Bluegrass With a Historic Twist - The Spinney Brothers at the Maudslay Arts Center in Newburyport, Massachusetts

In the quintessentially quaint New England town of Newburyport, Massachusetts, one can find Maudslay State Park, a landscaped and decorative park located along the southern bank of the Merrimack River. The park, once the early 20th century estate of Newburyport financier Frederick Strong Moseley whose family resided there from 1900 to 1985, features thickets and gardens, rolling meadows, tall pines, and one of the largest naturally occurring stands of mountain laurel in the Commonwealth along with numerous ornamental trees such as azaleas and rhododendrons.

Originally named Maudesleigh, after the family’s ancestral home in England, the 480-acre estate was created on agricultural fields by landscape architect Martha Brookes Hutcheson, one of the first of three female members of the American Society of Landscape Architects who was also a lecturer and author active in New England, New York, and New Jersey. Hutcheson worked on the estate between 1904 and 1906 and was responsible for designing the landscape around the main house as well as the entry drive and formal gardens while Lord and Burnham, noted American greenhouse manufacturers and the builders of numerous major public conservatories in the United States (including the New York Botanical Garden which is one of the premier botanical gardens in the country), designed some of the greenhouses. At the estate's peak, approximately 40 staff members serviced the estate's three greenhouses, head house, several types of cold frames, espaliered fruit trees, a large winter plant house, 2-acre formal vegetable and cutting garden, 500-foot perennial border, Italian garden, rose garden, and rhododendrons, azaleas, and specimen trees, as well as the site's native mountain laurels. And that was just the gardens!

William G. Rantoul, of the Boston firm Jacques and Rantoul, served as the estate's principal architect creating most of the original architecture in the years 1895-1910. Known for the many luxurious homes and estates he designed on Boston’s North Shore, Rantoul, whose papers are located at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, also designed the Shreve, Crump and Low building, a Beaux Arts structure with a striking Art Deco facade, across from the Boston Public Garden in 1904. At Maudesleigh, Rantoul designed the 72-room main house along with the houses for the coachman, forester, head gardener, and several outbuildings including those in the garden complex along with at least one greenhouse. Between 1939 and 1941, a second large house was built for Helen S. Moseley, the unmarried daughter of Frederick and Helen Moseley.

After Helen S. Moseley’s death in 1952, the property was managed by the trustees of her estate who decided to tear down the main house in 1955 while Helen's house was destroyed in 1978 by one of the many fires that seemed to plague the estate over the years. Today, the main gate, the drives, the stone bridges and the overlooks have survived along with just a few of the approximately 30 structures from the early nineteenth century and the property is maintained by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation who took over following the Commonwealth's acquisition of the property on August 5, 1985. With assistance from the Trust for Public Lands, a national nonprofit group from California, Maudslay State Park was opened to the public on September 15, 1985 with the volunteer Maudslay State Park Association (MSPA) and the Association’s Garden Committee working to "preserve, rehabilitate, and maintain the park’s natural, historical, and horticultural resources which include its historic gardens and designed landscape."

Needless to say, it sounds like it's a pretty darned impressive place and I'm sorry that I didn't have the chance to explore some of it but to be honest, I didn't know a darned thing about Maudslay State Park including the fact that it even existed or the rather cool reports of the grounds possibly being haunted until just the other day. Now that I do though, it's definitely someplace that I'll have to take Nathaniel back to when I explore Newburyport for the Hawthorne Hotel's Travels With Nathaniel,  a blog dedicated to day trips of a historic nature that can be taken while staying at my favorite historic hotel in Salem. Heck, if I'd known all of this, I would have whipped out mini-Nate who was traveling in my camera bag the evening that I was there but alas, it just means I'm heading back up there someday as I think it would definitely be someplace that guests of the hotel would love.

Anyhow, for those of you who thought you were reading a post about a bluegrass concert, let me try to get back on track here ... Back in 1978, State Representative Nicholas Costello filed the original legislation for the purchase of the Moseley Estate under Governor Dukakis' administration with the vision of "a Passive Recreation Site combined with a Cultural Component open and accessible to the public." The legislation passed, the property was purchased, and in 1993 the Costello family founded the Maudslay Arts Center at the site of the former Dairy Complex and Courtyard on land which was originally the Chase Farm which had been purchased in 1897 and added on as part of Maudesleigh.

In 1906, a hay barn which, based on its architectural style is believed to have been designed by architect William Gibbons Rantoul, was either built or moved to the Dairy Complex. When two new structures were built and connected to the hay barn, a courtyard was formed that was used to corral ten Guernsey cows, a breed that is known for its rich creamy milk, that were kept at the Dairy Complex. The Dairy Farm ceased operations in 1956 but today it's the perfect venue for summer concerts with its amphitheater-like setting.  Inspired by Tanglewood, the Berkshire Mountains' summer home of the Boston Pops, it's been said that the Maudslay Arts Center is actually a better venue as it's in a setting that was already there and not built strictly as a concert venue.  Having never been to Tanglewood, I can't make a comparison but I must say that the acoustics at the MAC are fantastic!

