on the road and in the round: craig bickhardt, don henry, michael johnson and lizanne knott

y’know, i can still remember the very first time that craig bickhardt and i played together.  it was at chaplin’s in spring city, pa – we were doing a songwriter’s round, and i was there because skip denenberg and jim femino brought me along.  at the time, jim was developing an artist who was also on the bill named kassie miller, and he’d recruited me to back her instrumentally.   when jim was doing the rounds, he set the room up bluebird cafe style – with a table and a large lamp right in the middle of the floor, with everyone around the table…and tables and chairs were actually set up on the stage to minimize the impact of the stage and make the whole space feel like a stageless room that could’ve passed for someone’s den.

at chaplins' with craig bickhardt, jim femino, skip denenberg and kassie miller, 2007.
at chaplins’ with craig bickhardt, jim femino, skip denenberg and kassie miller, 2007.

craig and i kinda latched onto one another at that point, and we’ve worked together ever since – both with me backing him instrumentally under his own name, and then later as a full member of a side project he’d undertaken with poco bassist jack sundrud called idlewheel.

craig’s songs are understatedly elegant, and while they’re not terribly complex, they are a challenge to play properly – which is to say, there’s definitely a line of delineation between overplaying and playing what’s appropriate for the song.  his music requires a certain understanding of how much is enough, and how much is too much.  it’s not a gig for everybody…but that’s one of the things i love about playing with him.  if you understand that simple concept, you’ll look like a genius playing next to him – whether the description is accurate or not.

craig has also opened some doors and there are relationships that i’ve formed as a result of my association with him that would not have come about otherwise – many of them through the “On The Road and In The Round” shows we’ve done.  stellar writers and performers like don henry, julie gold, thom schuyler, jim photoglo, and others have done these shows with us – alongside great local talent like jd malone and lizanne knott…and i’ve gotten a lot of opportunities to join the crew and back everyone on the bill for a lot of these shows, and while the “trial under fire” aspect might be scary at times, it’s also a bit of an adrenaline rush.  and, thankfully, thus far there’ve been no complaints.

for this show, there was some new blood along for the ride – michael johnson, of “bluer than blue”, “this night won’t last forever”, “give me wings” and “that’s that” fame.  (fun facts:  michael johnson was the first guy in nashville to give jack sundrud a gig as a bassist.  also, “give me wings” was my ex-mother-in-law’s favorite song for many years.)

back row: tommy geddes, michael johnson, don henry front row: tom hampton, lizanne knott, craig bickhardt
back row: tommy geddes, michael johnson, don henry
front row: tom hampton, lizanne knott, craig bickhardt

i had never met or played with michael, but don henry was joining us along with craig and lizanne knott, so michael was the only unfamiliar face on the bill – and i was pretty sure that we’d all be ok…and i know when to play and when to sit back and fold my hands in my lap, so i had that going for me too – along with the fact that i was on my home turf, on stage at sellersville theater.

craig, don and lizanne were their usual entertaining, funny and brilliant selves – and michael was a great fit in every one of the same categories, as well.  he’s a great player, for one thing – sticks to nylon string guitar, a wonderful fingerstyle player…and played some funny parodies of standards like “you make me feel so…so” – and to the tune of “blue bayou“, he did a song about a toupee called “blew by you“.  but i did get to sing the high harmony to “bluer than blue“, and i got to play “beautiful goodbye” with don henry with his co-writer, mike moran, in the audience, as well as don’s song “all kinds of kinds” (a recent number one for miranda lambert) – and the usual assortment of awesome bickhardt songs, closing the show as we often do with “this old house” and “if he came back again“.

i don’t think i’d ever brought the pedal steel out to one of the OTRAITR shows, but i fixed that for this gig – it was lap steel, pedal steel, mandolin and baritone guitar…and ran it all through the princeton reverb, turned with the speaker pointed towards the curtain behind us.  it would be this particular night that the reverb would decide not to work, though.  (note to self:  stop procrastinating and get the new pedalboard worked out yesterday.)

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