Holy Modal Who? A chat with Chip Cohen of the Conjugal Visitors

April 24, 2009

Well, I just got off the phone with Chip Cohen.

This story, for me, starts a few years ago, when I received a CD as a Christmas gift from my girlfriend’s sister’s husband, Tim. Tim lives on the North Umpqua River near Roseburg, in a cabin he built himself. It’s a really cool area, and the forested property is pretty amazing. Anyway, he gave me a CD called “Horsehair” by Chip Cohen. Tim saw Chip at a farmer’s market, or something like that, and said I would really enjoy his music. I gave it a listen, and it’s really good. Chip is a really good fiddle player, well steeped in old-time, bluegrass and world music. Chip started playing violin at age 11 and then joined his grade school orchestra. In his teens, he learned fiddle tunes and folk music, and at 21 he headed out on the road with some friends and traveled to numerous festivals around the Southeast, soaking up bluegrass and old-time music.

Chip relocated to the West coast, and spent time in Berkley California, where he continued music, giving fiddle lessons, and came up with his moniker “Professor Horsehair” -- a combination of jazz musician Professor Longhair and the material used for violin bows. After 30 years, the name stayed with him. Along the way, Chip learned guitar and bass, but is still best known for his fiddle playing. Chip still teaches at the community college in Eugene and gives private lessons.

So now we have to rewind the tape back to last Fall, and recall one of the 27-million band names that come up in my Entertainment Update column. This time, we’re talking about the Conjugal Visitors, from Eugene, who played at the Trillium Café. The Visitors have a tongue-in-cheek name for sure. I checked out their MySpace page, and lo and behold, one of their band members is Chip “Professor Horsehair” Cohen. I know that I should have gone to that show, but of course, something must have come up at the last minute (sound familiar? See Oct 22, 2008 blog entry). Anyway, Chip said that gig went really well, and he was really pleased that his band was able to do the gig acoustically.

Again, we have to rewind the tape back to February, you know, that period of time when the Trillium Café was closed, for repairs and such. It turns out the Visitors were scheduled to play sometime during those weeks, but the closure somehow led to the re-booking (re-booking, is that a word?) for the Visitors, this time at Everybody’s Brewing, across the river in White Salmon, this week. When I was gathering the information for this gig, I pointed the ol’ web browser to Chip’s MySpace, page (which is very funny, by the way) and read that he played with a group called the Holy Modal Rounders.

The Rounders, were an obscure folk group, for sure. The reason I know about the Rounders is from working with my band (Kate Meloy Trio). Our guitar player, Craig Wilson (of White Salmon Guitar) un-earthed a song called “Down the old Plank Road” from the original Holy Modal Rounders (Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber circa 1965). Anyway, Craig lent me this double vinyl record from these guys, and it’s kind of a funny record. The Rounders had a playing style that is so different, you can’t tell if they’re serious or not. Go figure.

So when I saw on Chip’s web page that he had played with these guys, I just had to ask. It turns out Chip moved to Portland in the late 1980s, and by just hanging around the local music scene, befriended Steve Weber, who had also relocated to Portland. Weber had apparently continued the Rounders without Stampfel at that point. The Rounders decided that they needed a fiddle player, so Chip played with them for 3 or 4 years and can be heard on the album “Are They Gone Yet.” The group hung out at Hannigan’s Tavern, which was known locally as “Vern’s” because the neon light in the “Tavern” sign did not light the “T” or the “A”.

After that stint, Chip moved back to Eugene, where he continued to teach and play music. In addition to his current role in the Visitors, a string/jug band that he has been with for the last 2 years, Chip plays in a band called the “Klezmernauts,” affirming his love for traditional Klezmer music. To this day, Chip has no idea how the Conjugal Visitors got their name, but he hopes folks get a chuckle out of it. Chip’s CD “Horsehair” is only available at his shows, but he hopes to get an on-line store up and running soon.

The Visitors have a pretty extensive gig schedule lined up, including a slot at the 2009 Seattle Folklife Festival in May. Chip didn’t have the details about which stage they were going to be on (there are at least 5 or 6 stages) but I’m sure in between sets the group will be jamming on the sidewalks. If you haven’t been to Folklife – go – it’s a hoot!

So that’s the story on that! Thanks Chip, and thanks Tim, for the disc. It’s always fun to make these connections in the endless music circle.

The Conjugal Visitors will be at Everybody’s Brewing in White Salmon on Friday, April 24.

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