By Tim Nekritz firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s a Thursday evening in an old barbershop that served its last customer about 60 years ago. The door opens, and in comes a person with a guitar. Then another. And another. And one with a ukulele, followed by another with recording equipment.
This is the CNY Songwriters Circle, a musical community that comes together every fourth Thursday night to share songs — and much more.
The challenge in the traditional performing structure is that it’s exclusive and somewhat enclosing. Performers are encouraged to put together three hours of material, mostly if not all well-known covers, and annoy bar owners, bartenders, community event organizers and others to fulfill their musical ambitions. Then they might deal with customers who aren’t paying attention, audio issues and all the other logistics.
The Songwriters Circle is a dream I never realized I had until it came together, and it puts the sheer enjoyment of songwriting, music and connections first and foremost. It has already exceeded anything I expected.
Longtime readers of this space might recall that I bought a house at auction that included the former Polish grocery store and butcher shop owned by the Swiatlowski family for more than 100 years at 316 W. Fifth St. in Oswego. But the real gem might be this former barbershop, about a 24-foot-by-24-foot space with pristine acoustics and plenty of room to accommodate a dozen (or more) participants.
When I posted about the barbershop and my desire to do something with it, many of my friends suggested something with music. Going to open mics and other gatherings, I realized how many of us were writing songs on our own but not necessarily sharing them with others (see that previous thing about bars wanting bands to play covers).
So in May 2022, I decided to host a Songwriting Circle and invited some friends over. The first one had a handful of folks, but quality was much better than quantity because I saw it had so much potential for anybody and everybody who attends and makes connections.
But it hasn’t always been easy. We rarely cracked a half-dozen members the first few months. One month, it looked like nobody would show until my friend Bill DeMott appeared, running late. But slowly and surely, people have come and wanted to return and provided positive word of mouth. Perhaps more importantly: along the way, I’ve seen participants become friends and supporters of each other’s music and efforts.
The concept of a songwriting circle is far from novel, and takes place in many communities. Perhaps the best known is the New York Songwriter’s Collective, unfolding in The Bitter End in Greenwich Village. It offers regular showcases of top talent, charging $10 a head to watch.
The one we host in Oswego is rather the antithesis of that. Here everybody from seasoned and recorded artists to people who’ve never written a song come together. It’s all equal footing and collaborative and supportive instead of competitive. As Bill noted after a dozen folks participated in the August one, “The applause is loud in there.” And genuine.
Kenny Roffo had never written lyrics before coming to the circle. He’d never even sung and played the guitar at the same time. The SUNY Oswego graduate is a former software engineer for NASA (working on projects including the InSight rover that landed on Mars) before moving back to Oswego County, where he now works for a startup. Music had been a background interest, more a solitary hobby, until he started attending.
“Songwriters’ Circle has motivated me to start writing songs, something I never took seriously prior to joining,” Kenny said. “I’ve gained new insight, new skill and new experience, all thanks to the Songwriters Circle.”
Kenny’s first song, a kind of meta tune called “A Song for You and Me” has a great singalong chorus that somehow includes a brontosaurus, and on the most recent Thursday, the old barbershop filled with the room singing along and smiling.
“Songwriters’ Circle is a golden opportunity to share your passion for music with others regardless of your background or skill level,” Kenny said. “My favorite thing about the circle is the supportive and friendly nature of the group.”
On another end of the spectrum, Marc “Bear” Grindle has written a lot of songs and played open mics but other things in his life made him put this endeavor on the back burner until recently.
“Finding this group has brought me out of my comfort zone, and reignited my passion to write and perform again,” Marc said. “Everyone has something positive to contribute, there is an abundance of talent in all styles and the atmosphere is eclectic.”
Like Kenny, Marc finds the ability to connect with other writers important.
“My favorite part of the Songwriters Circle is the camaraderie,” Marc said. “The conversations with like-minded creative people, sharing their stories and baring their soul through their craft.”
Cast of characters
Kellen Bassette is one of the anchors of the group. My bandmate in The Condescenders and a songwriting machine, Kellen has a keen musical ear and can catch and play along with — and solo on — anybody’s material. Zachary Dewey, who sings lead for ColdFront and has an amazing range, is working on finding his songwriting chops one good phrase at a time. A recent welcome addition is Megan Hook, a singer-songwriter new in town from the West Coast with thoughtful songs and an ethereal voice.
The August edition welcomed four first-time members who brought more to the proceedings: Jodie Smith, who has recorded multiple albums with the Hattie Lewis Band and just joined a new group tentatively named Scattered Tracks; fellow HLB member Tom McGinley, who also plays with What’s Left; and Adam Mance and Michael Crispino, a North Country duo called Very Next Accident.
The aforementioned Bill DeMott has been a real rock. A longtime art teacher who found his voice as an a cappella singer and songwriter several years ago, he is the greatest cheerleader and recruiter for the group.
Behind the scenes, Jim Early records our proceedings and sends mixes to members after, which are all quite amazing considering how joyfully chaotic bits and pieces can be.
Jim and I are working on bringing the circle to another level, creating a collaborative work space in Google where he’ll share recordings and people can contribute material for others to work on.
And honestly, wherever it goes from here is gravy. The community that’s come together already is amazing, so widening the circle and helping more people gain confidence to express themselves is gravy.
For more information about the CNY Songwriters Circle, email email@example.com
TIM NEKRITZ is director of news and media for SUNY Oswego, where he spearheads telling the stories of the campus community.