Geoff Bartley and Boston’s Golden Age of Bluegrass

Geoff Bartley - photo © Dan TappanIn bluegrass songs, good times are either past and gone or expected in a future beyond the grave, but in the present, times are hard. The hammer is too heavy, the road is rough and rocky, and the bucket has a hole in it. Once something wonderful is lost, we can sing about it (They Tore Down the Hillbilly Ranch), and not before. Someday, songs will be written about Geoff Bartley and the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but since bluegrass Tuesdays at the Cantab are happily in the present, Geoff must make do for now with a handsome plaque from the Boston Bluegrass Union, naming him the recipient of its 2016 Industry Heritage Award.

Though pleased and honored by the award, Geoff seems convinced that it is unearned, calling himself “not a bluegrass guy.” His own illustrious musical career is rooted in traditional blues and folk. “I’m a fingerstyle player, and I had not played with a flat pick in a bluegrass style until Tuesday nights started. So I’m really new to flatpicking bluegrass style. I’m sure I was looked down on,” he says. “The musicians that moved me were solo guitar players/singers: Lightnin’ Hopkins, Dave van Ronk, Bob Dylan,” and that was the musical path he followed. He has received innumerable awards for performance and songwriting, include winning the New Hampshire Acoustic Guitar Contest twice, winning second place and a guitar in the Winfield National Fingerpicking Contest no fewer than four times, and winning first place in the 2015 Podunk songwriting competition with his song Sunny Side of Town. He has released over a dozen CDs, he is a regular sideman for Tom Paxton, he performs locally with Howie Tarnower, and his songs and solo instrumentals are licensed for films, television, and advertising around the world.

Geoff has nevertheless played a key role in the growth of Boston’s lively bluegrass scene. The Tuesday evening performances and jams he has run since 1993 are legendary. Members of national acts such as Crooked Still, Della Mae, the Gibson Brothers, and the Steep Canyon Rangers have played on the Cantab stage, and multiple rising young bands have formed via the Cantab jams. He books the bands, provides and runs the sound system, and passes the hat around the packed house to support the established and emerging bands that appear.

One sunny summer afternoon, we sit down for a conversation in Geoff’s living room, and I count two dozen visible guitars, plus numerous other cases and instruments. Trophies and plaques abound. Asked how he connected with the bluegrass world, Geoff vividly recalls the first time he heard bluegrass music. The rhythm, lyricism and dynamic emphasis of his speech may not translate to text, but they offer a glimpse of his songwriting prowess.

“In 1970, I was going out with the love of my life, and she was way hipper than me, and took me to a Sunday afternoon bluegrass jam at a building in Harvard Square,” Geoff says, “and I heard a band there, it’s the first time I ever saw Eric Levenson, I’ve remembered him ever since, and the power of that band. It was Joe Val and the New England Bluegrass Boys.”

“There must have been 200 people there, big gigantic beautiful rooms where people could be isolated acoustically from each other enough to have four bands going full tilt at the same time. I ended up next to a band that decided to rip through something at speed, and I’d never heard anything like it. I think that’s probably when I got inoculated.”

His next exposure to the bluegrass bug came at Winfield, Kansas, in the 1980s. “I didn’t go out there because of the bluegrass,” he says. “I went out there to try to win a guitar, and while I was there, I would go to the main stage, or some of the satellite stages, and I heard Hot Rize, and I got my hair blown straight back. It was like rock music, but they were playing it on banjos and fiddles and flat­top Martins. God almighty, they were good!”

After touring into the late ’80s, Geoff became discouraged and depressed, and stopped performing for some time. During that period, he was offered the opportunity to run a folk singer/songwriter open mic at the Cantab Lounge, which he began in December of 1991. After a couple years, “It was strong enough that the owner of the Cantab offered me Tuesday nights to do whatever I wanted to with,” says Geoff. “I didn’t have a clue what to do with them.”

There were no weekly bluegrass events around Boston at the time, so he asked friends in the bluegrass world for advice and contacts, and according to Geoff, “Everyone I called for advice was extremely enthusiastic, and so, bit by bit, my ignorance and stupidity were replaced by little insights about how incredibly deep and wide the bluegrass community network is in greater Boston and New England.”

Bluegrass Tuesdays began in 1993, but remained slow for years, which he attributes in part to the location: “The Cantab, in former years, was rough. I mean broken bottle fights, fist fights, knife fights, police out there every night… That’s an exaggeration, but the Cantab was rough. It was a down and out stinkhole of a bar with smelly restrooms, and no person of any dignity and class would go in there,” plus it was hard to find a parking spot.

