How does Ramblin’ Dan Stevens manage to keep on ramblin’ during a pandemic laced with restrictions on everybody’s movements? And how does a musician make a living when so many shows keep getting canceled?
“I’m doing my best to stay busy and relevant,” Stevens tells me with his easy grin as he sits, guitar in hand, at Nightingale’s Acoustic Cafe in “downtown” Old Lyme on a sunny afternoon. A few hours later he would be leading a “pickin’ party” of local musicians on the lawn outside.
On the wall rests a lineup of three-stringed cigar box guitars that Stevens really did make out of cigar boxes, and a one-stringed “diddley bow” he made as well. Bare-bones instruments such as these were assembled for years by blues musicians in the South who had limited incomes but were handy enough to put together found items such as gum tins, washers, screws and those spare cigar boxes.
Stevens reaches for a gorgeous green guitar, a resophonic made in part from what he notes is “a genuine 1953 Rambler hubcap.” And he begins to play, in his “bottleneck slide” style: “I started ramblin’/I started ramblin’, baby/I’m like a dog that don’t remember his name/I never learned how to play the game/Can’t tell my future I don’t know/Well I’m just ramblin’, baby/I got ramblin’ on my mind.”
“That’s my song,” he says. “ ‘Ramblin’.’ From my early days, hitchhiking and hopping freight trains.”
You can read all about Stevens’ ramblin’ life in the biography on his website: “After being inspired by Woody Guthrie’s book Bound for Glory, the magnetic lure of the road captured his imagination and with a driving passion he hitchhiked and hopped freight trains, guitar in hand, across the United States five times, eventually covering over 100,000 miles.”
The biography also notes he was a school teacher in his native Pennsylvania and in Arizona; a rock-climbing instructor in New Mexico; broke his collarbone riding bulls in Colorado; and sailed schooners for a living along the Eastern seaboard. He arrived in Connecticut in 1991, living on his own sloop in Mystic while working as the mate on the schooner Brilliant at Mystic Seaport.
Now, at 66, he has somewhat settled down. He and his wife, Gail, after living above that acoustic cafe for six years, recently bought an old farmhouse, also in Old Lyme. They’re hanging out there with their daughter, Haley. But that doesn’t mean Stevens has stopped ramblin’.
“I played three shows in Maine last weekend,” he reports. “I found that if everybody plays by the (COVID-19) guidelines, what’s wrong? People say you can’t play, but you can still play! You can do live music. We can still have fun.”
Closer to home, Stevens is organizing those pickin’ parties, every Tuesday night (weather permitting) on the lawn outside the cafe; doing “pop-up shows” with other musicians at locales in and around Old Lyme; and hosting live streaming events three nights a week from Nightingale’s.
And so when I ask Stevens how he is surviving as a musician amid the pandemic and whether he’s worried about his future, he replies: “I’m working just as hard: recording and writing and making guitars and doing all those shows. But the question is: how are you going to get paid?”
Stevens says the virus has wiped out so many gigs that it has revived the old-time tradition of musicians “busking” — setting up on a sidewalk with your open guitar case next to you in the hope you might catch a few coins or bills while performing.
“I’ve busked all over the world,” Stevens says. “England, Panama, Costa Rica, Mystic …” He also busked in the subway stations of New York City. “I’ve always been a little crazy,” he says of that experience. “I’d always wanted to play in the subway. If you’re a blues guy you’ve got to play there.”
Stevens picks up a 1953 Gibson guitar and announces: “This belonged to [singer-songwriter] Jonathan Edwards. I bought it in Guilford; I played it and loved it.”
While ambling toward his workshop in the back room of Nightingale’s (adorned with more guitars), Stevens tells me about the nonprofit MusicNow Foundation he runs with his wife; it uses live music to engage youths in performing. “Gail started it; she’s the backbone. She’s the heart and soul of this place.” (The cafe has suspended sales of coffee and other treats because of the pandemic.)
That evening, out on the lawn, Stevens sits (socially distanced) with eight other musicians in a big circle for their pickin’ party. Passersby stop to listen; several others have brought their own chairs. The players perform “With a Little Help From My Friends” and other standards.
When it’s Stevens’ turn, he plays “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone.”
But we probably will.
68 Lyme St., Old Lyme, yard next to Nightingale’s Acoustic Cafe
Acoustic music every Tuesday from 6-8 p.m. (weather permitting)