Blairsville-area native draws on hometown talent to help record new solo CD
With the release of his new CD, titled “Years Gone Bye,” Bo Sloan has come full circle in his musical career.
Now a resident of Nashville, the Blairsville-area native has returned to his early years by collaborating with hometown friends on the album's mix of country and rock sounds. At the same time, the CD provided Sloan a new opportunity to satisfy his creative drive through songwriting.
Growth and progression is the motif of “Years Gone “Bye.” Sloan, 61, wrote or co-wrote eight of the CD's dozen songs. Some of them were inspired by family or by fellow musicians he's befriended on a journey that has taken him from playing with homegrown Blairsville bands to fronting his own Pittsburgh-based act in the early 1980s to touring with such country stars as Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn.
Sloan said he had one criterion for choosing the tracks that would make the final cut: “I chose the songs that moved me in some way.”
One song he decided to incorporate was penned by longtime friend Lisle Kunkle of Blairsville. Sloan was serving as a teletype operator in Vietnam in the early 1970s when he received a cassette recording of the song, made to cheer him up by Kunkle and Jim Fleming — fellow members of the Blairsville band Seneca Trail.
Sloan said the song touched him deeply and stayed with him over the years. The version on his current CD features backing vocals by Kunkle, Fleming and another former bandmate, Frank Gorton.
When Sloan returned home and rejoined Seneca Trail, he collaborated with Lisle and Fleming in writing “Maple Shade,” a song that led to a 1973 deal with Mercury Records. By the following year, the buzz had faded and the band had dissolved though the friendships endured.
Soon after, Sloan reformed a musical alliance with Mike McConnell, another Seneca Trail alum, and the two wrote and performed songs that got the attention of a Nashville publisher. It was this notoriety that launched Sloan's touring career, playing keyboards in country artist Ronnie McDowell's band from 1977 to 1981. Highlights for Sloan during that stint were performing on the “Grand Ole Opry” and “Hee Haw” programs.
“Two songs on the new CD are written by Mike, and I picked those because I think they add some necessary diversity to the collection,” Sloan said.
McConnell, who lives in Greensburg, provides vocal assist on the tracks and is the subject of another song penned by Sloan. As Sloan explains in the liner notes, “The Legend of Mike McConnell” pokes fun at the musician's past attachment to a “microphone boom stand that was so old it could barely stand up on its own. It was pitted with rust and squeaked when he moved it, but no matter how much we harassed him about getting a new one, he never would do it.”
When things wound down with McDowell's band, Sloan returned to Pennsylvania and formed his own Bo Sloan Band. He also hooked up with Blairsville's Dan Baker, who cut his teeth as a producer while Sloan was touring the country. This became a lasting working relationship; Baker has co-writing and co-producer credits on Bo Sloan Band releases and the new solo Sloan endeavor.
“This is my fourth album that I worked on with Bo,” Baker said. “We have very different backgrounds musically and very different perspectives, but we really know how to fight well and voice our opinions. Through our fights, we're able to sift the gold out of the sand, so to speak.”
“Yeah,” Sloan agreed with a laugh, “we fought like cats and dogs over certain calls.” But, he said, “I figured if he felt strongly enough to make a big fuss about something that he was probably right, and vice versa.”
Baker attended the Atlanta Institute of Music, sought “stardom,” sold some singles and worked many years as a disc jockey. Then, in the late 1990s, he took a day job with Westinghouse and scaled back his musical endeavors.
Similarly, Sloan has switched gears after years of focusing on work in the country music industry.
As a backing musician, he toured with Twitty's band from 1989 until June 5, 1993, the day Twitty died after suffering an aneurysm. Sloan also was a backing vocalist for Lynn, in 1995-98, but he noted tour dates were sparse as Lynn's husband suffered from declining health and eventually succumbed.
During his years as a touring musician, Sloan had the opportunity to appear with Twitty on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. But Sloan's fondest memories are of the shows and festivals that allowed him to meet other artists he admired and to watch them perform.
“One of my favorite bills was when Conway was the middle act for George Jones and Merle Haggard,” he recalled. “I loved getting dressed early so that I could watch George, do our set, getting cleaned up and changed to watch Merle. To me, that was the one terrific thing about being on the road — the people.”
