I was born in Frederick, Maryland in 1945 and spent the early part of my life in the Washington, DC area where I became immersed in two intense musical traditions: bluegrass and country blues. I had the good fortune to work at the Arlington Music Company where I learned to play the guitar and mandolin from John Duffey, founding member of the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene.
While I was absorbing the high, lonesome sound of bluegrass, I was also blessed to meet and learn from two of the masters of the Delta Blues tradition: Mississippi John Hurt and Neamiah Skip James. Well-grounded in those roots, I came to Canada in 1971 and have been here ever since – living for the past 28 years on the Gulf Islands in British Columbia.
The most important lessons I learned from my musical mentors were, first, to be true to your own vision and second, to create your own music that extends the boundaries of tradition. When I arrived in Canada, I had the extreme good fortune of being taken into a group of young folk artists in Ontario who were growing and evolving the folk music process, primarily through the songs they were writing.
With the encouragement of new musical friends like Willie P. Bennett, David Bradstreet, Doug McArthur and Stan Rogers, I started to write my own songs, creating a landscape of the imagination, set mostly in rural Canada and populated by characters inspired by my new life in the Almaguin Highlands of Ontario.
I began to perform in the coffeehouses and folk clubs across the country and was fortunate to be part of the emerging Canadian folk festival scene in mid-70’s, appearing at festivals including Mariposa, Winnipeg, Edmonton, London, and many more. I have performed at every major folk festival in Canada and continue to do so.
Now, in 2018, I have experienced the most wonderful realization that I am presently about the same age as many of the musical mentors I learned from back in the 60’s and 70’s. Our musical traditions continue to evolve and I am very pleased to be part of that process.
I am often asked “what kind of music do you play?” The best answer I’ve been able to come up with is “authentic.” I make songs that combine the narrative style of my literary heroes, Alden Nowlan, Raymond Carver and Richard Ford, with the intense, blues-flavoured slide guitar playing that’s often associated with Ry Cooder. I’m basically a finger-picker, working a lot in open tunings, and building songs out of blues and country traditions.
While I’ve always considered myself foremost a narrative songwriter, the most popular piece of music I’ve composed is an instrumental, “Berkley Springs,” that has been recorded by dozens of artists, including the brilliant guitarist Don Ross.
In 1973 I started Woodshed Records to release my own first album, “Redbird Country.” In the process of recording this work, I met and learned from the third great mentor of my life: Phil Sheridan at Thunder Sound in Toronto, who taught me the practice of producing music in a recording studio. I went on to release 20 more albums of my own music and produce nearly 80 albums for other artists.
My record label, Woodshed, was one of the first artist-owned labels in Canada and we released albums by friends of mine, including Willie P. Bennett, Doug McArthur, the Original Sloth Band and the Humber River Valley Boys. I have continued my recording practice and now operate Watershed Studio out of our home on Protection Island, BC.
In addition to writing and performing music, I’ve also written a novel, Dancing Hand, that was published in 2014 and has created a new audience of readers with whom I’m delighted to share stories.
Over the 47 years that I’ve been making and performing music, I’ve pretty well opted out of the music industry awards scene, sincerely believing that our work is better served by collaboration than competition. Consequently the only award I’ve ever won is from the Paris, ON Fair for growing the largest kohlrabi in Brant County. And I’m fine with that.
As my song says, it’s been a “long, sweet, ride” and I’m still in the saddle – performing songs, old and new, and sliding my socket wrench the best I can on that guitar. The nicest compliment I’ve ever received was from a 12-year-old at a sound-check:
The dude can shred
Protection Island, Nanaimo, BC
Phone: (250) 741-1065
Email: essig at telus dot net