by Mary E. Miller
photographs by Nick Pironio
Hearing the raucous laughter that accompanies any Sunday afternoon convening of Rode Hard the Band, it’s hard to imagine that the first notes played, the ones that formed this group, were blue.
About five years ago, Jim Jenkins and Richard Nordan were business acquaintances, each grieving deep and recent losses (Jim’s mother, Richard’s wife). Over drinks at the Players’ Retreat, they discovered another common chord in love of bluegrass. An attorney and CPA who had handled Jenkins’ mother’s estate, Nordan has played banjo off and on since his early teens. Jenkins, deputy editorial page editor and columnist for The News & Observer, noodles guitar and a variety of other stringed instruments.
“I’m not very good,” Jenkins recalls saying, “but do you want to come over and play a little?”
The men worked their way through a musical composition book called the Bluegrass Fakebook, and possibly a bottle, strumming out old mountain tunes, selections from the Carter family canon, and spirituals like I’ll Fly Away. Spirits were lifted. Time flew.
“People do turn to music to help them through hard times, so certainly that’s the case with the two of us,” Nordan says.
The playing proved more than cathartic. It was fun, and a reminder that the decision to learn something new can make one feel particularly alive.
The pair began playing together weekly. A few months later, they invited Jenkins’ cousin, attorney Duncan McMillan, who brought his lifelong friend, Steve Petersen, who just that year had made a New Year’s resolution to dust off the guitar that had been sitting in his closet for the last three or four decades. Nordan copied and stapled together 20 songs to master, which they christened the Nordan Sacred Hymnal.
Sometimes music is judged by the quality of the sound, sometimes by the quality of the friendship. Although some practice every day, Rode Hard’s members say the point isn’t how good you are, but how well you are able to be fully yourself within their group.
“The process of going from terrible to almost competent with the help of your friends is a powerful thing when you are close to 60 years old,” Petersen says.
What causes the transformation from musicians playing together to a real band? Harmony. Sunday afternoons at Jenkins’ apartment became a ritual. The men would sing and play, tell stories, debate current events, enjoy a few. Soon word spread among musically inclined men of a certain age and career stature. Retired District Court Judge Mike Payne and attorney Wade Smith, who plays with several bands, showed up and brought along John Crumpler, a partner at venture capital firm Hatteras Venture Partners. Jenkins invited podiatrist Bruce Fawcett, who plays bass, had a band in high school, and seemed to already be everybody’s foot doctor.
Each song and session widened their repertoire and rapport. They called on furniture maker Bob Batura, who handles a harmonica as skillfully as he turns a lathe. After reading that NCSU chancellor Randy Woodson played bluegrass guitar, Jenkins called him up and invited him to sit in. He did and hasn’t left. Emboldened, Jenkins sent word through a close friend to Joe Newberry, a professional musician and singer/songwriter who works in public relations for the N.C. Symphony and is a regular on the National Public Radio show Prairie Home Companion. After one session, Newberry declared, “Fellas, this right here is the heart of music.”
Jenkins had T-shirts made to make it official.
Variation on a tune
Bands are born in many ways, for many reasons. More often than not, it is a youthful endeavor. Rode Hard is a unique variation on that tune. Nordan humbly says, “We are more interesting people than our music might portray.”
The youngest members keep time around 57, and Senior Statesman Smith is 77. These are men who have reached their full measure in life, still working, most now grandfathers, the kind of people who haven’t ever taken on anything lightly.
So maybe the vigor in their approach with this, too, should be expected. But the deep friendships that have formed between them – older men playing even older spirituals – has come to them all as a sweet and welcome surprise.
Since Rode Hard began, the hardness of living has come at these men. Like any of their demographic, they have suffered loss and scares, heartbreaks, and even the thrill of new love. Most of the experiences weren’t new to them, but now no one in the group suffers or savors anything alone. When McMillan’s brother Roy died, the band was there, and Petersen honored him by writing a song. They attended the funeral of Nordan’s father, and, more joyfully, they raised their voices when Nordan strolled down the aisle to marry his wife, Missy, in 2010.
In 2014, when Jenkins confessed that his teenage dream was to perform on stage, the others agreed to stand up and sing. They debuted in the parking lot of The News & Observer during the International Bluegrass Music Association’s World of Bluegrass festival, on a rainy September evening with a loving crowd that may have numbered 50 (but Jenkins counts as much larger) and, more importantly, with a momentous check off the bucket list.
Jenkins and Nordan, each only children, say here they have found family, a sentiment the others chorus. “The music is magical, the companionship is magical,” Peterson says. He says it best in the lyrics he wrote called One More Song:
Think I’ll cash in a day of my life
Spend it learning a new song
Think I’ll find me a little ole time band
Where they’ll let me sing along
They won’t mind too very much
If I sing out of tune
Think I’ll start this Sunday
Singing in the afternoon.
“Learning music is like learning a foreign language; it goes harder and harder as you get older and older,” Petersen says. “I think that is something we don’t focus on, but all this helps keep our minds a little bit longer, perhaps. That’s another offshoot of the good of this.”
Besides songwriting, Petersen has grown from guitar to mandolin, and says that is only one change being with the group has inspired. He’s also learned to make instruments. He has built a ukulele that he gave to Jenkins and is finishing two guitars, one for McMillan and one for Smith, inlaid with a white rabbit as a nod to a story Smith told about his very first school assignment on his first day of first grade.
Petersen hopes to have them completed in time for the band to play again at the World of Bluegrass Festival. They may not be the best musicians there, but no one will have a better time.