Elk River Ramblers – life, music and a day job
Convey – to cause to pass from one place or person to another. – Merriam Webster Dictionary
As we travel this road of life we often come in contact with unforgettable sights, sounds and voices.
Someone who recently visited the Grand Canyon said the experience moved them to tears.
It’s difficult to quickly move through the writings of Garrison Keillor because you hear his distinct and slow draw, and you find yourself reading at his tempo.
And then there is music.
Many people play, but not all can convey the feeling, the beauty, and the message of a tune.
Paul Marganian and Galen Watts of The Elk River Ramblers are remarkable “conveyors” – transporting their love of music right to the soul of their audience.
It was under a streetlight in Marlinton where Marganian’s mastery of the violin was introduced to a certain segment of the population. He mesmerized the audience at the opening of the play, Sherlock Holmes, The Final Adventure, at the Pocahontas County Opera House in May 2015.
But Marganian had a “stage life” prior to that appearance, having played music with various local artists at Elk River Restaurant – a Thursday night gig – for the past seven years.
Early on, the trio of Alan Dutchess, Terry Richardson and Pam Lund entertained dinner guests there. Dutchess was the chef at the time, and he would take a break from the kitchen to be a part of the group.
Watts and Marganian played in the X Band, a rock and roll group put together by Larry Morgan, when he was a post doc researcher at Green Bank.
That was a few years prior to the evolution of the Elk River Ramblers.
“That’s an entirely different story, actually,” Marganian said. “The history of the Elk River Ramblers is – for the last ten or twelve years, there have been musicians playing Thursday nights at the Elk River Restaurant. Way back when, before I started seven years ago, it was Terry, Alan and Pam. They didn’t even have a name as far as I could tell. It was more like a pick-up game. About seven years ago Pam started having problems with her wrist, and I had been playing off and on with Alan, so they invited me to play with them.
“I said, ‘you guys need a name. If we play other gigs, who will we play as?’ I wanted to call it the Elk River Orchestra, but they thought it sounded too snobby, so we settled on The Elk River Ramblers. That’s the genesis story for that band.”
When Marganian stepped in, he brought along his talent and his ability to switch from one music genre to another, which sat very well with Dutchess, who was always up for anything.
Richardson was soon drawn into the fun.
In an earlier article in The Pocahontas Times, Richardson talked about that experience:
“I started out as a rock ‘n roller, but when I started playing with Alan, I was playing old-time,” Richardson said. “The music that he introduced to me, and Paul’s introduced to me, also, isn’t really something that I wasn’t familiar with, I just hadn’t considered wanting to play it. We were playing old-time and then all of a sudden, we were playing Beatles and Pink Floyd and Cajun, all kinds of stuff.”
In that same article, Marganian complimented Dutchess’ musical and entertaining style:
“We wanted to do a lot more Cajun. In the end we only ended up doing these two Cajun tunes. He would rip out with this stuff in French, or I guess Creole really, and nobody knew what the hell he was saying,” Marganian said, laughing. “Occasionally, he would ask the audience, ‘does anybody here speak French?’ That was one of the great things I liked about being in a band with him. He was in for doing whatever.”
Watts soon joined the Thursday night group, adding his mastery of the six-string bass guitar.
“They played over here [GBO] for a couple of conferences,” Watts said, “and they wanted a bass player, so I played about a half dozen shows with Terry, Alan and Paul.”
Exactly how did this Elk River journey begin?
For Watts, it began 47 years ago, when he played trumpet in elementary school, and switched to bass in high school.
In his hometown of Longmont, Colorado, he played in orchestras as well as stage and jazz bands.
But it wasn’t music that brought Watts to Pocahontas County in 1999.
After a couple of years working at the Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope in New Mexico, he moved to Green Bank to the then National Radio Astronomy Observatory, now Green Bank Observatory.
“I work with the electronics that process the electronic RF signal before it gets digitized,” Watts said. “I also keep an eye on the Russian Astron project.”
In addition, Watts offers engineering consultation in the early stages of new projects, looking at each one’s feasibility.
Watts’ work may cover the vast expanse of the universe, but, still, it is a small world.
He met Carla Beaudet while he was in New Mexico. After he moved to Green Bank, a position opened up in Beaudet’s field – electro-magnetic compliance. She moved to the area, as well, and soon became his wife.
“Carla is the onsite interference person,” Watts said. “She makes sure our equipment doesn’t interfere with our observations. If we build an electronic device here, she figures out how to shield it. How to package it so it doesn’t interfere with observations.”
As for Marganian, he grew up in Boston, Massachusetts.
