|~ The Gypsy Wranglers at the Black Sheep on November 19, 2017 ~|
Tuesday, March 01, 2016 - Amherst, MA (Archive Article)
Band: The Gypsy Wranglers have a unique style
of acoustic swing music
Passersby stepped into The Black Sheep Deli on a Sunday afternoon seeking shelter from the teeth-chattering temperature, and were greeted, just beyond the doors, with the sound of lively music echoing throughout the entire eatery. The 30-year-old establishment’s entryway doors stand between two windows large enough for pedestrians strolling the sidewalk to see inside the cafe. A window underneath a black awning with the word “Bakery” written on it in gold letters exposed a few wooden booths for patrons to sit and enjoy a meal while the opposite window revealed a raised platform supporting a five-member band and a variety of instruments including a banjo, mandolin, harmonica, and even a trombone. For 20 years, the combination of string, wind and brass instruments has made the Gypsy Wranglers stand out from other swing dance bands in the area.
The band name was influenced by 1930s gypsy jazz guitarist Jean “Django” Reinhardt whose musical compositions integrated numerous jazz standards or tunes commonly used by jazz musicians, which are typically recognizable to listeners. An example of such a tune is “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”
The Gypsy Wranglers originated in 1996 and throughout the years have released four albums, replaced a few band members and incorporated additional instruments.
The band’s newest CD, “Movin’ Day,” is available in CD-ROM format or digital download for $10 at: http://bit.ly/1PNJLxn.
The four original members played at the Leverett Coop for two years before its owner sent them elsewhere for worry of the negative impact it might be having on the business. The four contacted the Amherst deli owner shortly after and have played there from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Sunday since 1998.
“We often say, ‘You can probably go anywhere in the world right now and you’ll never find another band playing this song with this instrumentation,’” band member Terry Reed said. “I think our uniqueness is that everybody comes from a slightly different background and each person brings their own songs, and then we all learn them.”
Meet the band members
The first instrument 68-year-old band creator Doug Tanner of Wendell ever laid his hands on was the trumpet, but he wanted to play a string instrument.
“When I was a kid, I got the trumpet because I saw a guy on the TV who played the trumpet with a puppet and I had to choose an instrument for the school orchestra, so I picked the trumpet,” he said.
Tanner picked up the banjo after discovering Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger as a teenager, and he took the instrument with him on a cross-country expedition, where he played on the street for a few extra bucks and for anyone who wanted to listen.
“I learned to play the banjo by playing on the streets of San Francisco in the ’60s,” he said. “I would play at Golden Gate Park and people would give me money to buy strings.”
Eager for another challenge after mastering both the trumpet and the banjo, Tanner moved to Massachusetts in his mid 30s and taught himself how to play the fiddle, which is his instrument of choice in the Gypsy Wranglers.
“For two years I practiced four hours a day. At age 30 it’s kind of tough to learn how to play the fiddle, but the only way to really do it is by doing it a lot for a concentrated period of time,” he said, adding that string instruments, including the violin or the viola, are tough to play as a child and even more difficult for adults, due to the difference in finger dexterity.
On top of playing the guitar and the banjo in the band, 68-year-old Terry Reed of Orange has also been in the band since its creation and uses his visual design degree to create the CD case covers as well.
Reed’s musical journey began as a preteen when he played the drums alongside his brother, who played the organ. Both boys eventually grew out of the children’s size instruments and purchased higher quality pieces to play in a high school band called The Town Criers.
The band was more successful than the brothers anticipated. They performed covers of popular songs for school dances, recorded some CDs and even won some battle of the bands contests.
“I was playing the drums, my other brother played the guitar, my other brother played the organ and our cousin played the bass,” he said. “Back then we thought, ‘Hey, we’re just like the Beach Boys,’ because they were three brothers and a cousin.”
When the teenage band made adjustments to add an additional band member to resemble the popular five-man 1960s band, Reed gave up the percussion spot to the newest addition and became the band’s vocalist and guitarist. The band broke up when the boys graduated from high school and went separate ways, but everyone continued to play music in some fashion.
