The local purveyors of down-home music also deserve consideration in the Hall of Fame
By Kevin Corbett
There are plenty of reasons for Syracusans to think of their hometown as a great city for music. The vibrant current scene grew out of a rich and diverse history. The Syracuse Area Music Awards (Sammys), an event that has been honoring local musicians for their talent and dedication since 1993, is another boost for that image. This year the Sammys will again honor some of the community’s finest musicians with its Friday, Nov. 11, event at the OnCenter.
Unfortunately, Sammys 2011 also continues to overlook country acts when it comes to induction into its Hall of Fame or selection for a Syracuse New Times Lifetime Achievement Award. Despite the prominence of country in the aforementioned rich history of Salt City music and its current powerful position in the music community, only one artist who can be considered a true country performer has been inducted into the hall and no country artist has achieved lifetime achievement status.
North Syracusan Hal Casey, very likely the finest fiddler to ever grace local stages, was belatedly inducted in 2001 into the Hall of Fame, where he stands alone, the only one of about 65 hall members known primarily as a country performer. Several other acts, including banjo whiz Tony Trischka, Cross Creek founding member Dave Novak and country-rock band the Dean Brothers, have played some variations of country, but only Casey made the grade based upon his country cred. Likewise, the bluegrass music promoted by Bill Knowlton, radio host and founderorganizer of the venerable Bluegrass Ramble Picnic, shares the same roots, but isn’t what purists of either genre would classify as mainstream country.
Although Casey proudly carries the country banner, he would definitely welcome some company from his contemporaries. Among those Casey sees as deserving of recognition are musicians such as two-time Sammys Best Country Musician honoree Loren Barrigar and longtime Casey sideman George Harrington. Two club proprietors who doubled as performers in days gone by—Ozark Inn owner Wayne Schramm and Duane Wilson of Constantia’s Maple Grove—get Casey’s nod. Longtime WSEN and WSCP disc jockey Fred Lewis also won praise from the multiple-time New York State Fiddle Champion. “Fred was up on country music,” Casey recalls. “He was from the South and he played true country. It was all he knew.”
Young veteran guitarist and fiddler Rob Lauzon, currently a featured player in the Custom Taylor Band, blames the lack of Sammys prominence on country’s sometimes controversial image and a lack of respect in this part of the Lower 48. “At least that’s what I’ve always gathered,” Lauzon says. “I’ve done a lot more than country in this town and some of the best musicians I’ve ever worked with have those feelings about country music—that it’s uncool. It’s a shame because some of the best musicians I work with currently, and have worked with in country, are some of the best musicians. Period. Currently in the band I’m in, the drummer I work with is probably the best drummer in Syracuse, Rob Spagnoletti.”
But Liz Nowak, Sammys Executive Board president, says the organizing committees didn’t consciously overlook country musicians. “This is not something that was on my radar or the committee’s radar,” Nowak assures. “Sometimes people go unnoticed or overlooked and it’s not with any intention, ever. I don’t think that we’ve been genre-specific or tried to lean one way or another. We try to take a lot of factors into consideration. Sometimes it’s timeliness or availability.”
Country musicians and fans can play a part in getting their favorites recognized. “A lot of people submit suggestions and they’ll send us a bio or a letter with musical credits for somebody,” Nowak explains.
“As names come to us, they get added to the master list we review every year. So we would appreciate suggestions being sent through the Syracuse Area Music Awards website (www.syracuseareamusic. com). We welcome all suggestions.”
Fans who packed such clubs as Anthony’s Manor, the Ozark Inn, Carvell’s Roadhouse, the Sables Inn and Sam’s Lakeside over the past five decades to hear local country performers know well that there’s no shortage of candidates deserving of Sammys consideration. Lauzon, who has been playing country since his childhood, when he was known as the fiddle prodigy “Little Robbie,” sees Sammys Hall of Fame status ahead for Chris Taylor, the frontman of his current band. Asked for suggestions for imminent enshrinement, he rattled off a list of artists, including honky-tonk heroes the Mac Brothers Band and the couple behind the Amarillo Band and numerous other projects, Frank Crawford and his Sammy-winning wife Julie. Pre dictably, the multi-instrumentalist leaned toward respected pickers, from steel guitarists Tim Hodgson, Pete Baird and Richie Hughes to guitarists Chuck Premo and Barrigar, as well as singer-songwriter John Cadley.
A few of the region’s most talented have moved up and out, achieving prominence beyond their hometown and making them candidates for recognition. Buck Reid played steel guitar for John Anderson for years while John Dittrich drummed in the very successful band Restless Heart. Fiddler Ron Levine, harmonica player Jeff Baker and keyboard players Gary Butler and Fred Lawrence all soared beyond Central New York, while Maura Boudreau Kennedy plays in the nationally known duo The Kennedys.
Those names, if submitted for the committee’s consideration, could be added to a lengthy list of candidates. Each Sammys show includes four Hall of Fame inductions, plus one Hall of Fame music educator and one Lifetime Achievement Award honoree. “It would be wonderful if we could pick 50 people because there’s 150 every year that are just so compelling,” Nowak says. “Our list has about 220 names. Every year it grows as suggestions are brought up. The process also includes input from the community, from people making suggestions. We can’t be always everywhere and we do depend on suggestions. I know that we get a lot of letters and we file them all, keep an alphabetical master list.”
While numerous local radio performers have been honored, country radio is still waiting for its first hall inductee. Lewis heads a list of strong contenders that also includes former WSEN, WRRB and WSCP deejay and program director Gary Dennis and Lewis collaborator Dan Dunn. Although they didn’t play straight country, the western swing and dance hall favorites that garnished the repertoire of the Moss Back Mule Band of the 1970s and 1980s help to make that extraordinarily talented act a leading contender as the most overdue for Hall of Fame status.
It’s good to know the door is open for country to take its place in the Sammys spotlight in future years. The tough task will be deciding which candidates deserve the highest consideration.