About Birdsong at Morning
Photo: Anne Ruthmann
Most lives have many chapters, some more than others. The members of Birdsong At Morning fall into the latter group, with long histories in the music business countered by extensive experience in business, media, and academia. A series of afternoon get-togethers comprised of semi-retired musicians coalesced into the ensemble now known as Birdsong At Morning, whose core is a trio of friendly relations that stretch back decades. Fast forward a couple of years, and the group is releasing a stunning 4 CD box set of material entitled Annals of My Glass House, featuring the powerful songwriting, compelling voice, and masterful arrangements of Alan Williams, ably supported by the guitars, bass, and voices of Darleen Wilson and Greg Porter, and a bevy of players on drums, percussion, qunun, and strings.
The hardcover biography of the band would consist of multiple chapters rich in character, plot twists, conflict, and resolution. Certainly there would be mention of Alan's formative years in the mountains of western North Carolina, where much of his family still resides, including his uncle, the state's former Poet Laureate, Fred Chappell. Piano lessons, Beatles albums by mail order, disastrous attempts at anything athletic, and all the requisite crises of adolescence transcended by music.
There would be an exciting chapter of the fateful day when Alan's friend Holden Thorp (now Chancellor at the University of North Carolina) introduced him to the fabulously talented Greg Porter, who was living on the other, flatter, hotter end of the state in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Greg was raised by two college professors who nurtured his creative impulses (in addition to bass, he played violin and piano, dabbled in ballet and theater, and attended the summer Governor's School for the Arts in Winston-Salem). A lifelong bond was formed, carrying Alan and Greg from high school to the present chapter.
Flash to another setting, and the reader is introduced to Darleen, a precociously gifted girl from a family of precociously gifted children, brought up in the suburbs of Long Island, New York, and the leafier ones of Wilton, Connecticut. Poet, musician, artist, impatiently waiting for the day when the Internet would arrive, primed for the workings of her multi-faceted mind. The hippie years at Marlboro College, summers working in a mental institution, falling in with a bad crowd of unrepentant Cambridge folkies – snapshots of 1970s America.
The scene evolves as Darleen moves from tentative experiments with a four-channel tape recorder into a position as staff engineer at a low budget recording studio where she masters the craft of turning music into sound while encountering the future stars of the Boston indie jazz, folk, punk, and pop scenes. Meanwhile, Greg and Alan have relocated to the same neighborhood to attend the New England Conservatory of Music, where they major in Third Stream Studies, the small but potent program founded by Gunther Schuller, and developed to full fruition by MacArthur "genius grant" recipient, Ran Blake. In time, Greg and Alan form a jazz/pop/world music ensemble with fellow Conservatory students, and make their first forays into the Boston club scene.
As the lives of this novel's protagonists approach their inevitable intersection, we find Darleen assisting Maurice Starr with his latest project – New Kids On The Block. Alan and Greg, now graduated, have formed their own bands, resulting in a friendly Beatles/Stones-like rivalry between the folk-rock of Knots and Crosses (Alan, Carol Noonan, and Rick Harris) and the edgier alternative sounds of Talking To Animals (Greg, Juliana Nash, Thomas Juliano, and drummer Jay Bellerose, who has been seen of late with Ray Lamontagne and the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss project).
In fact, if there were an index to the book, it would contain many names of artists with whom the members of Birdsong At Morning have worked professionally – Merrie Amsterburg, Shawn Colvin, Catie Curtis, Kris Delmhorst, Patty Griffin, Lucy Kaplansky, Jennifer Kimball, Patty Larkin, Duke Levine, Aimee Mann, Bill Morrissey, The Nudes, Martin Sexton, Richard Shindell, Chris Smither, Eric Von Schmidt, Dar Williams, Stephanie Winters, and Ben Wittman among others.
The heyday – Darleen's production work earns laudatory reviews in Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly and leads to a series of records with the Boston singer-songwriter scene (including demos for Knots and Crosses); Talking to Animals are finalists in the WBCN rumble, leading to a contract with Walter Yetnikoff's boutique label, Velvel, and stints on the Lilith Fair tour; Knots and Crosses sells 20,000+ units of their self-released CDs, signs to Island Records, and embarks on an odd set of sessions with cajun musicians in Louisiana, and the legendary Muscle Shoals rhythm section in Alabama, overseen by Denny Cordell (Procol Harum, Joe Cocker, Tom Petty).
The inevitable downturn – marriages end, bands break up, the industry collapses. But these are some resourceful characters: the plot thickens and picks up pace. Alan and Darleen reconnect this time as a romantic couple. Alan and Greg re-establish their friendship. Darleen takes a leap of faith, masters the world of new media, and ends up as Director of Online for WGBH before forming her consultant firm, Vast Company. Greg moves from the mailroom to an officer position at product design firm Swing Design, before moving to Tea Forté (the company that produces gourmet teas in the unique pyramid tea bag), where he is currently Vice President of Operations. Alan enrolls in graduate school at Brown University, earns a Doctorate in ethnomusicology, and lands a job teaching at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
And yet... music-making calls. At first softly, but gradually building into an undeniable urge. Despite responsibilities and obligations, Alan, Greg, and Darleen are making music a centerpiece of their lives, enjoying forays into the clubs and onto radio. This is music by adults, about being adults. Ambitious, refined, insightful, patient, and often heartbreakingly beautiful, Birdsong At Morning is a singular experience waiting to be had, a happy ending in progress.