Early blues musicians didn’t simply pick nicknames in the shrewd marketing context that “Blind Lemon Jefferson,” “Lightnin’ Hopkins,” “Howlin’ Wolf” or “Pinetop Perkins” would look really catchy on T-shirts and hoodies.
Nope. Those monikers were earned through identifying musical or personality traits — or at least evolved as identifiers in Deep South roadhouses found on roads-decidedly-less-traveled — back before the blues expanded to Chicago, Memphis, Kansas City, Detroit and, ultimately, the world.
And if Old Lyme isn’t known as a hotbed of the art form, it is nonetheless home base for Ramblin’ Dan Stevens, a superb songwriter and practitioner of archival acoustic country blues and folk blues. Since becoming a full-time musician in 1992, Stevens, also known for his genial demeanor, smile and an omnipresent hat selected daily from a sizable collection, has traveled extensively throughout New England and the East Coast as well as Germany and the UK. Until the virus, he typically played two to four shows a day, several days a week — thousands of gigs over the years — and has more than earned his “Ramblin'” sobriquet.
Along the way, Stevens has released three albums of original and carefully curated interpretations of classic blues material: “Broke Down and Hungry,” “Road to Memphis,” and “Future Blues.” Among numerous awards and accolades, Stevens was a 2008 finalist in the International Blues Challenge in Memphis. And, in 2016, with his friend and frequent collaborator Clayton Allen, the duo represented Connecticut at the same competition.
To see Stevens perform is to immerse oneself in a warm bath of blues. And to hear him speak, in has laidback voice still full of wonder and curiosity, is a lesson in passion.
“To master all the styles … it’s impossible in one lifetime,” he says. “You just keep chipping away at it. As soon as you get Lightnin’ Hopkins down, then there’s Reverend Gary Davis. I have original songs; of course I do. Part of the process. But it starts with archiving the past. It’s classic material, and you just want to learn it because THAT’S part of the process, too.”
This incredible work ethic and love of music has also helped Stevens and his wife Gail to open and run Nightingale’s Acoustic Café in Old Lyme. In addition to its status as a venue and dining spot, the performance café serves as home base for their nonprofit MusicNow Foundation, an organization that nurtures young adults in creative and musical activities through mentorships. MusicNow has been a vibrant part of the southeastern Connecticut youth music community since 2010, with a reliably full calendar of live workshops, open mic nights, and the annual summertime Lymestock festival.
Grave new world
As with most things in 2020, though, the coronavirus has significantly affected Dan Stevens’s musical career and effectively shut down the Nightingale Café.
“Right now, we’re doing OK; we’re figuring it all out and doing our best,” Dan Stevens says by phone from Old Lyme last week. He explains he still gets the occasional check in the mail for gigs he played before the pandemic; he’s devoting more time into a modest business wherein he builds and sells the sort of three-string cigar box guitars associated with artists like Bo Diddley; he delivers cars from one Volvo dealershop to another; he continues to teach online lessons; and he receives unemployment when the on-again/off-again thrill-ride of governmental virus benefits determine on any given week that he’s eligible. And early on in the virus, Gail Stevens, who Dan admiringly says is excellent with nonprofit work, secured a small grant for her husband.
“Every bit helps,” he says.
Like many musicians, Stevens has also turned to virtual performances, and those serve a particularly vital purpose: He just wants to play. He’s been streaming three shows a week from home and, earlier in the fall, before the second wave of the virus, played a few out of state gigs and private events. “We were very conscientious and aware of safety protocols,” he says, “and it was mostly a matter of accepting donations. I was doing it because I love to play and because people are desperate to hear live music.”
Meanwhile, Gail Stevens, who organizes and maintains the Nightingale and MusicNow during “normal” times, continues to apply for grants on behalf of the foundation, and has taken a job in sales at a magazine. She’s also behind Sweet Harmony’s Holiday Boutique, a first-ever seasonal shop at Nightingale’s to help support MusicNow’s programs, initiatives, and operating costs. The boutique will feature vintage décor and clothing, jewelry, chandeliers, books, records, music-inspired gifts and much more. It will also feature safe and socially distanced outdoor seating, hot chocolate and grab ‘n’ go sandwiches and snacks, and holiday busking.
A blues background
Stevens will tell you the blues aren’t just about sadness; indeed, all the nuances of one’s experiences can be mourned or celebrated in the blues. COVID certainly plays into that aesthetic.
“I don’t know how to express it in a way that doesn’t sound strange,” Stevens says. “This situation we’re in is horrible. People are sick and dying. But I have to try to find a silver lining. For a guy like me, before all this, a normal day was driving and playing two to four gigs a day — in libraries, churches, hospitals or retirement facilities, and at night in clubs and concerts. Now, musically, I’m trying to take advantage of this time and not waste it, artistically. There’s still a lot to learn.”
