When death comes knockin
He ain’t offerin a price
He’s come to take the whole pie
He don’t want just a slice
He don’t care what cards you hold
Or how you might roll the dice
When death comes knockin
— from Tim Kapeluck’s CD By Time & Gravity
Although he has played with Woodstock’s Saturday Night Bluegrass Band nearly every Thursday night for decades, Tim Kapeluck hadn’t seriously tried to write songs since his twenties. With so many genius songwriters around, he thought, Why bother? Until he almost died.
Three years ago, Kapeluck was hit with a devastating autoimmune disorder that took a month to diagnose and left him, at first, with barely enough energy to walk across a room. Soon after, the songs started trickling out, one after another. A launch concert for his just-released CD, By Time & Gravity, will be held on Sunday, September 9, at 8 p.m., at Colony Woodstock, 22 Rock City Road. Kapeluck will be joined by members of the Saturday Night Bluegrass Band, lap steel guitar player Cindy Cashdollar, and other friends, all of whom perform on the CD.
Through the years, when Kapeluck was working as a builder of fine furniture, and later as a hospice nurse, the band’s weekly performances have been a constant in his life. Even when he was in the hospital, bandleader Brian Hollander would call him on Thursday nights from the stage and ask, “You ready?” Tears stir in Kapeluck’s eyes as he says, “It was a lifeline, a tunnel to some real world. I could hear them playing and singing. I could see there was that outside of this stupid bed and this other stuff. It was an important thing.”
Music has been significant in Kapeluck’s life since his childhood in McLean, Virginia. “My parents hated each other,” he says, “but they were both singers. Bing Crosby came through town and tried to recruit my mother to sing with him, but she was still in her teens, and she was terrified. My father’s family was Russian. In the Orthodox Church, everything is sung. You couldn’t get more than two Kapelucks in a room without singing.”
He was mystified, as a teenager, that his battling parents had come together, and he concluded music had been responsible. “Singing with someone can be a powerful experience, as intimate as you want it to be. It gets to every tiny little surface, every granular surface in the voice, until they’re two sides of a single thing, a crystal, an ecstatic enough experience, despite all the horrendous stuff. Late at night, I’d lie in bed and hear their voices curling around each other. They’d sing anything — Civil War songs, old pop songs. All the kids inherited the ability. If I hear someone singing, I know the harmonies — it’s a visceral thing.”
When Kapeluck was about three, his older brother couldn’t sleep unless his mother placed a radio by the bedroom door, tuned to the Wheeling, West Virginia “Barn Dance.” Kapeluck says, “The Carter Family, Ralph Stanley, and Hank Williams seeped into my head as I was falling asleep and morphed my brain tissues.”
A younger brother later became a classically trained violinist who played at inaugural balls. He also backed up Ella Fitzgerald and Johnny Mathis. As kids, Kapeluck and his brother would learn songs from the radio, such as the classic “Walk Away, Renee,” which they recorded on a reel-to-reel tape deck and then played backwards. “We learned to sing it backwards,” he says. “We played it on the street in Washington DC, in an incomprehensible language. It was beautiful.”
Kapeluck started going to a community college but dropped out to play music on the streets of DC. In 1968, he studied kundalini yoga at an ashram and began living with a woman who was a natural foods cook. They moved north to teach classes and open the first natural food restaurant in Woodstock, called Good Food, at 5 Rock City Road. Their sign advertised “hipi-american cuisine.” Customers sat cross-legged on meditation cushions, and orders were decorated with the Om symbol. “It never occurred to us a restaurant was to make money. We thought people would eat our food and see it all clearly now. They’d be transformed. We were like R. Crumb characters.”
The couple joined a group of friends to start Rainbow Farms on a plot of land in Woodland Valley, raising vegetables in huge gardens, keeping goats and chickens, making yogurt and goat cheese. “When I first walked through Phoenicia in the 1970s, I had hair down to the middle of my back and a long beard. People pulled down their shades. They hadn’t been exposed to the counterculture.” Later the commune opened a cheese shop on Main Street and made connections with the locals.
“I lived with no electricity or running water for almost 10 years,” Kapeluck says. “I miss it. There was a sense of this loosely connected, amorphous, amoeba-like group of people, doing things as a unit. There was an ecstatic element. We had no ideology, no guru. I was still doing my yoga stuff, some people were smoking and tripping. We had shared resources. We built houses, cut firewood. It seemed like the only viable alternative to the Nixon era. Now we’re back in the same place — maybe worse.”
