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Letters 07-25-2016

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Home · Articles · News · Music · Pickin‘ Party? Hayloft
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Pickin‘ Party? Hayloft

Robert Downes - May 24th, 2010
Pickin’ Party: Hayloft open mic offers authentic Americana
By Robert Downes
It’s 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 that’s
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 that’s
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
each week.
That kind of loving care and persistence has built the popularity of the
Hayloft’s 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
atmosphere.
“We get every level of player here and we invite everyone,” Dungjen says.
“It’s always real friendly and a goal for local musicians to play here.
We’ve seen lots of players really improve through the years and even have
a “most improved” trophy.”

DUNGJEN’S ROOTS
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 I’ve been here almost forever, or maybe it’s just like
yesterday,” Dungjen says with a smile. “I never tire of it because
there’s always something new.”
Dungjen’s musical roots are steeped in old-timey, traditional songs. “My
dad’s 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.”
It’s 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
Girls.
But his heart is in the country, and you’ll 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 Guthrie’s 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 Roundup’s reputation as the place to be for local
acoustic musicians. “We’re 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,”
Dungjen adds.
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, what’s the scene like? On a recent Thursday, a player named Doug got
up and performed “Don’t Dream it’s Over” by Crowded House -- a tough song
to pull off on an acoustic guitar, and then a rousing version of Nancy
Sinatra’s “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.



 
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