A Living in Music: Patrick Ross Plays and Records With the Urgency of Manual Labor

Saturday, May 09, 2015
It’s about time I understand

That timing is everything.

The heart beats for a reason.

I hear it beat in rhythms that dance.

— from The Fun of A Chase

April 2015 journal entry by Patrick Ross

At the rear of The Stone Room in Bradford, Vt., last Sunday, with 10-month-old Ophelia asleep on her back, Cindy Ross swayed in time with the last number that her husband was playing alongside the Bayley-Hazen Boys before intermission.

On the stage, Patrick Ross drew out the last note, set down his fiddle and bow, flung open the nearest window in the former mill building overlooking the Waits River, pulled off his cap and fanned the banjo of the bluegrass band’s leader, Steve Wright.

“Holy smoke!” the 33-year-old Ross cried over the applause from an audience of around 20. “I live for this stuff!”

Music runs deep in Ross’ family, and he had lived for it on and off since childhood. But only recently has he begun to make a living from it.

Less than two years after deciding to start his Rock Farmer Records, Ross is at home in his native Vermont — just up Route 5 in South Newbury — making and recording music without a day job.

And though neither the producer’s fee for and sales of the live recording of this, the final concert of his Mountain Money series for 2014-2015, nor the proceeds of CDs from the past two seasons of the series, with the likes of Bow Thayer, will by themselves pay the bills, Ross is following every avenue he knows to share his sound and vision, as well as the sounds of the region, while earning a paycheck.

Over the coming summer, he’s booked to play weddings, enough to earn at least half his income, if the last couple of summers are any guide.

Most Tuesdays he teaches fiddle, guitar, banjo, bass and mandolin at the Upper Valley Music Center in Lebanon. Most Wednesdays, private students go to his house near the Connecticut River for their lessons.

Toward the end of the summer, he’ll rejoin Rusty DeWees, aka The Logger, for a couple of performances of DeWees’ comedy routine.

And this fall, he’ll tour town halls around Vermont with 81-year-old Jean Theroux, who learned to play fiddle in logging camps in northern New Hampshire and Vermont and southern Quebec. During the Homegrown Concert Series of the Library of Congress’ Folklife Center, they represented New Hampshire at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 2012, recording a song for library’s archives.

And on days like this past Monday, he’ll watch Ophelia while Cindy, who manages the music enterprise, works down the road at Four Corners Farm.

“Base hits,” said Ross, who played catcher for the Canaan (Vt.) High School baseball team for three seasons before transferring to Lyndon Institute on a music scholarship. “Base hits. Don’t have to hit a home run all the time.

“They add up over time.”

Two summers ago, Ross was still wondering whether he could make it all add up. While working more often with DeWees, he was continuing to do the kind of masonry work with which he’d been making ends meet for several summers.

“That definitely, with a capital D, taught me that life requires hard work,” Ross said. “It showed me the rewards of physical labor, too: Being able to finish a job, step back to look, and say, ‘That could last 100 years.’

“But it took a toll on my hands. I’d come home, pick up the instrument to practice, and I’d only be able to play for five or 10 minutes, and have to put it down.”

At end of one sweltering day building a wall for a woman in Windsor in 2013, he recalls, he peeled off his work clothes and immersed himself in a nearby stream.

“I realized what I was doing was rock farming, harvesting rocks from (the owner’s) land and turning them into her piece of land. It’s an artisanal thing. So I came up with Rock Farmer Records on that gig. I understood the amount of physical energy I needed to apply to my business. I drove up to Rusty’s that night to rehearse, came home and told Cindy, ‘It’s not going to be a masonry business. It’s going to be an independent music business. This is what I’m going to do.’ ”

Less than a year earlier, DeWees had emailed Ross, at the suggestion of a friend, and asked where he might catch him playing in the near future. A few nights later, DeWees swung by the Muddy Waters coffee shop in Burlington, in hopes of finding a musician with whom he could share the stage at several of his shows a year.

“I could tell right off,” DeWees recalled in a telephone interview this week. “I heard him and I said, ‘Whoo: he can play.’ ”

The question: Whether the young man could work.

“He came to all of my rehearsals, which, when I’m working with someone else, I run like a college basketball practice, mapping it out down to the minute.

“When I saw him the first time, I had a tour of Vermont jails coming up, so I hired him just to see if he was The Guy Who Would Show Up. He showed up. And he sat and watched the part of my show when he wasn’t playing. Many artistic and creative people, so called, are not willing to go outside of what they do. He was taking the whole picture in.”

Ross was doing so with ever-widening eyes.

“That was a green light,” Ross said. “I saw that I had to blend that continuity and discipline I had put into my music studies and apply it as a sustainable business model.

