[Our friends Martin and Brian have asked me to drop the old phonograph needle on some of their tunes, perhaps some lesser known, and report back to everyone.]
There’s hardly a genre in modern U.S. music any wider or more inclusive than Americana. McCormack and Brian FitzGerald have a stake under that big tent.
We listeners come to this music looking to hear familiar sounds: strummed guitars, harmonizing and beats we’ve known forever. We also come to hear earthy details, placenames and histories that resonate in our lives.
Switchback treats us time and again to these cultural snapshots, these short stories that long linger in the telling of our time. On their 2002 The Fire that Burns (re-released on their recent Twentieth Anniversary Collection) we get several. One is “The Farmer Leaves the Dell,” a sad update on a song many of us sang as children. This time there’s no Hi-ho, the derry-o; now it’s failed crops and poor credit, our farmer “hoodwinked in a desperate sell.”
Brian’s clear voice tells this farm-crisis tale. His story rings all the truer and rings all the closer to our hearts because it rides on American musical history, the very essence of Americana. Still, for all the misfortune, Brian’s vocal spins a tale not with all hope lost for all time.
Martin joins in on the chorus. Here their harmonized voices make the farmer’s plight into something more universal, surely a trait of this genre as well as others. They sing: “When you don’t know which way to go / It’s a lonely road.” And what would Americana be without its much-used image of the road?
My own September is wonderfully full of this kind of music, first Jason Isbell leaning toward the country side and then the Avett Brothers’ grungy bluegrass. Next month it’s Switchback taking a local stage. I can’t wait to revel in more well-told stories, sound-paintings to help us see ourselves and frame the fascinating world around us.
is an itinerant washboard player who has freelanced for the New York Times, Washington Post and many lesser media. His most honest work was as a pig farmer in central Illinois, where he now lives and occasionally makes dinner for Switchback.)
Rick Kogan Contact Reporter Chicago Tribune
They are road warriors with the gentlest of souls, these two musicians named Martin McCormack and Brian FitzGerald who are the band Switchback. And they will tell you that there remain great adventures and special joys after nearly 30 years of playing and writing and traveling together.
“One year we decided to log the miles we were driving. It was more than 35,000 and we decided never to log the miles again,” says FitzGerald. “Now, if I wanted to be a melancholy Irishman, I would tell you that there is a semi out there somewhere with our names on it. We’ve been very lucky.”
They have also been very good. “Fighting against being pigeonholed,” as McCormack puts it, they have powerfully mingled the genres of American roots and Celtic soul, writing and playing songs that have created a distinctive and engaging body of work.
They have produced, through their independent Way Good Music label, more than a dozen albums as well as three PBS specials and some concert DVDs. For three years in a row, the pair was named the Top Irish Group by the Irish Musicians Association. They have opened for Jethro Burns, John Hartford and Leon Russell, shared stages with Gaelic Storm and Chicago’s fiddle-playing wonder Liz Carroll.
Praise has come easy, as this from Music Connection Magazine: “The words ‘American Roots & Celtic Soul’ only begin to describe this unusual act, whose vocal prowess is as pure as it is unique. There is no denying the stunning vocal blends that are achieved by this duo."
Then there is this from the liner notes for their 2005 album, “Falling Water River,” a tribute to fallen soldiers in contemporary wars, written by former Chicagoan Ron Pen, who was a music professor at the University of Kentucky: “(This) is an astonishing ramble through the heart of Americana soul, a love story redolent of Walt Whitman’s lyrical verse. … It is the sound of America itself.”
But there are, on a consistent basis, subtler rewards.
“If you really want to make music for a living and for a life, you have to get out there and play everywhere,” says McCormack. “We will share our music through community outreach. We play retirement homes, we play churches, we play schools and we play prisons.”
“It is a good thing to get off the beaten path,” says FitzGerald. “There are a lot of small towns where people have a real hunger for live music. There is something almost religious and something certainly magical about a live performance.”
They told me that five years ago and they told me that again a few weeks ago when they stopped here to play this year’s one and only local appearance.
