Eilene Laing’s recent life passages sound just like a sad, old country song that takes a happy twist and leaves you smiling.
“I lost my husband a couple of years ago, and I was sitting at home, lost,” Laing said. “I didn’t have anything to do.” Her children worried about her melancholy, and one day they pulled some strings and prompted a truly unexpected intervention. Don Morgan called Laing to ask, did she want to go listen to country music at the Minnehaha Grange?
Morgan is president of the Columbia River Old Time Strings, a biweekly gathering of musicians, singers and country music lovers who trade twangy guitar licks and turns at the microphone. He also happens to be Laing’s first husband. The pair divorced in 1973, pursued separate lives and families, and recently reconnected — reunited by their mutual love of the soundtrack of their youth.
“I’ve been everywhere and done everything,” said Morgan, sounding just like a country song himself. “We get along a lot better now. It’s just one of those things that started back up.”
Morgan has a fiddle and a guitar stowed away in a closet, he said, but what he usually brings to the Minnehaha stage is his singing voice — a light, bouncy, friendly drawl that’s still hip-deep in the soil of his native Kansas. Laing sings too, but claims no special talent in that department. Nor does she play any instrument. “I don’t play anything but the radio,” she said.
If You Go
What: Columbia River Old Time Strings.
When: Second and fourth Saturday. Doors open 6 p.m., band jam at 6:30 p.m., open mic 7 to 10 p.m. Next event is March 23.
Where: Minnehaha Grange, 4905 N.E. St. Johns Road, Vancouver.
Contacts: Columbia River Old Time Strings on Facebook or 360-256-7154.
She used to think of herself as shy, but singing with the Old Time Strings has extinguished that idea, she said. When music is happening, she simply has to be part of it. “None of us is anything to write home about,” she confessed, “but we love it.” On Feb. 23, Laing even brought along a special guest star — her granddaughter, 6-year-old Megan Wilder — to join in a heartfelt duo rendition of “You Are My Sunshine.” Laing followed that with a solo turn on the Patsy Cline classic “Foolin’ Around.”
Backing her up was the inevitable wall of sound that arises when many guys show up lugging many guitars. In this crowd, by the way, that important word is never pronounced “gui-TAR,” with the accent on the second syllable. To fit in here, you must always stress the first syllable: “GIT-tar.”
Peak GIT-tar on Feb. 23 was seven: five electrics and two acoustics, all strumming simultaneously and trading leads. Plus electric bass and drums. That’s a lot of sound to swim through, and the players did occasionally fragment into subgroups that worked through different chord changes at different times — but nobody ever fell entirely overboard.
This friendly crowd forgives all musical misdemeanors, anyway. Many of these players spent years in bar bands; now they can keep their chops sharp while skipping the booze and late nights. The Columbia River Old Time Strings are alcohol-free, and done by 10 p.m.
Marge Wilcox — who never plays or sings, just listens — doesn’t miss the booze because she grew up with an alcoholic father, she said. Like Laing, Wilcox was mourning a husband when she started attending the Old Time Strings. “It made me a better person,” she said. “I used to be grumpy, but I’m not like that anymore. It’s because of this music.”
Staying in shape
“It’s a good place to stay in shape,” said Jerry Jacobs, cradling his tobacco-sunburst Fender Stratocaster. A guitarist since his childhood in Sacramento, Calif., Jacobs dreamed of stardom, joined the musicians’ union and mastered everything from the rockabilly of Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis to the sweet folk-rock of Peter, Paul & Mary — but straight-up country will always be his favorite, he said.
“I can play all the modern stuff,” he said, but here he doesn’t have to. “Country music moves me the most, emotionally.”
Jacobs came to Washougal and worked at the Camas paper mill “through four name changes” before he retired, he said. Nowadays, he said, he plays guitar with the Old Time Strings for fun and at a few other gigs for a little cash — including Moose Lodge dances and Sunday morning church services.
Leading the band through “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” a Bob Dylan tune that masquerades as vintage country, was Dianne Glenn of Yacolt. Glenn was one of just two acoustic guitarists in a long lineup of twangy electric players, and she sang her song in a clear, strong voice that Dylan ought to envy.
“I played around the campfire for a lifetime” before realizing that her best instrument was her singing, not her strumming, Glenn said. Nowadays, “Everywhere I go, I look for open mics. Playing music is so relaxing. It takes your mind off the hustle and bustle.”
Many of these musicians also gather to practice on Friday nights at the home of Gail and Lonnie Jurgens, near Fargher Lake. Gail Jurgens is a singer, occasional bass player and informal coach for this semi-pro band and its guest singers; she also serves as emcee. Lonnie Jurgens is a pedal-steel player.
“I’ve been in music all my life,” Gail Jurgens said. “This is for people like me, who want to keep a foot in it.” On the other hand, she added, it’s also for humbler folks who love music but never tried to make it before. You won’t find a friendlier, more supportive situation to try out your pipes and your chops, Jurgens said.
“A lot of elderly people, nobody would take the time to teach them,” she said. Laing said Jurgens has been the closest thing to a singing coach she’s ever had.
The Columbia River Old Time Strings started out in the late 1970s, hopping between private homes and then moving up to American Legion and Grange halls. About 30 people turned out Feb. 23 at the Minnehaha Grange; perhaps half cycled across the stage at some point.
While winter is its slow season, vice president Tom Papke said, there’s no denying that this graying group is thinning out. That’s why Laing’s other granddaughter, 16-year-old Kaitlin Wilder, has started a publicity campaign of neighborhood posters and a first-ever Facebook page. Going online is a big leap for Old Time Strings culture, which appears resolutely person-to-person and word-of-mouth.
Renting the Minnahaha Grange on a Saturday night costs $100, and at-the-door admissions ($3 apiece or $5 for a couple) often don’t cover that. Some anonymous angel has been dropping the occasional $100 bill into the donation jar, club officers said. That’s a mystery they’re not trying too hard to solve, they said.
Lifelines from an anonymous donor are great, but what the Columbia Old Time Strings really need is new members and friends, they say.
“This beautiful nonprofit … has helped my grandma join the world again, make new friends and enjoy music with people who share the same passion,” Kaitlin Wilder said. “We’re all concerned how long this can keep going.”