“I’m from Boston, originally, and I had piano and violin lessons hoisted on me by my parents when I was young. I didn’t enjoy it as a kid, because it was forced on me. But, when I became a teenager, I rediscovered music, and that’s when I picked up other instruments.”
Marganian “picked up” the electric bass and played with several rock and jazz bands, and when he was in college, he joined an orchestra, where he played violin.
But, as with Watts, it was not music that brought Marganian to Pocahontas County.
Marganian noted that he and Watts are both Physics majors – not the usual prerequisite for becoming noted musicians.
Marganian and his wife, Karen O’Neil, began their journey from the west coast.
“I met Karen out in Oregon,” he said. “We were graduate students there. She is an astronomer, and I followed her to Puerto Rico [where the two were married in 2001]. Then we both got jobs here in Green Bank in 2003.”
O’Neil came to the NRAO as a staff astronomer and in a few years became director of the facility.
The couple has two children – Max, who plays fiddle, and Will, who plays drums. The boys’ last name is O’Ganian, a combination of their parents’ names.
“When we play music together, we are known as the O’Ganian Brothers,” Marganian said.
Marganian is a software engineer at GBO.
What does a software engineer do?
“We write software,” Marganian said, laughing. “We write all the software for the GBT, because with something like this, you can’t buy software off the shelf. You have to build it yourself.”
Building and pushing forward is important in every aspect of life – be it science or music.
The fun-loving Elk River Ramblers has had more than its share of sadness, with the all-too-soon deaths of Dutchess and Richardson.
“You can’t really talk about the band without talking about them,” Marganian said. “It’s really unusual for a band of three people to lose two of its original members.
“When Terry passed away, we wondered if we should keep playing as the Elk River Ramblers. Is it the right thing to do? Certainly, when Alan passed away, continuing to play was a way to keep his memory alive, and I think that applies for Terry, too.”
The Elk River Ramblers do continue to play, in person, in a three-county area which encompasses Greenbrier, Randolph and Pocahontas.
They have also played in Morgantown, but like to keep gigs close to home.
But when it comes to the group’s CDs, which are available at http://www.cdbaby. com/, they are gaining worldwide recognition.
“A funny story about that,” Marganian said, “Every now and then cdbaby will send me something about who is buying CDs and who is listening, because it is also distributed digitally through iTunes, and people are listening to it on Spotify – all these applications that I don’t even know about. The hilarious one was from iTunes Sweden. I was like ‘Okay! Sweden. We’ve got a fan in Sweden.”’
But Sweden doesn’t have the only fan.
“A friend of mine from high school has a younger sister in New Zealand,” Watts said. “She has actually started a small fan club for us there.”
Elk River Ramblers’ popularity comes as no surprise to fans here at home.
When they take the stage – their blend of passion and talent goes right to the soul of their listeners, and makes a person feel like “everything is going to be okay.”
There is something special about that.
There are people who can play, and there are people who can convey their feelings through music.
Elk River Ramblers do a great job at the latter.
“One thing we try to do is to blend different genres,” Marganian said. “We don’t stick with just one.”
So, what is their favorite tune?
“Oh, geeze,” Watts said. “Which one are we playing next? I’m serious. It’s like we have such a wide choice of things to play that when the next song comes up – it’s like – it totally engrosses you. It takes you over. It’s everything in the world at that moment.”
The ever-evolving Elk River Ramblers continues to maintain the high quality of talent that sets it apart as a nearly classical class act.
Seth Maynard, of Elkins, recently added his guitar-playing skills to the talent of Marganian and Watts.
Maynard is a well-known musician, recording studio engineer, producer and teacher, in addition to owning and operating Lone Wolf Productions in Elkins.
Going forward, Marganian and Watts will, at times, carry on the tradition on their own.
Sometimes, they will pick up a guest musician, such as Maynard or GBO lead scientist/fiddle play-er Jay Lockman, who is always ready for a set.
The Elk River Ramblers CDs, A Murder of Crows and A Night at the Opera House, which was Terry Richardson’s last public appearance with the group, are available at cd baby.com, Green Bank Gallery and C.J. Richardson Hardware in Marlinton.
Beginning December 15, The Elk River Ramblers will appear live every Thursday night at the Elk River Restaurant in Slaty Fork.
You can also see them in person in afternoon shows Saturday and Sunday, February 25 and 26, at the Purple Fiddle in Thomas. For more information, visit purplefiddle.com
Wherever and whenever you hear The Elk River Ramblers, you can be assured that the event will be memorable.
Jaynell Graham may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org