A conversation with Karen Anne Mahoney & MD

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KAM: How long have you been singing and playing guitar?

MD: I purchased my first guitar the winter of 1977. I was working in the shipping department at a xylophone factory in LaGrange, Illinois, the Musser Corporation. LaGrange is a west suburb of Chicago. 

Through the union some guitars and banjos that had cosmetic flaws were made available at very reasonable prices, to the union members. Maybe the decal was a little crooked, or there was a nick or scratch on the finish. I learned my first chords on that guitar and played about a year. I then used it as a back up instrument to take on road trips and camping trips. That poor instrument really took a beating and it fell apart years ago. I still have the body and the neck up in the attic.

I purchased my first Martin Guitar in 1979, a brand new D-18. I guess I’ve been a Martin guy ever since.

KAM: Where do you get your inspiration for your compositions?

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MD: There’s been so many over the years. Early on I wanted to be Bob Dylan, like a lot of young people then. I still love Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly too. I crossed paths with Pete Seeger over the years and learned so much from his books and recordings and performances. I love the direct simplicity of blues and spiritual music, and it seems I am never far from a Carl Sandburg book, or Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Poetry always leads somewhere.

Townes Van Zandt’s music played a major role and still does. Townes was a Texas songwriter who passed away in 1997. I always loved the pop music of the 1930s & 40s. The melodies and harmonies are something.

I think that inspiration is a thing one learns to develop, just as an athlete trains and practices to a point where when the ball is in play during the game, he’s ready to respond to the moment. The more ready, the more open you become, the more you begin to see. Little things, like the sun filtering through the window in the morning, or driving past a new-plowed farm field in central Illinois, are the kinds of things that can cause the first sparks. 

KAM: How did you get your start in the business?

MD: A bunch of friends and I liked to get together just to sing and play. After high school I became a working stiff while all my other friends went off to University. We’d get together during school breaks and during the summer to play and sing, all the while seeking out new songs to share for the next gathering. At some point we began presenting small concerts with local musicians, barn dances and jam sessions open to the public for an organization called “The Old Quarter” Coffeehouse in Brookfield, Illinois, named after the famous Townes Van Zandt album. The program grew into a full-time club, complete with an instruction wing. It finally morphed into the non-profit Plank Road Folk Music Society, which is now in its 34th year.

I was working a number of local gigs by then and was lucky that an agent showed some interest and signed me up. Life changed. Utterly. I was able to leave my day job - which was actually a night job - and began to concentrate on music full-time. I interviewed and got admitted to the faculty at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, around that same time. It seems my plate has been pretty full ever since.

KAM: Have you always been drawn to folk music?

MD: I think so. I grew up in the sixties and seventies and acoustic guitars were everywhere. On the radio, LP, at parties. I was drawn to those acoustic sounds. When I heard a woman play a 5-string banjo at a party one evening in Champaign, Illinois, I asked if I could try it out. i think she may have preferred that I sit and talk to her, but I’d never held a banjo in my hands before, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Like a lot of kids I had visions of rock stardom, but folk always provided such a rich context, hundreds and hundreds of songs on any theme you could imagine. They’re simply built and in them I began to find my own voice. From them my own writing began to blossom.

KAH: What does singing and composing do for you?

MD: First off it gives me a reason to get out of bed in the morning and pull on my pants. It’s a kind of work that has many facets to it and the kind of work not everybody gets to do. I’m lucky enough to be able to make a living at music and when I prepare and do my work well, I have found that good music does have a power. It can unite people, and lift them. Musical sounds and images stay with us as listeners. Music gives each of us a nourishing reference that teaches and helps us navigate through both inner life and outward experience. Sort of like a nourishing home-cooked meal with friends and family. We look forward to it again and again. By the same analogy, fast food is fun and it’s here and it’s there, and it’s everywhere. But once you know the difference…

KAH: Why are you doing this benefit concert and how did it come about?

MD: I was invited to give this concert to benefit the Kenosha Shalom Center by Pastor Bonnie Bell of Immanuel United Methodist Church. Bonnie does incredible work in her community and is a proactive pastor and teacher. She also happens to be a student of mine at the Old Town School of Folk Music. I met her perhaps a dozen years ago when I gave a folk concert at a different church where she was then the pastor. I am pleased to be able to do this event and also provide music for the Sunday morning service too. Bonnie has her folk-jam group which will also provide a few songs. The service will be called, “Come as you are.”

KAH: What songs will you be performing at the concert?

MD: Not sure yet. I will try to get people singing along, and I will sing some songs that are reflective of the times we are in. I usually do about half my own songs and present great songs from others that make a point, open a door, create a mood or entertain.

KAH: Do you get tired from performing and teaching so much?

MD: I get tired. Im on the road 150 days a year. It’s music - and people - that keep me going. I’m learning all the time. How to write, how to be a better singer, a better teacher and how to serve - through performance - some need that listeners all over the place seem to be calling for. 

Karen Anne Mahoney is a freelance writer, journalist and author based in southern Wisconsin.

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