There is no such thing as a typical week for a working musician, but if there were, Joe Walsh’s typical week might look something like this:
Monday: Wake up early to play ice hockey at Portland Ice Arena; standing gig most Monday nights at Otto near the museum.
Tuesday: Teach mandolin all day at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Wednesday: Back in Portland, practice, errands and an occasional gig or jam session with friends at night.
Thursday: More hockey with the boys, pack for weekend travel, attend to personal and business needs.
Friday, Saturday and Sunday: Travel across the country to play with various bands. This winter, Walsh has been to Alaska, Montana, North Carolina and upstate New York, and he’s preparing for trips to the Midwest, the mid-Atlantic and England.
At 33, Walsh is the most in-demand mandolin player in Maine, and one of the most sought-after in America. He could easily live in Nashville, Austin or any other acoustic music hotbed, but chooses Portland because he loves the city and is well-treated here.
“If I moved to Nashville, there’d be way more career opportunities. But I can focus here,” said Walsh. “There are a lot of people who are in Maine for the same reason. They want to be creative and live in a special place. Portland offers that sweet balance between space and a stress-free life and not feeling like you are checking out of culture.”
In the music business, Walsh is known as a sideman. He adds to the musical conversation, but rarely dominates it. Musicians love playing with him because he makes them sound better, and he generally stays out of the spotlight.
His career is a cobblestone of musical opportunities. He juggles regular gigs in Portland with concerts out of town. He teaches at Berklee, and picks up session work whenever he can.
He has released one CD under his own name, “Sweet Loam” in 2010, which features a mix of originals and covers and contributions from a who’s-who of Portland’s acoustic music community past and present, including fiddle player Darol Anger, the Gibson Brothers, with whom Walsh played regularly for nearly five years, and guitarist Matt Shipman.
Walsh figures prominently on a new CD by his buddy Anger, who has since moved away from Portland. He played on and co-produced the record, which is called “E-and’a” (as in, “a one-and-a-two-and-a ….”). It will be released Tuesday.
‘HE TICKLES YOU’
Walsh tours regularly with Anger, as well as Jonathan Edwards, the folksinger who lives in Cape Elizabeth.
He is best known for playing bluegrass and acoustic music, but is capable of playing just about anything, said string musician and fiddle maker Jonathan Cooper, who operates Acoustic Artisans in Portland, where Walsh sometimes plays.
“He tickles you. You can feel it when he plays,” said Cooper. “He is complete in his thoughts when you hear him play. He does not just touch on the surface of it, he gets deep into it. And like a lot of great players, when you hear him play, it’s very clear. The music is very strong, and you can follow it. It’s like a conversation.”
Walsh likes the verbal analogy. He’s a soft-spoken guy, on stage and off, and sees his role as complementary. “I’m not a monologist, but I’m a very good conversationalist, musically,” he said over coffee at Arabica on a recent off day in Portland. “I’m good at adding to what is needed to a conversation, but I don’t do a conversation myself.”
Walsh grew up in Duluth, Minn., on the edge of Lake Superior, which is as much like an ocean as a lake can be without being one. It’s cold up there, much colder than Portland, and the snow piles up like a mountain.
There was a piano in his house, and Walsh noodled on it and gravitated toward it. The first stringed instrument he played was a guitar, but he put that aside when heard an early recording by the David Grisman Quintet, an alternative bluegrass-acoustic jazz band.
Many leading acoustic musicians have passed through Grisman’s band, including Tony Rice, Mark O’Connor and, early on, Anger, whom Walsh befriended when both ended up in Portland.
Hearing Grisman play the mandolin “derailed all my other plans,” he said. He picked up the mandolin, and never put it down. “I played all day long,” he said.
He ended up in Minneapolis and enrolled at a high school dedicated to the arts. He took lessons from mandolin whiz Peter Ostroushko, whose claim to fame, among others, was playing on Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” sessions.
That’s when he got into the Midwest folk scene, picking up on songwriters like Greg Brown and players like Dean Magraw, whom Walsh described as “my hero in high school.”
