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Bluegrass community steps up to help Hagerstown family

Mike McDonald remembered as a man of integrity, love

November 06, 2011|By C.J. LOVELACE | cj.lovelace@herald-mail.com
  • Billy Lee Cox, right, and Scott Brannon, center, playing with the Don Reno and Red Smiley Tribute, play at Beck and Benedict Music Theatre in Waynesboro, Pa., during Sunday's bluegrass concert to benefit the family of Mike McDonald.
By Colleen McGrath/Staff Photographer

WAYNESBORO, Pa. — A tear came to the eye of Marjorie McDonald when she talked about her husband Sunday.

A talented bluegrass musician and songwriter, Mike McDonald of Hagerstown worked in the Washington, D.C., area as a master HVAC technician for 22 years before a fall from a ladder Jan. 27 left him with a severely broken leg, broken ankle and a fractured back.

He was out of work for eight months.

“And it was the best eight months of our life,” Marjorie McDonald said. “He was able to spend time with his family that he hadn’t had before from running up and down the road, rekindle relationships and it was a very sudden loss.”

Unexpectedly, a blood clot took the life of the 39-year-old father of two on Sept. 16.

A benefit in his memory and to help his family was held Sunday at the Beck and Benedict Music Theatre at 118 Walnut St.

“Mike loved life … loved his family,” Marjorie McDonald said. “He took such pride in perfectionism — from his music to his friendships to his marriage to his relationship with his children and his relationship with God.”

Mike McDonald was a member of the local bluegrass community, performing in numerous bands during his life. Circa Blue and Hickory Ridge were two of his groups, but it was his most recent project that will be remembered most fondly by Marjorie, who always supported his passion because she knew how much it meant to him, former band mate Matt Hickman said.

“He was just a true professional,” Hickman said. “He was an incredible singer; incredible musicianship, too. He played guitar and mandolin both very well. You couldn’t meet a nicer guy.”

In his final six months, Mike McDonald formed a band called The In Crowd. He enlisted the services of a few former band mates, including guitarists Hickman and Brian Brewer, and his wife, who served as a vocalist.

“It was awesome. It just made everything so perfect,” Marjorie McDonald said of singing alongside her husband. “That’s what he had been striving for his whole career.”

Brewer, who organized a benefit bluegrass concert for the McDonald family on Sunday, said he realized it was going to be a struggle for Marjorie as she tried to support her 16- and 22-year-old children following Mike’s death.

Sunday’s event featured four bluegrass groups — Ernie Bradley & Grassy Bridge, Billy Lee Cox & Scott Brannon (Don Reno & Red Smiley Tribute), Back Creek Valley Boys and Circa Blue — as well as a group of Hagerstown Community College student musicians.

All proceeds for the event went to the McDonald family. No advance tickets were sold, but about 300 had sold just after the start of the event, and just about every seat in the house was filled.

Mike McDonald forged so many friendships and acquaintances through his music. Hickman, who performed with Mike in Circa Blue, recalled going to festivals with him and having trouble walking through crowds because so many people stopped Mike to talk.

“He’s just one of those guys you automatically like,” he said. “Mike had so many friends in the bluegrass world. Everybody he met, it was just instant friendship, and Mike knew a lot of people from playing in different bands over the years, and being at different bluegrass festivals and venues. It’s incredible the people he knew.”

Brewer called Mike “a real joy (to be) with on stage” and “just an overall good guy.”

“I often told him that he could make a living just as well as a comedian because he was always coming up with cool stuff on stage,” Brewer said. “If you called him up and said ‘hey, I need help with something,’ he’d be right there. He was just that kind of guy. He would never turn anybody down. I miss him terribly.”

With the help of Echo Studios of Sharpsburg, Marjorie McDonald is working on a new tribute CD for her husband. Titled “A Life Remembered with Mike McDonald,” the album will feature songs written and performed by Mike during his career, even some new unreleased music from recordings as The In Crowd.

Mike’s music was played during his funeral and it received great responses from almost everyone who attended, Marjorie said, which was what inspired her to create the memorial CD.

“So many people left that funeral saying ‘we’ve never left a funeral feeling good,’” Marjorie said. “Usually funerals are so sad, but Mike’s funeral was a celebration of his life.”

“He’s in the all-star bluegrass band in heaven now,” Brewer said. “He’s picking with the old guys who have passed on before him. He’s probably giving lessons up there.”

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