‘Mountain’ men keep reaching new musical peaks

Balduck Mountain Ramblers, playing this year’s VillageFest, still growing musically after 30-plus years

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published September 10, 2015

 The Balduck Mountain Ramblers will be performing their blend of Americana music during a Sept. 13 appearance at VillageFest.

The Balduck Mountain Ramblers will be performing their blend of Americana music during a Sept. 13 appearance at VillageFest.

Photo provided by John Denomme

CITY — For years, John Denomme was a Village fixture. He owned Village Records and Tapes from 1981-93, ran the outdoor summer concert series Music on the Plaza from 1988-2012, and served as the Village Association marketing manager from 1998-2012.

But when he returns to play this year’s VillageFest with his band, the Balduck Mountain Ramblers, from 3 to 3:50 p.m. Sept. 13, he’ll be able to focus on the music, not the event management. The band — first booked in 1987 to play what was then called Grosse Pointe’s Greatest Sidewalk Sale — last performed at VillageFest in 2012.

“It’ll be great to renew a lot of old acquaintances,” Denomme said. “I’m really looking forward to it. And this time, I don’t have to do our own sound.”

Together as a band since 1983 and friends for even longer, the Balduck Mountain Ramblers are known for their unique blend of bluegrass, folk, cowboy songs, country gospel, Irish music and even a bit of Motown and rock. They’ve recorded seven CDs — the most recent of which, “Reeds & Rushes,” was released in 2014 — and have twice earned Best Folk Band honors during the Metro Times’ Motor City Music Awards.

The Balduck Mountain Ramblers are Gerry Castle, of Warren, on banjo, guitar, mandolin and vocals; Denomme, of Grosse Pointe Woods, on guitar, bass and vocals; Mike Sawicki, of Harper Woods, on bass fiddle and vocals; Grosse Pointe Woods native and former Grosse Pointe Park and Detroit resident Joel Stone, now of Bloomfield Hills, on mandolin, bodhrán, whistle and vocals; and Kevin Taylor, of Grosse Pointe Park, on banjo, guitar, mandolin, accordion, dobro, steel guitar and vocals. Although Denomme is five years older and didn’t attend high school with his bandmates, all are alumni of the closed east side Detroit Catholic school Austin High School, which was located across the street from Balduck Park.

“It’s a tongue-in-cheek reference to Balduck Park, which we all stared at out of our classroom windows,” Denomme said of the band’s name. There is no mountain, but there is a toboggan hill in the park.

In an email interview, Sawicki said he’s known Stone and Taylor since 1970.

“Kevin and Joel were in a rock band that actually played Grosse Pointe North’s senior prom — a high point — and I was an occasional vocalist.” Sawicki said. “Later, when we had finished college and found ourselves back in the Detroit area, our love of music began to blossom again, and when John Denomme, who had played in numerous bands, told us we were good enough to play gigs, I was amazed. We put the word out and started playing, mostly in bars.”

Denomme said he approached Sierra Station La Cantina in Grosse Pointe Park about booking the band’s first show there in June 1984.

“They didn’t seem too interested, but a short time later, I got a panicked call (from the restaurant),” he recalled. “‘The band cancelled. Can you (play) Friday?’ I said, ‘Of course we can.’ (But) we didn’t have a name, (and) we knew (only) about a dozen tunes (at that point).”

Denomme said he didn’t expect much reaction to their debut, but unbeknownst to the band, Larry McDaniel, who at that time hosted a popular and well-regarded bluegrass show on WDET-FM, had been walking past the restaurant when he saw the name Balduck Mountain Ramblers on the sandwich board outside. “Rambler” is commonly included in the names of bluegrass bands, so McDaniel decided to check out the show — to the horror of band members who recognized him and feared he might react poorly to their performance.

Instead, said Denomme, “It turned out great. He loved everything we played. He talked about us the next day on his show.”

McDaniel would become one of the band’s staunchest supporters and even appeared on one of their CDs. Denomme said the Balduck Mountain Ramblers played during McDaniel’s funeral after he died in January 2013.

The musicians began working together because of their shared love for roots-oriented music.

