At the Hotel Rodney, in the back room of the restaurant Béseme, local songwriter Stuart Vining is playing to a standing-room-only audience and telling stories.
“My grandmother ran The Corner Cupboard Inn (in Rehoboth Beach), and when I was 13 back in ’64, Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker stayed there,” Vining tells the crowd. “I remember going down to the Henlopen Hotel and The Pink Pony jazz club with him. He’d let me play the stand-up bass. That was definitely a Delaware thing. That was from another time, another era—another planet back then.”
Since those days, Vining has sat in with Roy Clark, Skyline Vocal Band, Glen Campbell and Bonnie Raitt. On this night, he is playing with other local songwriters: Kent Schoch, Johnny Neel, Ed Shockley and Kevin Short. On bar stools they sit together, guitars on their laps. Each has a tale—of platinum records, Grammy nominations, stardom, near stardom and, often, simply living at the beach.
Since December, the Rehoboth Beach Writers Guild has organized this monthly Night of Songs and Stories to give local performers a new outlet and to help locals appreciate their experiences. It started as a reading by writers, then included a songwriter “as a way to bring something different to the reading,” says guild president Maribeth Fischer, emcee of the evening.
“It was during our November reading, last year when Randy Lee Ashcraft, our guest musician, sang three songs and told the stories behind those songs, Fischer says. “The stories had people in tears because they were so poignant. They completely altered the way I think the audience listened to the songs. Randy and Kent then began talking about doing an entire night of the song and the story.”
The event has since blossomed. “I think playing at The Rehoboth Beach Writers Story Behind the Song Series is a lot like playing at coffeehouses in the ’60s,” Vining says. “I love being in this scene. I love playing with killer musicians who are just regular folks, whether they made it big or they didn’t. They’re just good folks here.”
Fischer asks the musicians at Béseme about their first paid gig. Vining names, Prism Coffeehouse in Virginia in the ’60s, where he played the first song he learned, Kenny Roger’s “But You Know I Love You.” Vining begins singing. Johnny Neel and Kevin Short sang along.
Neel answers next: “My first paid gig, I don’t know. Someone always got my money.”
A Grammy nominee, Neel was born blind. He began his career playing keyboards in the Johnny Neel and The Shapes of Soul when he was 12. The group routinely sold out theaters in Wilmington.
Neel next formed the award-winning Johnny Neel Band. He moved to Nashville 26 years ago and made a hit song, “Take the Long Way Home,” with John Schneider from “The Dukes of Hazard,” then went on to play in The Allman Brothers Band. Neel’s songs have been recorded by national acts such as The Oak Ridge Boys and Travis Tritt. Neel has also written songs with Ed Shockley of Lewes. Shockley was studying at the University of Delaware when he learned of Neel through a minor radio hit.
“Let me tell you the story behind this song,” Neel tells the crowd. “I had this hook. I sang Ed the hook over the phone and came over to the piano, which was more out of tune than it ever has been, and that’s how we wrote this song called ‘My Kind of People.’”
Neel and Shockley sing:
People come and go throughout the years.
When I look around at my kind of people, they’re still here.
The two started working together when Fine Times magazine organized a music festival in Wilmington in the early 1980s. “This was the first time we hung out,” Shockley says. “We instantly knew we really appreciated each other.”
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Onstage, Fischer asks Neel what his desert island song would be. “You can put me in the middle of a field and tell me I was in an ocean,” Neel says. “I don’t know a deserted island, but we’ll figure something out.” He then begins to improvise a tune from the theme to “Gilligan’s Island” and “Stairway to Heaven.”
“It’s kind of humorous around here, our little piece of sea,” Shockley says. “We refer to this as the beach, others refer to it as the shore, and then there are those that refer to it as ‘the ocean.’
“I had been writing a song about Lewes when a good friend of mine wrote one called ‘Deck of the Dutch.’ At first it made me not want to write my song, but when I was living in New York, I was feeling homesick, and this line kept appearing: Deck of the Dutch. I read Henry Hudson’s account of sailing into the Delaware Bay and realized that as much as things have changed, they stay the same.”
Shockley then launches into his “Zwaanendael Dreamsong.”
It’s just a little town, my hometown, not much different than most.
Used to ride my bike uptown, balloons tied to the spokes.
I grew up and moved away, tried to make my mark.
But it was always these roots that held me apart.
In high school Shockley played drums in Mister Virtue’s band at places such as the old Surf Club in Rehoboth Beach. “That place alone spawned all the local musicians my age,” he says.
Shockley later formed Jack of Diamonds with his brother Michael Shockley and guitarist Keith Mack. The band played together for 15 years, touring from New York to Richmond, Virginia. “We went from playing two to three originals a night to an all-original band by late ’70s,” Shockley says.
