Corrections or additions?
This story by Richard Skelly was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
December 9, 1998. All rights reserved.
David Massengill: Back on the Track
Although some of his contemporaries from the Greenwich
Village folk music scene have quit folk singing and gone back to `the
real world,’ singer, songwriter, and storyteller David Massengill
counts his blessings that he hasn’t had to resort to such drastic
measures. Massengill continues to write songs, perform, and record.
In September New York-based Plump Records released his latest album,
"Twilight to Taj Mahal." What’s more, Plump will reissue
first album, "Coming Up For Air," in the spring. Back in the
mid-1980s, Massengill made a name for himself on the contemporary
folk scene with his brilliant dulcimer playing and insight-filled
topical songs. "Twilight To Taj Mahal" is a stripped-down
affair, just voice, guitar, and dulcimer.
"I’ve seen so many of my musician and artist friends stop being
artists and go back to the real world," says Massengill from his
New York apartment. "I used to be a `buzz’ musician. Over the
past eight years, I’ve been booked at fewer and fewer folk festival
shows. I began to realize, I’ve got to find a way to survive as an
artist without the folk community."
Despite being raised in an upper-middle class family in his native
Bristol, Tennessee, and then learning the hard realities of the folk
music business after his move to New York in 1976, Massengill, now
47, has no regrets about the path he has chosen.
"Even though I don’t have what I used to have, I never felt like
I lost it," he says. "We have money worries sometimes, but
there’s something about having a comfortable position growing up that
frees you to do what you want to do in your life." Massengill,
who attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wanted
to become a folk singer. He knew of the dangers: long drives, crazy
hours, little money, and certainly not a lot of widespread recognition
for your songs, unless you were lucky. In fact Massengill was lucky
— Joan Baez recorded his "Road To Fairfax County," and
his songs have been recorded by Nanci Griffith and the Roches, among
Massengill and his new wife — a longtime companion
— Lisi Tribble, live in New York’s East Village. Like a lot of
the new crop of singer-songwriters who emerged in the 1980s,
likes to tour on his own terms, making weekend jaunts to places like
Florida, Texas, and Massachusetts.
"I never have done long tours. What I do is weekend forays. I
just went and played four shows in Texas. The flights are economical
and you can rent a car inexpensively, so you pick up a gig that covers
the costs and then the other three gigs are profit," he explains.
"Usually, the whole month of January I can hit the clubs down
South just on the weekends."
In last few years, Massengill has concentrated on developing his
gift for storytelling. Blessed with a good speaking voice that has
a placating touch of east Tennessee twang, he realized his audiences
often enjoyed his stories as much as they did his songs, for which
he accompanies himself on dulcimer and guitar. So he developed more
stories. Now many of the folk festivals that were once hot for him
have been replaced by storytelling festivals, which have sprung up
all over the country in the 1990s.
"Being booked at a storytelling festival provided the impetus
for me to begin changing my sets," says Massengill. "I saw
the appeal of doing more stories. Now, I’ll do a set that’ll have
five songs and five stories. These stories are not the
patter that a lot of musicians use to introduce a song — they’re
things that go on for six or eight minutes."
"Certainly my songs have always tended to be ballad oriented,"
he continues. "I do have some songs that repeat the same lines
over and over again, but I guess the ones I admired most as a child
and as a teenager were the story songs."
Massengill’s gift for storytelling, which he attributes partly to
his father, has turned into a blessing, artistically and commercially.
In the last four years, he says he’s been booked at a lot of
festivals. "It’s been a wonderful opening for me," he says,
"like a painter discovering he can also do nice sculptures."
Although he has been touring nationally since the late 1980s,
has recorded just three albums: "Coming Up For Air" was
recorded in 1992 for Flying Fish Records, and he released "The
Return" in the mid-1990s with Plump Records.
He freely admits that he had some difficult times in the late 1980s
when his contemporaries like Christine Lavin and Suzanne Vega had
secured record deals and were touring nationally. Record companies
kept turning down Massengill’s demo tapes. He was a heavy drinker
for several years, until he sensed it was interfering with his art.
"Finally, I just said to myself, `Well, I just won’t drink until
I get a record deal,’ and it turned out I liked not drinking a whole
lot," he recalls. He also took up long distance running, replacing
alcohol with a natural high.
