to the place.
When did the music bug bite you, and was there ever a time when
you put the guitar down and said, “Enough of this, I’m not playing ever again!”
No, I haven’t
had that experience, but when I was a repairman I would actually set up a lot of
instruments that had been dormant for years. Usually a guy would come in and
say, “I got married and I stopped playing, and I’m not married anymore and I
want to play again.” Almost everybody comes back even when they quit. I never
stopped. I can’t not play. I just got the bug early. It was either from the
Beatles or the Rolling Stones on the Sullivan show and then other bands came
through. As a kid, my favorite band was the Lovin’ Spoonful and from there it
all branched out to all the American styles of music that they were introducing
us to. Unbeknownst to us they were feeding us back our own stuff. I would get an
interest in Bluegrass and put together a Bluegrass band, find a banjo player
here, find a fiddle player there, and realize how rare the other person was and
make a band happen. And then later on I got an interest in Rockabilly music so
we got a bunch of guys together and learned Elvis’ first album and I played
Rockabilly music for awhile. I also spent a lot of time in Country Honky Tonk
types of groups. It was just stuff that interested me.
How would you describe your music?
I said earlier, I’ve been in one kind of band or another for years and years. I
used to be someone myopic about one style or another, and I’d do that for a few
years and when that string was played out I grabbed another, and then grabbed
another. But it occurred to me that I’m not a one kind of music guy and I am
making that now my greatest asset. I don’t care if my record isn’t easily
describable, or pigeon hole-able, I just do what I feel like doing when I feel
like doing it. If I’m playing a bluegrass tune and a Howling Wolf lick comes
into my head, I’ll play it or vice versa. I just do what I do now. It’s all from
the great American enigmatic box.
It’s often said that songs are like children, and that you never
want to show favoritism or pick a favorite. But, if you could have written only
one song, which one would it be?
that is a tough one. Lately, I’ve liked playing ‘Make Your Own Music' at these
little get-togethers that everyone plays because it occurred to me that there is
a whole batch of folks who don’t play any music. When you say let’s play some
music, they go and hit a button and they think that a CD is music rather than a
representation of music. I like that tune because it brings back a time when
people didn’t think like that. [Back then when you said] Play music? [people
would respond by saying] OK, I’ll go get my instrument. And, I also like it
because folks like to sing along with it.
That’s my favorite song as well. What inspired you to write the
I just started
playing one day, sitting down to write a song, and I was thinking about the time
that guys would just sit out on the front porch and pick music. I was living in
the South, and there is still a lot of that going on, and it just kinda
spilled out. I know a lot of string bands, and have lots of friends who have
string bands that you’ll never hear because they just do that, they carry on the
tradition and I was thinking about them. Right place, right time, and it just
Your CD ‘Everyday Above Ground Is A Good One’, which you
released in ’97, is a mix of original and traditional songs. How did you pick
the songs for the CD?
the songs I wanted to play, with friends that I had been playing with. I had
just finished my gig at the Blues Harbor, so a lot of Blues stuff was in there.
I used to play there six days a week. Anyway, it was just all the influences
coming together and it just felt like a good mix of stuff.
you’re recording the last few tracks of your new CD, then mixing and mastering
it, in a studio in Catskill NY. Will this be all new, original
material and who’s playing with you on the CD?
My new CD is
almost done. There’s a lot of Rock & Roll on this one, and also small group,
kinda swing-jazz sorta feel on it. It’s just stuff I needed to get out and put
together. It was the last chance to play with my Atlanta friends so I got as
many of those guys as I could on the record. I just have to finish up a few
tracks. There’s one tune on there where we duplicated a Benny Goodman small
group because the song is about a couple who went out on a date for the first
time back in that era to see Benny Goodman. I can’t wait to get that one out!
What drives you,
and where do you want this musical journey to take you? Fame? Fortune? Pure
Enjoyment? All the above?
At this point,
the way that the music business is, there aren’t many jobs for anonymous
musicians. It’s not like it used to be so I intend to become more well known so
I can get more gigs and that folks who are coming to the gigs know what to
expect from me. I used to do a lot of gigs where the music had a different
function [like parties, bbq’s, “social music"] but they are just not happening
anymore. But now, because I want to keep playing, it seems as though I need to
become more well known, because that’s the way the music business is.
If someone is starting out today, what advice would you give
First, learn all
you can about music and your instrument, learn theory, learn lots and lots of
cover tunes and get yourself into some bands. Play a lot. Then, if you think if you want
to be a musician, and you really want to do it, you have to be a businessman first. At
least as much of a businessman as a musician can be. It’s the only way you can
do it if you want to make a living from it. It seems as though there are no more
sub-divisions within the business. The managers don’t want to be managers. There
are no booking agents who want to take anybody on unless they already have a lot
of gigs, which means you have to get a lot of gigs, and then if you get a lot of
gigs why do you need a booking agent. You pretty much have to do it all for
yourself these days. So learn the business, and practice, practice, practice.
Chesna’s website for more information, to sample his music, or to purchase his