During those years, though, Geoff came to appreciate another side of bluegrass music. “I began to realize that these were nice people, they had found something that meant something to them, and they were friendly to me, and if the music wasn’t sophisticated, that gave it an advantage, because it was accessible to a wide group. And then the messages in bluegrass began to penetrate my tortured and fevered and screaming mad brain, and these are not messages advocating destruction, and the themes touched upon home and love and church and all that. I’m still a million miles from that, but it’s okay. And we’re able to play these songs together and it’s inclusive and it’s healing and it’s wholesome and it’s fun.”

Eventually the bluegrass evenings began to pick up steam, getting a big boost from the release of O Brother, Where Art Thou in December of 2000, and its popular soundtrack of bluegrass and mountain music. Says Geoff, “It was a huge boom for us. That was a Coen brother’s movie, starring George Clooney, and it made American string band music, all of a sudden, thank you Ethan and Joel, made it hip.” By early 2001, bluegrass Tuesdays had become so popular that the bar owner added an additional bartender and opened the basement and stairwells to jammers.

“Three places where people can jam. And this is a big deal, “Geoff says. “So many people have said ‘Yeah, I met him in a jam on the back stairs,’ and now they’re recording for Sugar Hill Records and touring Belgium!”

He still denies deserving the Boston Bluegrass Union award, however, saying, “I see it completely opposite. I see it that I just got lucky and I hit this huge vein.” He credits other factors, such as the presence of Rounder Records nearby, support from the Boston Bluegrass Union, the long­running radio show Hillbilly at Harvard, and perhaps most of all, Matt Glaser, renowned jazz and roots violinist and longtime head of the strings department at Berklee College of Music, where he is currently Artistic Director of the American Roots Music program.

“You’ve got all these things going on, Matt Glaser bringing students over to the Cantab the day they turn 21,” says Geoff. “Everyone coming through [Berklee] with a fiddle is going to be exposed to Matt’s huge brain and his enormous skill set. Matt is a very valuable, very deep resource, he knows everybody, and he is known all over the world. He is an educator who has influenced several generations of fiddle players.”

Matt GlaserMatt Glaser sees it otherwise. Reached by phone, he says, “It would be almost impossible to overstate what he has done! The Cantab is the epicenter of the bluegrass scene in Boston. Geoff is a wonderful, wonderful person and a wonderful, wonderful musician. He may say he doesn’t play bluegrass, but I have enjoyed playing all kinds of music with him, I love playing blues and bluegrass with him. And he has created an incredible beautiful thing, and it has nurtured all these young bands. He’s absolutely deserving of this award, and it shows how somebody can, by persevering, create an incredible scene.”

Members of the red­hot band Mile Twelve first met at the Cantab, and they concur. “The first time I met Bronwyn she was on the stage of the Cantab, and I was like, who’s that young lady fiddling, and she was killing Gold Rush. Probably Nate and Evan too, it’s kind of the place to meet,” says banjo player B.B. Bowness. “A lot bands form from meeting there and jamming there. He’s a force of the scene in Boston.” She cites the importance of 23 years of consistent Tuesday evening bluegrass in building the local bluegrass community, adding, “Some weeks, it’s like every single person I know is at the Cantab. Darol Anger is dropping by, or Matt Glaser, all those amazing pickers.”

Bronwyn Keith­-Hynes, Mile Twelve’s prize­winning fiddler, agrees, saying “He was always one of the most supportive people at the Cantab for me. I came to Berklee as an Irish fiddle player and was really interested in bluegrass and pretty intimidated by it, and going to the Cantab every week for many years was how I got into it. It’s amazing that he’s done it for so long and created such an amazing community in Boston. I don’t think the bluegrass community in Boston would be nearly as strong without the Cantab.”

So when Geoff claims, “The community was already built, all I did was stumble blindly into a stage,” take it with several grains of salt. Bluegrass around Boston is enjoying a golden age, and Geoff Bartley has played an essential role in its creation. Someday, the songs will be written. For now bluegrass pickers and fans can revel in the knowledge that if you show up at the Cantab on a Tuesday night, the performances will be brilliant, the jamming will be hot, the beer will be cold, and Geoff will be there, making it all work.

Interviews are edited and condensed. For more about Geoff Bartley, visit his website at Photo of Geoff is by Dan Tappan, used by permission. The Cantab Lounge is located at 738 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02139, and the performance calendar is here. The Cantab has cleaned up well over the past 23 years, but it remains a genuine dive bar with great live music every night, and parking is worse than ever.

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About the Author

Gwendolyn Holbrow

Gwendolyn Holbrow is a prize-winning author and artist, and a not-prize-winning musician. She plays upright bass and provides lead and harmony vocals for Moonshine Alley, a bluegrass band based in Framingham, Massachusetts.