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The Blue Northern Band on the coast of Maine
Islesboro, Maine, in the mid to late ’70’s was a magical place. The Island Pub was in full swing, on Islesboro and the music scene throughout Maine had a large assortment of great musicians who all knew and helped each other. Once I was even a small part of that, I couldn’t stay away for long…
Music from the Adirondacks to Maine
I was in a band named “Tulsa”, in 1976. We played gigs around upstate, central, New York. In my mind, our tenure culminated in playing the “first” Coaches Picnic on the island of Islesboro, Maine.
Tulsa went back to New York State, feeling good. The trip to the coast left me feeling unsettled. After a few months of playing I decided I needed to move on.
My sister was living in New Hampshire, close to the coast. I went for a visit in the winter of 1976-77 and in a short while, found myself living in Exeter, New Hampshire, working in a factory, in New Market.
A few times that winter I headed north in my ’64 Chevy, Belair which was named Juanita. Juanita had 3-speed stick on the column and an 8-track player that had two tapes to go with it, Gordon Lightfoot: Greatest Hits and Dave Brubeck: Take Five. I played them, back to back, as I drove to Wiscasset, Maine, to visit my friends Dave Lewis and Isabel Alexander.
The music duo becomes a trio…
Dave and I would spend the weekend telling stories and playing guitars. When I got tired of my second-shift janitor job, we decided we should start rehearsing a duo. We were having so much fun David thought we should invite his friend Peter Davis to come play, as well. Peter lived over in Wayne, Maine, which happens to be the home of the Wing Ring… (The story of the “Wing Ring in Wayne Maine”, will wait for another time..)
Now we had Lewis, Kelly, & Davis. After one or two times of playing together, we realized we were having way too much fun for just three guys. After careful consideration we decided we needed bass and drums, to round that little party out.
The trio becomes the band…
A plan was devised whereby I would drive to the Adirondacks and convince Joe Allard that he needed to drop what he was doing and come back to Maine, to play with us. While I was gone, Peter and Dave where going to find us a drummer.
Miraculously, this plan actually worked! In a week or two, Joe got tired of me asking him when we were leaving and packed up his VW Beetle, headed for fame and fortune. At least, that was the story I was selling, at the time. I’m pretty sure he was ready for a change anyway.
Joe’s significant other, named Bonnie, decided she did not want to miss this and packed up her VW Beetle! Joe had an SRO Bass speaker cab that was about half the size of the Beetle. We managed to get that in my trunk, so to speak and tie off the trunk hood so it wouldn’t fly off.
I guess we were fond of naming things back then and that speaker was affectionately known as “Bertha”. As soon as we got Bertha settled in, the springs in Juanita’s back end, gave out and whenever I would hit any little bump, I would leave a trail of sparks from Juanita’s undercarriage, scraping along the highway.
One more road trip to pull the band together…
So I followed Joe, Bonnie followed me, and we left town after last call at the local bar, “so the traffic would be light”, as we drove the 9 hours or so to the coast of Maine. Bonnie had no trouble keeping track of me as Juanita was sparking against the road all through the night. From that trip on, that car’s trunk was always lower than her engine hood…
We got to Wiscasset and met our new drummer, Kevin Perry, who at the time, was staying on Southport Island, off of Boothbay. So now we had a band and all we needed was a name. I believe, it was Isabel who suggested, “Blue Northern”, which was in a line from an old Judy Collins recording, of the song, “Someday Soon”, written by Ian Tyson.
Our musician friends help us find work…
As it turned out we needed more than just a name; we needed some places to play. During this time our friend Chris Morse owned a local establishment called, “Morgans” in Camden. We invited him, and as it turned out, two bands that worked for him, “Oat Willey” and “C & W Mow Company“, to come out to our house in Hope, Maine.
We spent an afternoon telling stories and playing guitars (sound familiar?). Sometime after the cookout and the softball game, Blue Northern played a set in the woodshed for everyone. Afterward, Tom from C & W Mow Co. gave me the contacts he had in Maine and told me to have anyone call for a reference. Within a week or two, we were booked for the summer. What a good bunch of friends…
Buddy Holly song, “Well Alright”
A season of great music and good fun…
So that summer kept the band busy, all the time. We played regularly from Bar Harbor and Ellsworth to Bangor, Waterville, and Portland.
Back then a group of businessmen ran Benjamin’s Tavern in Bangor, he Silver St. Tavern in Waterville, and the Old Port Tavern in Portland. Blue Northern use to play all three places which kept us on the move. We also had a club we played in Auburn and a club in Augusta.