In the 1970s, Reed moved to Boston to attend Berklee Music School with some friends who, upon his arrival, decided to travel across the nation playing music instead of receiving formal education. He didn’t attend the school either, but stayed behind working various jobs and eventually met his wife and moved to western Massachusetts.
Reed attended an improvisational performance at the Warwick Inn and was introduced to Tanner and his accompanist, Craig Hollingsworth. The duo invited Reed to the Leverette Coop the next week to see if a banjo would work well with the accordion and the fiddle. The group then added bass player Nick Blakias to the mix and called themselves the Gypsy Wranglers.
“Their music was kind of a stretch for me,” Reed said. “I was more simple blues and Rock ‘n’ Roll and they were playing complicated songs, but I’m glad I got in that because it inspired me to play better.”
Terry Nagel, 67, of Belchertown auditioned for the Gypsy Wranglers as a bass player and was cast as the trombonist.
Nagel is a multi-instrumentalist like many other bandmates. He played the trombone throughout grade school and before graduating and entering adulthood, he found a mandolin in his grandmother’s attic and put it to good use in his garage band. His instrument of choice, however, lives in the brass family.
“I had a little band in high school called the Mongers,” Nagel said. “I played the electric mandolin and we were really, really not good. It would have been punkrock if it had been 20 or 30 years later.”
“I started playing the trombone when I was in fourth grade, so I would have been 9 years old,” he added. “I wanted to play in the high school band and they didn’t need trumpets and they didn’t need anything except trombones and clarinets and I chose the trombone. The rest is history. I stuck with it.”
Nagel said the trombone isn’t usually played by itself, adding that he was relieved to find a band that accompanied the instrument so well.
“It’s an instrument that you add once you have everything else you need,” he said. “It’s low brass and you tend to be playing in harmony with something else.”
Rico Spence, 65, of Westhampton is the band’s percussionist. He’s a self-taught drummer who learned by tapping his fingers on tables and recreating the beat of a song.
“I learned by humming it in my brain and then try to put my fingers where I hear it,” he explained. “Drumming is just part of a heartbeat.”
Rico didn’t have any intentions of joining the Gypsy Wranglers until he was having brunch at the Black Sheep with a friend and noticed the band didn’t have a percussionist. He asked to play the snare drum with them at the next performance. His first debut was a success and was invited back the following week and became the band’s official drummer.
“I don’t know music. I just love the beat,” he said.
Lynn Lovell, 69, of Hatfield is the band’s bassist. Per her mother’s request, she was sent to her school’s music department to learn an instrument and was encouraged by the orchestra conductor to give the double bass a try. She fell in love with its musical quality and dedicated her life to the instrument and played in various bands including the Holyoke Civic Symphony and the Pioneer Valley Symphony Orchestra before joining the Gypsy Wranglers.
She realized how talented Spence was after she accepted work as a weekend accompanist in Goshen in the Whale Inn and learned how to play the electric bass on the job without any notes on a music stand.
“As a trained classical musician, you get really hung up on the page and you always want to see notes in front of you, so improvisation is something from Mars,” she said. “Rico wasn’t formally trained. He did it all by ear and to me, that’s amazing that people can do that and not be trained.”
Lovell met Nagel while playing in the South End Jazz Band together. He was also in the Gypsy Wranglers and was scouting for a replacement bassist and invited Lovell to play with them in Leverett to get a feel for the band. She was eager to join but was busy raising her children, playing in other bands and running her bass rental business. In 1999, she joined the band on a part time basis and continues to play with the group to this day.
Doug Tanner of Wendell, Terry Reed of Orange, Terry Nagel of Belchertown, Rico Spence of Westhampton and Lynn Lovell of Hatfield are The Gypsy Wranglers.
The band said it has entertained audiences throughout New England and Canada with its unique brand of acoustic swing music at festivals, concerts, weddings, fairs, schools, radio broadcasts, dances and cruises for many years.
The Valley Advocate’s Reader Poll has named The Gypsy Wranglers “Favorite Swing Band” six years in a row.
The band performs at The Black Sheep Deli, 79 Main St. in Amherst from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Sunday. The deli is open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sunday.
Contact The Gypsy Wranglers at 413-323-6032 or 978-544-2067.