STRUMMING THROUGH HISTORY
- Rob Cullivan
- Portland Tribune - Features
Radio host Tom May carries torch for folk music from era to era
In one corner of the studio sits Doug Smith, a national fingerstyle champion guitarist whose playing has been heard in such movies as 'August Rush,' 'Moll Flanders' and 'Twister.'
In front of the soundboard sits Dan Rhiger, owner and engineer of Southeast Portland's Medicine Whistle Studio, and half of Sky in The Road, a nationally renowned acoustic duo.
Sitting directly across from Smith is Tom May, Gordon Lightfoot's former opening act and a songwriter in his own right who's also opened for Alabama and Willie Nelson, among others.
May is a fixture on the Portland folk scene for organizing such concerts as the annual Winterfolk affair at the Aladdin Theater.
During his almost 40 years in the music business, the singer and guitarist has recorded 12 albums, performed throughout Ireland, Canada and the United States, hosted a folk show on TV, and, with Dick Weissman, co-authored the 2007 book, 'The Lovin' of the Game,' a critically acclaimed how-to guide for songwriters seeking to make a living.
The Nebraska native is marking his 25th year as host of 'River City Folk,' a syndicated radio program recorded at Rhiger's studio that's carried by 150 stations. Portland listeners can hear it if they subscribe to XM Satellite Radio. The show features interviews and performances with the nation's best veteran acoustic artists as well as up and coming players and singers, and fans include fellow Nebraskan and provocative folkie Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, May notes.
May has interviewed countless musicians during the years, including Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary most recently, and says the show is a labor of love.
'The only thing that matters to me is there's a base of people and the community who care about this kind of music,' he says.
Acoustic music has a 'naturalness of sound,' he adds. 'Generally, I've learned, the more volume you get, the more nuance is lost.'
The best folk musicians, he says, delve deeply into history, social issues, working class life, romance and other topics. His albums have explored such topics as the dangers that confront firefighters, the destruction of Native American lands and the wonders of drinking wine.
'There are people open to hearing something real and hearing someone sing something real,' May says of his audience.
On the air
As Rhiger checks sound levels on their microphones, May and Smith discuss what they'll talk about during the program. They both love Chet Atkins, the producer and guitarist who promulgated the fingerpicking style they've made their own.
'It's beautiful and lyrical,' May says. 'One person can be an orchestra because you're playing the bass parts and the treble parts.'
The two players also decide to address Smith's 2005 Grammy, which he shared with several other guitarists for 'Henry Mancini - Pink Guitar.'
The album featured the guitarists' takes on various Mancini classics, and Smith jokes that he first got turned onto Mancini by the soundtrack he wrote for '10,' the 1979 film starring sex symbol Bo Derek.
'Everyone was talking about Bo Derek, and I was like, 'What about that piece of music?' ' Smith recalls, adding with a laugh: 'Maybe I was a guitar nerd.'
Smith plays some Cole Porter, some Atkins, the hymn 'Holy, Holy, Holy,' and probably his best-known piece, 'Renewal.'
Then the two guitarists duet. May stands up, straps on a guitar and jams on the Lightfoot tune 'Don Quixote.' His baritone voice has a timber similar to Lightfoot's and the listener realizes that May could probably have been a vaudeville belter in the days before electric amplification since he's got the kind of pipes that can fill a room.
When the men finish, Rhiger notes they sounded pretty good, save for some banging of guitars on the microphones.
'If they want it better, they can buy the record,' May says as the men laugh.
Nothing wrong with mistakes
As an apostle of acoustic music, May stresses he's no Luddite complaining about technology, but simply prefers music stripped down to its essentials.
'I'd rather see people play their music poorly than as synthesized tracks that they've sampled,' he says.
When he's not on the road, May can be found doing monthly gigs at Kells Irish Pub, 112 S.W. Second Ave. He's a big, burly friendly guy, takes requests and enjoys talking to patrons when he's on break.
On that note, he clearly treasures the fact so many people have written to him or spoken to him for years about how his music and his radio show have touched their lives.
'You have to be able to want to give a little bit of yourself to this music,' he says. 'The beauty of it is it gives back.'