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The North Country: A Music Mecca Destination

Rafe Matregrano 2 Credit Thomas Missert

Guitarist Rafe Matregrano, a member of the bands Generations, Chimera and the Riley Parkhurst Project plays at the Red Parka Pub in Glen. Photo by Thomas Missert.

A late spring sun is still shining bright on a Sunday afternoon in the Mount Washington Valley, but the Red Parka Pub in Glen is already pulsating with the sounds of Southern rock. The place is packed, the bartenders are scurrying, and the Shadow Riders, a Marshall Tucker tribute band, have patrons tapping their toes and bobbing their heads and shoulders. Before long, the dance floor is full.

Watching the festivities from the corner of the pub’s horseshoe-shaped bar, owner Terry O’Brien – the Red Parka has been in her family for a half-century – smiles.

“I love this part of what we do. We’ve been very successful with our Blue Sunday shows, which feature top blues bands from all over,” says O’Brien. “They play from 5 to 8, and draw a very different clientele [compared to Friday and Saturday], most above 50 years old. The Friday and Saturday younger crowds are great but sometimes a bit harder to handle. The music is fun though, with lots of dancing.

“People would be surprised at the variety and the talent of the music up here,” she says. “The local talent that we often feature onstage is phenomenal.”

The bands at the Red Parka are booked by Terry’s husband, George, who admits he’s constantly adapting to his guests’ changing musical tastes, finding a mix of groups that will play original songs to those that specialize in “cover tunes that people recognize and can dance to.”

Riley And Dan Parkhurst 2 Credit Thomas Missert

Conway native Riley Parkhurst, lead singer for the Riley Parkhurst Project, says the North Country music scene is “like being a part of a big family.” Photo by Thomas Missert.

Flipping on the police cruiser lights as the band wraps up another tune, George says, “We’ve become the last man standing in the club scene. If you want to go dancing, you’ve got to go to the Parka. We’re the only place you can see live music without paying admission.”

Well, not quite. Earlier the same day, another Red Parka regular, Rek’lis, was jamming outdoors at the Tuckerman Brewing Company in Conway. The setting is a 180-degree shift from the Red Parka, where the walls are adorned with license plates and old ski paraphernalia (including chairlifts). Conversely, Tuckerman is housed in a large, corrugated-steel building, surrounded by a slew of other corrugated-steel buildings (one that housed a previous iteration of the brewery) behind Conway’s Ham Arena. Outside is a broad grass field separating the stage and a big, white circus-style tent.

“This venue singlehandedly saved the music scene during the worst of the [COVID] epidemic,” says Simon Crawford of Easton, a Scotland native and longtime Valley musician. “Its large outside stage and gathering spot enabled many local acts to maintain some sort of performing space. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude.”

The tent, like a daytime bar, is filled with laughter and chitchat (with more than a few folks, presumably from Quebec, conversing in French), as families and friends set up food spreads on picnic tables. Meanwhile, kids are dancing (or performing the occasional somersault) on the lawn as Rek’lis belts out an eclectic set of tunes that ranges from pop to country to reggae to soul to the blues, covering artists like Bad Company, Johnny Cash (“Ring of Fire”), Rolling Stones (“Beast of Burden”), Dusty Springfield
(“Son of a Preacher Man”), Alanis Morisette and the Grateful Dead.

“We have a great music scene in the Mount Washington Valley that is fueled by a number of talented local musicians, many of whom are in multiple bands and play a wide variety of music,” says Kirsten Neves, co-owner of Tuckerman Brewing, which has offered live music since 2014. “I love listening to live music, and it’s always fun to put together the music schedule for the season.”

Drummer Dan Parkhurst exemplifies the musical diversity found in the Valley. Rek’lis is one of several bands Parkhurst routinely plays for, the others being the Riley Parkhurst Project (with his 23-year-old daughter Riley providing lead vocals), Generations (along with Crawford and Rafe Matregrano), Circumstances, and the Dean Machine.

“Personally for me – and the reason I play in so may acts – the thing I like most is the wide variety of music I get to play,” says Parkhurst, 51. “Sure, we are primarily playing to keep the crowds happy. But each of my bands finds unique ways to do that with some standard crowd pleasers but also finding songs that appeal to us musically.”

