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My grandfather Al Jacobs influenced me greatly at an early age with his music.  Every time our family got together he would be playing.  Sometimes with friends but often by himself.  He played the tenor banjo and later in life became quite accomplished on the hammered dulcimer.  He couldn't read a lick of music and played entirely by ear.  He tried to get myself and the other grandchildren to play instruments but with little success.  I tried the tenor banjo for a while but quit because it made my fingers hurt or some dumb reason like that.  I think my cousin Sue played guitar in church for a while and may have played with our grandfather a little bit.  Other than that no one really took to his style of music although I always admired it and enjoyed listening to it.

I graduated college in 1989 and moved to Madison.  I think I went to a party one time where my cousin Dawn's boyfriend at the time was playing guitar with one of his childhood friends named Casey.  I admired both of their playing.  Chris played a twelve string guitar and Casey played a six string.  They both played and sang real well.  So I decided then and there I wanted to learn to play the guitar.  I bought a six string Epiphone for a couple of hundred dollars at Wardbrodt Music in Madison.  Chris recommended the Epiphone brand to me.  I took some group classes at the Madison Technical College and learned my first chords, the "church" lick and some other things.  Again my fingers hurt and it was really hard to stretch my fingers in those weird shapes required to make guitar chords.

I lived in an apartment in Fitchburg at the time and spent hours learning the chords and trying to learn how to strum the guitar.  At some point I tried adding some vocals.  I didn't think I sounded too bad to myself.  I remember a few times singing in the bathroom and was amazed that I actually sounded better in there.  Some acoustic thing maybe some science guy can explain to me someday.  Anyway, I sang very quietly because I didn't want my neighbors in the hall to hear me and mock my beginning efforts at learning to play and sing.  I would often play late into the night.  I was bound and determined to learn how to make music.

 At some point I thought if I went in my bedroom that my neighbors wouldn't be able to hear me practice.  But I didn't think at the time that my bedroom was right next to my next door neighbor's bedroom.  The next day I got a knock on my door.  The young woman said I was being too "loud" with my music.  At first I thought she was talking about my stereo which I sometimes turned up loud.  Then I realized she was talking about my guitar playing and singing.  The exact words she used were that I was "loud and obnoxious".  Talk about taking the wind out of your sails and crushing every bit of musical self-confidence I had going at the time.  To this day that is the one and only time in my life that I have been called loud and obnoxious.  One gentleman used the term "caterwauling" one time to refer to my music.  I didn't care too much for that one either.

So I spent my first ten years playing and singing to myself.  I never had the courage to sing in front of anyone.  I tried a couple of times but got less than a positive response.  It was so hard for me to sing in front of others.  I don't think people that knew me at that time realized what it took for me to even try.  Whether it was good, bad or otherwise at least I was trying.  I didn't have much of a musical direction back then.  I messed around with a lot of different styles and genres.  I remember my great Aunt Rose visiting my apartment in Fitchburg one time.  She encouraged me and I was able to sing a few songs for her.  She asked me how I got into the "hillbilly" music as she called it.  She also played guitar and played for me a version of "Jimmy Brown the Newsboy" I will never forget.  She even mailed me the words when she got back to New York state.  I remember playing for my Grandmother's sister Bessie in Missouri one time.  She also encouraged me.

Then in July of 2000 I met some people that changed not only my musical direction but my life forever.  I went to the Evart Funfest in Evart Michigan with my nephew Scott.  I'd been to the festival a couple of times before with my grandfather and my cousin Dawn.  I think that was around 1991 and 1992.  My grandfather died in the fall of 1993.  The festival is primarily a hammered dulcimer festival but all the other acoustic instruments are well represented there as well.  They have lots of workshops as well as stage shows but what I liked most was the jamming.  I had a 23 foot travel trailer at the time and one day I was sitting outside and heard the most amazing music coming from the camper next door.  I was mesmerized.  That day I heard the type of music I wanted to do for the rest of my life.  I had a mini-disc recorder at the time and recorded everything I could that they were playing.

At some point an older woman about my grandmother's age approached me and inquired about my recorder.  We talked a little more and I was amazed to find out her name was Millie and her husband was named Al.  That's exactly the same names of my grandparents I sheepishly told her.  My grandparents are Al and Millie Jacobs and here on that day I met Al and Millie Castor.  I was convinced sometime a few months later that the meeting with Al & Millie Castor was much more than a mere coincidence.  But they gave me some pills and magic potions shortly thereafter to make that thought go away.  But it always lingered in the back of my mind.  In the last three years or so I've come to learn about the word "Providence".  If you don't know what that means look it up in your dictionary.  But I digress.  Back to the story.