For twenty years now, the Maudslay Arts Center, which additionally hosts special events such as weddings, conferences, family reunions, and educational & summer camps, has been a summer venue for musical entertainment presenting a variety of styles from classical to pop, big band to folk & country, and bluegrass to jazz.  As I found out, it's an absolutely gorgeous place to go and listen to a concert but rather than flounder around for the words myself, allow me to quote the MAC's website:
"Whether you’re sitting under the stars on a moonlit evening, or lounging on a blanket on a Sunday afternoon, the Maudslay summer concert series provides the perfect setting for your entertainment pleasure ... The concerts are held rain or shine. In fair weather, our outdoor stage seating provides the ideal al fresco setting, with table and chairs in our patio seating area, and bring your own blanket seating on the lawn. When weather dictates, the performances move inside to the MAC Concert Barn. Concert goers are encouraged to bring a picnic dinner, which can be casual or as elaborate as a gourmet meal with tablecloth and a flowers and whatever suits the patron’s fancy. Delicious desserts such as seasonal cobblers and Ghiradelli brownies, Hodgie’s ice cream, and beverages may be purchased during intermission, all served by dedicated MAC volunteers who continue to make this non-profit series happen."

So how exactly did this Connecticut Kid end up sitting under the stars in Newburyport, Massachusetts in a former cow corral to listen to a concert? Easy enough! My cousins thought that it would be the perfect end to a day of shopping in the Portsmouth, New Hampshire area and they were right! As anyone who has read this blog knows, I'm not at all adverse to traveling a few miles for something worth my while and having had the pleasure of attending a concert by the very fellas we were there to see one time previous, I knew the just-over-two hour drive would be more than worth it.

The Spinney Brothers, who tout themselves as players of "traditional, Southern-flavoured bluegrass music" are from the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia, Canada so I guess that you could say that they're "imported bluegrass" if you were of a mind to label your bluegrass! I think they'd probably prefer 'International' but I'm going to stick with 'imported' - my blog, my choice!  Anyhow, not knowing all that much about the genre of bluegrass (I leave that expertise up to my cousins!), I always thought that it was a strictly American music with its roots in the hills of Kentucky and West Virginia and such but apparently I'm quite wrong as it appears that Nova Scotia embraces a long tradition of playing and enjoying bluegrass music, something that started in the early 1950s when a Kentville radio station popularized the “hillbilly music” of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.

Now I don't care who you are, if you have an iota of rhythm in your body, you've got to admit that the music of Flatt and Scruggs is definitely some that will get your toes a'tappin' and it apparently did just that for brothers Allan (oldest by exactly one year to the date) and Rick (who likes to point out "was his brother's first birthday present”) as they co-founded their first bluegrass band in 1989 called “Bluegrass Student Union”. Along with their good friend, Steve Jackson, the band performed at various school functions, variety shows, and benefits before Allan, who strongly admired the vocal harmonies of the Stanley Brothers, decided that it was time to launch a full bluegrass band.

Using first-generation bluegrass legends like Smiley Bates and Bill Monroe in addition to Flatt & Scruggs as an important musical influence, and adding to that their personal lives and local heritage, The Spinney Brothers Bluegrass Band debuted in 1992 showcasing what is known as a "tight brother duet vocal style" which seems to be the hallmark of good bluegrass music and is definitely the catchphrase to Google if you want to find out anything about The Spinney Brothers!

Earning the award for Most Promising Band in 1992 at the Eastern Canadian Bluegrass Music Awards presented by the Downeast Bluegrass & Oldtime Music Society, the following year - the same year the band opened for Country Music Star Ricky Skaggs in Windsor, Nova Scotia - the band debuted its first release, a self-titled recording which earned them the 1993 ECBMA for Recording of The Year. In 1994 they played their very first show in the United States in Paris, Maine and then went on to win an impressive list of ECBMAs over the years as well as accolades from the IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association).

Even with all of their success, as seems to be the norm with just about any band out there regardless of genre, The Spinney Brothers have gone through some changes since they emerged in 1992 with the last change being the acquisition of a new bass player in 2010; however, even with the change, they've retained the same recognizable sound as when they first started out.  The band is now comprised of the very talented quartet of:

Allan Spinney on guitar and vocals
Rick Spinney, vocals and banjo
Gary Dalrymple, mandolin
and Darryl Hebb on the upright bass.

The Spinney Brothers have released nine recordings since first becoming a band - ten if you count Rick's CD "Off the Cuff" which is mostly instrumental but also features Allan and Gary. In March of this year, their latest recording, "Memories", was their very first CD to be released on a bluegrass music label - Mountain Fever Records of Wills, Virginia. According to my cousin Amy who is one of the host's of WHUS Radio's Bluegrass Cafe,  in an interview that she did on the show with Rick in July, he said that when they made their newest release the band's goal was to have one of the songs chart on the Bluegrass Unlimited National Bluegrass Survey. Considered to be the premier publication in bluegrass, it was a mighty fine goal and it looks like The Spinney Brothers have succeeded as in the September 2012 issue, their song, "Memories" is in the #13 spot in the Top 30 and the CD, "Memories" is in the #7 spot. It should be mentioned that not only did The Spinney Brothers attain their goal in making it on the charts with their new release but "Memories" is the very first bluegrass-charting song for their new record label - pretty awesome, huh?

