“I suggest you bring food with you. There’s nothing, and I mean nothing, to eat between Bakers Mills and Edwards.”
I took the warning seriously. It came from Tom Akstens, a wicked finger-picker and Adirondack fisherman who plays with Chris Shaw and me about twice a year, in our band Big Trout Radio. We sing fishing songs, an odd niche to be sure, but we play gigs for a chance to hang out together. The less we perform, the more notoriety we seem to get, proving the Utah Phillips maxim that “a genius is an ordinary man 50 miles from home.” Edwards, New York, is in the Adirondacks, 249 miles from where I live in Ulster County, so I figured I’d have the intellectual stature of Stephen Hawking by the time I got there. I packed two Cortland apples and a pint of water for the ride.
“It’s quiet up there,” Chris Shaw confirmed. Chris is also a fly-fishing fanatic who knows every hidden pool within 100 miles of Albany. He delivers lines with a slight James Stewart drawl, as though he just stepped out of Cheyenne Autumn. He’s a folk singer and storyteller who can tell you about raids during the French and Indian War or the best blueberry pancakes in Bolton Landing. Sometimes the two topics wind up in the same sentence, like “General George Howe made serious tactical errors in 1758, got himself killed at Ticonderoga, and they serve real maple syrup at Dot’s.”
Some years ago, Chris bumped into Eric Clapton at Ellsworth’s bait shop just south of Lake George. Clapton had fly-fished the area for a week without mentioning he was a rock star. Since no one recognized him, he was known among the locals simply as “Eric from England.” Clapton recently told Larry King, “Fishing became a transfer obsession” that took the place of drugs and alcohol. At one point, Clapton was booking tours so the gigs were close to good trout streams. It was inevitable that Clapton’s secret would get out—he played a huge concert in Saratoga that week—and he treated his fishing guide’s family to a limo ride and passes to the concert. Clapton’s demeanor impressed Chris. “He’s a fishing guy,” he explained.
I don’t fish. I haven’t done it since I was a kid, when my dad took me from the Bronx to misty lakes upstate and in the Berkshires. I hate hooking a trout, watching it flop helplessly on the rowboat slats, dropping it half-dead in a creel. I understand why fishing fans are so passionate. Real fishermen are amazing to watch. They become part of the stream, casting flies in a ballet of toss, return, and toss again. But waking up at 5am, standing knee-deep in a frigid stream, and slapping mosquitoes isn’t my cup of tea.
But I knew a few songs about angling, like “Fishin’ Blues,” “Deep River Blues,” and “Crawdad Song,” from my folkie days in Greenwich Village. And five years ago, I had the bright idea to record a CD of fishing songs. But songs about fishing are few and far between. So Akstens, Shaw, and I wrote a bunch more, which we recorded with John Sebastian, John Kirk, Cindy Cashdollar and my brother, Happy Traum. At rehearsals, we “spawned” dozens of puns about “getting hooked,” “scales,” “sinking fast,” and “heading downstream.” The songs became metaphors of life itself. We loved the way the CD turned out, but it flopped around for a while before expiring. Fishing fans don’t like folk music. Folk music fans don’t like fishing. You’re probably starting to understand why we have to travel five hours for a gig.
On an unusually warm late-September morning, I piled a few guitars into my Highlander, spent $52.76 filling the gas tank, and rolled up the Northway. The trip to Edwards took the better part of forever, time to reflect and watch and think. Tom, Chris, and I have survived more than our share of folk festivals, clubs, and concerts. In our separate careers, we’ve played a few thousand gigs from Albany to Tokyo. Trekking through the Adirondacks brought on some reflection about our past, the music scene today, and where it’s heading.
“I don’t know how kids get started performing these days,” said Chris, shaking his head. “Or how they get tapped into traditional music. There was a time we could head over to Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs to hear all the old blues guys.... ”