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Bruce Marshall of the Bruce Marshall Band, center, is flanked by Dave Cournoyer on lead guitar and Al Hospers on bass during a gig at the Red Parka Pub in Glen. Photo courtesy of the Red Parka Pub.

Less than 48 hours after the Shadow Riders were winding down their gig at the Red Parka, local musicians are cueing up on Tuesday evening just up the road in Jackson for the Wildcat Tavern’s long-running Hoot Night. The pub, with its wood-paneled walls and huge wooden beams, exudes a relaxed, low-key atmosphere. But that can change in an instant, depending on the energy each musician brings.

“Hoot Night at the Wildcat is an entirely different animal,” says host Jonathan Sarty, a local musician and bandleader, and producer of the Cold River Radio Show. “It’s impossible to know what to expect – we’ve had nights with singer/songwriters and folkies, and nights with a full rhythm section, horns and guitars blazing. Some nights it is just me sitting there, picking away.

“But the Hoot has been running for over 30 years and I’ve been the host for nearly half that time,” says Sarty, 48. “The cozy, unique and very special nature of the venue, the garden stage in the summer, the appeal to travelers, the great food and staff, all make for a very special night.”

That, in a nutshell, is a solid description of the entire North Country music scene, a true gem for music lovers that, for too long, has been a hidden gem.

“The scene can vary wildly from listening audiences and quiet rooms to noisy barrooms, but generally I find the audiences here in the North Country are very appreciative when there’s good music,” says Sarty.

 

For decades, my own experience with Mount Washington Valley music was limited to the winter months. Specifically, après ski. After a day on the slopes, there was nothing better than connecting at a local pub with family and friends over a few suds and the sounds of local rock ‘n’ rollers. Thomas Perkins, who lived in the area, understands.

“My job running Jackson Ski Touring was intense, and music was therapeutic,” says Perkins, 73, now part of the duo Bennett and Perkins with his wife, Kathy Bennett. “I’d drag myself into the Tavern after a long day and play music and listen to friends. Hoot Night rekindled my love of music.”

Bennett moved to the area from Boston two decades ago, taking a job as Cranmore Mountain Resort’s sales and marketing director. She also found a renewed interest in music due to life circumstances.

“When I got divorced, I started playing music again to meet people, and found myself at Hoot Night after purchasing a new Martin guitar,” she says. “I started playing songs with Thom at Hoot Night, and the rest is history.”

The history of Hoot Night at the Wildcat Tavern, and live music throughout the Mount Washington Valley, is a long and
rich one.

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The Mallett Brothers perform during a Sunday afternoon concert at the Tuckerman Brewing Company. Photo courtesy of Tuckerman Brewing Company.

“The après-ski scene has allowed a lot of musicians to make a living up here, as there’s a lot of demand seasonally,” says Bennett, 57. “I started out booking all the live music at Cranmore Mountain. It’s since evolved to include more true musical venues,” including the Majestic Theater (Mountain Top Music Center) and Theater in The Wood in Intervale, the nonprofit Arts Jubilee, and the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Highland Center at Crawford Notch.

“The music scene in the Mount Washington Valley is vibrant,” says Perkins. “We have some extraordinary musicians.”

To prove his point, Perkins offers a short list that includes Crawford; Al Hospers, a bass player who played with Blood, Sweat and Tears; Bruce Hornsby, Tom Dean and Alana MacDonald of Devonsquare; Davie Armstrong; Taylor Whiteside, a folk artist from the 1970-80s; Bruce Marshall of the Toy Caldwell Band; John Davidson, who opened Club Sandwich to the southwest; Kevin Dolan; Dennis O’Neil; and Peter Heimlich. There are also a number of
talented musicians specializing in Celtic music who can often be found at the week-ly Sunday céilí at May Kelly’s Cottage in North Conway.

In short, there’s a musical genre – rock, jazz, folk, country – for every taste.

“I’m very fortunate to be able to play with musicians who are as good as any I have played with,” says Hospers, a bassist with The Shadow Riders as well as The Bradley Jazz Collective and Bruce Marshall & The Shuffle. “When I moved to the Valley in ’96, it was just a bunch of bar bands with few exceptions, pretty much playing the same kinds of things that all bar bands play.