Jack of Diamonds signed an album deal and enjoyed some radio airplay in the early ’80s. Shockley went on to play in New York with the band Cries and had record deals with RCA. Shockley has been a principal writer and vocalist on many CDs.
“I had written songs in the past with other bands, but they didn’t fit those bands,” he says. “I had trouble finding people to understand where I was coming from and my style.”
Shockley returned to Lewes and formed Vinyl Shockley with Mack, Doug James (writer of Michael Bolton’s 1980s megahit “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You?”) and Kevin Walsh, then recorded a CD called “Wild Hair,” produced by Mack.
“It’s about growing older, but not feeling older,” Shockley says. “Or maybe it’s about not going down gracefully.” Shockley’s most recent CD, “Keep Singing” features Johny Neel and Kevin Walsh.
“I realized the way I feel about my hometown was different than how others felt about theirs,” Shockley says. “There’s something soothing about being by the water. It’s hard not to put things in perspective when you look at the vastness of the ocean. Living in a place with historic roots gives you a sense of place in time. I experienced this in other places as well, like New Orleans, as well as New York. I feel like I’m a part of Lewes and Lewes is a part of me.”
Shockley also plays with local faves The Funsters and The Eddy Sherman Show. Kim Parent, a back up singer for country stars Brooks and Dunn, Faith Hill and Martina McBride, has recently recorded Shockley’s “Baptize Me,” from his latest CD. “For a woman to sing it changes it completely,” Shockley says.
After recording gold and platinum albums with Patty Smyth and Scandal, guitarist Keith Mack has developed a similar feeling about living in Lewes. Just a week after playing at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in July, he was back at Irish Eyes, sitting on a bar stool, finger-picking his acoustic guitar. “I enjoy sitting on that bar stool,” Mack says.
Mack began writing songs when he started playing with Scandal in New York City. “Ed Shockley and I lived in an apartment building together around that time and recorded 25 to 30 songs while we were there,” he says. Mack was later touring Europe with Joe Cocker when the Berlin Wall came down. “An impromptu concert was set up and we all got up on stage and sang ‘With A Little Help From My Friends.’”
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Even after that experience, Mack returned to Lewes. Solo instrumental arrangements on his latest CD, “While We’re Here,” speak more than words can say.
“We’re here because this is where we want to come back to,” says Kevin Short. “The music scene here is not as high pressure as Nashville or New York, so people you want to work with become a community.”
Short may be the godfather of local songwriters. He fronts the country swing band Big Hat No Cattle. “Glen Campbell’s ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ is our most requested song,” Short says. “A good night is when we do an impromptu set where we randomly try to play as many Kris Kristofferson tunes as we can.”
He speaks about music not from a songwriter’s perspective, but from that of a producer. His Georgetown studio, MSA, is common ground for the musical community. Short started the studio 20 years ago to convince himself that he could make a living with music on the Eastern Shore—and he has.
Short is the man with the good ear. He’s the guy at the table who will hear someone play guitar while ordering a cup of coffee and immediately decide to record it. “I’m not down in the trenches,” he says. “I’m getting the song pitched to me in its almost final form. It’s a lot of fun to produce and shape songs and polish them.” He’s even demoed songs for such singer-songwriters as Mary Chapin Carpenter and Shawn Colvin.
Short carries with him inspiring stories of struggling songwriters. He speaks of Nancy Griffith and Lyle Lovett playing alternate Sunday nights in a hole in the wall in Austin, where they had to come up with new material every week to fill their two-hour sets, long before they became stars.
Short performs one of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s most successful songs. As he strums the last chord, the audience erupts with loud applause.
Kent Schoch is the newcomer on the scene. He is seated next to Neel. “What an honor it is to sit next to Johnny Neel,” he tells the audience. “And what a curse it is to sit next to Johnny Neel.”
Schoch wrote “The Song I Wish I Wrote” and began playing in his mid 30s. He released his debut CD, “Ohio,” in January. Now 43, he says, “I always thought music was something other people did, like Elvis and Johnny Cash.”
Now he feels like he has struck gold.
“It’s as if I’m with an all-star line up of musicians sitting up here,” Schoch says. “Rome has its pope and bishops, and we have these guys.” And they’ve helped him to make “Ohio.”
For the songwriters here, there’s more than a little loyalty.
The music business is full of disappointments, broken hearts and missed chances. “My life is filled with so many near misses,” one singer-songwriter shares. Here in Delaware, the songwriters find a little help from their friends.
“Writers challenge writers,” Short says. “I think the Rehoboth Beach Writers Guild songwriter’s round table has potential for bringing people together in that kind of way.”