Now I'll be honest with you, when it comes to bluegrass music, I pretty much don't know beans with the bag open - as my old Gram B used to say. Being related to Amy and her brother Dave aka "Tex" who has been singing and playing bluegrass for years now and is currently the second Dave of Bear Minimum, I have had the chance to listen to a good bit of the genre over the years and some I quite like and some I quite don't. I have an admitted love for the band Hot Rize featuring Tim O'Brien and the amazingly talented Bryan Sutton, a group that I was more than happy to go with Amy to see in concert in Lexington, Massachusetts in November of 2010 and whose CDs do, in fact, take up a little space here in my house but beyond that, I'm pretty picky when it comes to bluegrass. I'll be the first to tell you that I'm not too keen on that "high, lonesome sound" or any sort of nasally twang where you just know if the singer blows his nose, his career is over so for me to go to Newburyport - a good 130+ miles from my house - to hear a group sing, you've got to know that I think that they're good.

Based on the reaction of the rest of the folks there once the music started, I believe they thought that The Spinney Brothers were mighty fine, too. Granted, in the following pictures they were all listening intently rather than applauding but that's because I took the photos in the middle of a song - sneaky photographer that I try to be!

With everyone in the audience in their places either comfortably seated at a table and chairs or up on the hill with a blanket or lawn chair, the concert began at 7:00 p.m. and after the group was introduced by Nick Costello, Jr., the Executive Director of the Maudslay Arts Center for the past twenty years, we were soon being treated to music that was in perfect pitch and harmony set to some marvelous instrumentation which set heads to bobbing and toes to tappin'. In between songs, Gary and Rick took turns telling stories while Allan sometimes seemed to bite his tongue and Darryl had the occasional priceless expression!

It was easy to see throughout the show that The Spinney Brothers love what they do and were having a great time doing it - not something that everyone can say about their job. Sure, they probably spend way more time on the road then they'd like to, and sure they probably occasionally get a little sick of each other's company, and no doubt the mini-van gets a bit cramped from time-to-time but when what you love is making music then those are the things that you put up with and you feel blessed every time you get up on the stage and hit that first note followed by another and another until you play the last chord and you hear the applause from the folks who enjoy your music just as much as you do. The boys will tell you that they do appreciate and love the chance to perform their music and are thankful for each and every person who comes out to one of their concerts and I'm quite certain they are more than sincere when they say it.

Following an intermission where there was some delicious strawberry or blueberry cobbler or homemade brownies with fresh local ice cream being served up for a small fee, while the band had a chance to meet some of the folks in attendance and maybe sell a CD or two, Nick came back out to reintroduce the band and thank everyone for their attendance and support of the Maudslay Arts Center before The Spinney Brothers took to the stage again for some more great bluegrass tunes including one that is done by my favorite BG band, Hot Rize, (not bad, boys, not bad!) and a version of "Dueling Banjos" between Rick and Allan in which Allan was clearly the winner - sorry, Rick! They also played what they like to call their "signature song" which I can certainly relate to!

A few more stories and jokes were told and a lot more good music was played before the boys called it a night, played a couple of encores, and then thanked everyone for coming out to hear them play and "earn some money for Mama", a woman that they talk about with great love and affection.

After the concert was over, the band stayed around to shake a few hands and chat with more of the folks who had come to the Maudslay Arts Center to hear them perform - something that I think more bands ought to do as I think it's a real nice touch and makes more of an impression than just leaving the stage and skeedaddling off to the next venue. In addition to talking to my cousins Amy and Robin and thanking them for coming "all the way from Connecticut", Rick talked a bit with one of his newest fans, Charlie, Nick Costello's son who is "third in command" and quite the cute little fella!

All in all I'd have to say that it was a great concert in a great venue and in a historic setting that I previously knew nothing about which is pretty durned cool! It was a real pleasure to meet not only The Spinney Brothers but Nick Costello, Jr., a man who has been providing the Newburyport area with marvelous musical summer choices for the past two decades and obviously loving what he does, too. It's too bad that more communities don't have the cultural opportunities that Newburyport does but when you get right down to it, that's okay as I really don't mind the drive when I'm going to see something good - and that includes bluegrass music! Hopefully someday you'll make the drive to visit the Maudslay Arts Center or see The Spinney Brothers perform, too!

Author's Note: First off, I apologize for having two song titles wrong on my videos (I should have consulted the expert, i.e. cousin Amy, before creating the title slides) and for any shaking you see as they were filmed with my handheld iPhone; and second, if by any chance you'd like to see more photos from the concert, you may certainly do so at my SmugMug Gallery.


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