“There is still some of that, but many of the clubs and bars have become more open to more creative music,” says the 74-year-old Hospers, who helped develop the iconic Guitar Hero software. “I’ve pushed the jazz idiom, and people have embraced it. There are also a number of concert venues that have opened and it makes for a much more robust scene.”

That robust music scene reflects the broad spectrum of residents and visitors to the Mount Washington Valley.

“The North Country is unique in that it draws people from multiple locations and walks of life – you’ll see license plates from all over during the busier tourist seasons, certainly heavy on New England plates,” says Parkhurst. “The ski areas in the winter and outdoor venues in the summer provide unique après-music opportunities – après ski, après hike, après river, après shopping, etcetera. You can find music afternoons, evenings, and nights most weekends all year.”

The same often holds true for the musicians. “The Valley has some world-class players and wonderful, supportive audiences,” says Hospers. “It’s great to be able to live in an area where I can play with great musicians and take advantage of all the outdoor things that I love, like rock and ice climbing and mountain biking. It gives me all of the things I love, in one place.”

 

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, my mountain biking buddies and I started spending more time in the North Conway area during the warmer months (thanks to one friend owning a ski house off West Side Road). It was a revelation to see, and hear, that the live musical options varied dramatically from wintertime. That’s still true today.

The Mount Washington Valley music scene “is full of surprises,” Sarty says.

“It’s not unusual to stumble upon amaz-ing, and often famous, artists in local rooms,” he says.

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Music fans enjoy a cold adult beverage and the afternoon sun during a concert at Tuckerman Brewing Company on Hobbs Street in Conway. Photo courtesy of Tuckerman Brewing Company.

In reality, there’s been a progression in the North Country music scene over the past three decades. Mike Malkin, a singer and guitarist for Rek’lis, says there’s now a “more diverse range” of music throughout the region.

“The music scene is continuously evolving,” says Malkin. “When I was first exposed to our music scene in the Valley, it was
wild. Bands like Five-Day 40 would pack places wall to wall every night. However, there was an overall lack of younger musicians at the time.

“Open-mic nights have been a huge part of this valley since the early 2000s,” says the 42-year-old Malkin. “If you ask most band [members] in our area where they started, they’ll probably say the Red Parka Pub open-mic. That torch has been passed to a younger generation.”

Bennett agrees. “There are musicians that have been touring for years and have moved to the area and are now playing locally,” she says. “There are young, up-and-coming local musicians. Kennett High School in North Conway has a strong music program and has produced some great young musicians, like Riley Parkhurst.”

“You don’t see the blending of the different age groups in the cities – it’s more segregated by age,” says Bennett. “Here, we’re all together because it’s a smaller, tighter community.”

Riley Parkhurst, a recent Berklee College of Music graduate, has been a ubiquitous presence on the local music scene since she was 16, despite attending school full time
in Boston.

“I don’t think anyone who didn’t grow up here would expect such a fun and talented collection of musicians and styles,” says Riley.

 

The long-running music party, however, came to a needle-skipping halt in March 2020, when COVID shuttered businesses across the state. The pandemic, say musicians and business owners alike, was arduous on everyone. In some cases, notably McGrath’s Tavern, it was fatal.

“McGrath’s was the big Thursday night music venue in the Valley year-round,” says Dan Parkhurst. “I’m sure other businesses didn’t make it, but that was the big one from the music scene.”

Musicians had to find other sources of income. Surviving venues had to adjust. By the end of the summer of 2020, many establishments, including Ledge Brewing Company in Intervale and Tuckerman Brewing Company, were offering live music outside, where COVID restrictions were more relaxed.

“We were fortunate to have a large field outside of our tasting room, and we started hosting live music in what became our outdoor beer garden,” says Neves. “We had an enormous positive response from our customers who were happy to listen to live music and visit with friends and family in a safe outdoor environment.

“We ended up adding shows and started having live music multiple times per week outdoors,” she says. “Now, live music
is an integral part of our tasting room experience.”

It was a positive, but not perfect, development for musicians. “Outdoor music became incredibly popular, which was good and bad, because suddenly whether or not I get a paycheck is dependent on whether or not it rains,” says Riley Parkhurst.

Sarty says local musicians aren’t always treated commensurate with their talent, and that pay scales haven’t changed much since the 1970s. “There is no union or organized effort regarding this issue, and often the eager, less-experienced musicians will be willing to play for less,” he says. “I feel that lowers the bar for everyone and makes the battle to set a healthy rate more complex. But I have noticed some venues are offering more, and it is reflected in the quality of their musical events and calendars.”