With all the driving around the state we didn’t make an incredible amount of money but we all managed to get by, as we needed.
One of the things I loved about Blue Northern was our selection of songs. We covered tunes by the Band, Springsteen, Buddy Holly, and Van Morrison. We did versions of “Acadian Driftwood” and “Up on Cripple Creek” that were great fun to play. We did a cover of “Spirit in the Night”. We always played a selection of blues tunes.
We did a nice version of Rodney Crowell’s tunes “Ain’t Livin’ Long”. We also covered “Bell Bottom Blues” from Derek and the Dominos and Eric Clapton’s Bottle of Red Wine. We also played whatever original tunes we had, at the time. We had a good following and some noteworthy adventures
An afternoon with Jud Strunk
If you’ve read my post that mentions life at the Island Pub, you certainly have guessed by now, that we also played on Islesboro. I was catching a ride to the island, for a gig that night, with one of the guys that was running the Island Pub, that summer.
When we got in line, at the ferry, he jumped out and ran up to this guy with a bandana on his head and a banjo. In a few minutes he came back and said, “Come with me, I have someone you need to meet.” He then introduced me to Jud Strunk.
Briefly, Jud Strunk started as a humorist/banjo player back in the sixties. He worked, for a while, on the TV show, “Laugh-In”. He then had a hit single with his song, “Daisy A Day”, in 1973.
Jud and I spent the afternoon at the bar in the Island Pub, sharing songs and telling stories. We hit it off pretty well. That night he sat in with the band, sharing a few songs. That was another thing I liked about Blue Northern, we listened to each other and were not afraid to take chances musically. Actually, we sometimes took chances in our behavior but I don’t really want to “tell on” anyone here…
We had a lot of fun playing with Jud and that afternoon/evening eventually led to me going on the road with Jud, a year later. That story is for another time…
More of Willy Kelly
One of the most heartwarming days of my life happened at a Blue Northern concert that took place near Livermore Falls, Maine.
We had the great opportunity to play an outdoor concert with the C & W Mow Co., whom I have said earlier, were instrumental (no pun intended) in getting Blue Northern a full summer of gigs. They were a group of musicians and individuals for us to look up to and they were a lot of fun to be around and listen to.
The day was sunny and warm and there was a general feeling of excitement in the air. As we set up to play, a lot of our friends from Isleboro began to show up. As we began to play, our island friends all moved toward the front of the stage.
As we began to do a Willie Nelson song, everyone down front began waving and yelling. Many started taking of their outer shirt to show their T-shirt which had silk-screened, “More of Willy Kelly”, across them. Some were yelling something like, “Not Willie Nelson, we want more of Willy Kelly!”
I saw as I looked around that even some of my bandmates had these t-shirts. How could I have been more blessed to have friends who would surprise me in such a beautiful way. And to do this in front of so many people and my peers. That memory still leaves me feeling very emotional, as I write this.
Jud told me that he was wearing one of those t-shirts on the cover of his record, “A Tequila Crazed Gypsy Looks Back”. It’s funny how people’s kindness can weave through the communities we live (and play) in.
All good things come to an end…
As autumn came on, both Peter Davis and David Lewis felt they needed a break from playing gigs every weekend. Joe, Kevin, and I decided to see if some of our New York State friends would like to come to the beautiful coast of Maine to play.
So that fall, Mike Stone and Bob Satinoff came to play in Blue Northern. We had some fun gigs that Fall and it was great fun to play with those guys but as winter turned cold and snowy, they got homesick for the Adirondacks.
So, Blue Northern had a fairly short run but created some good music and good friends. Decades later, Peter Davis got together with some of his bluegrass friends and resurrected the name Blue Northern. They are a great bunch of guys and very good musicians. So, what was old is new and good music tends to go on.
My name is Willy Kelly. I am a musician and a music educator. My goal is to educate, entertain, and encourage you, in experiencing music.
I am a professional musician with decades of experience in performing, touring, recording, mixing, and producing music. I am a professional educator with a Masters degree in music education and decades of teaching experience in public schools, colleges, and giving private lessons. I am happily married to Donna Newhouse Kelly and together we have four adult children. Donna and I live on the beautiful coast of Maine.
I will support you in your playing, singing, and listening skills. I will work to entertain you with my musical views, my songwriting projects, my recordings, and regular performances of the music I love.
Again, I hope to educate you, if I can, entertain you, if I can, and encourage you to create and enjoy music.
Until next time…