By Trevor Christian
Nearly everything Long Island bluegrass musician Buddy Merriam does has something to do with music.
He repairs horns and teaches mandolin to supplement his income from concerts and CD sales. He volunteers hosting a radio show on Wednesday nights on WUSB, Stony Brook University’s public radio station. It’s writing songs and playing live shows that Merriam describes as his primary responsibility though, and that’s usually enough to get him by.
“It’s cyclical,” Merriam explained. “I mean, I’ve had some fabulous years. And when bluegrass music is cool to the masses, we get private work, corporate work, weddings, and we do quite well. And then there’s other years where it’s more of a struggle.”
Though traditional American roots music groups are few in the area, WUSB has managed to attract a number of them. Mary Lamont, a country singer, plays songs from her genre on the station every other Sunday. Her husband, who plays guitar with her, often sits in. Both have shared the stage with Merriam, who also played mandolin on their most recent album.
“Buddy is in the kind of genre of bluegrass that isn’t as mainstream, but there is an audience for it here on Long Island and a very appreciative audience,” Lamont said. “So wherever Buddy goes, Buddy gets a great response.”
That audience has propelled Merriam to a 34-year career in music. He’s been self-employed since 1991 because people show up to see him play live in the area even though bluegrass has its roots in the Southeastern United States.
Merriam said he prefers the grit of live performances. Though he admits to being slow to embrace technology, he says that YouTube videos have become an important part of his show. Even with the video streaming service available he says that seeing music live matters to him.
“Me, personally, I would much rather play a live show than sit in a recording studio,” Merriam said. “It’s very sterile and it feels like the pressure is on. But when you play for a live audience you really feed off that audience.”
He says he’s been lucky enough to work with some of his role models in the field. He considers Del McCoury, perhaps the biggest name in traditional bluegrass, today a friend. The two spend time together after McCoury’s shows in New York.
Merriam also had the honor of being the first to record a tune by bluegrass legend Bill Monroe.
“I think it helped me in that it made me a little more than just the bluegrass guy from Long Island,” Merriam said.
Working with Merriam, according to Lamont, isn’t much work.
“He is very intuitive,” Lamont said. We told him basically where we wanted him to come in and out, to lace our song with his expertise and he was amazing.”
The two teamed up for a song Lamont wrote about her grandmother. She said it was amazing to have a musician of Merriam’s caliber asking her what she wanted him to do for the song.
Merriam has also collaborated with younger musicians in the field. He once had Andy Falco, now of the Infamous Stringdusters, as a member of his band. Merriam described him as the student he’s most proud of and said he wasn’t shocked when Falco decided to move to Nashville.
“I kind of almost wish that when I was at his point in my own life that I had done that,” Merriam said. “I have a daughter who’s 27 now and I chose to stay here to be close to her.”
Matt Riley, a guitarist and vocalist who is a relatively new addition to Back Roads, Merriam’s band, said that Merriam is a good friend.
“He’s very nurturing as a band leader,” Riley said. “He encourages you to step out on your own.”
Today, Merriam rehearses with his band regularly and tests new material at Shandon Court, an Irish bar and restaurant in East Islip.
“It’s starting to feel like home,” Merriam said. “It seems like I’ve always had one venue that was kind of like home where we could try things out. Shandon Court has become that for me this year.”
Though Merriam says mostly family and friends come to their monthly shows, enough of them show up to entice the venue to keep bringing him and his band back. Of course, it does not hurt that one of the bartenders takes a break from his shift to play upright bass on one of the sets.
Merriam typically works with a trio but has expanded his band to include the bass and banjo while at Shandon Court. He explained that it’s just one of the many new things he’s been able to try out there.
Strangely, it’s Merriam’s second job that he says relaxes him. He describes fixing instruments as something that comes naturally to him at this point and that it’s something he will do even at 2 a.m.
According to Merriam, music is different. Though he has penned more than 1,000 songs in his life, he still considers it to be a challenge.
“You never get there,” Merriam said. “Anybody that thinks they know it all on their instrument is totally fooling themself.”
Though Merriam said he’d rather stay traditional than learn the new sounds progressive bluegrass players have innovated, he does hope to write 1,000 more songs before his time is up.