Letter From Katie: Sunday Best

My friend Eddie, the man behind the magic at The Comet.

It is a lush, green summer evening in Northside. Inside The Comet, the popular dive bar on the corner of Hamilton and Otte avenues, the regulars are already claiming tables and taking seats. In front, a group of women holding places for friends chatters about homes and families and jobs. The rise and fall of their voices makes a soothing sound, like cicadas, and the light streams through the window behind the small stage. It’s a comfortable Sunday vibe—old friends gathering in a well-worn setting, looking for entertainment to close out the weekend.

The Comet has never been the kind of place to subscribe to one kind of music. On any given week you’re liable to hear any given style—alt, punk, electronic, what-have-you. Steve Schmidt holds his annual jazz Christmas concert here; there’s also music made by bands with names you can’t repeat to your mother. Musicians love the place, and that could be because it has wonderful acoustics. And then there’s the atmosphere. It’s an old wooden bar with stools on the tavern side and tables and chairs on the musical side. Decorated with black and white tile, staffed by bartenders neatly attired with white butcher’s aprons, it’s a scene from another time.

Around 6:30, musicians begin to drift in one by one. They are the bar’s house band, The Comet Bluegrass All-Stars, the group started by Eddie Cunningham 19 years ago to draw customers up Hamilton Avenue on sleepy Sunday evenings. Like The Comet itself, the All-Stars are a Cincinnati institution and their weekly gig is one of those events that everyone who calls himself “local” needs to experience.

In situations like this, it’s easy to wonder if the joint became popular because of the band, or if the band got a following because of the joint. But it’s not a big mystery to me. I order a Diet Coke and settle in as Eddie Cunningham and his crew launch into an old bluegrass chestnut—“I’m On My Way Back to the Old Home.”

The band sounds as good as any bluegrass outfit I’ve heard anywhere. But what makes them a local legend is the man at the helm, who has spent his career making good music, cultivating great musicians, and turning ordinary Sunday nights into something special.

A thought occurs to me any time I hear the All-Stars play: Eddie Cunningham knows a lot of talented people.

The band has served as an incubator for some of the finest string players in bluegrass—people such as guitarist Tim Strong, a fixture in the local bluegrass scene, and Brad Meinerding, who started here on mandolin before his move to join indie-rockers Over the Rhine. Jeff Roberts—a master of the Earl Scruggs-style forward roll—has played banjo with Eddie for more than 19 years. Missy Werner (who has her own group) plays mandolin and sings lead and harmony. Her husband, Artie, plays bass. John Cole, who is relatively new to the local bluegrass scene, plays dobro.

Years ago, I had been sure the band could not sustain the loss of a musician like Tim Strong. But  I hadn’t reckoned with Harold Kennedy. Harold has taken over the guitar slot and brought a totally different sound to the band. He came from Nashville, where he traveled for years as lead guitarist with country bands like Montgomery Gentry and Hank Williams III. Then he married a woman who lives here, quit the road, and Nashville’s loss was our gain. Harold is a joyful player to watch. The stage is his playpen: His guitar licks are exquisite, elegant, and surprising.

And then there’s Eddie, a musician who radiates warmth, congeniality, and his own brand of self-assurance. The top-notch band that he has succeeded in putting together, and keeping together, most of all seems to be a reflection of himself—of what he values musically, what he needs to hear to feel satisfied.

And that is the gang that plunges into “I’m On My Way Back to the Old Home.” Cole’s dobro rakes a rhythm in the background, and the instruments respond to flat picks with deep resonant sound. Eddie fiddles a solo—a wild break—and I can hear gasps from the audience as the excitement builds. This is what brings the crowd here on Sunday evenings, or wherever Eddie and his music turn up.

“Ed Cunningham was a one-man bluegrass revival for Cincinnati,” says Larry Nager, a music historian and journalist (and my former bandmate) who lives in Nashville these days. When I telephone him to have him reflect on his former musical colleague, he makes an interesting point. “Ed came along as the great 1970s Circle/Dueling Banjos boom was trailing off,” he recalls. “With sheer force of will he kept the tri-state bluegrass scene going. He was musically ambitious…but he never was in it for the ego stuff.

“If I were still doing the CAMMY,” Larry says, “he’d have gotten a Lifetime Achievement Award years ago.”

Larry’s quote goes right to the heart of Eddie Cunningham: hard work and an ear for excellence. He augmented his own talent with a backbreaking schedule. Between his day job with the City of Cincinnati (he works in the Department of Buildings and Inspections) and building a musical brand, he did the kind of heavy lifting that young musicians seem sometimes unable to grasp.

He started with Jeff Roberts on banjo in a band they called the Ohio Valley Rounders, playing traditional bluegrass with such sure footing that they were tapped to create the musical soundtrack for the Cincinnati Playhouse’s production of Tom Atkinson’s grim Appalachian confessional Clear Liquor and Coal Black Nights. The All-Stars are basically a spin-off of the Ohio Valley Rounders, with a more sophisticated repertoire and style. Two decades of performing and recording together have given the group some polish; so have the dozen or so occasions when the Comet Bluegrass All-Stars have been invited to sit in with another team of all-stars—the Cincinnati Pops.

The set winds down and the musicians take their first break, putting instruments aside and walking energetically toward the bar to pick up diet sarsaparilla or whatever musicians drink nowadays.

Eddie takes a seat beside me. “We started playing here on Sunday afternoons,” he tells me with a wry chuckle. “But we kept moving it back to accommodate the crowds, until now we go from about 7:30 to 10.”

At 57, he is mature enough to understand what the audience wants to hear and what the band excels at playing. His receding hairline is a reminder that he’s been doing this since The Comet’s bartenders were in diapers. I can’t help remembering when I first met him. Maybe in the early 1980s when he was about 20 years old, skinny as an adolescent and so good at everything he tried he was already a prodigy. He sang with a rich baritone voice, his notes pure and clear, his guitar playing already excellent.

“My grandmother,” he says as we talk about those early years, “used to say anyone who had been given so many gifts owed a debt.” That has bothered him. “What kind of debt?” he wonders. How long would he owe it? How much did he owe?

Eddie’s large Irish Catholic family was musical. His brother Jimmy taught himself to play blues guitar in the style of Mississippi John Hurt. Another grandmother gave him piano lessons. His uncle—a singer named King Fox—performed regularly at taverns around town. An older brother, Billy, a bartender at Arnold’s, could be coaxed into sitting in with the band and singing “Lulu’s Back in Town” in his thick, gravelly voice.

“He was a dynamite singer, but he only knew two songs,” Eddie says. “Besides ‘Lulu,’ he could knock it out of the park with ‘Goodnight, Irene.’ I’d say, ‘Billy, you’ll never amount to much if you don’t learn at least one other tune.’

“‘Don’t need another song,’ he’d say deep in his chest. ‘I’ve said all I got to say with those two.’”

When I heard Eddie all those years ago, I hired him to play guitar on an album I was making at the time. The record was never released, but Eddie and I continued to work together now and then. We did the score for two plays for The Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati and wrote several songs we liked, a couple of which have been recorded by other artists. Eddie used to show up at my apartment on Main Street with a stack of yellow legal pads, a clutch of pens, a rhyming dictionary, and Roget’s Thesaurus.

He was as serious as ever in these sessions. He never gossiped nor spoke a negative word about anyone. He was drawn to songs that told a story, to songs about the poor and downtrodden. But I had to piece that out for myself; he never mentioned it.

After Eddie’s nephew, David Cunningham, bought The Comet in 1995, Ed asked him if he had any gaps in the schedule. “Sunday afternoons,” David replied. And lo, The Comet Bluegrass All-Stars were born. With a steady weekly gig, the band’s repertoire expanded and its collection of hot licks and hot songs took shape. The cardinal rule was that no matter what bookings came through, attendance at The Comet was the priority. And so, like the Blue Wisp Big Band, the venue and the group reinforced each others’ reputation. You might say they rubbed off on one another.

During the break, I make my way to band member Missy Werner. In addition to Sunday evenings here she has regular Monday and Thursday bookings in Northern Kentucky—which is a lot to juggle along with her own spin-off group. She holds a full-time day job yet has managed to release a few CDs, two of which were recorded in Nashville. She was up for awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association, and she’ll be part of a showcase for new bands at the organization’s fall convention. She’s cheerful and upbeat, and talking to her I’m struck by how down-to-earth she is about her career and wide-ranging in her tastes, much like Eddie. “He isn’t stuck in any particular niche,” she says. “He can sort of do everything.” She likes his eagerness to work with original material—which is not always the case in the world of bluegrass. And he respects his colleagues’ time and talent.

“We never rehearse,” she says, laughing. “We are just all too busy. We may get together at a gig early and run over some material we’ve been wanting to take onstage, then we just get up and play it.” She says that Eddie has gone so far as to put a chord chart in front of her feet sometimes so that everybody can get an idea what the next section of the song should sound like. But he knows they are pros. Individually and as an ensemble, they have paid their dues. “We have grown together,” Werner says.

The band’s break ends as twilight slides into darkness. Onstage again, there won’t be time for a full set; they are already running over. But there’s room to welcome the guest musicians who have dropped by.

Paul Patterson—violinist with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra—sits in, and former sideman Brad Meinerding claims his old place on guitar. The band plays an instrumental that has fire and flash, then moves on to challenge themselves with less familiar material. When Eddie calls for the sweet, plaintive “The Train Carrying Jimmie Rodgers Home,” the harmony that Jeff Roberts and Missy Warner bring to the chorus is as delicate as antique lace. The audience falls silent until it is over, and then they give up a huge ovation. Another couple of gospel songs, each better than the last, and the musicians begin to case their instruments and head toward the bar.

“I love that song about the train and Jimmie Rodgers,” I tell Eddie as we sit together at the end of the evening.

“I like the start of the song,” Eddie says,  “where the father holds his little son up to see the train. He wants his son to see it because it is a piece of history, because the songs and the singer will go on forever. It seems so…so American.”

We talk a bit about Rodgers and his short but remarkable career. He was an early country music singer who recorded back in the 1920s, making him a star during the Depression. “He had tuberculosis,” Ed tells me, “and died when he was pretty young.”

This thought launches him into the tale of another musical legend. “Stephen Foster lived in Cincinnati for a while,” he points out. “He wrote ‘Oh! Susanna’ here. Somebody told me that when he died, he was penniless. The man who wrote ‘Camptown Races’ and ‘Beautiful Dreamer’…. When they found him in a room in a hotel he had something like 26 cents in his pocket and a scrap of paper on which he had written [the phrase] Dear Friends and Gentle Hearts.”

Eddie stops and takes a breath. “Maybe he had started another song.”

Perhaps that was the price he paid for his “gift,” as Eddie’s grandmother called it. Maybe not. What I know is that I’m glad Cincinnati has such a stellar roster of senior musicians—talents like Eddie Cunningham who are still paying back the debt of talent on evenings like this.

Guitars and banjos and fiddles are back in their cases now. There are shouted “goodnights” as musicians file out the door into the summer night; the near horizon luminous with fireflies, the air still alive with music.

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