Uncle Eddie and Robin: The Santa Claus of Song

To play great music is a golden gift in itself.   To share that gratuity is a giving so generous that grateful doesn’t begin to give a glimpse as to how gracious I am to be a recipient of it.  To start something for the sake of saving it, because you love it, to keep it going and not give up on it, is the gift that keeps on giving.  Uncle Eddie and Robin are the Santa Claus of song – in their bag of goodies, you always get what you want.

Playing a combination of folk and bluegrass characterized as “Plunk Rock,” which at times includes rap, Uncle Eddie has been an Appalachian Icon for thirty years and counting.  Born and raised in Massachusetts, Eddie began on piano before picking up a banjo.  After serving in the Navy in the 60’s, Eddie hitch-hiked across the U.S. and Canada, banjo on his back.  Whilst passing through Wheeling, West Virginia he found some fellow pickers and didn’t pass up the progressive scene which led to legendary moments in his captivating career like jamming on the Jamboree stage.

Ed met Robin, romantically and rightfully so, at an open mic jam night at Down on Main Street.  The daughter of internationally recognized jazz trombonist Jimmy Knepper and a mother who was touring with her tumpet at 16, Robin certainly doesn’t lack in her own musical merits.  She picked up a guitar at 14 and played coffee houses to curious customers soon after.  Music gave way to motherhood and social work, but Robin came back to the magical music that she missed, bringing not only her born and bred ability, but also her pathos for people.

A bluegrass banjo player and the daughter of a distinguished jazz musician, this unconventional couple are a married musical masterpiece!   Their chemistry comes not only from their love for each other, but also their fondness for what they do.  Besides being the dynamic duo that they are, Uncle Eddie and Robin also run a recording studio in which they altruistically assist aspiring musicians in making their own music.  Also, Ed served in starting Acoustic Jam Night at Down on Main Street in the mid 90’s, which, if you’ve red my previous posts, is the longest continuously running open mike jam night in the Ohio Valley.  He and Robin have been hosting it since 2007.

Sara Fincham:  What was it about the banjo that brought it to your attention and then captivated your creativity?

Uncle Eddie:  I got caught up in the music of the 50’s – 60’s folk boom. The banjo just seemed to bring so much life and energy to the music of folky string bands like the Kingston Trio, the Limelighters and others.  Some friends and I were starting to try and play folk songs on cheap guitars and I decided I wanted to be the banjo player. My interest led me to Bluegrass music and for many years it was the focus of my musical passion. I love the power, the passion, the precision, the virtuosity of it.

SF:  Did you ever feel pressure to follow in your parent’s footsteps musically, or did you develop a genuine love for the live stage?

Robin Mahonen:  I heard music before I was born, and grew up in the Big Apple listening to many of the jazz greats, but Dad was a very humble man, and seemed almost incredulous that people would want to listen to him.  He always reminded me how hard it was to survive as an artist, and urged me to always have a backup plan.  He enjoyed hearing me play, but always encouraged me to attend college, and there was absolutely no pressure to become a musician.  My Mom was on the road at age 17 with all female swing bands, back in the 40’s when that just wasn’t done, so I learned to be a strong, independent woman, but ultimately, she gave up her musical career to raise me and my brother.

Although I played guitar and piano, sang, and wrote songs when I was young, I put music away for many years while I cultivated a career as a social worker and therapist, and raised four children as a single mother.  But music is such an ingrained part of me, I’m not surprised that the Universe brought me full circle and introduced me to Ed, which ultimately brought me back to music.  As a social worker, I could work with a client for weeks or months to bring them some relief, but when you look out and see someone loving your music, there is an immediate feedback of joy.  There is absolutely nothing in the world like the smile on the face of someone who is really listening and connecting with your music.

SF:  In the beginning, obviously people are seeking out your sound now, but in the beginning was it hard to fuse the music, to get an audience to grasp your vision?

UE:  I grew up in Massachusetts where there was no tradition of banjo music. I suppose I was perceived as some sort of geek. I think that my arrival in Wheeling in the early 70’s was a case of being in the right place at the right time.  Bluegrass had a place in the musical tastes of the 70’s, and it wasn’t long before we were playing shows.

We developed a loyal following who perceived us as artsy. One of the things that drew me to West Virginia was that I met people for whom the banjo and the music were part of their culture and they liked it. I have always been drawn to musicians who pushed the envelope, who tried to find new ideas that hadn’t been done before. Many people think that West Virginia music means reproducing the sound of the music of the 20’s, 30s, and 40s. I think it is a living tradition with musicians building on the music of the past while incorporating ideas and sounds from the present. We jokingly refer to some of our music as ‘plunk rock’. That is music where you didn’t hear the banjo on the original, but we did.

SF:  You took time off – what pulled you back – was it timing, passion to perform, an influx of inspiration?  What is it about music that makes it so fulfilling?

