Ralston Bowles, Michael Fracasso, Phil Madeira Join Forces for Tour
Ralston Bowles has made a few friends in music.
A fixture in the West Michigan music scene, Bowles is often credited for making Grand Rapids a tour stop for national acts. The man called “Mr. Tuesday Night” since founding the popular Tuesday Evening Music Club at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park more than a decade ago will be joined by two of those friends – Michael Fracasso and Phil Madeira – for a new series of tour dates.
“We all seemed to be in the same place at the same time and decided to take advantage of that,” Bowles says by telephone from Grand Rapids. “There’s a thing that happens down at the Bluebird in Nashville where songwriters take turns on stage and do a night together swapping songs. We each have some songs to play so I thought we could do something like that.”
While Bowles, Fracasso and Madeira may not be household names, those who are have long hired the musicians as sidemen and songwriters.
Bowles, a Gary, Ind., native, has opened for Shawn Colvin, T Bone Burnett, Arlo Guthrie and Bob Dylan. Like many of the stories Bowles tells, his stint at Meijer Gardens was a product of circumstance. Colvin was driving in from Chicago and late getting into the venue so Bowles was asked to stall. After appeasing the crowd for 40 minutes, he was asked to come back every Tuesday that summer. The idea took off. Now, he says, the Tuesday Evening Music Club averages more than 1,000 people a week during July and August.
It wasn’t until friend and fellow musician Peter Mulvey recorded his song “Fragile” that Bowles began thinking about putting out a record of his own. Soon after, Marvin Etzioni, a former member of Lone Justice and producer of Counting Crows and Toad the Wet Sprocket, asked to work with Bowles, and at age 50, he recorded his first album, 2004’s “Carwreck Conversations.” It was recognized with three Jammie Awards – Album of the Year, Best Folk Album and Artist of the Year. After its local success, “Carwreck Conversations” was re-released in 2007 by Judy Collins’ label Wildflower Records, which also produced 2008’s “Rally at the Texas Hotel.”
While Bowles had known Madeira for years, the two bonded in 2010 when Madeira recorded and produced Bowles’ highly anticipated third album, which has yet to be released.
“It was during Ralston’s pretty arduous journey with cancer that I had an epiphany,” Madeira says by telephone from Nashville, Tenn. “I felt like I was supposed to do a record for Ralston. I called him and what I thought would be mostly me playing other instruments turned into this thing with 35 other musicians mostly in Nashville playing for free on this record. That really bonded us.”
Madeira, who started as a member of the Phil Keaggy Band in the 1970s, is currently a member of Emmylou Harris’ Red Dirt Boys. In the years between, he has partnered with renowned musicians such as Daniel Amos, Pierce Pettis, Mavis Staples, Julie Miller, the Neville Brothers, Keb’ Mo’ and many more. Though he has occasionally released solo projects, including his 2013 album, “PM,” Madeira’s main contribution to the music world has been his multi-instrumental and songwriting collaboration with other artists. He is currently working on a follow-up to his 2012 compilation album, “Mercyland: Hymns for the Rest of Us.”
“There was a time where you could be a secular person and love gospel and then it turned into this exclusive domain,” Madeira says. “So I wanted to create gospel music for people who don’t want to be boxed in, people who feel excluded by religion.”
Fracasso has been a staple in the Austin, Texas, music scene since moving there in 1990. His first CD, “Love & Trust,” features a duet with Lucinda Williams, and he has made two albums with producer/guitarist Charlie Sexton (“World in a Drop of Water” and “Back to Oklahoma”). His 2004 album, “Pocketful of Rain,” featured a duet with Grammy winner Patty Griffin. His most recent album, 2011’s “Saint Monday,” was on the “Best of 2011” list of several publications including the San Antonio Express News and Austin Chronicle.
On his last tour through Michigan, Fracasso stayed with Bowles when they began talking about sharing the stage.
“He put me up as I was traveling through and we hung out and played music all night,” Fracasso says. “I was going to be up that way and we were able to book a show together in Livonia and after that we decided to do a little run together.”
Fracasso plans to include at least three songs off “Saint Monday,” including the title track, “Elizabeth Lee” and “Gypsy Moth,” in the tour’s set list and maybe a cover or two off his current project.
“A few people have been hounding me to do a project like this and I always wanted to and now we’re in full gear,” he says. “They’re all really diverse. I’m doing a Kinks song, the Roy Orbison song ‘Only The Lonely,’ a young Rascals song. It’s based in the ’60s.”
Madeira adds that he’ll likely play a few songs off of “PM,” his first solo record in 16 years, including “Bad Sense of Direction” and “God on the Rocks,” which is also the title of his spiritual memoir. As for Bowles, he has a few tunes of his own he’s looking to share.
“I’ve been writing a little bit,” he says. “One I just sent down to Phil and he really liked the lyrics on it. It might be something we pull out together. The song is about this desire to try to fix things in the world. I know I’d like to set everything straight and have some normalcy even though it’s not in the realm of my ability. All I can address is me. That’s where change starts from. That’s the driving force behind the song. There’s a line that says it’s ‘Up To Me,” but I don’t know if I’ve settled on that as a title just yet.”
After spending two years battling colon cancer, Bowles, who says the disease is now in remission, is just happy to be up and playing again.
“It always lurks there. It’s hard to get around it. I basically take it a day at a time,” he says. “That’s why it’s so important for me to say yes to doing events like this. Having this kind of connection with friends and musicians is important.”