From the Side to the Front of Contemporary Folk Music
Mark Schatz '78 has been a sideman in the contemporary and bluegrass scene for years; now, it's his turn in the front of the genre.
Some musical instruments tend to put a performer out front, and some are more typically in a band’s back line. Mark Schatz ’78 is fluent in both types of musical roles, making him an in-demand folk and bluegrass sideman who also has a burgeoning solo career.
Schatz, who is 66, says he always had musical inclinations, and it was getting his hands on a cello in fourth grade that started him on the string-instrument path. “I was not an obsessive practicer,” he says, “but I always loved the music and being part of the music, and I had some skills.” In high school, he switched to playing electric bass in a band while also discovering the mandolin and clawhammer banjo. At Haverford, he majored in music theory and composition, playing in the orchestra and in a variety of campus bands.
The string bass is Schatz’s primary instrument now, and he’s a sought-after sideman for musicians including Bela Fleck, Tony Rice, Nickel Creek, and other prominent names in the contemporary folk and bluegrass scene.
Two major upheavals in the last few years, though, led Schatz to focus more on frontman work: In 2019, his wife, choreographer Eileen Carson Schatz, died of cancer, and in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic brought his touring life to an abrupt stop. “Following Eileen’s passing, I thought I’d be well-served and have a more gratifying life if I could open up a little more, get out of the shell, engage in a more personal way,” he says. “It was a big motivation to do a solo show and engage with an audience one-on-one.”
Schatz put together a show that featured him primarily singing and playing banjo, along with guitar and bass, and performing some of the clogging that he’d done as musical director of his wife’s dance company, Footworks. “It was fun and challenging,” he says, but when the pandemic shut everything down, he shifted to a weekly show on Facebook Live called “Mark Schatz, Different Hats."
"Eileen got me started wearing hats as part of my onstage outfit, and they became a signature thing for me,” he says. “I used it as a theme for this sort of Sunday brunch show, with a different hat for every show.” But as it became apparent after a couple of months that the lockdown would be a long-term thing, the work of doing a new show every week became too much. He turned his attention to Grit & Polish, a duo with fiddler Bryan McDowell in which they both sing and add additional instruments (banjo, guitar, hambone, and jaw harp from Schatz; guitar, mandolin, and banjo from McDowell). “We’re equally in charge, but I’m out front due to my loquacious personality,” he says. They worked up songs and recorded them in Schatz’s basement, cutting 13 tracks for a 2021 album titled Grit & Polish; it brings together traditional folk and blues, plus a Bob Dylan tune, an Eastern European folk number, and other songs that feature the duo’s toe-tapping chemistry.
Schatz relocated to Berkeley, Calif., at the beginning of 2022 to pursue a relationship with graphic designer and musician Lisa Berman. Currently, Schatz is back on the road again playing bass with Fleck’s band, getting ready to do more Grit & Polish shows with McDowell, and prepping for a 2023 tour with country-folk singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks.
Schatz notes that some of the Quaker philosophy he absorbed at Haverford informed an a cappella song—“Another Day”—that he wrote toward the end of the pandemic: "I sang the song for Bela and his wife, Abby, during a rehearsal period in May, and he liked it so much that we ended up closing all of the My Bluegrass Heart tour shows in 2021 with a moving a cappella arrangement of it. The chorus is a very Quaker scene: ‘We’ll all go down to the meeting house/And raise our voices in prayer/We’ll join our hands in fellowship/And spirit, it will find us there.’ It’s about the pandemic, about my grief, and the hope and redemption that comes from being with others.”