Longtime Maine bluegrass musician Stan Keach has a very particular niche – writing songs about Maine. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

ROME — Stan Keach can hear a song where no one else has.

Take, for instance, the fabled boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston in Lewiston more than 50 years ago. Keach saw the grainy photos and film clips of Ali’s fist slamming at Liston’s head and described them with the words “it started with that right to Sonny’s noggin, in a little hockey rink beside the Androscoggin.” He took the fact that Ali was considered the underdog and wrote: “Even though Ali had beaten Liston in Miami, folks said he couldn’t win again without a hex or whammy.”

During the last 35 years or more, the 74-year-old Keach has penned more than 30 bluegrass songs about Maine people, places, history and oddities. His song topics have included L.L. Bean’s boots, the North Pond Hermit, Donn Fendler of “Lost on a Mountain in Maine” fame, local soldiers at Gettysburg, Acadia, Aroostook County and the many Maine towns named for countries or cities around the world. He’s also written songs that are stories about fictionialized lobstermen, poachers and loggers. On May 19, Keach was inducted into the Maine Country Music Hall of Fame at a ceremony and dinner show at the Silver Spur in Mechanic Falls. He’s also planning to self-publish, this year hopefully, a book of lyrics for all his Maine songs called “The Maine Songbook.”

 

“I’ve had a lot of requests over the years from people who want to know the lyrics,” said Keach, who also had a long career as a teacher, while writing songs and performing with his band, the Sandy River Ramblers. “It’s kind of our niche to do songs about Maine.”

Keach’s songs, musically, are bluegrass. The Sandy River Ramblers feature banjo, mandolin, fiddle, guitar and upright bass.  Some songs are upbeat and uptempo, like “Down Went Sonny Liston” or the whimsical “Goin’ to China” about China, Paris, Rome, Athens, Norway, Lebanon and a slew of other international-sounding Maine towns. But other songs are slow and somber story songs. One is the “The Knife Edge,” about a Massachusetts woman and Maine park ranger who died stranded on Katahdin’s Knife Edge during a snowstorm in 1963.

A LOVE OF MAINE

Keach was born in Nashua, New Hampshire, where his father was a minister, but lived all over New England and in New York state growing up. He sung in the church choir and was fascinated by poems, which his mother read to him regularly. But he never pursued music in any serious way until he was an adult.

He went to Olivet College in Michigan and majored in art and philosophy. After graduating, he began working with troubled teens, and later teens with disabilities, including for a program at Temple University in Philadelphia. He had come to Maine often in his youth, hunting and fishing with his father, so when a job working with disabled youngsters in Waterville opened in the early ’80s, he applied. He and his wife, Liz, have lived in Central Maine ever since.

Keach’s fingers work the fretboard of his acoustic guitar. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

When the Keaches moved to Maine they had already been playing bluegrass “as a sideline,” with Liz playing uprgright bass and mandolin and Stan on guitar. They started playing with other musicians at Maine festivals and fairs and, by about 1983, had formed the Sandy River Ramblers. In the late 1980s, he began teaching writing, among other things, in Maine public schools and worked with students with learning problems, as well as academically gifted students. He taught for 24 years, while playing music around Maine and writing songs.

Members have changed or been added over the years. Today, the Sandy River Ramblers musicians range in age from 17 to 74. Keach used to do most of the lead singing, but now much of that duty goes to Julie Davenport.

Keach said he was fascinated with the history of story songs sung at Maine logging camps in the 1800s and passed down verbally through the years. He had also seen some Maine-themed songs get success, including a log drive song used on the “Today” show on NBC, to accompany a news story on one of the last log drives on Maine rivers.

So he decided to write a song about a story that fascinated him, a 12-year-old boy lost for nine days on Mount Katahdin, Donn Fendler. Fendler’s plight had already been the subject of the book “Lost on a Mountain in Maine” when Keach wrote his song in the early ’80s and recorded it with the Sandy River Ramblers.

But, like with all his songs, he saw the possibility for rhymes and phrases and musicality in Fendler’s story, where other people didn’t:

Oh, nine days of loneliness
Oh, nine days of pain
Donn Fendler’s gone and lost himself
On a mountain up in Maine.

Keach said a big part of his song-writing philosophy came from writing courses he took at the University of Maine at Farmington with Wesley McNair, a former Maine poet laureate. He said McNair talked about writing down all the facts you can think of on a topic or story, then slowly weeding them down until you have the most compelling, the ones with words and phrases and rhymes that stand out.

“I don’t think just of the details, I think of images and words that can roll off the tongue,” said Keach. “Like rhyming noggin and Androscoggin.”

Some of his songs are a lot lighter, and the rhymes sound like something from Dr. Seuss. “Goin’ to China” is a good example. In that song, he talks about going to Paris to bring back scented soap and going to Rome, “but I can’t hope to meet the pope.”

And some have a wicked sense of humor. “Boots from L.L. Bean” pokes fun at people who think wearing Bean boots to the office or while shopping in the mall will make them look like a real Mainer:

So you’d like to catch a dee-ah
There’s big bucks in Maine, you heah
‘Coarse as a huntah, you ah somewhat green
But you’ll bring a case of Bud
And go traipsin’ through the mud,
With nine pals, all wearin’ boots from L.L. Bean.

The Sandy River Ramblers’ latest CD,  “Home in the Heart of Maine,” came out earlier this year and features several of his Maine-centric songs, including “The Knife Edge,” “Cliffs of Acadia,” “Down Went Sonny Liston,” “Black Fly Time in Maine” and “What the North Pond Hermit Knows.” The group’s CDs can be ordered by emailing [email protected].

In 2013, Keach read about a man named Christopher Knight, 47, who was arrested in a wooded area of Rome, not far from his own home. Authorities said that Knight had tried to steal food from a camp and that he had lived in that area in the woods, barely seeing anyone, for 27 years. He was dubbed “The North Pond Hermit.”

Keach heard the news and literally ran for his guitar, paper and a pencil, and wrote “What The North Pond Hermit Knows.”

“I just couldn’t imagine what that was like, being alone for so long,” said Keach.

And because he couldn’t imagine it, that’s what he wrote about. He wrote that most of us can’t imagine what it’s like to be alone, to sleep outside in ice storms, to go into the woods when you’re 19 and come out when you’re 47.

Keach says he’s always looking for more Maine people and places that might make good songs. He’s always wanted to write something about Louis Sockalexis, the Penoboscot tribe member from Maine who became a famed professional baseball player in the late 1800s, and whom the Cleveland Indians were essentially named in honor of.

“I’m always looking for stories, I’ve got a big backlist of ones I want to get to,” he said.

 


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