At some point Millie encouraged me to bring my guitar over and join them.  I had the greatest time of my life strumming along with these fabulous musicians as they played and sang.  The first night after I went to bed I could barely sleep.  I had such a sense of joy and well-being in my heart and I was so energized.  It was a feeling such as I had never had before in my life.  I've had many good times in my life prior to that but this experience trumped them all.  The music playing continued over the next couple of days and I was in heaven.  They encouraged me to sing but I always declined.  On Sunday, when everyone went home, Millie invited me to a jam they were going to have at their place Labor Day weekend. We said our goodbyes and I promised to be there.

Al and Millie live in Upper Michigan near Gladstone.  They're UP-ers Ya-Der-Hey.  Anyway I think I got there sometime Thursday night after dark.  It was the most amazing sight as I drove up the drive.  It kind of reminded me of the "Back to the Future" scene where Michael J Fox crashes the Delorean into that old barn.  They even have an old barn on the property where they play music.  But if a Delorean crashed through that barn they must have repaired it by the time I got there.  Millie soon came out in a bathrobe and gave me a big hug.  She ushered me into the house and the most amazing music met my ears.  They were playing music in the back area of the house where Millie has her loom she uses to make rugs.  A lot of the men I had met at Evart were there and quickly made me feel welcome.  We continued into the kitchen and a lot of the ladies were sitting around the table playing cards.  They dropped their cards and asked Millie where she had found this young man ( I was 37 at the time and everyone there was mostly of my grandparent's generation).  Those people I met at Evart and later at Al & Millie's are some of the most full of life people I have ever met in my life regardless of their age.  They lived with a joy and passion for life I had rarely seen before.

So I was immersed in music again for the next several days.  We played from morning until late in the night with an occasional rest or to gather together for a meal.  Again, they always encouraged me to sing but I politely declined each time.  Sunday morning they gathered together in the barn around 10:00 and each of the musicians got up and sang a gospel song.  I wasn't much of a church goer at the time but the music that they sang went straight to my heart.  Sunday night rolled around and I was planning to leave the next day.  Again they encouraged me to sing and this time I found the courage to do it.  The only song I knew well enough to sing was something I had heard on a recording about a week or so before the jam.  The song was "Thy Burdens are Greater Than Mine".  I had heard it on a Ralph Stanley recording called Clinch Mountain Country".  I think either Ralph's son or grandson is singing the song on that recording.  The first time I heard that song it made me cry.  I've had some difficult times in my life but that particular song really put things in perspective for me.  It was stuck in my head for the whole week prior to going to Al and Millie's jam.

So I started to sing that song in that little barn in Upper Michigan.  I was red in the face, shaking and I think I dropped my pick at one point and went on with my fingers.  The people in that barn were so encouraging.  They kept on saying things like "Come on Steve, you can do it" over and over again.  A couple of people took instrumental breaks and  somehow I made it through.  They also gave me encouraging words and a few compliments afterwords.  I felt so good after I had finished singing.  Not because I gave some great performance but simply because I had done it.  I recently did a recording of the song with a friend I met at Terry Bane's jam in Appleton.  He just recorded me and my guitar but he plans to have others play on it as well for a recording project he is putting together.  I'll post the bare bones song on my Facebook page if any one wants to hear it.  I also may have a partial recording of the 2000 barn performance if I can find it.

So thank you Al and Millie Castor and all my Michigan friends.  You have no idea the impact that Labor Day weekend back in 2000 has had on my life.  If it wasn't for you and your encouragement I would most likely still be in my apartment alone singing to myself.  In a way you've unleashed a monster.  Not a scary monster but more of a benevolent monster.  I owe you a great debt of gratitude and I intend to repay it one day.  Up until the last few years I've been pretty much a mystery and an enigma and sometimes redundant to my family and friends.   By the grace of God you put the first crack in the shell that I've longed to break out of all my life.  I will be eternally grateful for that.

  "Bare bones" rendition of 2000 Al & Millie barn song recorded in Appleton somewhere around late 2010 or early 2011 (Thanks to Shawn Sargent for recording me in his basement studio):
"Thy Burdens Are Greater Than Mine"
  L to R: Steve, Fran, Millie and Al  


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