Their hair may be graying, their waistlines expanding and gold records a distant dream, but they play as enthusiastically as those half their age. While holding down full-time jobs, many local, middle-aged musicians such as John Hill play for the pure joy of it.
“We are all part-time musicians,” said Hill, a tech for a propane gas company who has been drumming for 48 years. “We do this for fun on the weekends.”
Gary Hiland, a barber in his day job, has been playing music for 40 years. Two years ago, he formed The Relics, a DeKalb-based oldies band, and says he hopes to keep playing as long as he can.
Some never stop playing; others give it up and start up again. Doug Thompson played for 20 years with Night Shift before hanging up his guitar. Then his barber, Hiland, recruited him to play at their high school reunion. He’s now a regular with The Relics.
“I’m glad he asked me,” Thompson said.
Farmer Aaron Butler said he wasn’t good enough to play saxophone in a professional jazz band, so he started his own band, Jazz in Progress, in 2012.
“Who wouldn’t do it?” asked singer Rachel McPheeters, an English teacher at Genoa-Kingston High School. “When you have familiar faces in the crowd, smiling, swaying, singing along, you can’t help but feel so blessed for each opportunity to perform. I always said I’d sing for anyone, even the guy closing down the bar mopping the floors.”
Keyboardist Jim Smith agreed. It may never be a career, but music is his life, he said.
“I really love it,” said Smith, who has played keyboards for 30 years. “I love the camaraderie in the band.”
John Thorn of DeKalb has been playing music for 30 years, the last 20 with his brothers in the Basically Bluegrass Band. Basically Bluegrass plays at Culvers every other Saturday in the summer, and performs at nursing homes and festivals. He said musicians get the chance to meet good people – and sometimes recruit them.
In high school, Pat Burns of DeKalb was in a rock band called The Squares, which cut a record before playing in Las Vegas. Forced to give up music when he went into law enforcement, Burns bought a guitar 22 years ago, but never played it.
“It’s a bit like a treadmill,” he joked. “You put your clothes on it.”
Four years ago, he was asked to join the Basically Bluegrass Band.
“I didn’t know it I was going to like it or if they’d like me, but I’m still with them,” he said. “It took a while to learn the songs. We just play basic chords.”
Marc Hansen, a professional photographer, has been playing guitar about 37 years. He fronted three or four bands in his 20s, he said, then gave it up and just played for his own enjoyment.
“One day my wife told me to stop playing for the TV and go make us some money,” he said. “I walked cold into a couple of places and if they didn’t like me, then that’s fine. Cabana Charley’s (in Sycamore) gave me my break.”
The Maple Park singer/guitarist, who still hopes to get into music full time, plays about four times a week. He also hosts monthly open mic nights at Cabana Charley’s.
“It never ceases to amaze me the talent that comes across my mic,” he said.
Brandon White said it’s not difficult to compete with bar noises.
“You just focus on your guitar,” he said. He once told a crowd it’s all right to throw money at him, so long as it’s not quarters.
While some say it’s difficult to find places to play, others disagree. Much depends on a band’s genre.
“Once you get your foot in the door, they want you back,” Hiland said. “Country music is very popular, but the type of music we play, we don’t have much competition.”
“In the bluegrass genre, we can play every weekend if we wanted,” Thorn said.
Bill Leighly, a singer-songwriter who plays acoustic rock while working at Northern Illinois University, said competition isn’t a very big issue in the community of local musicians.
“We look out for each other,” he said. “We all know we aren’t going to make enough money to fight over it.”
Like others, Leighly has recorded CDs, which he hands out to friends and uses as demos. It’s hard to sell CDs when music is so easy to download, he said.
“It’s a keepsake,” Hiland said. Since The Relics play mostly covers, they can’t sell their CDs due to copyright issues.
To keep sharp, many say they practice a couple of times a week. Since he lives in the country, Hill said he can “play whenever I want” and not bother anyone.