“Rusty’s shows are very streamlined. He grabs a small bag of props and merchandise, gets out of his pickup, walks on stage, uses his voice, doesn’t worry about sound equipment. He does his show, gets back in his truck and goes home. I want to draw from his experience in the entertainment business, particularly the Vermont entertainment business. The biggest lessons I’ve learned are about name recognition, face recognition, audience participation. Break the glass. Break the barrier. Lift the veil.”

Ross is learning these lessons more than a decade after dipping his toe into a much wider, deeper business. About a year out of Lyndon Institute, he joined the bluegrass band Blue Merle, and toured with the band until age 23.

“It’s when I got my ass kicked in Nashville,” Ross recalled. “Most of them were 10 or so years older than me, grown-ups on the rise. … I wasn’t able to represent them in the way they wanted to be represented.”

Not while Universal and Island Def Jam were competing to sign them to a record deal, nor while touring around North America, Latin America and Europe. Yet there, too, Ross learned, especially during a tour of colleges and universities in the Midwest opening for Counting Crows.

“My college education was performing in front of 6,000 people,” Ross said, “and being invited to all the parties at the fraternities and the sororities.”

Next came tours with the bands Train and Guster, before Ross retreated to Colorado, to work as a ski-lift operator.

“I had some soul bruises,” he said. “It was my motivation to develop my level of articulation of what I was trying to say.”

During his off-time, Ross recalled, he read excerpts from books he was reading into a disc recorder, then listened to paragraphs while walking to work.

“That helped quite a bit,” he said. “Even now, I’d rather there be silence than me saying, ‘Uh,‘um.’ ”

At the same time, Ross was skiing hard, getting hurt and turning to alcohol.

“I broke my body on different occasions,” he remembered. “No health insurance, so I self-medicated. And playing in pubs, where alcohol was readily available, didn’t help.”

What did help were the summer trips back to New England to do masonry work, mostly demolishing chimney tops on old houses. And at a wedding in Randolph, N.H., in 2007, he met Cindy, sparking a courtship that led to marriage 2011.

“She knew what she was getting into,” Ross said with a smile.

Did he?

“He didn’t,” Cindy Ross said on the way off to work.

“I had to learn how to compromise, but not as a negative thing,” Ross said. “It gave momentum to do the things I was doing. To ask and answer the question, ‘What if I were to make a go at (music) as a living?’ ”

If he were, Ross figured, he’d need to revisit his roots, adapting the music that his father, his grandfather, and two generations before had played between the many jobs you had and have to do to make a living. In the case of his father, who died of a heart attack in 1993, that work included welding, running a small motel on Lake Wallace near Vermont’s border with Quebec and occasionally guiding fishermen.

But, oh, when the work day or work week ended and the playing began — at family gatherings, at barbecues, at fiddle contests.

“The memories I have of my father are all about his joie de vivre.” Ross said. “He’d be able to light a fire under an evening. It was almost always with a fiddle, sometimes a guitar. That put my father in a different light than almost all other fathers. He knew how to create a soundtrack for the weekend. To be able to work and have a pocketful of music like that ...”

Steve Wright and the rest of the Bayley-Hazen Boys saw the joie de vivre in Patrick Ross early on.

“We knew him when he was quite young, not long after he got out of high school,” Wright said during intermission of Sunday’s Mountain Music finale. “He sat in with us a couple of times.”

And now that Ross has returned from the wilderness?

“He knows a lot,” Wright said. “He plays with a lot of different musicians and in a lot of different styles of music.”

The style that 81-year-old Jean Theroux plays from his logging-camp days, Ross aims to showcase during their fall tour of Vermont town halls.

“He has an authenticity that you won’t see 10 years from now, … I want to share it while he can still do it. That is paramount.”

That, and doing most of it within a day’s drive of home, where he can cross country ski out the back door of his rental house with Ophelia on his back, or take a canoe across the road in summer.

“The Connecticut River is that common thread,” Ross said. “The land, where I grew up, water in particular, is the base. I have a strong draw to clean water. We chose this place not because of Newbury, per se, but because of the accessibility to spring water.”

One of his collaborators sees Ross tapping another well.

“His roots are here,” DeWees said. “His heritage is here. He’s got a thing going like I got going, and the thing is truth, what I consider the truth, that I put on stage. You can go up there and be yourself, and tell your truth.

“And the bottom line is, he wants to make a living. He doesn’t say, ‘Somebody else is going to give me my living.’ You have to make it, work for it. He’s not saying, ‘I’m going to be a rich star in two years,’ but rather, ‘I want to feed my family.’ ”

And if you can feed their memories along the way, so much the better.

“As a little kid, it was always a fun drive to the fiddle contests and the festivals,” Ross said. “I went with my dad in an old Buick, a black one, with red seats that I always called velvet. And being in that (festival) atmosphere reminds me a lot of the atmosphere Ophelia is growing up in — with a lot less cigarette smoke.”

For more information on Patrick Ross and Rock Farmer Records, visit patrickrossmusic.com.

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304.

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