But, eventually, the touring life lost its appeal for Sloan and he got a day job. He currently works for a company that monitors credit card transactions and patient information for the medical industry.
Sloan also discovered he'd developed calluses on his vocal chords that made it difficult for him to continue singing live for audiences though he still can handle vocals in a recording studio.
After two years in which he made no music at all, Sloan gained a new family and renewed inspiration in 2006. He married his wife, Debbie, whom he'd met through an online dating service, and he traveled with Baker to see fellow musical friend Ozzie DiBiase at work in his home studio near Hershey.
“I was finally able to put my finger on why I was getting no enjoyment out of all those years on the road,” Sloan said. “Creatively, it wasn't fulfilling. I was always playing someone else's music.
“So, Dan and I started writing a song called ‘The Masterpiece,' which I know sounds a little pretentious.”
Sloan explained that the song is about “finding that ‘work of art' that everyone has inside of them, whether other people think it's good or not.” It is the closing song on the new CD.
Baker indicated recording and producing the album was a satisfying experience for both men.
“For Bo and me, it is more of a hobby than anything. We write and record when we feel like it, and that offers a lot of freedom,” Baker said. “We're contented. We don't have to rush to create, or to put tracks down, or to settle for takes we don't like, and that leads to a much higher quality product, which I think is evident on the new CD.”
The project also presented challenges for the pair. “Making this record was a 15-month labor of love,” Sloan said. “When I first decided to start the process, I didn't expect it to take that long or that it would be that hard.”
The men had to adjust to new digital recording equipment and to a long-distance process of swapping recorded musical elements between Blairsville and Nashville.
“Bo and I both moved into the digital world with this project,” said Baker. “We simultaneously went out and bought Roland BR 1600s so that we would have compatible multi-track recorders.”
Initially, they burned recorded tracks onto discs that they mailed to each other. Eventually, they made use of a service that allows them to share music files online.
But they worried that the music resulting from the process might lack spontaneity, and Sloan particularly was concerned that “you would hear the stiffness” if he performed all the instrumental parts himself.
Their solution was to draft homegrown musical talent from Blairsville to bring “improvisational magic” to the recordings, Baker said.
Baker, who made all the arrangements with the local instrumentalists and vocalists, noted his new digital recorder's portability provided an extra measure of flexibility.
“I can throw it in my car and turn every place I go into a recording studio,” he said. “In fact, it can do everything and maybe even more that the big studios were able to do when we were coming up through the ranks. We recorded some stuff in my home studio and in a garage.”
Randy Torock and Greg Persichetti, friends with Baker through the SS. Simon and Jude Catholic Church choir, laid down backing vocals for “Reaching for the Stars,” a song that Sloan and Baker wrote and entered into the American Idol Songwriting Contest in 2008.
“It was quite a kick to be a part of this, a project with a local legend like Bo,” said Persichetti. “Guys like me and Dr. Bernie Scherer, who plays electric lead on a song called ‘Last Call Lucy,' a song that Bo and Dan have been working on for years, have always looked up to Bo and what he's accomplished as a musician.”
Other local musicians include Tommy Steeves, who played drums on “Debbie's Smile,” a song Sloan wrote for his wife when she battled cancer for the second time. Emil Herby's lead guitar and Dave Brozeski's backing vocals are featured in “100 Years From Now.”
Brozeski, a local merchant of musical equipment, said, “It was fun to get a chance to sing backup and be associated with someone who's done very well for himself from this area. Danny's adept and organized, so it only took me about a half hour to put enough tracks down. I'm on the low end on the harmonies.”
Bob Hansel of Ligonier, who took his first guitar lessons from Sloan when he was 25 and eventually ended up in the Bo Sloan Band, penned the title track of Sloan's new CD. He also played bass on “True Hearts” and added lead vocals to “The Legend of Mike McConnell.”
Copies of “Years Gone Bye” are available at Brozeski Music in Blairsville, Backstreet Records and The Music Box in Indiana and CD Warehouse stores in Greensburg and Monroeville. Digital downloads are available at such online sites as iTunes and CD Baby. The album also can be purchased through Sloan's website, www.BoSloanMusic.com.
Spencer Sadler is a freelance writer.