The mandolin forced him to drop out of college – twice. “I did a semester at Unity College while in Americorps. I had classes, of course, but I mostly spent my time learning David Grisman tunes. Cut forward a year or two: Before realizing or admitting I should focus on music, I did two semesters at Evergreen College. Again, technically I had classes, but after spending all of my time working my way through the real book instead of my school books, I took the obvious hint.”
He ended up with a degree at Berklee, and became Berklee’s first mandolin student. His teacher was the late John McGann, a towering presence in the New England acoustic music scene.
LAID BACK IN MAINE
His experience at Berklee prompted him to stay local. He likes Boston, but prefers the more laid-back lifestyle of Maine, which he says most resembles the lifestyle he grew up with in the Midwest.
From a young age, Walsh surrounded himself with artists who encouraged him to trust his instincts and take risks. The most valuable lesson involved learning that spending one’s time pursuing the arts is a valid enterprise.
The other valuable lesson is open-mindedness, musically and otherwise. He appreciates all kinds of music, and enjoys playing many musical styles.
His musical acumen is informed by three principles:
Always be open to revelation; never assume anything; and never think your opinion is necessary correct.
A Berklee colleague, Matt Glaser, who directs the school’s American Roots Music Program, said Walsh exhibits those principles as a teacher and a musician. He learns from his students as much as they learn from him, and does not assume he is better or more skilled than they are. Because of that, he always improves and learns, which makes him a better musician and an outstanding teacher, Glaser said.
Walsh chuckled at that notion, and credited Anger for tipping him off that teaching at Berklee might be a humbling experience. Anger taught fiddle at Berklee before moving away.
“I asked him once how his teaching was going, and he said, ‘Another day of teaching fiddle to people who can play better than me.’ I really empathize,” Walsh said. “These kids are great.”
Glaser called Walsh “an extraordinary musician and an extraordinary person. He is remarkably musical, and a remarkably sweet mandolin player, and a perfect musician for almost any situation you can imagine. Whatever band he is in, he makes the band better. If you hire Joe in your band, your band will become better.”
Walsh’s endearing attributes beyond music are his benign personality and his thoughtfulness, Glaser said. He’s a great listener, in conversation and on stage, and knows a lot about the history of old-time music, bluegrass, jazz and swing, and is always ready to learn more.
That’s why Edwards hires him to accompany him on the road whenever he can. Walsh is a quiet guy, fun to hang out with and intelligent, Edwards said.
He met Walsh when he recorded his CD “My Love Will Keep.” The sessions were going well, and Edwards wanted a mandolin player to add texture to the title track and others. Walsh was the first name suggested to him, he said.
“He listened to the songs once, and then played this brilliant, soulful, melodic, deep stuff on all the songs I asked him to play on. He’s been in my life ever since,” Edwards said.
“He’s really a positive guy, and is always up for whatever it is that you present him with. He brings a great joy to all of us who know him. The joy of living, and the joy of music. He speaks through his instrument, from his soul.”
Walsh appreciates the compliments, and knows no matter how much success he has, he will always be confused for the other Joe Walsh. You know, the famous rock ’n’ roll guy.
For a while, he debated calling his record “The Other One and Only Joe Walsh.” And he still may use that title for a future CD. But for now, he accepts the confusion as part of the job description and a long-term running joke.
“It’s been a recurring theme going back as far as high school girlfriends’ parents, so at this point if I can’t handle a Joe Walsh joke or two …,” he said.
“In the bluegrass-acoustic world, lots of people know the difference, of course, and don’t show up at my gigs expecting to hear ‘Life’s Been Good to Me So Far.’ It’s nice to hear a new angle, though, instead of the same jokes over and over: ‘You look good for your age!’ ‘You were great in the ’70s.’
“I think if I had had any idea that I would achieve any success at all, or that it would ever be an issue, I might have thought about a stage name. But both my grandfathers were named Joe, too, and I’d hate to turn my back on them. So I’ve learned to be OK with it.”
The most awkward Joe Walsh moment came when the other Joe Walsh showed up at Berklee. Our Joe Walsh met the wife of the other Joe Walsh.
“Nice to meet you,” she told him. “Nice to be married to you.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: