Video by Jeff Stanton. “The Ceiling” and “Bittersweet” copyright © 2010 and 2011 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.
What! You wish to read the following 2,300 words? Please fortify yourself with a nourishing Day for Night performance from the 2014 Cornish Apple Festival!
If you’re planning a trip,
even a little getaway, it’s always wise to research your destination in advance.
But if Gretchen Schaefer and I had done that kind of homework prior to a weekend getaway to Cornish, Maine, in 2007, we might never have landed one of the best gigs Day for Night has ever had — nor embarked upon our present happy relationship with that little town in southwestern Maine.
The getaway plan was to spend a Saturday afternoon and night at the Cornish Inn, right in the heart of downtown: playing music, enjoying the inn’s fine restaurant and relaxing in sleepy little Cornish.
We were lucky, as we now know, to get a space in the inn’s parking lot, or anywhere else in town on that particular Saturday. We had unwittingly chosen for our quiet getaway the day of the annual Cornish Apple Festival, a regional attraction held on the last Saturday in September every year since 1989. The festival may be the busiest day of the year for Cornish.
If we’d known about the festival, crowd-averse types that we are, we might have chosen a different getaway destination. But the festival proved to be a conversion experience for us.
A few trips in the old green Squareback through western Maine in the 1980s had introduced us to Cornish, and though for a while our visits were much less frequent, the town stayed with us. The big rambling wooden buildings, the trees drooping heavily over the park, the hard curve over the mill dam into downtown. But back then I had neither the knowledge nor the curiosity to appreciate the town’s story in any depth.
Another part of the appeal for me, I’m ashamed to report, is that Cornish is somewhat past those prosperous days. It’s doing OK, but not booming, and I like Cornish better for its having failed to become a theme park of itself, even though the downtown businesses are largely given over to tourist appeal: the Cornish Inn, two restaurants (downtown traffic seemingly can’t support three), a flower-and-wine shop, a bead shop, a gem shop — and way more antique stores than any town of 1,500 really needs.
Meanwhile, all the essential services have fled west from downtown to a district where there’s open land for parking lots.
My work as a music journalist, and later as a writer for a college magazine in Maine, brought us up there occasionally, thanks to the Saco River Music Festival, which presented concerts in the elementary school up on High Street (a school that the town later sold and that is now a church).
In July 2006, I was working on a profile of Frank Glazer — Maine pianist, Saco River festival founder and resident artist at the college where I work — for the magazine. Gretchen and I drove up to see a Saco River festival concert by Glazer and his protege Duncan Cumming, now a music professor in Albany.
It was a nice event: Glazer and Cumming made good music, of course, and filled the little auditorium. Past them, through a glass wall behind the stage, the trees and foothills stretched out toward the sunset in a very Cornishy way.
That was the experience that brought us back in September 2007.
Inspired by the disciplined repertoire-building we had done three months prior in Colorado, we spent that Saturday afternoon learning Frank Loesser’s “Have I Stayed Away Too Long,” one of several tunes we had mined that year from the Louvin Brothers treasure trove Ira and Charlie.
I remember standing in our little Cornish Inn room, with its rolling wooden floor, drinking Jack Daniels and working out the song (“Try strumming it like the Everlys’ ‘Roving Gambler”’) while the festival gradually petered out in the park.
The timing of that visit was fortuitous but not insignificant. Having spent three years flubbing around after the demise of our previous band, the electric Howling Turbines, we had focused on acoustic country music and we wanted to work.
Our first performance as Day for Night had taken place in July, and the Cornish jaunt came just prior to gigs at Bates College and the Frog & Turtle Gastropub, in Westbrook.
So we took it as a sign when we found ourselves smack dab in the middle of a well-attended festival that featured a band playing Johnny Cash on a flatbed trailer.
After that highly satisfying weekend, we decided that we absolutely had to try for a booking at the Cornish Apple Festival. So during the winter we threw ourselves at the festival organizers, the Cornish Association of Businesses. And it paid off, albeit in a roundabout way.
CAB offered us a sort-of audition: By performing two sets at an association fundraiser party in the spring, D4N could give the locals a chance to check us out. In consideration of our effort and expense, CAB in turn would comp us with gift certificates for a local motel and restaurant.
The “Spring Celebration” took place on the chilly evening of May 4, 2008, in a just-opened physical therapy center located, natch, west of downtown. We were still working out our performance practice, and at that point our ridiculously complicated stage setup included:
- his ‘n’ her music stands, microphone stands with handy drink holders, instrument stands and spot monitors;
- two guitars, an accordion and an autoharp;
- a little Yamaha PA that we had bought during the fall, trading in the venerable half-ton, eight-channel Peavey mixer-amp;
- and a black tangle of cables that covered the floor and strung all the different stands together in treacherous snares and loops that conspired together to threaten to pull the whole works down should a person so much as place one foot wrong.
Much of the evening we played and sang to a reverberant and all-but-empty gym as the revelry rumbled on in another part of the building. I ended the date thinking we hadn’t done that well — with my accordion work being a particular weakness — but Jeff Stanton’s video footage reveals that for the most part, we acquitted ourselves well.
And indeed: We did get hired for the 2008 festival (and each subsequent festival through 2014. Sidelined by a medical issue in 2015, we hope to be invited back this year.)
In the years since our first Apple Festival performance, we have come to expect warmth and brilliant sun for the event. But for that 2008 debut, the weather was cold and rainy and we played under a canopy on a low stage made from shipping pallets and plywood. (They’ve brought in the flatbed trailer only once since we have played there — too bad, considering what it would do for our country credibility.)
At the festival, in contrast to the Spring Celebration, we went for simplicity and played only guitar material. The weather caused some of the scheduled acts — as well as the PA provider — to withdraw. Gretchen and I were recovering from colds, but we managed to sing loud and still keep our voices throughout our allotted hour.
Across the street in Thompson Park, the apple fritter fryers, apple crisp and apple pie pushers, and myriad other vendors and craftspeople and fundraisers soldiered on through the cool wet morning and the depleted trade. The performance was fun despite all — and having done our bit when others had stayed in out of the rain, didn’t we feel like heroes?
Though the variables have varied, our festival visits have followed a more-or-less consistent pattern.
Our friends Jeff Stanton and Willy Thurston often make the scenic drive out Route 25 to see us perform. After the Day for Night segment, while the glittery little girls from the local dance school tap out their show in the middle of High Street, we’ll stash the musical gear and seek out lunch at the inn or busy Krista’s.
Later we’ll score some apple pie à la mode or apple crisp from festival vendors in Thompson Park (named for an eccentric 19th-century doctor who rarely charged his patients, and who allowed his neighbors to make free with his gardens and orchards). There are also crafters (pot holders!) and a festival-specific booth selling T-shirts and posters.
At some point we may stroll out the River Road and cross the Ossipee River to Friendly River Music, a guitar store distinguished by the variety and vintage of its offering, as well as its longevity as a business. (I traded a Telecaster toward a black Strat there in 1982, and three years later, at Friendly River’s now-defunct Portland branch, on Congress Square, I bought the oddball two-knob Strat that was my main guitar for many years.)
One year, Jeff and Gretchen and I spent the afternoon at a different music festival, the annual bluegrass-plus event hosted by Apple Acres, a forward-thinking orchard in nearby Hiram. We ate giant chicken legs, bought cider doughnuts and watched performances by a Maine bluegrass band and by the four Parkington Sisters, a slick southern New England act that had nothing at all to do with bluegrass.
All in all, Cornish and the festival paint such a picture of white-picket-fence America (do I need to point out the apple pie symbolism?) that I sometimes ponder their seductive power over me — out-on-the-side me, ironic me, bohemian me, not-a-team-player me, shunning-kids-and-dogs me.
But doggone it, the place is just charming with its curvy roads, the lofty wooden buildings, the antique shops, the gemlike little park — how do they fit all those booths in there, anyway? — and its view of the tree-covered foothills from which Gretchen and I, in July 2008, standing with our guitars on a balcony at the Midway Country Lodging, out there west of downtown, saw a deer wander idly into a clearing.
Doggone it: The back porch at Krista’s, which is pretty much the place to be in Cornish when you’re not at the Cornish Inn, hangs over the mill stream and is lit with Japanese lanterns.
Friendly River had a 1961 Gretsch last summer that made the most beautiful electric guitar sound ever, despite the decades-old strings.
When a local garage owner died, I recognized him in the newspaper obit because he once talked to us about a vintage Ford convertible parked in front of his house.
On stage at one Apple Festival, I got a laugh from a couple of teenagers when I introduced a song, one of our adultery specials no doubt, with the remark that “what happens in Limington, stays in Limington.” (Neighboring town. All right, you had to be there.)
Looking, though, what we did during the evening of our first visit as Apple Festival performers seems to symbolize the most profound reason we keep going back. The gig gets us there; the sweet town fills our day; but the chance to probe deeper into what Day for Night might, maybe someday, be able to show an audience is what anchors us to Cornish.
After dinner in 2008 we set up camp in the inn’s living room and played for another hour or so. We were tired and hoarse, and punishing the Jack Daniels, but somehow it all worked.
It was the kind of music-making that keeps us coming back to places like Cornish. The pressure was off — not just performance pressure, but the day jobs, the family issues, the getting older, the persistent scratching of cares at the door.
We were playing only for the pure experience of the music and each other.
As the dinner crowd hummed on in the dining room nearby, we drooped over our guitars, pawed through the lyric sheets, crept through songs familiar and otherwise, and finally gave the other guests a break and went to bed.
- Day for Night performs at the 2014 Cornish Apple Festival:
You Wore It Well (Hubley) A song begun in a hotel room in Portsmouth, N.H., and completed in Cottage No. 19 at the Colorado Chautauqua in June 2013.
Notes From a Basement text copyright © 2012-2016 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.