When I ran into Mike Merenda and Ruthy Ungar at the Pines in February 2019, our conversation began with Ruthy complimenting me on my memoir piece, “Fast Girls,” recently published online.
This couple knew me as a writer and children’s performer. I had penned the bio for their Mike & Ruthy album Bright as You Can, raved about their NYC EP in the local press, and as Uncle Rock I’d performed at their Hoot festival at the Ashokan Center. When they decided in 2017 to rebrand their musical endeavors with a band name, I’d suggested Minivan Halen. They thanked me for the input, but opted to return to the moniker that had launched them in the early Aughts, The Mammals.
At the Pines, I asked what was next for The Mammals. Although excited about their upcoming album, Nonet, and the ensuing touring – dates throughout the Northeast, California, and Australia – they were dismayed by bass-player issues. The various players in their bassist stable were all booked.
“I’ll do it,” I said.
They laughed. I told them I was serious.
“Do you have a bass, and an amp?” Mike asked.
Indeed I did. What Mike and Ruthy didn’t know was that from age 15 to 25 I’d traveled far and wide as “the bass player.” I became a musician on the bass, and it is the instrument on which I am strongest.
Even as I’d successfully fronted mostly local gigs, I’d missed the less stressful sideman life. I’d been longing for an opportunity to occasionally help someone else carry the show.
Mike and Ruthy have labored hard for years to create a working-artist situation in which they make their music, tour to pay the bills, and raise a family. I’d been watching from the sidelines, deeply impressed. The notion that I might be part of this endeavor thrilled me. As a bonus, they often traveled with their very cool kids, Willy and Opal, whom I adored, and various stellar sidemen.
I emailed Mike the next day to assure him I hadn’t been inebriated when I’d thrown my hat in. He assigned me some songs, which I was to play at their house.
“Wow,” Mike said after we’d run through the tunes. “You really can play.”
Within a few weeks, I’d learned about 20 or so numbers from the ever-expanding Mammals repertoire, and was on a plane to play the Meadowgrass Festival with them in Colorado Springs. I bought a couple new pairs of Levis, had my Beatle boots resoled, and packed my favorite cowboy shirts. For me, it was like the Eighties all over again, but better.
Through 2019, we would gig all over the Northeast, hit the Midwest twice, play festivals, house concerts, clubs, and share stages with amazing artists. I particularly appreciated being entrusted to learn stuff on the fly, sometimes onstage. All the while, Nonet was being prepped for launch.
I not only loved the playing – some incendiary shows – but the traveling, riding shotgun, and talking deep into the wee hours about anything and everything, turning each other on to music, guzzling coffee, grabbing food, being treated to hospitality that included homemade breakfasts, barbecue, and even a post-gig outdoor hot tub on a snowy New Year’s Eve in the Adirondacks. All the while, I marveled at Mike, Ruthy, and aide de camp Ovi Horta constantly online, on the phone, keeping the enterprise chugging along.
The extended Merenda and Hardy/Ungar families were part of my Mammals experience (We occasionally played Jay Ungar’s “Ashokan Farewell,” which Ruthy introduced as “a Scottish lament written by a Jewish guy from the Bronx.” As someone for whom both family and music are integral to my life, this aspect really lit me up. I loved being welcomed into it.
As you know, dear reader, in March, all came to a screeching halt. To say this broke my heart is an understatement.
Mike and Ruthy and the extended Mammals family have taken it incredibly well, all things considered. Heartbroken like me, of course, but stubbornly hopeful. Frankly, to be an artist in the first place takes stubborn hope.
As Woody Guthrie acolytes (Mike frequently sports a “This Machine Kills Fascists” hoodie in homage to Woody, who emblazoned his guitar with the phrase), and peers to his granddaughters, Sarah Lee and Cathy, and even co-writers with him of “My New York City” (Woody lyrics entrusted to them by sister Nora Guthrie), they are living manifestations of his lyrics “Hoping Machine.”
As a sometime Mammal, I feel obliged to bring that hope to the fore, just as I helped bring their songs to so many – but not enough – stages, and just as I hope to again, someday.
“Whatever you do, wherever you go
Don’t lose your grip on life and that means
Don’t let any earthy calamity knock your dreamer and your hoping machine.”
— “Hoping Machine,” Woody Guthrie
Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.