Wood Allen never mentioned the topic to me, nor I to him. But except for getting together and picking every now and then, it was looking like the days of The Villagers were over. We still mourn the loss of boyhood friends Fred Birdsong and Jimmy "Squirrel" Garrison. Fred, who could carry on an intelligent and informative conversation on any topic, died in an awful accident when his car was hit by a drunk driver while Fred was returning from a prison ministry meeting where he counseled and prayed with inmates. Jimmy, who had put off going to the doctor for too long so he could play at my daughter's wedding a decade ago, put up the hardest fight against cancer I ever saw in a human being. He wore that cancer out a number of times, but it kept creeping back. After losing our friends and playing one final duet at Jimmy's son's wedding, Wood and I probably both wondered if there'd be another performance, or any more of those long-slow whiskey-sippin' afternoons picking out old standards like "Abilene" and "Delia's Gone" and "Chilly Winds." Without Fred's banjo and Jimmy's style of Merle Travis picking, it was hard to even think about going back before a crowd.
Then last fall Wood saw that the Kingston Trio was seeking submissions from songwriters for a second album of new songs written by people who liked to play what used to be known as folk music and may be more widely known now as Americana. Wood had an idea: "You write the words and I'll write the music." I'd tried to write a song a couple times before, but got nowhere. This time, though, Wood suggested writing about sailing, and after a few false starts and a little consultation, I came up with enough for four verses, refrains, a chorus, a bridge and a coda. That's a fancy way of saying it looked like a song, and Wood got on the Martin guitar, figured out a melody, smoothed out a few rough spots and sent me a demo. It sounded great. He sent it in, and astonishingly, it got picked for recording by the new Kingston Trio's George Grove, Bill Zorn and Rick Dougherty.
Wood and I flew out to Phoenix and spent an amazing week in John Wroble's Porcupine Studios in Chandler, AZ as the Trio, with original K3 star and now owner Bob Shane watching most days, recorded our song and that of four others — Tom Craig from Scotland, Mike Murray from Portland, OR, George Weissinger from Long Island, NY, and Dan Yount from Tuscon and originally from Michigan. Tom wrote a tribute to the great songwriter and performer John Stewart; George did a memorable piece about having the chance to live life again, Dan wrote an ode to Lake Michigan and Mike wrote a riveting piece about snake handling that gives me high-lonesome chills.
These songs will be on an album that may be released late this year after recording 7 more songs from others who sent in submissions. While we've got copies of the rough tracks of our song, none of them has been mixed yet, so they won't be released until later. We also met Paul Gabrielson, the Trio's fine bassist, and Gaylan Taylor, who plays with the Limelighters and who sat in on these sessions to play rhythm guitar.
One night we jammed with the other writers as well as folks like businessman Bert Williams, who has attended the K3's fantasy camps and who shelled out the big bucks for a wrap party the last night, and Rick Dougherty, who in his long career has managed opera companies as well as sung with the Limelighters before joining the Trio.
The lightest moment came at midweek after several days of hard work recording track after track, working to get things just right. George Grove, the great singer and masterful picker on banjo and guitar, had kept the tension down with various antics, including a stray chicken cluck every now and then on a bad take. Since several folks were still to arrive at that point, we did one chorus of George Weissinger's song with our interpretation of chickens clucking the choral melody. You can access this by clicking on "McClucker" on the K3 Facebook website at https://www.facebook.com/kingstontrio John Wroble dubbed that fowl thing in midway through the song, and when it was played back for the unsuspecting, the double-take-whiplash-bugeyed-stupefactional hysteria level was pretty near a 10. You'll have to wait for the release of the CD to hear George's fine song.
Quite apart from their music and their singing and their place in American music history, the think about the Kingston Trio that I think sets them apart is this: They're a bunch of nice guys who make themselves accessible to fans after concerts and who are, in my book, friendly, engaging, creative, welcoming and just happy to have a beer or swap jokes or go for pizza or tell tall tales as anyone you would ever want to meet. When they'd end a concert, they'd say something like, "Look, we're going to go across the street to the lobby of the hotel and have a few. Join us if you can."