PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
April 12, 2005

Acoustic Renaissance Man

by Jim Newsom

“Life is short, and if you can squeeze two or three lifetimes into the actual chronology of one, I guess that’s not too bad.”

Dan Crary, who performs Saturday night at the Virginia Beach Central Library, is talking with me from his home in the small town of Placerville, California, fifty miles east of Sacramento. He knows whereof he speaks---he’s squeezed at least a couple of very full lifetimes into his 65 years.

“I spent many years resisting being a professional musician,” he says, “because I thought I was duty bound to be in a helping profession. So I studied theology, and when I decided I wasn’t quite going to fit in that profession, I went back to school and did my academic work and wound up as a professor. It wasn’t until I was in a tenured-track university job that I finally sat down and said, ‘You know, the main helping profession here is music. And you ought to quit resisting it, just take it seriously.’

“From then on I wound up doing two careers, somewhat controversially with my academic friends, and wound up being on the road constantly when I wasn’t in the classroom. So it made for a busy life, but it was an interesting one.”

He and his wife lived in Orange County where he was a communications professor at Cal State Fullerton for nearly 30 years. She was a professor at USC. All the while, Dan’s reputation as an outstanding acoustic guitarist was expanding.

“It was tricky. I was able to get my teaching schedule pretty much into Monday through Thursday, so I put in a lot of weekend tours, and then Monday morning act like my eyes were actually open as I was lecturing.”

Music, specifically that played on guitar, had been Dan Crary’s first love growing up in the heartland of America. He first noticed it listening to the radio when he was twelve years old.

“My folks were sort of post-Depression, lower middle-class working stiffs,” he remembers. “They bought a half-acre outside of Kansas City in what you might call a suburban area, though it was a pretty hillbilly suburban area. We had chickens and cows and raised big gardens. That’s where I’m from, the outskirts of Kansas City out in the countryside of eastern Kansas.

“In 1952, which is when I started playing, the guitar was a very obscure instrument in America, and no less so around Kansas City. About the only place that you would ever hear the guitar on the radio was in the hands of a country musician who was just playing backup. But acoustic guitar as a solo instrument was virtually unknown.

“I heard one on the radio, and I’d been listening to country music a little bit. I didn’t know what it was, but I loved the sound of it. I asked my dad what it was, and amazingly, my folks bought me one and gave me some lessons. And that was a very exotic thing to do for your kid. If they were gonna give a kid music lessons, it was gonna be the piano or the accordion. I must’ve known sixty accordion players and no guitar players.”

In those pre-Elvis, pre-Beatles days, it was hard for a youngster smitten with the guitar to find any musical role models:

“My impression is that people like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and guys like that who were out there doing it were more in the east around New York and places where progressive and/or radical politics and folk music kind of mixed it up. The first honest-to-God folksinger I heard---and a lot of people don’t know he was one---was Burl Ives.

“I was just wanting to listen to any music that I could hear where there was a guitar and where it had a kind of story-song attached to it. And I found that in this Burl Ives record that my grandma bought for me, and once in a while I’d hear a country artist that did a little bit of that. And I discovered bluegrass.”

After he grew up, Crary became one of the pioneers of the “newgrass” movement as a founding member of the Bluegrass Alliance in the late ‘60s, with bandmates including Vince Gill, Tony Rice and Sam Bush. He also had a brush with major label near-success in the mid-‘70s:

“I had met [fiddler] Byron Berline while I was still doing my graduate work. As luck would have it, the only academic job I got was about an hour down the road from where Byron lived. So he and I said we would have to get together, and we did get together when I moved to southern California and formed a band. The next thing we knew, we had an MCA contract. It was going to be two albums, but the A&R guy that liked us got fired in the middle, so it was one of those one album deals. The name of the album is Byron Berline and Sundance.

“It was a perfect example of how a major record deal destroyed a perfectly good weekend band,” he laughs. “They advanced us a significant amount of money to make the record. Then it was like they expected us to go on the road to support the album, and everybody got so crazy trying to do that…and taking stupid gigs. The other thing is, I was then in my university job and there was some limitation on what touring I could do.”

Nowadays, as a retired professor, Dan Crary can give his full attention to music. He’s busy with his own record label, instructional DVDs, and traveling all over North America performing and giving workshops. His most recent CD, Renaissance of the Steel String Guitar, is an irresistible masterpiece that roams through a myriad of genres and styles. His virtuosity and versatility are undeniable.

“I’m not trying to find categories to put myself in,” he says. “I’m trying to duck the categories. I like music where the musicians have one foot on a tradition which gives them that solid kind of grounding that the force can move through from the past. But then their other foot is out there in new territory thinking of something to do that nobody heard before, and it inspires them and they hear the voice of God in it. That’s what I think musicians are supposed to do.”

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