RM:  Well certainly meeting Ed was a big push in that direction.   Although after my divorce and my children leaving home, I was returning to some of my earlier loves, being in the midst of a traveling jam band was in many ways, like coming home.  It felt familiar and comfortable. Ed and I almost immediately started collaborating on writing some tunes, and when he left the band, we started singing some harmonies and then playing together, simply as an experiment.  We had a lot of fun, and liked the sound we made together.  Apparently others did too, because we started getting bookings.  There are times when we’re hitting our harmonic notes, and we can feel what’s called “heterodyning”, it’s like the fillings in your teeth start to rattle, and then the song ends and there’s this hush over the room for a few seconds until it explodes with applause, there is no high like that in this world!

SF:  It is very true that music, maybe more than anything, makes the people come together.  Can you elaborate on your first meeting, and what’s it like to have such a history at Down on Main – the place that you met?

RM:  Well, a friend of mine kept telling me about this really cool place with live music, and finally one night after work I went with him.  It turned out to be Down on Main Street.  Because I’d been busy doing the Mom thing, I hadn’t been in a bar in like 15 years or something, and I immediately lost him in the crowd.  I didn’t know a soul, and went and tried to be invisible at the end of the bar.

When I walked in, Ed was playing, and I remember thinking, well, there’s a Jerry Garcia looking guy.  Later the Jerry Garcia looking guy walked up to me and asked, are you Robin?  Wondering how he knew my name, Ed said my friend had put my name on the sign up sheet, and he knew everyone else in the bar, so it had to be me!  Since I had come with no guitar, and no song, to this day, we think my friend had designs on getting the two of us together.  It is simply, our home bar, with many, many musical memories, but it’s become more than that, it’s a family.  Some of our friends have come to start calling it “Wednesday Night Church”.  And music is the great leveler, it doesn’t matter what your job or station in life is, when the music is playing, everything else is just so unimportant, and you connect with people on a truly emotional level.

UE:  Music has always been a big thing, perhaps the biggest thing in my life, and it is a great leveler. It has taken me everywhere from elegant homes to rural shacks. It has enabled me to travel to foreign countries. I have been known to say that everything important that has come into my life has come in through music.  I met both of the wives I have loved through music.

Down on Main Street was an important place in my life almost since its beginning. In the 90s I was going through an emotionally difficult period after the break up of my first marriage. I would go there because I knew I would find friends and music. It was a shabby neighborhood bar at the time (it has since been extensively remodeled). They have sponsored an open mic/jam night from the very beginning (1993), and it has evolved into the four, five, sometimes six nights a week where live music is featured, and I think it is the leading club in the area presenting the cream of the local scene and occasional touring groups.

SF:  I think it’s great that you take the time and use your talents to help others.  How important was it to you to be mentors and provide resources such as a recording studio and jam nights for fellow musicians?

RM:  I love to pass along knowledge.  That’s my perogative as an old lady, don’t you know!  And, at least most of the time, it doesn’t “feel” like work, it’s too much fun!  When we find a promising talent, we strive to promote their work whenever we can, however we can.

We have hooked up musicians with venues we know will appreciate them, and always provide encouragement to talented individuals and groups.  If someone is open to constructive criticism without taking offense, we offer that too, but not everyone wants that.  Someone can do it the way they want, and waste a lot of time, or take a little advice from the old folkies, and save themselves a lot of time and trouble.  I have been told that music is a cut-throat business, if that’s the case, I’m in trouble, because I just don’t have that in me.  I want to spread the love that is music.

UE:  As a musician it is much more fun and rewarding to be part of a larger scene. The bottom line is that I/we enjoy being involved in music and contributing to other peoples music. I am at heart an ensemble player and feed off of the energy of others in a combo.

SF:  You have really created a community of creative peoples.  Did you think Acoustic Jam Night would become such a significant success and how proud are you to be a part of it?

RM:  Again, I love to pass along things to others, but I like to think there is a symbiosis of sorts that happens during a jam, the musicians begin to feed off each other, but not in a parasitic way.  We all listen, and respond, and learn from each other.  What happens in a jam is the whole is greater than the sum of its parts kind of thing.  When this kind of magic occurs, people come back to be part of it over and over again.  It’s like a drug, but a healthy one.

I like to think that our jam is successful because we support many styles and skill levels, and, there are no stars at our jam night.  We can’t really claim to have created this incredible community, there is such an awesome vortex of musicians in this Valley, we are truly blessed to be part of it.  People and talents such as Randy Keener, Mike Roeder, Greg Molnar, Adrian Niles, Alex Wudarski, Mark Gorby, Robby Parsons and Jeff Tappe aren’t just everywhere, I know, I’ve lived in other small towns.  We are very proud and honored to be part of a scene where these talents can thrive and flourish.

UE:  We had no preconceptions or larger agendas when we began hosting Open Mic/Jam night at Down on Main Street. We simply wanted there to be a place where musicians come come together, play music and interact with each other. We are very fortunate that it has become so successful. When I started playing around the area there was more interest in live music in general, and there were lots of little places where people could start out and hone there skills. These days the various jam nights fill that need.

We try to keep in mind that jam night is about the people who want to come in and play, not a showcase for us. We try to be as fair as possible in the order of performance and the allocation of time. There are no ‘stars’ at our jamnight, everyone gets the same respect whether they are just starting out or have years of accomplishment. One of our greatest joys is seeing beginners come in and improve and develop over time.

Uncle Eddie and Robin

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