Early Jazz fanatics Al Capone and Owney Madden would probably agree that sometimes the place to see live music, isn’t always on the map. This was definitely the case on my assignment, as I tried to find a once upon a time Scandinavian dairy barn in Conway, WA. Since 2004 this barn has been known as the Conway Muse, a true Skagit County destination venue for the best in American roots and rhythm & blues. I had a lunch date with Janice Cleven Gage, KSVR 91.7 FM DJ, to talk about the buzz around the club and rumors circulating around magazine headquarters that this patch of farmland was in the midst of a minor blues revival. I suspected it couldn’t be all jive, because this talk came down from a trusted and reliable source known for chasing the music wherever she could find it. (Jan Hadley, discerning blues fan and mother of the Editor In Chief). The only problem now was figuring out how to get there, because according to my Garmin brand GPS system, the city of Conway does not exist. But thanks to Google and some truly countrified directions from Janice such as “hang a left before the train tracks and take a right by the Conway Feed grain silo”, about 60 seconds after turning off Exit 221 south of Mt. Vernon I was cruising down the main street of a charming old storefront style village. This little town that eluded me was just barely tucked away from the swoosh of speeding cars on the interstate.
Since the Muse is typically open only on weekends, Janice and I sat down at the bar in the Conway Cafe and got busy with a craft beer and a damn good bacon cheeseburger. We agreed to sit out with no other vision than throwin’ around some stories about how we both became so hopelessly addicted to the blues. I wanted to find out how a nice girl from Lynnwood found herself so deep into this music. What I mean is not just the art form itself (I honestly don’t trust anyone that dislikes the blues in general). But rather in her day-to-day existence, as Janice is paying her dues and participating in the culture of the blues in her own community.
We ended up talking for hours about how one day she came back from Florida and fell into a local blues scene that finally gave her a warm and welcome feeling, that at last, and then hard and fast, she was finally home. Through the passion she felt watching local bands like Gary B’s Church of The Blues and Blues Playground, she relapsed into a love even deeper than she had first experienced upon discovering the blues through able acolytes from the British Invasion like Peter Green of the mighty Fleetwood Mac. For millions of Americans in the 1960s and 70s, the British musicians were a gateway drug to discovering their own country’s considerable yet neglected heritage. In the mid 1960s, the evolution of blues music was altered dramatically when two brave boys by the name of Butterfield and Bloomfield crossed over into the South Side Chicago, back when it was truly the Capital of Mississippi, to learn from giants at Chess Records on their home turf. The genius of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf was handed down directly like a lightning bolt to these young men. And thanks to a fresh injection of Mississippi Delta thunder that shot back through Memphis and rolled into Chicago, a new generation of rock & roll was born. Like an echo in the chapel as you stare at the work of Michelangelo, you can still faintly hear that Creation of Adam moment in nearly every respectable bar band that cuts their teeth on the blues. Janice was one of the young impressionable teenagers who witnessed it all through her older brothers and their outstanding record collections. When she came home for good September 11, 2010, like a classic Chess Records recording, her new life in the blues just fell naturally into place. And the Conway Muse would become a big part of it.
What cut me to the bone as Janice and I traded stories, was that while I was talking about 40, 50, 60 years ago today, she was talking about yesterday. Sure I may have knocked her out with some tall Memphis tales*. I told her about the real cost Elvis had to pay when he sold his soul to the Colonel, an army deserter and carny who was neither a colonel, nor really Tom Parker. I had her on the edge of her seat as I recounted an alleged Mexican Stand Off at Stax Studios that Isaac Hayes barely survived as he was outgunned by his own ex-manager Johnny Baylor, Dino Woodward and their various other rifles. Later she shook her head in disbelief when I told her the true story behind BB King’s old Memphis nickname, Shoe Booty. But that was all just smoke compared to her own stories that could bring tears to your eyes, such as the tale of local musician Fat James. You should have heard her tell it.
“Back in February up in Ferndale WA, a drummer named David ‘Freight Train’ Chapman put together a successful benefit show for iconic bluesman Fat James, to help him through some hard times incurred by a debilitating bout with double pneumonia. While it was heartbreaking to hear that Fat James was unable to perform all of his signature guitar licks on his vintage Fender Stratocaster, it warmed my heart to know so many musicians influenced by and touched by his own generosity, were there to support him. That night, pneumonia or not, he stood up on his own two feet and sang his songs.”
The next time we spoke, Janice mentioned that Fat James was found in a ravine out in a field after getting his car caught in the mud and snow. They found him three days later, but as a testament to the man’s incredible will, he miraculously survived and as this article goes to print, he is recovering in a local hospital.
Before we parted ways, Janice promised to accompany me for an evening at the Conway Muse to experience it all for myself.