Meanwhile, a vibrant music scene was growing in Woodstock, including John Hall, later of the band Orleans, and a guitar prodigy named Teddy Speleos, both of whom Kapeluck had known from the streets of Washington DC.
Kapeluck had been playing guitar since high school, and now he started on the fiddle, going off into the woods to play by himself as he learned. He met musicians like Nicole Wills, later of the Johnny Average Band and bassist Frank Campbell, later of Professor Louie and the Crowmatix. Hollander, who was part of Benedict Arnold’s Expanding Hat Band, was asked to put together a bluegrass group to play on a Saturday nights at the Café Espresso. Banjo virtuoso Bill Keith joined in, as did Cashdollar and Kapeluck. The Saturday Night Bluegrass Band was born. That was around 1979.
Kapeluck by then had a woodworking shop, where he designed and built furniture. At his house in Shokan, he points to a cabinet in the corner, a table, an elegant chair that won an award in the 90s. But woodworking was a strain on the hands, which he needed to play his music, and the proximity of whirring blades caused occasional damage to his fingers. Back when he was a yoga teacher, he’d enjoyed practicing various forms of massage, so Kapeluck decided to switch to a healing profession. He went to nursing school.
After working at a brain injury facility in Kingston and the oncology ward at Vassar Brothers Medical Center in Poughkeepsie, he discovered hospice nursing. He would go to people’s homes to make their last days more comfortable, a process he found “light-years better than people dying in hospital beds with things beeping and the family only there some of the time. It’s an interesting terrain to meet people on. All other bets are off. The social games go out the window.”
One of his patients, Paul, was a former bluegrass musician who was dying of lung cancer. Kapeluck would visit and flat-pick fiddle tunes on a guitar, while Paul played along on the harmonica until he ran out of breath. “Looking at his face, I remembered why we do this connecting thing. It was great to watch him slip into that space.” After Paul’s death, his wife presented Kapeluck with a broken-down 1949 Gibson guitar. Luthier Lyn Hardy put it back together. Having switched to fiddle and then mandolin, Kapeluck hadn’t played much guitar for years. “I’d never tried writing on the mandolin. I needed these big fat cushions of chords to generate ideas for me. This was the instrument that precipitated the songs. I was still working for hospice when I contracted the autoimmune disorder that decided it was going to kill me.”
After helping so many people through the transition of death, he was thrust into his patients’ role. For a month he shuttled back and forth to hospitals, with doctors trying to figure out why he was in pain and could hardly breathe, Kapeluck wondering if he were going to die. “You’re looking at eternity, and eternity is looking back, and it doesn’t blink. You’re insignificant. It’s just as likely to be me — that stuck in my head.”
Back home when he began to heal, Kapeluck says, “I was determined to extract something from the experience. This batch of songs is what I made out of it.”
From a hospital room in Manhattan, he would look down to the street at a tree blowing around in the wind, and think of the massive oak outside his house. “I’m always keyed into the sound of the wind up here,” he says. “For some people, it’s the pounding of waves, for me it’s the wind. I thought, maybe I won’t hear that again.” He wrote “Catskill Wind” as a mournful love song to the place he’s spent much of his life. “When Death Comes Knockin’” is the only song on the album explicitly about death, but all the compositions relate to loss and change. In “High Lonesome Hill,” a man sits and drinks every night, drowning his regrets over the relationship he ruined. “Behind the Shokan Dam” describes the grief of families over property seized for the building of the local reservoir. These 11 songs are heart-opening in a way that comes only from a songwriter who has dug deep and come up honest.
After two years of writing songs, Kapeluck decided he wanted to record them, and a friend suggested he contact Woodstock sound engineer Julie Last, who has worked with Rickie Lee Jones, Joni Mitchell, and Shawn Colvin. “He played me his songs, and I was knocked out,” says Last. “They were so full of heart and spirit. He is a masterful musician, and I loved the pureness and authenticity of his voice. With no hesitation, I agreed to take on the project. The record is just so good, I want everyone to hear it and celebrate.”
A release concert will be held for the CD By Time & Gravity at the Colony, 22 Rock City Road, Woodstock, on Sunday, September 9. Doors open at 7 p.m., opening act Brad Cole performs at 8 p.m., followed by Tim Kapeluck with Cindy Cashdollar, members of the Saturday Night Bluegrass Band, and other friends. Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 at the door, available through http://www.colonywoodstock.com.