Last month, Fairfield singer/songwriter Kristen Graves learned that she had become the state’s 15th troubadour – a post that is distinct to the Nutmeg State. As the ambassador of music, song and, more broadly, the arts, she is looking forward to hitting the road and serving as a musical and lyrical import at stops near and far (check out the song she submitted to the contest below).
There have been a number of changes since the legislature established the appointment and program in 1991. There have been 16 people who have taken the mantle of troubadour. The tenure has increased from a year to two. And, since 2005, the state has provided the performers a $5,000 stipend ($2,500 for each year).
The state’s first troubadour, Tom Callinan, is proud of what the program has become. The artists have been diverse, in terms of their music and their passions. As to why he pushed for the program and sought help from legislators to make it happen, he said it just happened to be a perfect confluence of events, including work he was doing for the tourism board and some receptive legislators.
A resident of Norwich, he has written more than 100 songs about Connecticut, including “Connecticut is More Than Just a Corridor.” A multi-instrumentalist, he performs 200 to 300 shows a year.
As to advice for the newest troubadour, he said, “I’d tell her to keep doing what you are doing.”
If she remains aware and present during her term, he said she is sure to find some gems. “I believe she is going to have a long career.
I reached out to a few other troubadours to find out about their experiences, learn how the post helped them further the arts and the advice they might give Graves.
Hugh Blumenfeld, who first earned attention as a singer and songwriter during the 1980s in the Greenwich Village folk scene, has had a dual career since 2007, when he earned a degree in medicine. The practicing family doctor served as state troubadour from 1999 to 2000.
Last week, he emailed me a response to my queries. It read:
“I felt fortunate to be asked to be state troubadour – the program tries to build a bridge between artists and the day-to-day life of the community, and helped me reach a lot of people that I didn’t often reach on the coffeehouse circuit. Of course, the boundary between art and life can be pretty messy. I remember showing up at town parks to find banners that read “Welcome State Trooper!” and my gig at the Big E turned out to be on a balcony overlooking the livestock exhibits using Miss Connecticut’s karaoke machine for a sound system. On the other hand, I got invited to play the Kennedy Center’s Millenium Stage – a noon series where people on their lunch breaks mingled with tour bus loads of international tourists for an informal taste of American culture.
As to how it helped him in his career, he wrote “the job has had a long tail – I still occasionally get invited to perform because I was state troubadour over a decade ago.
As to his some wisdom? My advice for Kristen Graves – whose work on the internet is energetic, funny and fearless: don’t change what you do; customize the job to suit you. I’m still waiting for the day when the State Troubadour’s duties include singing for official occasions like Memorial Day at the Capitol and the state legislature’s opening sessions. Maybe next year….
Kevin Briody of Ridgefield was state troubadour from 2001-02. He said up until that point he had been doing the singer/songwriter circuit several years before, as well as working in Nashville. He released his first CD in 1999 and the second in 2001, “with some help and inspiration from the Connecticut Troubadour gig.”
When he asked if he performed around the state, he said “in leotards and velvet” joking as he alluded to old-time troubadours and balladeers. His work brought him to venues around the state.
“The two years kept me busy around the state, performing,” he said.
“The experience was terrific and very, very helpful in that I was basically a young singer/songwriter … I was just getting my feet wet and learning the ropes, so it was great,” he said. “It kept me busy and kept me working, kept me employed and that was great …. I also played in every imaginable venue, small, big, loud, quiet, interested, noninterested, ti was great for my performance chops and I really got a better understanding of who I was artistically as a writer and a performer.”
He said the experience also set him on the path to teaching, which is what he continues to do today. Over the past four or five years, he also has done more television and film work, he said, even earning a couple of Emmys in the process.
“I still perform,” he said, but the other projects have come to dominate.
As an ethnomusicologist Dennis Waring, who lives in Middletown, did not fit the typical troubadour picture, yet he served the state in that post from 2003-04.
“I wanted to open up the idea of what is and what is not a troubadour,” he said. “And when they decided to give me that honor, I was very happy to receive it.
Waring, who moved to Connecticut from Canada in 1980, earned his master’s degree in Wesleyan and has long been an music educator. He said he has long encouraged people to participate in music, whether they play an instrument or not. The idea is to spark that joy and participation that ultimately will “enrich our culture,” he said.
These days, Waring has a couple of shows he presents, including one that is presented on instruments made out of recycled material. “I devised that program back in the late1970s and it has been a favorite and it still works.” He also brings instruments he’s acquired during his global adventures.
Waring said he was honored to have been chosen, though it didn’t necessarily “turn over any new rocks,” when it came to the work he had been doing. A career educator, he continued to go into classrooms, conduct workshops, establish residencies and build instruments
A world traveler twice over, Waring continues to go into classrooms, community venues and other sites to share the instruments he has made and found. “I bring people on a musical journey around the world.”
Like others interviewed, he urged Graves to savor the adventure.
“It goes fast,” he said. “It started out as one year and they wisely made it two. Those two years were like ‘Bam.’”
In 2005, Thomasina Levy, who lives in Litchfield, began her tenure as state troubadour, an experience that continues to resonate in her work.
“It was a wonderful two years and I really enjoyed it,” she said. Appearances before the governor, performances at places such as the Bushnell in Hartford and media attention were the highlights, but she said the more enduring influence was her work in classrooms around the state
“Once I became the troubadour, my career really blossomed from there,” she said. She is an award-winning dulcimer player and singer songwriter who has traveled throughout the state and beyond.
Part of the richness of the experience, she said, was being able to learn so much about Connecticut (she is originally from Buffalo, N.Y.). “We have it all, here,” she said, with one of the songs from that era saying it all in the title, “City and Country, Farmland and Ocean.”
In terms of advice, Levy said, “(Kristen) should enjoy every minute of it, be organized and stay focused.”
The time may pass quickly, but the experience endures, Levy said. “I’ll always be a troubadour.”