The Kingston Trio will come to The Tin Pan for two intimate shows this Sunday, March 22. Our own John Reinhold talked to the current lineup about the enduring legacy of this pioneering folk group.
It’s been over 60 years since The Kingston Trio first came together and helped kick off the folk boom of the early 60s. Their early music mixed influences from the traditional music of The Weavers (featuring legendary folk troubadour Pete Seeger), the Caribbean calypso sound of Jamaican singer Harry Belafonte, and popular music from around the world. Their potent sound, featuring classic acoustic instruments, close three-part harmony, and enjoyable singalong choruses, took the world by storm and made them one of the most popular acts of late 50s/early 60s America. Between 1958 and 1963, during the period of their greatest success, the Kingston Trio released 17 albums, all of which hit the Billboard Top 20 and five of which made number 1.
A lot has happened with the trio since those days; different members have come and gone, starting in 1961 when a rift developed between Dave Guard and bandmates Bob Shane and Nick Reynolds; Guard ended up exiting the group at the end of 1961. After that, Bob Shane kept the group going through a variety of lineup changes until his retirement in 2004, then left the group in the hands of his longtime bandmate George Grove, who kept it going until 2017. At that time, Shane licensed the group name to Josh Reynolds, the son of original Kingston Trio member Nick Reynolds. Shane, the last surviving member of the original 50s and 60s Kingston Trio lineups, passed away earlier this year.
The lineup Josh Reynolds put together in 2017 featured Mike Marvin and Tim Gorelangton; along with Don Marovich, who joined in 2018, they constitute today’s incarnation of the Kingston Trio. While the group might seem like it’s a bit of a Ship Of Theseus situation today, in fact, all of the current members have strong connections to the Kingston Trio in its early lineups. Marvin was taken in by original Kingston Trio member Nick Reynolds as a teenager, and was a member of the group’s inner circle even in its earliest days. Gorelangton, a longtime folk and bluegrass musician, is one of the only musicians outside the original Kingston Trio to have recorded with Nick Reynolds. And Marovich, the group’s most recent addition, was a member in later years of another classic late 50s/early 60s folk ensemble, the Limeliters, alongside several previous Kingston Trio members.
It’s very important to the current lineup of the Kingston Trio to “keep the music playing,” as the title of their 60th anniversary tour in 2018 told the world. That music is of equal importance to RVA Magazine’s fearless leader, John Reinhold, who grew up listening to the Kingston Trio records his father loved so much. For that reason, John was very excited to speak with the Kingston Trio’s current lineup to find out how they feel about the influence the group has had through the years, and what they love about being part of it today.
The Kingston Trio is often cited one of the most influential bands in the US. How has the current band carried on the legacy of the original founding members?
Don Marovich: We endeavor to maintain the spirit and legacy of the original trios, both the Guard and Stewart versions, by visually and, as best we can, musically staying true to what audiences experienced in the early days. We just recorded a new album in LA and believe the songs selections and performance would have truly reflected what the original trio (particularly the Stewart incarnation) would have done had they stayed together for another album.
Mike Marvin: We decided to revisit the successful 1967 Kingston Trio show as performed by Nick Reynolds, Bob Shane, and John Stewart and recreate that show from the ground up. We reintroduced the iconic striped shirts, dark trousers, and black loafers. By doing this, we incorporated the “look” of the Dave Guard iteration of the group as well. Next, we restructured the show from the opening number, taking into account all the emotional highs and lows of the presentation, using the original songs made famous from 1958-1963.
From “MTA” to “Tom Dooley” to “Where Have all the Flowers Gone,” we have carefully incorporated all the hits and iconic songs everyone expects to hear.
Personally, the legacy revolves around the fact that Nick Reynolds was my cousin, took me in as a teenager, and taught me the ropes of being in the Kingston Trio. Tim was the only person outside the Trio that Nick Reynolds ever recorded with. Now, when we hear comments from the audience, we hear how the show has brought them back to a happier and more innocent time in their lives. Tribute bands just don’t evoke this type of historical connection.