This past summer, with no folk festivals on his itinerary, Massengill
spent time back home in Bristol, caring for his 76-year-old father,
who has been disabled by diabetes. His dad was a pharmacist with S.E.
Massengill & Co. in Bristol, and his mom was a housewife.
"But really, she was much more than a housewife," Massengill
says of his mother, who passed away in 1984. "She was a very
artist and I have some of her paintings here at the house. Today,
a woman of her talents would have gone on to do something and get
paid, but I had the blessing that she provided for, and her husband
had enough money to support us so she didn’t have to work."
Massengill says spending the summer caring for his father — like
his recent turn toward storytelling — turned out to be another
blessing in disguise.
"Psychologically, caring for him was hard at first, wearing and
tearing. But I was able to hear my dad’s stories, and they began to
take shape as songs in my head," he says. Simple songs, like when
his dad was five years old and wanted a pony ride. As a result,
is already working toward releasing a fourth album in 1999, most of
which "will be songs covering my life and his life. Nothing of
political or social significance, only as significant as a first kiss
or a pony ride. And when you think about them, those things are pretty
"I’ve backed off for a while from some of the bigger-themed songs
I’ve tackled in the past. I’ve scaled down my story vision," he
adds. He says it gives him greater pleasure to write songs about
It is likely that Massengill’s forthcoming album will be like
to Taj Mahal," — raw and stripped down, without a lot of
— and he says the time off with his father over the summer was
a creative shot-in-the-arm.
"Twilight to Taj Mahal" includes a lot of songs that
wrote in the 1970s and 1980s, performed a few times, and then put
back on the shelf. He says he has another four albums of these songs.
"I’m halfway through writing material for a fourth record, and
all the songs are fresh and new ideas. In a way, this third album
was a big turning point for me. It made me realize that some of my
minor works were worth recording, too," he says.
Massengill’s major works, that is his most requested
songs, include "My Name Joe" and "Number One In
both short stories with a political statement attached. "One thing
I had been doing in the past 10 years was playing seven or eight of
my bigger songs over and over again. Now, when people come to see
my shows, I only do two or three of those songs. I do all fresh things
Massengill took his cue from longtime folksinger Arlo Guthrie, who
found it difficult to sing "Alice’s Restaurant" at every show,
year-in and year-out. "He said he’ll drop `Alice’s Restaurant’
for a year and then pick it up again a year later, to keep it
Massengill adds that he’s sporting a new look in grooming, as well.
Gone is his longtime, trademark pony tail. He’s joined the legions
of short-haired men. "People don’t make those assumptions anymore,
and a man with a pony tail gets assumed a lot," he points out.
Now, he says, people can speak candidly around him, and, after having
his hair cut, he wrote two new songs in a burst of creative energy.
"It’s all part of the new type of writing I’m doing," he
In concert, he tells amusing stories: like one of his past jobs as
a dishwasher in a restaurant and the time Joan Baez told him she
to come with him to work one night and wash dishes with him; stories
about his father’s life, and stories about a Native American dulcimer
maker in the hills of western North Carolina. Massengill says his
dulcimer-making friend, a great storyteller in his own right, had
had some of his dulcimers on display in the Smithsonian Institution.
But he had stopped making them before Massengill stopped by one day
about five years ago.
"I’ve seen a lot of very talented artists stop because they just
felt they couldn’t make it. I feel very fortunate that by hook and
by crook I have found a way to survive. One of the ways I’ve done
that is with storytelling. I feel very much at peace with myself as
a far as being an artist right now."
Asked what an audience unfamiliar with his three recordings or folk
music in general could expect, Massengill says he’ll seek to bring
a homey atmosphere to the concert in the church on Friday.
"I would hope it’ll kinda be like sitting around the kitchen table
with somebody who can tell funny stories. A lot of people tell me
I’m very relaxed on stage, and that helps to put them at ease,"
"In fact, someone came up to me recently and said they’d seen
me 10 years ago when I was `hip.’ She told me I wasn’t `hip’ anymore,
and she liked me a whole lot more. I liked that. I guess I’m not
about being hip anymore."
— Richard J. Skelly
Christ Congregation Church, 55 Walnut Lane, Princeton, 609-799-0944.
$12 at the door. Friday, December 11, 8:15 p.m.
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