Rock Hearts ... Rock Solid
by Susan Marquez
What started as a “just for fun” birthday picking party has become a New England bluegrass powerhouse of a band. Rock Hearts began in 2013 when Joe Deetz was having a “significant” birthday, according to Alex MacLeod, who plays guitar for Rock Hearts. “He didn’t want any presents that year,” recalls Alex. “He told his wife, Sandy, he wanted to invite a few friends over to pick all day. Sandy has been a bluegrass wife for a long time, so she understood. She was an incredible hostess, and we all had a big time!”
Joe and Alex had played in a previous band together. Danny Musher joined the party on the fiddle that day, and over the next eight to ten hours of picking, the guys decided they liked their sound and decided to form a band. They all had day jobs, and they lived two to three hours apart, but they managed to make it to a TA Truck Stop in Connecticut for weekly practice sessions.
“Joe had a big RV he would pull into the truck stop parking lot, pop the side out and we’d start playing. We always had an audience!”
Alex invited mandolin player Billy Thibodeau to one of the practice sessions, and within the first thirty seconds of the first song, the band knew they wanted to invite him to join them. Rick Brodsky joined the band on bass after playing a showcase filling in for Pete Kelly.
Each member of the band has a strong bluegrass pedigree. Alex, who lives in Rhode Island, plays guitar in the band had a musical upbringing with a dad who played in a band and a mom who clogged. “My dad was career military, and we traveled the world. Throughout the 70s and 80s, he was always seeking out bluegrass pickers. I remember my dad talking about picking with the famed Sam Tidwell.” Alex has played with several bands in the region and brings a classic lead vocal and rock-solid rhythm guitar skills to Rock Hearts.
Joe, a Massachusetts native, has a 40-year career playing banjo with groups in the northeast, as well as recording with John Herald, Will Scarlet, the Beach Boys, and Carol King. Sesame Street fans will enjoy knowing that Joe also played on the show’s Garbage Man Blues.
Billy, a music teacher in Cumberland, Rhode Island, brings his mandolin skills, high tenor, and lead vocals to Rock Hearts. Billy’s father was Sam Tidwell.
“After hearing my dad talk about picking with Sam Tidwell, then realizing Billy was his son, I felt like we were ordained to play together,” says Alex. Billy has played in several bands through the years, including his own, the Bill Thibodeau Band.
Danny was strongly influenced by his father and grandmother, who both taught music for over 40 years. Danny brings his high-intensity fiddle and leading singing to Rock Hearts, although he now travels from his new home in Eugene, Oregon.
Rounding out the band is Rick Brodsky on bass, although he is a multi-instrumentalist who has played many genres of music. Rick has been a regular bassist on the New York/Connecticut bluegrass scene for many years.
The band’s first big gig as Rock Hearts was playing at the Pemi Valley Bluegrass Festival in New Hampshire.
“After that, opportunities began popping up for us to play,” says Alex. Citing “God’s invisible picture,” Alex says that the path to producing the band’s first LP was an interesting one.
“Joe has gone to the Banjothon in Knoxville for many years, and one year he took me with him. We had a great time and got to know producer Ned Lubrecki. Rock Hearts wanted to put together a sampler to get out to promoters, and we met Steve Mougin of Dark Shadow Studios in Nashville. Things started lining up perfectly.”
The band released their debut album, Starry Southern Nights, produced by Ned Lubrecki, on October 30. The self-released LP opens with a hard-driving track, 99 Year Blues. The seven remaining tracks include three originals. Joe Deetz shines in his banjo instrumental, Juxtaposed. There is an elegant cover of Townes van Zandt’s Don’t Take it Too Bad. The last track, Stagger Lee, has a lot of history attached to it. First published in 1911, the song is about a murdering pimp. It was first recorded in 1923 by Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians and made the Billboard Hot 100 list in 1959 with Lloyd Price’s version of the song. Stagger Lee has been recorded by many artists over the years, from the Grateful Dead to Nick Cave. Rock Heart’s version of the song and the Rock Heart’s version leaves listeners wishing there were more than just eight tracks on their debut CD.
“Music transcends all generations and genres,” says Alex, who wrote the title track of the CD. “I wrote it when I lived in Nashville. I saw an older gentleman dance by himself during a bluegrass night at a local bar. I started writing down what I was seeing and wrote a song about a man who danced to stay connected to his deceased wife. I wrote it like a mini-movie, and I’m happy to say it’s been a crowd favorite.”