Tim Gorelangton: We strive to remain true to the original intent of Dave Guard, Bob Shane, and Nick Reynolds, which was always — always! — to have fun! The conviviality of those guys is as much a part of their history as the music. They really enjoyed having a good time onstage and they were famous for sharing the fun with their audience. One of the best compliments we ever got from Bob Shane was when he said, “You guys got the vibe!” and commented that he saw we were having a lot of the same kind of fun that he remembered having playing the small clubs (like the Purple Onion and the hungry I) in San Francisco at the very beginning.
We also wear the famous striped shirts, continue to stand closely gathered together around a single microphone stand (all the better to hear and/or tease each other!), and — of course! — we play the same instruments, the Martin D-28 and O-18T guitars and the iconic Vega long-neck (“Pete Seeger”) banjo.
What makes the songs of the Kingston Trio timeless, and how can they speak to today’s younger generation?
DM: The song book the trio compiled over their years together is a remarkable cultural asset. The songs relate to everyday life and, what’s more, are completely accessible to anyone who wants to play them. The first #1 hit, “Tom Dooley,” had two chords and a simple, catchy melody. Stories that truly speak to the core of human experience are omni-generational.
MM: The songs are timeless because they’re what I like to call “living room music.” They are two to three chord songs anyone can play, and they’re totally accessible. That’s what makes them special. Nick Reynolds used to say, “Learn three chords and change the world.” The songs are universal truths that transcend generations, time and space. They are emotional, poignant, fun and informative. They’re storytelling songs.
TG: I agree, John, the songs really are timeless because by virtue of being story songs they can speak to us again and again with a contemporary voice that spans both history and our own times. I am heartened by the comments of younger concert-goers who mention that to us that they enjoy the storytelling quality of the songs in a way that is new to their experience, and that they like that a lot!
How much did storytelling, and sharing of other cultures, play a part in Kingston Trio’s music?
DM: The Hawaiian-Polynesian influence that flowed naturally from the Hawaiian-born members of the early trio struck a chord with US audiences. These rhythms are inextricably woven throughout the tapestry of modern music. We often hear from audience members that they loved the stories they heard in our show. The ballad, a story song by definition, has been with us through countless generations. It is part of our DNA. Before the written word, history and culture were shared and remembered through song, chant, and poetry. Rhyme, rhyme, and a story line resonate within our brains and stay with us.
MM: All the songs are storytelling songs. Between numbers during the concert, we tell deeper stories too. We often hear from fans they love the songs, but love the stories associated with the songs too. The whole thing is an experience in time travel for one evening of pure joy.
TG: Well, keep in mind that both Bob and Dave were born and raised in Hawaii and had a personal knowledge and affinity for Polynesian music. I think this carried over into their love for Calypso and other types of music. And they had a good command of what Pete Seeger called the “folk process;” the changing, arranging, and re-structuring of traditional material in a manner that allowed for the popularization of previously “ethnic” story songs, very much in the manner of the The Weavers, who we all consider the ultimate Folk Group. (Nick Reynolds used to say, “We used to do a lot of their material” and then Bob Shane would say, “We used to do ALL of their material!!”)
How did the Kingston Trio tours change the history of college and band tours overall?
DM: I am not sure there was any particular innovation in the touring methodologies of the early Trio except for refinements in efficiency to make what they did possible. They played about 200 shows a year while producing five #1 albums in a row. It was a “make hay while the sun shines” equation.
MM: The Kingston Trio were the very first act in entertainment to target college and universities as their audience. Their tours were almost totally targeting these venues and even though the naysayers said it would never work, not only did it, it did in spades. Afterwards, other groups copied the format and started doing college concert tours.
TG: For all practical purposes, the Trio’s legendary manager Frank Werber essentially invented the college concert tour, blazing a trail for so many others to follow!
Many people will know “Tom Dooley,” and perhaps “MTA.” What are the current members’ favorite songs to play? And what connections do you have to those songs?
