“That was the first time I’ve ever spoken publicly about it.”
On April 30th, Jim Gaudet and the Railroad Boys took home an Eddies Award for the best local bluegrass band for the second consecutive year. His acceptance speech was at first halting. The audience hung on his every word as he revealed that he’s had Parkinson’s disease for more than a decade.
“I went back and forth, back and forth, whether I should do it or not. Thank God I’m really happy now with the speech. In fact, the year before, when I won that same trophy, I was planning on saying it then, and I chickened out.
“This is funny because all of us that have Parkinson’s try not to show the symptoms. The hardest part of doing it was having people think I wanted them to feel sorry for me. My intentions were to let people know specifically about Parkinson’s. Not necessarily just Parkinson’s, but let people know you got to keep going.
“I try to keep it hidden with people I’m meeting for the first time or at a social gathering of some sort, but I’m gonna always look back to that important time last Sunday night where I stood before an audience and admitted I had the disease.
“I have the disease!
“I’ve never mentioned it ever in concert. I’ve always kept it from being known at concert. So – you know, Sunday was a first for me.”
Especially in a post-pandemic world, there’s a message for all of us in Jim’s bravery in revealing his personal struggle. “It certainly has given me a kick in the butt. Time is precious. So, make sure you take the time.
“I’m so lucky and fortunate that I do have the family for support from my wife and children, and I tried to make that point at the Eddies that basically the guys on the stage with me are the group that really are the ones who keep me going. There’s nothing more gratifying to me than bringing a new song that I’ve been working on to the band, and I sing them not only to find their way to the song but to be excited about the song. That’s one of the biggest paybacks I get from working with these guys because they’re all so supportive and then in terms of just giving me the strength and the power to venture on.”
The pony in the pile here is that Jim’s struggle with the disease may actually have made him a better songwriter and performer. He and the Railroad Boys performed Sunday night in a display of contemporary genre-bending bluegrass that was as good as any acts I saw 60 years ago during the folk boom in Harvard Square. And it’s not just me who hears that.
“When we go to Colorado – we’ve been three times, and we had standing ovations in the middle of the song. You know, just when you’re playing local, people want to smack that local label on you. Then, when you’re playing a thousand miles away someplace, they know you’re a traveler. People respect you, I think, much more than when you’re a local band.”
It begs the question. Has the disease actually made Jim Gaudet better at his art? I asked him flat out if he thinks Parkinson’s makes him better able to handle the horrors of civilization since the Pandemic. “Yes! Yes, I do. It certainly has given me a kick in the butt. Time is precious. So, make sure you take the time.”
Between solo albums and releases with The Railroad Boys, Gaudet has put out ten records in his 30-year career. The ones I’ve listened to are as good as anything Rounder Records ever put out. I asked him about his creative method. What’s his secret sauce?
“I’m always looking for that next best tune, you know? The next one to be open to break through and whatever, you know, but I guess I could never be accused of being overzealous. I could never be accused of overworking. However, this has forced me to again get down to business. There are so many things I want to do and take care of. The pressure is on me because I know the clock is ticking. You know, you gotta get moving.
“Lately, what’s been happening is I’ll find a phrase. I’ll find something that’s catchy, you know, like the proverbial hook, and then I’ll just work it from there.
I have a lot of different approaches in the sense of a flip chart, a great big artist’s three-foot by four-foot, and that’s what I do. I’ll have it out and have access to it whenever another idea comes. I start doing that. I’ll write down the phrase or a verse or a part of a chorus on the wide-open page, no lines, and I’ll put it wherever. As I add a verse, I piece them together to form the puzzle.”
His music is not pure bluegrass in the standard definition of the form. His voice has the weathered authority of a mid-career Johnny Cash, and the Railroad Boys’ arrangements push bluegrass in new directions with the same kind of freshness Patsy Cline brought to traditional country in the late ’50s.
“When we started out, we were doing like a bluegrass offshoot, a bluegrass interpretation of what we were doing. I guess our first breakthrough involved Grey Fox Festival. The Grey Fox family has adopted us and taken us in. So, we were going along the bluegrass vein, and I said, ‘We’re really not playing bluegrass.’”
The medley they did Sunday night “was a medley of three tunes. We started with “Hey, Baby,” which is on our latest Hillbilly Rock and Roll, and when we went to “The Wind Blows Cold,” which is a murder ballad, we snapped it up with a tribute to Carl Perkins, and that’s the one you heard at the end.”
Everyone knows the old saw that states I don’t live to eat. I eat to live. Jim Gaudet lives the music. The music doesn’t live him.
Music can destroy a person’s life, or it can sometimes save it. His music has saved Jim Gaudet’s life, but – and this is a big but. It has given him the opportunity to experience his family, their love and joys alone and beyond the music, and that, in turn, is the fodder for his original music. He’s as good as any road warrior in bluegrass and has been acknowledged by the Eddies. And he’s treated as royalty when he does festivals around the country, but he plays McGeary’s here in Albany the first Monday of every month for free.
The Railroad Boys’ next local concert is a leukemia benefit at The Argus Hotel in Albany on Monday, May 22nd. Tickets are $25.00.