By Robert Downes
Its not quite the Grand Ole Opry, but it feels pretty durned close:
Every Thursday, a driven group of guitar, banjo and mandolin pickers
congregate at a country-western bar outside of Traverse City to open their
musical veins and let it flow in what is widely considered to be the best
open mic in the region.
The open mic Roundup is the brainchild of Bill Dungjen, whose roots as a
master of ceremonies go back to 1998. Starting at 8 p.m. every Thursday
at the Hayloft tavern on M-72 West, Dungjen presides over a crowd thats
largely made up of local musicians, their friends and spouses.
The Hayloft open mic has come a long way, baby. Five years ago, the
audience was often largely made up of a few disinterested patrons and
the stuffed deer heads staring down from the wall. But these days thats
all changed: Dungjen has installed lush, red velvet drapes on the stage
and the event, which is officially known as the WNMC Roundup, is recorded
for the best performances to be played on the college FM radio station
That kind of loving care and persistence has built the popularity of the
Haylofts open mic through the years. On a recent visit, the venue was
packed with customers eating dinner and enjoying the music in a smoke-free
We get every level of player here and we invite everyone, Dungjen says.
Its always real friendly and a goal for local musicians to play here.
Weve seen lots of players really improve through the years and even have
a most improved trophy.
Dungjen started hosting open mics at the Cedar Tavern in 1998, moving on a
few years later to Mackinaw Brewing in Traverse City. In 2004, he
launched the open mic at the Hayloft, priming the show with veteran
players such as Dick Costlow, Brant Leonard and Joe Lake, who remain
regulars to this day.
It seems like Ive been here almost forever, or maybe its just like
yesterday, Dungjen says with a smile. I never tire of it because
theres always something new.
Dungjens musical roots are steeped in old-timey, traditional songs. My
dads a big cowboy and I came up listening to a lot of Bob Wills songs. I
listened to a lot of cowboy music from the 20s when I was a kid -- they
were horrible recordings, but they had great songs about riding horses and
sleeping by the campfire.
Its hard to imagine, but Dungjen also plays pop dinner music as a solo
act at North restaurant in Leelanau County -- stuff like Five-Foot-Two,
All of Me, and tunes by Billy Joel. He also performs with his wife,
Susan and Jonah Powell in their band, Susan Marie and the Cedar Valley
Boys, offering harmony-laden, upbeat songs in the mode of the Indigo
But his heart is in the country, and youll often hear Dungjen performing
near-forgotten odes to Americana and bluegrass on guitar, mandolin or bass
that sound straight out of the Dustbowl days or Woody Guthries playbook.
That bluegrass vibe is also at the heart of Sour Mash, a house band at the
open mic which Dungjen and friends launched two years ago. The band has
curtailed its playing at the Hayloft in order to seek paying gigs, but it
helped pump up the Roundups reputation as the place to be for local
acoustic musicians. Were a straight-up open mic now, he notes.
JUST LIKE OLD TIMES
A bluegrass vibe has taken root at the Hayloft in terms of how the sound
from the stage is projected. A single condenser microphone occupies the
stage; there are no amplifiers or a p.a. to plug in to, as is the case
with most open mics. You just get up there and bang out a tune unplugged,
just like Woody Guthrie or Bill Monroe might have done, back in the day.
The reason we brought in the curtains and a rug for the stage is because
it baffles everything, sound-wise, so we get studio-quality recordings,
Plus, it adds a lot of drama to the show, with those big, rich, red
drapes framing the players like (as one player says) either a funeral
home or a brothel.
So, whats the scene like? On a recent Thursday, a player named Doug got
up and performed Dont Dream its Over by Crowded House -- a tough song
to pull off on an acoustic guitar, and then a rousing version of Nancy
Sinatras Boots are Made for Walking. A guitar/banjo duo, DSR, played a
cowboy tune by Hank Williams and some high-flying bluegrass that got a big
hand from the crowd. Meanwhile, a player named Matt performed
Pocahantas by Neil Young, nailing the vocals and following up with a
Traveling Wilburys tune.
Often, you hear dead-nuts Americana from the last century: bluegrass,
roots music, cowboy and old-timey stuff from the heyday of the Grand Ole
Opry, especially at the Pile On jam at the end of the night, when half a
dozen or more players get up on stage for a foot-stompin finale.
Jimmy Crack Corn anyone? Camptown Ladies? Sweet Georgia Brown?
Chances are these tunes have wafted over the Hayloft stage a time or two,
along with lots of original numbers too as the pickers of the WNMC Roundup
carry on an American tradition.