Pa.-based band to fiddle through the halls of the VA Center

May 27, 2004|by BONNIE H. BRECHBILL

MERCERSBURG, Pa. - None of the Knuckle Dusters is old enough to remember when jazz and swing were in their heyday, but their renditions of 1940s tunes bring pleasure to those who remember that era in popular music.

The five-member band will stroll the halls of the Veteran's Affairs Medical Center in Martinsburg, W.Va., Monday evening playing "traditional, old-time music, country, blues, folk," said lead guitarist and mandolin player Tim Mitchell, 43, of Hagerstown.

"We do it to support the people that support us in the military," said Mitchell, who said his favorite musical styles are swing and old-time fiddle music.


Leader and founder Scott Spearly, 33, of Mercersburg, said the band played at the VA two years ago on Veterans Day.

"It was a lot of fun; heart-warming and sometimes funny," he said. "In one room, one of the nurses introduced us to an elderly gentleman who had been a blues and jazz musician in the 1950s. We played a tune or two and I swear I could see tears welling up in the guy's eyes. He could barely move in his bed, but he tried to sit up and say goodbye.

"The staff was appreciative, too; it goes beyond the veterans. We'll be playing a lot of war-time era music, from the Civil War, and the 1940s and '50s. Sixties rock and roll is not our thing."

Spearly said he had expected the band would play in the cafeteria, but workers at the hospital said many of the patients do not have much mobility. "So we roved from room to room, and it worked out great," Spearly said.

A teacher at James Buchanan Middle School, Spearly said that Knuckle Dusters is slang for brass knuckles. "It was from a period we were focusing on with vintage swing, the 1940s and back."

That style of music, Spearly said, is personal to him. "It drives me. If I wasn't teaching, I'd find a way to play music full time."

He said two of the band members, Mitchell and Paul Mackrell, played old-time fiddle tunes and traditional music for 20 years. "I'm more of the swing blues, jazzy persuasion. We melded the two, and it's a nice mix."

Mindy Morris, 28, of Frederick, Md., sings back-up vocals for the Knuckle Dusters. The newest member of the group, she grew up in the Chambersburg, Pa., area, and "went the whole classical music route" with voice lessons and performances at weddings and churches. She even sang some opera. When she was in ninth grade, she sang some solo acts at the Appalachian Jubilee at the Capitol Theater, she said.

Later, when she met Spearly, she "got to continue country and bluegrass music," she said.

"We sing an eclectic mixture of country bluegrass, jazz, a lot of rockabilly things, some old jazz pieces from 1910s and 1920s," she said. "People are really receptive to this mix, it's a little different."

Paul Mackrell, 46, of Hagerstown, is a vocalist and plays the banjo and guitar with the band. His playing style on the banjo is claw-hammer, not bluegrass, he said.

"The last time we played (at the VA) a lot of those guys couldn't get out of their beds. They don't get to go to events, even when it's in the hall. A girl was standing in the hallway with a mirror; she was holding it so the guy in the bed could see us. We went into his room to play, and he was tickled to death."

Mackrell said he has been with the Knuckle Dusters since they formed in 1997. He also plays with an old-time string band.

"It's a lot of fun, I meet a lot of people, and travel a little," he said.

Although Mackrell was "a hard core rock-and-roller" when he graduated from high school, his repertoire now includes Civil War-era ballads. He learned one of them, "Two Little Boys," from his father. "He'd sing it in the car when we went on trips," Mackrell said.

Several of the Knuckle Dusters have ties to the military. Spearly's grandfather served in the Pacific in the Navy during World War II; Mackrell's father is a veteran of the invasion of Normandy. Morris' grandfather was in the Navy in WW II, and her fianc served in the Gulf War.

Also performing with the Knuckle Dusters Monday will be guest fiddler Evan Price of Smithsburg.

Local charities benefiting from the Knuckle Dusters' past performances include Toys for Tots and the American Heart and Lung Association. Recent performances include one last March at the Smithsonian for The Midwest Alliance of Sovereign Tribes. A collection of tunes will be submitted to independent record labels and producers this summer.

The band offers more than 100 songs free in MP3 format at their Web site,

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