Mack Bailey & Rachel Levy’s new album a labor of love | AspenTimes.com

Mack Bailey & Rachel Levy’s new album a labor of love

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesRachel Levy and Mack Bailey, Wednesday afternoon on Aspen's Hyman Avenue Mall. The married musical partners released their debut CD as a duo, "White," last week. Bailey is among the musicians featured in this weekend's Tribute to John Denver concerts at the Wheeler Opera House.

ASPEN – “Friend for Life,” a song from Mack Bailey & Rachel Levy’s new album “White,” puts music up on a mighty high pedestal. Music – or more specifically in “Friend for Life,” songs – can provide comfort, spark warm memories, and tie people together. “When you’re down and out on a two-lane road/Your friend the song will be there to ease your load,” the two sing to the spare accompaniment of acoustic guitar.Bailey and Levy can’t claim credit for the song; it was written by Bill Danoff & Bryan Bowers. But the twosome stand as validation of the song’s theme, that music can be something beyond a pleasant, momentary distraction, that diving into music and playing it can be life-altering. Making music is at the core of their social circle. It has provided Bailey with some of the peak experiences of his life; it has steered Levy on a road to happiness. And it has been a key bond for the married couple.Bailey and Levy were part of Friday night’s Wheeler Opera House concert, Doin’ Their Own Thing, which had musicians associated with the late Aspen icon John Denver performing their own material. Bailey is featured Friday and Saturday in the Tribute to John Denver concerts, which have the same cast of players covering Denver’s songs. Last week saw the release of “White,” Bailey & Levy’s debut recording together, which includes original compositions, and several covers, including the Denver hit “Annie’s Song.”••••Levy was raised in Aspen; her mother, Denison, still lives in the house off Cemetery Lane where Rachel grew up. Levy was a four-sport jock as a kid, and was named all-state in soccer. Her artistic high point came when, as an 11-year-old, she played the title role in Aspen Community Theatre’s production of “Annie.” She liked music, but relegated it to a far-off place in her life.”Being in ‘Annie’ in Aspen when you’re 11 doesn’t propel you into that world,” Levy said of the notion of making music her livelihood. “It was always in the dream category. I always sang, was never shy about it. I just never took action about it to make it a career. But music was always in the back of my mind. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t accept 400 Grammy Awards in my head.”In the physical world, Levy accepted a Juris Doctorate from Portland, Oregon’s Lewis & Clark Law School, got married and moved to Maryland to practice law. None of it lasted; after six months of being a dissatisfied lawyer, Levy quit and became a housewife looking for a way to occupy her time. She bought a guitar.”I started taking lessons and thought, This is much more interesting to me,” she said. “In my head I figured I’d keep playing till … something.” Still, Levy didn’t know how to make that something happen. ••••Bailey put music in the forefront early on. Growing up in Troy, a small town in the dead center of North Carolina, Bailey started with piano lessons. The piano was lost on him. But the guitar, which his brother had similarly abandoned, looked intriguing. A big part of the attraction was the style of music that could be played on the acoustic six-string: folk songs by the Limeliters and the Kingston Trio. And above all, John Denver. “So I took his guitar and had all the John Denver songbooks laid out around me,” said Bailey, who graduated from the North Carolina School of the Arts with a degree in music performance and then joined the Hard Travelers, a folk group whose roots went back to the ’50s.Bailey said his interest in Denver’s music waned some in the ’80s. But clearly it didn’t take much to restoke that interest. In the mid-’80s, Bailey was the in-house entertainer at a New Hampshire hotel when his childhood idol came to perform. Bailey put together a packet of his songs and threw it in Denver’s limo, yelling that the materials should get to Barney Wyckoff – an Aspenite, and Denver’s road manager at the time. Several weeks later, Bailey received a polite but disappointing note: “There’s nothing we can use on here.”In 1997, Bailey finally had his John Denver moment, a seminal experience in his life. The Hard Travelers – which includes part-time Snowmass resident Kenn Roberts – were presenting their annual benefit concert for cystic fibrosis, in the band’s home base of Maryland. Denver was booked to headline, and asked Bailey to stand in for him at the sound check. Denver listened as Bailey sang “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” – written by Roaring Fork Valley musician John Sommers – and was impressed enough to suggest that the two of them trade verses on the song at that night’s performance.”That was as full circle as it comes – me singing with the guy who inspired me to learn guitar. I sang my butt off,” Bailey said. Three weeks later, Denver died when the plane he was flying crashed into California’s Monterey Bay. “I have no regrets, but I wish I could have seen, if he had survived, if we could have sung together again, and where that would have went.”A more enduring relationship was kicked off in 2004, in Woody Creek. Levy, divorced and spending a year back in Aspen, was bridesmaid at the wedding of her Aspen High friend, Anna Patterson, who was about to become Anna Thomson (and, eventually, the graphic designer for the “White” album). The entertainment was a burly, buoyant singer whose services had been auctioned off at the previous year’s John Denver tribute concerts. Over the course of seven months, Levy and Bailey became romantically involved.Levy was still playing around with the guitar, and one of the first topics of conversation between her and her husband-to-be was music. “She told me she played Annie,” Bailey said. “I remember asking her, ‘Did you get the bug?’ She brushed it off. But a week later she said, ‘You know that question you asked me? Well, yes.’ That told me she wanted to pursue it.”Levy’s entrance into the music business was on the business side. The Limeliters – the folk group that was founded in Aspen in the 1950s, and named after the Limelite Lodge, and which Bailey joined in 2003 – needed a manager. Levy, figuring she could read and write a contract, took the job. Soon she was also overseeing Bailey’s solo career, which eventually meant becoming part of the act. (They also got married, two years ago, near Reudi Reservoir.)”We started singing together, wrote a couple songs. Then it became a show. Then we made a CD,” Levy said, giving the condensed version of her path to becoming a musician. Levy, 34, and Bailey, 49, spend more than half their time on the road, performing in coffeehouses, churches and at house concerts. (Bailey remains a member of both the Limeliters and the Hard Travelers.)Perhaps as something of a payback to Bailey for giving her a start as a musician, Levy has helped bring her husband back to his musical essence. Bailey had made a series of solo albums, produced by Chris Nole (a former John Denver bandmate who is music director for this weekend’s concerts) that veered toward a country sound. “White” finds him in the folk mode, a more comfortable fit.”I loved the sound he gave me,” Bailey said of Nole. “But I was like a folk singer with a country sound, and it wasn’t meshing.” “White,” he added, is a closer representation of what he does in performance.Marrying Levy has also brought Bailey closer to where he wants to be geographically. The couple live in Denver, and say they’d love to find a way to settle closer to Aspen.”I feel like I was destined to be here,” Bailey said of Colorado. “All those ties. I finally feel I am where I should be. And that’s a good feeling. I definitely didn’t have that feeling on the Washington Beltway.”If Bailey was less than content during his Maryland years, he didn’t let it seep into his songs. Music, he says, should lift people up.”I love to feel positive and that’s what I focus on,” he said. “I don’t play heartbreak songs, drinking songs, cheating songs. Even if it is a tougher theme, I like to put a positive spin on it.”A fine example on “White” is “As the First Snows Fell in Colorado,” co-written by the late Buddy Renfro, a member of the Hard Travelers. The song is about John Denver and his death, but is emotionally upbeat, addressing the lasting impact a song can have on a listener: “He left us … music treasured for all time.””I would much rather have John here singing, and listening to him. But what’s happened in my life since his death is unbelievable – the musicians I’ve worked with, the places I’ve gone. So I want to pay all the due respect to John’s music that I can,” said Bailey, who is featured on the songs “Calypso,” “Eagles and Horses,” “The Garden Song” and “My Sweet Lady” at the tribute concerts.The main place Bailey had been led – thanks to picking up the guitar to play Denver’s songs, thanks to becoming associated with Aspen through his appearances at the Denver tribute concerts – is to a partnership with Levy. It’s a promising duo.”The best thing I’ve seen in our growth together is how many people come up to us and tell us how well our voices go together,” Levy said. “He’s got an amazing voice. I don’t have that voice yet; I have a sweet, pure, innocent. But our voices really go well together.stewart@aspentimes.com