At 16, Stevens started taking lessons in his hometown of Belafonte, Penn., from a teacher who introduced him to the finger-picking style of Elizabeth Cotton, Mississippi John Hurt, and Dave Van Ronk. Thus inspired, Stevens would travel to nearby Penn State to see shows by Hurt, Van Ronk, and Fred McDowell.
Soon thereafter, Stevens spent time in Cambridge, Mass., where he took lessons from Paul Rishell, who also worked for a promoter chauffeuring and escorting blues artists like John Lee Hooker, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, and Son House when they were in town for performances.
“Paul had so many stories about these musicians,” Stevens says, ” and there was romance and legend to their road stories — not just the blues guys but the traveling folkie types, too. It was a way of life, and I wanted to experience that.”
Stevens then studied with Van Ronk, which he describes as an incredible privilege and experience. “I would tape the lessons and then press Dave to tell stories behind the artists and their songs. Fortunately, Dave loved to tell stories, and he was good at it. He was so great.”
Packing his guitar, Stevens hit the highways in an old van, traveling the country, and playing when he could. Along the way, he rode bulls, taught school, was a mountain climbing instructor, and sailed schooners — all of which helped fuel the muse. Before long, he was doing so many legitmate musical gigs that he found himself a full-time player.
Always more to learn
Off the road now, Stevens has had the opportunity to work on his musical technique, something he says is always a humbling but rewarding activity.
“It sounds odd, but playing so many gigs over the course of a year means it’s hard to practice sometimes,” he laughs. In recent months, he’s been exploring the fretboard and working his way, lick by lick, through various artists’ styles, different keys, and tunings. “Plus, there’s always something beneficial that comes from just noodling around. You might make a mistake that turns into a song or a riff.”
The far-sighted Stevens, who by necessity has always booked his multiple gigs and routing schedules way in advance, had before the virus planned on recording a new album in the spring of 2021. As a surprise gift from Gail and their daughter Haley, Stevens recently got to go to England and attend a songwriters retreat hosted by Chris Difford of Squeeze.
“I was frankly scared,” Stevens says. “He’s Chris Difford. But when I arrived, it was Chris waiting to pick me up. There was no pretense. Just 13 of us gathered in this centuries-old English manor house with no TV or internet. We took our meals together and wrote together and just completely immersed ourselves in the experience.”
Between work that evolved from that and his new COVID-era songs, Stevens is excited for the prospects of a new album, possibly available by late spring. Too, he’s writing a book about his experiences on the road over the years.
“It’s no surprise to any artists in our area that there’s a lot of support during this, and even before,” Stevens says. “We’re all in touch with each other and with various arts organizations and coalitions, and people have just rallied and stepped up. That’s one of the great things about music and artists. We’ll always think of new things to keep everything going, and there are so many folks who value that.”
It also helps, Stevens says, that they hear from so many of the Nightingale’s regulars who keep in touch out of friendship and gratitude.
The duo Sophia & Grace, comprising cousins and best friends Grace Cuccia and Sophia Malli, got their start at a Nightingale’s Open Mic. In an email, Cuccia says, “Gail was sitting in the back listening. She gave us her full and complete attention the whole time we played and told us that we NEEDED to keep at it because we had something special. Her support meant the world to us, especially because it was the first ever time we got up and performed together … As we wrote new songs, Nightingale’s became the place where we’d test run them to see how they were received. Dan and Gail (have continued) to cheer us on though it all.”
And John “Mustang” Brown says the Pickin’ Parties were transformative in his life and music. A casual player who’d “messed around and never progressed” on guitar for almost 40 years, he dropped by a Pickin’ Party in 2015.
“I didn’t have a guitar with me, I just by chance walked into a room full of instruments and welcoming musicians,” says Brown, now a member of the bands Whiskey and Aspirin and the Back Porch Pickers. “A guy handed me a banjo and said, ‘It’s tuned like a guitar,’ and we just all started playing. It was a wonderful and instantly comfortable experience. I went back the next week and I’m still going back.”
Heading into the final month of a long year, then, Dan and Gail Stevens have plenty to do and grateful for the opportunities. In addition to the holiday boutique and Dan’s streaming shows, they’ve also been able to resurrect the Pickin’ Parties through the kind offer of the First Congregational Church to host the sessions on their safely-distanced front lawn.
“Winter maybe isn’t looking so good,” Dan Stevens says. “But there are vaccines on the horizon, and I’m starting to hear little hints of activity and optimism. It’s like something’s alive out there, and all of us in the arts communities know it. Just because there many places to play doesn’t mean we CAN’T play.”