Hippo Manchester
May 12, 2005

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Ray Chesna, 'Making His Own Music', on the front porch of Tupelo Music Hall     Bruce Bressack photo
Listen to the Hippo Podcast of this interview - part 1  part 2

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?

Cozy Sheridan [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?

Oh yeah. 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?

Americana. As 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?

You’re right, 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 song?

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 came together.

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?

I just played 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.

I understand 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 them?

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.

Visit Chesna’s website for more information, to sample his music, or to purchase his CDs - http://www.echolake.com/chesna.htm