On Friday March 7th as the sun went down, I found myself standing in front of the Conway Muse. It was clearly once a barn and retained the charm of an idyllic farmhouse on the edge of town. In the hands of its founders, Elfa Gisla and Tom Richardson, the love and attention to detail they’ve lavished upon it, seem to cover almost every square inch. You get the feeling you’re entering a German fable; some story you vaguely remembered as a child. For instance when I saw the ante bellum paddle boat docked near the entrance, for a dizzying moment it felt as if Oz had fallen on Kansas.
As you enter the Muse, marching past what appear to be gas street lamps, you find yourself in a parlor room and bar covered in tchotchkes, paintings, photos, and precious reminders of a lifetime of friendships and travel. It was as if I was comin’ round the mountain. I wouldn’t have been entirely surprised if Dolly Parton had embraced me at the door and welcomed me to the set of her latest holiday special. There was even a guy at the bar that looked a lot like Kenny Rogers. While Dolly never appeared, a local singer named Veronica C. Everett, whom I had no idea worked there, gave me a hug, sat me down, and made sure I had any drink I could think of.
After warming up with a gin fizz, I was accompanied upstairs where I found a sold out stage play celebrating Patsy Cline. Upstairs it was unmistakable that the space was still as much a barn ready for a midnight ramble, as it is today a functional community theater. For this particular production it couldn’t have been more perfect. I watched a cowboy band on stage soundchecking on a gorgeous red and white set engineered to transport you to center stage at the Grand Ole Opry. Back downstairs I got into a Mack & Jack and soaked up some good acoustic blues cut from the mold of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, thanks to a pair of ace musicians named Randy Norris and Jeff Nicely. Norris & Nicely are approachable and salt of the earth kind of guys. They’re also a unique harmonica & guitar duo with real chops. Like the old masters before them they’ve got range. They can take you from the red clay of the Cross Roads, to the heart breaking hope of Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna’ Come; a song where hope is really about the only thing you can hold onto. As I heard them channel the spirits of a dozen Mississippi River poets, an attractive woman sat down at the bar next to me and introduced herself as Elfa Gisla, co-owner and operator of the Conway Muse. Elfa was already sort of legend in my mind. She’s a television star and national treasure from Iceland who came to America and fell in love with a Seattle firefighter. Ten years ago she and her husband dreamed up and set out to create the tiny universe that surrounded me at the Conway Muse. Legends often disappoint, but with Elfa’s warm smile and her husband Tom Richardson tucked behind the soundboard two feet from the bar, I could only wonder how long it would be before some Hollywood studio makes them a more than generous offer for their story. It was a scene from a movie that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan missed out on. Or a Beatles’ song.
The Conway Muse has a catchphrase I was reminded of that evening, that I’ve come to believe. People say, “It’s where the magic happens”. With Elfa’s biography (written in Icelandic) peeking from behind the stage; watching the Patsy Cline crowd from upstairs pouring in to greet Randy Norris’ soaring vocals; seeing folks up front slapping their thighs as they stand to dance; and as Janice Cleven Gage stood up at the end of the song to testify, I felt the magic happen.
“I’m just lettin’ you all know, Randy Norris and Jeff Nicely here have been nominated for the best solo or act by the Washington Blues Society this year. Randy was also nominated for best blues male vocalist, and best acoustic blues guitar. Jeff Nicely has also been nominated for best blues act for his work with his band Blues Playground…”
As Janice carried on, her voice ever so slightly trembled with passion, but by the tail end of her short speech it was a warm vibrato. As she directed applause and accolades at the two men on that tiny stage, I felt what stirred another reliable source, the mother of my editor, to testify about this place. By that moment, I had been twice won over. I smiled and said to myself, ‘Conway…maybe a Revival is comin’’. Sometimes the best ones are the smallest. I wager before long, yet another generation of blues players, like Jabrille Williams**; 16 year old Nolan Garrett, and the young lion Ayron Jones; will walk through that door ready to learn from some of these grizzled veterans. It’s comin’. Start building them tents, Conway, because somewhere around the corner, a Revival is comin’.
But remember to get off at Exit 221, because if one thing you won’t find in Conway it’s your position on your GPS.
The Mexican Stand Off is from Soulsville, USA by Rob Bowman, pg. 261
The story behind B.B. King’s nickname goes back to the King’s early days performing on the streets of Memphis, when he was so poor he had to wear a shoe and a boot. As told to me by long time Memphis resident and music lover, James Hill Sr.
**Jabrille Williams: Williams plays professionally under his idol Jimi Hendrix’ former monicker Jimmy James. His active groups include Funky 2 Death and The Jimmy James Trio.
By Davin Michael Stedman
For more information on The Conway Muse visit conwaymuse.com.