“We are still at it. Two hundred shows a year and there are a lot of other artists doing the very same thing, toiling away, driving from place to place to share their music,” says FitzGerald.
Their road began in the mid-1980s at the corner of Bothwell and Wilson streets in northwest suburban Palatine. This was the location of a tavern/music club named Durty Nellies, and still lively at 180 Smith St., its home since 2003.
McCormack was on stage with some brothers and a sister. There were 10 kids in his family, a brood that made up, as McCormack puts it, “the von Trapp family of McHenry County.”
He was wearing a green V-neck sweater while playing bass, guitar and singing. FitzGerald, who has eight siblings, was in the audience and was eventually lured on stage to play guitar and mandolin and sing. He and McCormack hit it off and would play together for some ensuing years in a band called the Wailin' Banshees, which focused energetically and effectively on traditional Irish music.
“As a rebellion against that, Marty and I started writing our own songs and playing them between sets. That basically alienated the others in the band,” says FitzGerald.
They absorbed all manner of sounds and words at FitzGerald’s, the Berwyn bastion of musical eclecticism conveniently owned by Brian’s father and two of his brothers. “Our music and songwriting were so deeply influenced by being there so much,” says McCormack. “It was our musical finishing school.”
In 1993 they formed Switchback and have been on the road ever since.
Somehow, during all the shows and all the miles, they find time to keep writing songs as well as a lively blog and newsletter. McCormack has also written a very good book about his growing up in Woodstock. Titled “Rose Farm Road,” it is now making the rounds of publishers.
Sunday they are performing at a place called Shep’s Riverside Bar and Grille in Lansing, Iowa, roughly 250 miles from Chicago and where FitzGerald lives with his wife, Maggie; they have two grown children, Chris and Siobhan. McCormack and his wife, Anne Baudouin de Courtenay, live in Rogers Park with their 4-year-old daughter, Aine.
Switchback’s schedule then takes them to Virginia, Florida and Colorado. In November, as they have for more than a decade, they will be leading a group on a tour of Ireland. Then in February they will embark on their third group trip to Costa Rica.
That Central American country is 3,500 miles from Chicago. You could drive there, of course, but Switchback and the 20 some people who will be joining them will be flying (there are still spaces available; more at www.waygoodmusic.com).
“It’s an amazing country, a tropical Ireland, filled with people who have a genuine kindness and sense of humor and an eagerness to get to know you,” says McCormack. “We do wind up doing a bit of driving there and the roads are pretty rugged. But there have always been good angels looking out for us, and if you are going to hit potholes, why not do it when it’s 75 degrees outside and there’s a bar on the bus?”
Chicago band Switchback keeping musical options open »
Dear Switchback Friends,
Fall has arrived. Technically, it still won’t be here until September 22. And the weeks have been hot here in the Midwest. I know firsthand from driving the Golden Eagle, the Switchback minivan that has lost its air conditioning. The van still chugs along and over Labor Day, I drove it across spectacular Iowa countryside, heading south to our concert in Keokuk.
The GPS had us whipsawing across one and two lane roads. We had just passed through a small town, when I saw one.
It was making an almost suicidal march across the asphalt roads heading from one side to the other for no reason whatsoever. I sighed, looked across the fields on the 90 degree day and sadly recognized that it was now Fall.
I am talking about the Woolly Bear Caterpillar. And when it arrives on the scene, for me personally, it is the one single harbinger of Autumn. In Chicago, they are not around, and it has always been rambling across the backcountry roads when the Woolly Bears make their appearance.
I never knew what they would turn into. I mean obviously they become some sort of butterfly or moth, but all these years of seeing them, I just didn’t know. And so, this time, driving along Highway 218, erratically dodging the little beasts, I thought I should look up what it is I am trying to not run over.
For those who have not been graced by the presence of the Woolly Bear, they are, well, sort of cute. About an inch and a half long, they possess fine long hairs, with a band of burnt ochre brown in the middle, and two black bands making the front and rear. They look like a pipe-cleaner gone wild. And the speed that they progress at across the road is somewhat impressive for something so small.