“I grew up listening to folkies like Burl Ives and the Kingston Trio,” said Stone in an email interview. “I was the nerd who collected sea chantey records. When in high school, I was in the school chorus along with Mike and Kevin, as well as a pop band, then a blues band. But I had more fun playing Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger stuff with Kevin. I think it has always been the harmonies in the folk repertoire that the Ramblers have had the most fun with.”

By email, Taylor said “the vocal template was really set a long time ago” because of their work together in the high school chorus, and over the years, their ability to harmonize has been one of the qualities that audiences have most admired.

It was the same for Castle, even though he joined the band later — about 18 years ago.

“I’ve always loved traditional music — particularly American folk, blues, bluegrass, gospel, jazz, and music of the British Isles — the sound of the instruments and voices, the pure and honest quality of the music,” he said in an email.

Denomme, who worked with Stone at Denomme’s record store, met the other musicians at their weekly jam sessions at Taylor’s home.

“Before I got together with the Ramblers, I knew very little about Americana,” Denomme said. Now, he said he has a “real passion” for roots music.

Over the years, the Ramblers have broadened their musical horizons. “Reeds & Rushes” includes originals by some of the band members, along with covers of tunes by Sting, Mark Knopfler, J.J. Cale and Bruce Springsteen, and Denomme said they’ve played their own versions of classic hits like “My Girl” and “Under the Boardwalk,” as well as songs by the Beatles.

“We’ve been able to explore more types of music,” Stone said. “Originally, it was bluegrass and country gospel, then Irish and cowboy tunes. These days, we’ll Ramblerize just about any kind of song.”

A time-honored tradition that brings thousands of visitors to the Village shopping district, VillageFest is free and open to the public Sept. 12-13. It includes an art exhibition, a car show, activities for kids, live entertainment and more. New this year is the Grosse Pointe GooseChase, a smartphone scavenger hunt for good health organized by Beaumont Hospital, Grosse Pointe. Also new is the WCSX-FM Stone Soup car raffle for a chance to win a 1971 Corvette Stingray, with ticket sales benefiting Holy Cross Family Services.

Visitors will find a greater selection of beverages, including more Michigan craft beers. New Village bar and restaurant The Whiskey Six is the sponsor for A Taste of VillageFest, and visitors can enter a raffle for a chance to win dinner and a tasting experience at the establishment, which opens this fall.

This year’s VillageFest also features live entertainment by members of Grosse Pointe Theatre and bands like the Sun Messengers, who’ll again be bringing crowds to their feet for the Saturday Night Dance Party from 7 to 10 p.m. Sept. 12. New this year is the contest Grosse Pointe’s Got Talent, in which local residents will perform five-minute sets from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Sept. 12. The winner will be invited to perform during the 40th annual Grosse Pointe Santa Claus Parade this November.

The Balduck Mountain Ramblers’ gigs often take them to Oakland County, so being able to perform close to home is something the musicians welcome.

“We usually play everywhere but Grosse Pointe,” Denomme said. “And we’re all eastsiders.”

Castle agreed, saying by email that they “always look forward to playing events in the Village.”

Denomme said the Balduck Mountain Ramblers hope to record a new CD this winter for a 2016 release. The more country-inflected Ben Steel & His Bare Hands — which features Denomme, Taylor and Castle — will be recording a CD at the same time for a 2016 release, Denomme said.

While most bands split up after only a few years, the Balduck Mountain Ramblers are still going strong after more than three decades.

“As the years go by, with all of us in or approaching our 60s, just getting together, hanging out and playing together is very relaxing and satisfying for me,” Sawicki said. “The fact that we occasionally get paid is just a bonus.”

The musicians say friendship, and a lack of infighting, has kept them intact.

“We started playing together as friends after college, and that hasn’t changed,” Stone said. “We still get together to play for fun and learn new tunes. ... We’ll keep going until it stops being fun. We haven’t gotten there yet.”

For more about VillageFest or to see a complete schedule, visit www.thevillagegp.com. For more about the Balduck Mountain Ramblers, visit their pages on Facebook or ReverbNation.