David Massengill
at Rocky Mountain Folks Festival
in Lyons, Colorado
22 August 1999

"When I was a boy, we were Methodists. That was considered Bohemian in Tennessee." Thus singer/songwriter and storyteller David Massengill began to captivate his Sunday morning audience at the Rocky Mountain Folks Fest. I'd been curious about this show since my friend Andy, also owner of my favorite CD store, told me about him. Now, Andy has never steered me wrong with an artist recommendation. Not too long ago, we were discussing performers we liked who deserved more recognition than they received. One person he mentioned was David Massengill.

I'd heard a couple of his songs on the radio, but I wasn't as knowledgeable as I might have been. I didn't own any of his CDs, nor had I ever seen him perform. After Andy's recommendation, however, I made sure I caught his August 22 set at the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in Lyons, Colorado.

The set opened with Massengill standing behind a dulcimer telling a story about about how he first learned about heaven. He thought it all sounded pretty good until his dog died, and he was informed that dogs did not go to heaven. What good then, asked young David, was heaven? His parents realized that they'd made a "tactical error" and quickly changed their tune. There indeed is a separate dog heaven, they confirmed, but they didn't seem so sure whether or not humans could visit from people heaven.

A few years later, Massengill caught a Twilight Zone episode that dealt with the very same subject. According to the television episode, heaven is where dogs may be with their humans. Massengill therefore believed in the "gospel according to Rod Serling," and he reminded us that it's not just "coincidence that God spelled backwards is dog."

Without any further ado, he started playing dulcimer and sang "Jesus, the Fugitive Prince." "It was Christmas Eve at the asylum / The inmates were strapped in their beds / One claimed to be Jesus of Nazareth." The cynical song about madness, religion and music (the three kings are a jazz trio) continued in that vein, with Santa Claus rescuing Christ towards its end. (Massengill later confessed that he often starts his shows with that song because "I think it gives my audience fair warning.") I was impressed by his wit, intelligent lyrics, rich baritone and dulcimer playing.

The dulcimer itself became a subject later of both a song and a story. Massengill plays a mountain dulcimer created by Edsel Martin, a master whose dulcimers, famed for their extra long bodies and beautiful carvings, are displayed in the Smithsonian. He went on to a tell a long story about Martin and the Liars' Club, which led directly to his song in tribute of Martin, "The Whittlin' Boy."

His songs and stories generally are about himself, friends and/or family. A number of his newer compositions are from his father's stories. He spent two and a half years taking care of his dying father and realized that he needed to record his father's stories before they were lost. He cheated a bit and obtained more tales than his father and his father's friends were aware of initially. To help oversee his father's health, he'd set up a baby monitor in his dad's room. When his father's friends would visit, Massengill would listen in via the monitor and write down what stories he heard, resulting in songs such as "Frank Goodpasture Had a Pony." He calls the songs based on these stories "life cycle songs," commemorating the seemingly small moments in life, such as the time his father was kicked out of Latin class -- a time he and his friends could laugh about years later.

Andy was right about David Massengill. He deserves more stature in the folk music community. I hadn't expected to be entertained and charmed by such a consummate storyteller who can wrench emotions out of his audience with a single turn of phrase. I wasn't prepared for the bare sound of the dulcimer against Massengill's voice that helped bring home his songs' timeless themes. I definitely wasn't prepared for the end of his all-too-short forty-five minute set, and I look forward to hearing him perform again.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]