So, exploring on Wikipedia, I was surprised to see its scientific name is Pyrrharctia isabella, and it becomes the Isabella Tiger Moth. Now, I don’t know if I have seen an Isabella Tiger Moth and so this was another revelation. But I have seen the tan, velvet pouches from which they have emerged. I just hadn’t known that it belonged to the Woolly Caterpillar.
As a kid, we would pick them up alongside the road. They felt soft and immediately they would roll up into a ball in an effort to protect themselves. (Only now, years later do I read that their fine hairs can actually cause dermatitis. Ignorance is bliss.) I would make sure they got into the field and they would unravel and head off on their business.
But what is their business? I never really understood. According to Wikipedia, they like to eat herbs and leaves, especially alkaloid bearing leaves. A poppy plant, or such will be eaten and scientists have determined that they do this to get rid of internal fly parasites.
Now, that’s depressing that even a tiny woolly bear caterpillar has to deal with the parasites, let alone one with such a disgusting name. But scientists are pretty hyped up about this as they believe this is one instance in which an insect is actually medicating itself against an insect. So, that is a pretty amazing fact.
Perhaps they are running across the road, because they are high and trying to eradicate a parasite. I guess I would probably cross a hot early fall road a bit out of it if I knew I had an internal fly parasite too.
The Woolly Bear was described by Sir James Edward Smith in 1797. He was the first European to describe them. This was of interest to me and delving into the life of Sir James Edward Smith, I found out that he was the publisher, of the Natural History of the Rarer Lepidopterous Insects of Georgia. Which must have been a bestseller. Did Sir James ever see a Woolly Bear? Nope, he was just describing what John Abbot saw and describing whatever Abbott looked and drew.
Wait a second, I can hear you asking, who is John Abbot? Glad you asked, for he was the guy who, was supposed to be a lawyer, but devoted his life to studying insects instead. He was a skilled engraver and his illustrations apparently became the foundation of a lot of studies on North American insects.
Now, before you write him off as some eighteenth century slacker, I’ll have you know that Abbot served in the Revolutionary War in the Third Georgia Continental Battalion. No doubt, marching down the lanes to meet the British, Abbot saw these crazed, stoned caterpillars crossing the road. Apparently, Abbot felt that Sir James needed to let the world know about the Woolly Bear Caterpillar. One cannot keep such revelations to oneself.
If that wasn’t fascinating enough, folklore has it that the larger the band on the Woolly Caterpillar can indicate the severity of the winter. If the Woolly Bear has a wide band in the middle, it means that we will have mild winter. And the opposite means a severe one. Which really gets me as I always thought it was the other way around. So for nearly half a century, I have been predicting the weather wrong.
At this point, you are probably asking me, what is the point?
And the point is this. It is so easy to dismiss life. Dismiss the little things that dangle and dance their way in front of us. Brush through the spider web, half listen to the bird song or the cricket chirp. It is way easier to keep the phone open, download an app, and tune out of this amazing life.
Yes, this little critter I have been dismissing and driving around for years, but I didn’t really know what it was. And probably still wouldn’t have, except I asked Brian “did you see the caterpillars crossing the road?”
“What caterpillars?” said Brian. And I had to describe the Woolly Bear caterpillar to him.
And what this means for me, is that I need to stop at times, listen, absorb and acknowledge the moment. Marvel and appreciate the fact that others have witnessed, scrutinized, and categorized good old Pyrrharctia Isabella. And yes, it does mean that Autumn is here.
Before you think that I am the only one smitten by the crazed, high, parasite eradicating, weather predicting Woolly Bear, consider the fact that places like Vermillion, Ohio and Banner, Kentucky have Woolly Bear festivals. They are complete with costumes, races, and odes to the little critter. The winner of the race is the one to predict the winter.
I can only guess that John Abbot would be proud.
American Roots & Celtic Soul