DM: My personal favorite, I can remember my father playing loud, was “Greenback Dollar” and “Sloop John B.” My personal favorite [song to play] is “Chilly Winds.” I love the harmonies and the plain beauty of the song.
MM: My personal favorite song is “Where Have all the Flowers Gone” by Pete Seeger. That and “Hobo’s Lullabye,” which wasn’t a huge hit. I also like “Tijuana Jail,” “Ah Woe Ah Me” (about a kid whose father won’t allow him to marry the island girls because they’re all his sisters), and currently, “Armstrong” by John Stewart, a song we’ve recently added to our set about the moon landing in ‘69.
TG: I love singing them all! I particularly enjoy “Sloop John B.” and “Reverend Mr. Black” (probably because I get to sing the low parts!), and the lesser-known but wonderfully rousing final song, “I’m Going Home!” which I think ends the evening on a perfect note.
It’s been said that Kingston Trio put guitars into the hands of a whole generation. What made the music itself approachable to play?
DM: Most KT tunes were arranged with elegant simplicity. I’ve heard Nick Reynolds once said, “Learn three chords; change the world.” It was almost all accessible music anyone could easily learn to play.
MM: When the Trio hit, they were so successful that Martin Guitar found themselves backordered almost three years. They had to build a new wing of the factory to accommodate the demand for new guitars. Not only that, the Trio at one point accounted for over 22 percent of all Capitol Record sales from 1959-1962.
TG: Folk instruments are simple and basic, relatively easy to get started on and encouraging to master; by demonstrating the basic simplicity and therefore the accessibility of folk music, the Trio encouraged many (many!!) young people to discover the joy of making music for themselves.
Kingston Trio helped lift Folk music to new highs, and paved the way for other acts perhaps more of the activist side of folk history. How did the Kingston Trio put the seeds of folk into many of these other famous singers?
DM: When the Trio did their first album, Capitol Records only printed 1,000 copies. I believe they had no confidence in what they heard, and did not expect much success. The album soared, with a bullet, to #1. At that moment, every label in America scrambled to get a piece of the folk pie, and signed the best folk acts they could find as fast as possible.
MM: The success of the Trio made it possible for artists like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Judy Collins and many others to thrive in the music biz. Crosby Stills and Nash can trace their roots back, and so can many of the groups that happened after 1960. It is a well-known fact that the Beach Boys copied the Kingston Trio’s striped-shirt stage costumes!
TG: Similarly, the attractive fun of the music inspired many creative people to not just sing along and play along but to try telling their own new stories through music, ushering in the era of the singer-songwriter that is still such an important component of American popular music.
Why do you think the live performances of the Kingston Trio continue to be so popular after all these years?
DM: Our live audiences consist largely of seniors, and their children and grandchildren, who grew up with those songs as the soundtrack of their young and happy lives. That powerful kind of life-experience association stays with people, and they come to hear and see a snapshot of wonderful days gone by. We like to joke about the live show as an age-regression therapy experiment. Mom wanted me to go into the healing arts and this show is most therapeutic!
MM: My feeling is that we’re approachable and not stand-offish. I think we welcome people “into our living room,” and it goes from there. One critic once said it was as if the party started backstage and then spilled out onto the main stage for all to participate in. I like that one.
TG: A Kingston Trio concert is a moveable feast, a party in progress across the American landscape. People come to our concerts not just to see a show but to have a really good time. We love that! We have a lot of fun singing these songs and telling our stories, and we always try to share that fun with our audience by encouraging them to sing along!
The Kingston Trio will perform two shows at The Tin Pan on Sunday, March 22, one at 2 PM and one at 7 PM. Tickets start at $50, and can be purchased at The Tin Pan’s website. Of course, in this time of coronavirus, any public event is subject to change, so keep an eye on The Tin Pan’s social media feeds for updates.
Interview by John Reinhold. Intro by Marilyn Drew Necci. Photos courtesy The Kingston Trio.