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BY CRAIG SCHULIN
SOME 30 YEARS AGO, the scene was slightly different.
The musicians stood and played on cracked steps, while the small audience listened from what was then a blacktop parking lot.
Things have changed.
The steps were restored along the way. And the parking lot turned into well-landscaped green grass.
"It's become a popular gig for musicians to play," said Lynda Baer, program coordinator for the Central Rappahannock Regional Library.
For the last 26 years, Baer has been in charge of organizing the Music on the Steps concert series. The free Monday night shows start next week and last until Aug. 29.
The concerts have been a showcase
"The philosophy behind the concert, like the philosophy of the library, is to improve the quality of life for everyone and provide a place where everyone feels welcome," said Baer.
local and beyond
In recent years, music acts from outside the area have begun performing.
"Word gets around about nice gigs to play, and that has happened with Music on the Steps," said local musician Peter Mealy.
Mealy is a veteran of the series, having performed every year since the beginning.
He has performed at the shows as a soloist, and with jazz ensembles and acoustic groups.
His most memorable?
"Sixteen years ago, my wife [Laurie Rose Griffith] and I had just met and she was living in Northern Virginia," said Mealy. "She would come down here and play periodically, and the Music on the Steps concert that year was when we first had a presence as a duo in a public setting."
The duo will again be entertaining the audience from those steps this summer.
In addition, five new acts will be among the performers this year: Dana and Susan Robinson, Chatham Street, Sonrise, AON, and Harry, Larry, Hale and Buck.
The Robinsons will be bringing a mix of old-time Appalachian music and original music inspired by Dana Robinson's own outlook on and vision of America.
"My songwriting is about how I see this country," said Robinson. "And [the songwriting] is an expression of that."
Robinson praises outdoor concerts such as Music on the Steps--venues where audiences experience the spontaneity of live music.
"I think people are hungry for this kind of live music, for the nourishment it provides, given the many distractions we face from the instant media of today," said Robinson.
Given the name, people in this region might think that Chatham Street is from Fredericksburg--but not so.
"We named ourselves after a street we lived on in Detroit, where we are both from," said Christal Prout, vocalist and guitarist for this duo in the library's lineup.
Now based near Winchester, she and husband Peter perform original music that Prout says is difficult to peg.
"We call it New Americana, though a friend once said that people call their music Americana when it really doesn't fit into any one genre," said Prout.
Prout began writing the duo's original music about two years ago, noting that it became a sort of therapy for her as she coped with the death of loved ones.
"It's been a kind of crazy couple of years with a lot happening," said Prout, referring to both the personal tragedies and the burgeoning fame Chatham Street has experienced of late.
The duo has won several songwriting awards, and recently took first place in a competition that put Chatham Street on the ticket in September along with acclaimed folk artists John McCutcheon and Catie Curtis at the Shenandoah Music Festival.
James Brown shares a name with the Godfather of Soul, but after that the similarities fade away.
Brown is the manager as well as guitar and mandolin player for AON, whose tag line reads: "Kinda Celtic."
"We bring a great mix of instruments onstage--Scottish pipes, hammered dulcimer, accordion, drums, guitar, mandolin, tin whistle, banjo and fiddle," said Brown.
"We play a mix of Irish, Scottish and Appalachian music--the last being closely related to the first two."
Put them all together, and AON's performance becomes what Brown refers to as a "celebration of Celtic culture."
The celebrating continues with what just might be the most eclectic group playing on the steps, Harry, Larry, Hale and Buck.
"The four of us have pretty diverse musical backgrounds," said Harry Wilson, self-described "vibraphonist extraordinaire" and vocalist for the group.
"I've been playing jazz, blues, you name it, around Fredericksburg for 20 years," said Wilson.
Add to the mix musicians with hard-core punk, fusion rock and Cajun music backgounds, and the result is an original sound.
"We are all about trying to make people feel good," said Wilson.
Other acts appearing this summer will be The Company Store Band, Dixie Power Trio, Jeni & Billy, Angela Easterling, The Sunday Times Band, and Trent Wagler & The Steel Wheels.
The groups all show their generosity by appearing for less than their normal rates.
"The money we use to pay the performers comes from the Friends of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library," said Baer.
Individuals can become members for as little as $5, or $10 for a family.
Donna Cote, director of the CRRL, points out that the return over the years has been that the Steps series is the kind of event that knits the community together.
"People come here to share a tradition, to meet their friends and make new ones, to share family entertainment and to enjoy the best in local music," she said.
"It's one of the gems of Fredericksburg."
Craig Schulin: 540/374-5403
AUG. 1: JENI & BILLY
JUNE 27: DIXIE POWER TRIO
JUNE 20: Dana and Susan Robinson
JULY 11: HARRY, LARRY, HALE AND BUCK
JUNE 13: LAURIE ROSE GRIFFITH AND PETER MEALY
AUG. 22: AON