Dan Parkhurst 2 Credit Thomas Missert

Drummer Dan Parkhurst, is a great example of the musical diversity found in the Mount Washington Valley, playing with several bands, including Rek’lis, the Riley Parkhurst Project, Generations, Circumstances, and the Dean Machine. Photo by Thomas Missert.

Other venues adopted new schedules to allow patrons to get an earlier start on their evening festivities, and an earlier bedtime. “We have changed our hours since COVID, so that bands play from 8 to 11,” says Terry O’Brien at the Red Parka. “This is perfect. Nothing good happens after midnight.”

Becca Deschenes, the lead singer for Rek’lis who also works full time from Cranmore Mountain (in Bennett’s old position, coincidentally), says COVID resulted in a renewed sense of appreciation for the role music plays in her life. It was a real-world expression of the classic line from “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell: “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”

“When the pandemic hit and all of our gigs were essentially on hold, it was a real eye-opener,” says Deschenes, 35. “Something that you may have taken for granted, even when you really love the work, was ripped away. Burnout aside, it’s really inspiring, to see so many people who truly enjoy your music.”

Crawford is even more succinct.

“COVID all but killed live music,” he says. “But it’s coming back strong.”

 

Having dealt with a lingering pandemic for the past two years, local musicians are leery to predict what the future holds. New venues have opened, and they “are certainly always welcome,” says Dan Parkhurst. “But the ones who are here and support music have carved out strong niches.

“Some are known for afternoon weekend music, some for evening dinner music, some for nighttime bands,” he says. “In that sense, music fans can almost always find what they’re looking for.”

The Valley has had its “ups and downs” over the years, says Crawford, but the musicians have held tenaciously to their local scene.

According to George Wiese, executive director of Mountain Top Music Center, which offers shows at the historic Majestic Theatre in Conway, “something about the North Country has a captivating effect.”

“From the earliest days of exploration, it’s attracted artists, writers, poets, explorers, outdoorsmen, and over time as villages were settled and bustling towns built, a thriving community of locals who knew darn well they were living in paradise,” says Wiese. “In that sense, it’s no surprise that there’s a thriving music scene. Today, we associate the area more with hiking, shopping and outdoor activity than we do with the arts, but historically, the arts have always been present.”

Today, the music scene is flourishing, says Maklin: “I definitely play more now than I ever have before. Every time we play, we get a mix of tourists and locals, who always seem to be open to and supportive of whatever music we play.”

“You can find such a variety of music in a 15-minute radius,” says Malkin. “There’s a reason this area continues to be voted one of the best, if not the best ski town in the United States. The venues and the atmosphere have so much to do with that.”

The music industry, says Sarty, isn’t always a congenial one, but the New Hampshire North Country runs contrary to type.

“It’s a dog-eat-dog world in the music business anywhere you go, but the spirit of friendship is strong in the musical community,” he says. “And the relationships musicians have in general with the venue owners in the region seem to be generally positive and productive, in part due to the fact that we all know how fortunate we are to live in such a beautiful place.”

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Violinist Taylor Whiteside, left, joins local folk duo Kathy Bennett, center, and Thomas Perkins during Hoot Night at the Wildcat Tavern in Jackson. Photo by PQ Productions.

Dan Parkhurst says, “There is great camaraderie among local musicians.” Deschenes says she loves the fact that there is an “interlacing between bands.”

“It’s a tight-knit community,” she says. “You could go see one band, where the bass player from another band is sitting in for that gig, or you could go out to see a show with a mix of musicians just for that occasion.”

That camaraderie extends well beyond the performers. The Red Parka’s George O’Brien credits 93.5 WMWV radio owner Greg Frizzell with sponsoring the pub’s Blue Sunday series. Without that support, he says, they’d have to charge admission, which would no doubt have an impact on the event’s numbers. It is an illuminating example of many instruments, and voices, coming together to make beautiful music.

“It’s been an honor to grow up in this Valley, and the shining feature of the musicians is how welcoming and open they are,” says Riley Parkhurst. “Being in the music world here in the North Country really feels like being a part of a big family.”

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