It’s a languid August evening in Cobden, a former stop on the old Illinois Central line about 10 miles south of Carbondale. At one time, the surrounding orchard country supplied cities to the north, including Springfield, with fresh produce by way of the railroad. Freight trains, belonging to Canadian National, still chug through the middle of town on their way to Chicago and New Orleans. Over the weekend, Cobden celebrated its sesquicentennial in conjunction with its annual Peach Festival. A cold snap this spring killed much of the crop, but the town imported some fruit and crowned this year’s peach queen nonetheless.
There is less fanfare on the dusky eve of the celebration, as Wil Maring and Robert Bowlin schlep their equipment across Front Street to the Yellowmoon Café. After uncrating their instruments and setting up the sound system and microphones, they perform a sound check. By the time the show commences, about a dozen people have congregated.
Over the next couple hours, the duet performs a hybrid of bluegrass, country, and folk music. Maring accompanies herself on guitar and bass fiddle; Bowlin backs her up on lead guitar and violin. Maring takes one request after another for her original songs. Most of the folks seem as familiar with her compositions as they are with nearby Route 51, the road to Carbondale. They know the titles, melodies, and lyrics. Midway through the set, Bowlin plays a few solo instrumentals, including a medley of Stephen Foster songs and a jazz number by the late Django Reinhardt, the famed Gypsy guitarist. Guest performers join them in a finale. Each song receives resounding applause from the small audience.
At the end of the night, Maring and her sideman both receive $24 in tips, or, as she calculates, two sacks of groceries each.
It could easily be said that these musicians are paying their dues, except for the fact that they are already journeymen in their craft, exceptional artists with decades of professional experience. Maring has performed on the Grand Ole Opry, played in Europe and Japan, and won accolades for her songwriting skills. She has produced three solo recordings of original material in the past decade. Bowlin has been a studio musician in Nashville, won national guitar-playing awards and worked as a fiddler in the late Bill Monroe’s bluegrass band. He has appeared onstage with everybody from B.B. King to Ricky Skaggs.
This Thursday, Aug. 9, they’ll be in Springfield, taping two half-hour shows to be aired later on PBS affiliate WSEC (Channel 14). On Friday night, they’re scheduled to play at the Underground City Tavern, in the Hilton Springfield. On Saturday, they’ll be playing in the Illinois State Old-Time Fiddle Contest, at the state fairgrounds. And on Sunday, they’ll be in Chicago, taking part in the Great Performers of Illinois Festival.
So it would be reasonable to ask why these superlative musicians prefer to hang out in Cobden, at the Yellowmoon.
The answer has something to do with the place Maring calls home. “I’m from here,” she says. “I love the area. I know every inch of it.”
Maring lives on the edge of town in a 19th-century farmhouse with an old ash tree in the front yard. Emma, her black-and-white border collie, barks at visitors. Buddy, her roan quarter horse, limps in the corral out back. He cut a hoof recently and is mending slowly. The 1992 Oldsmobile with the Tennessee plates belongs to Bowlin, a recent exile from Music City, who barely made it from Paducah late this afternoon.
Inside the house, the parlor is filled with musical instruments: A bass fiddle leans against one wall. A gourd-back mandolin sits on a shelf. There is a piano, covered by a quilt. On top of the quilt rest a vintage Martin flattop guitar, a fiddle, and a well-used five-string banjo.
Maring sits at the kitchen table, explaining her career decisions. She wears a sleeveless print blouse, green khaki shorts, and sandals. A wisp of her long brown hair is beginning to turn gray.
“I have gone to Nashville many times over the last two or three years, thinking that it might be good to meet people there, meet people in the industry, other writers,” Maring says. “They say that you’ll never make it if you don’t live there and co-write with famous people and work your way up the ladder, but I went there enough times to know that it’s not a place where I would want to live.”
Driving around the country-music capital, she realized that nothing she encountered evoked any recollection of the past. Nashville holds no memories for her, and memories are a key inspiration for her songwriting. Every little piece of Murphysboro, Carbondale, Makanda, and Cobden harbors meaning. “My history is here,” she says. “I drive down a country road and I see a spot that holds a memory, [a] creek I used to swim when I was in eighth grade.”
Eighth grade is also when a close friend started calling her Wil. The nickname stuck. Nowadays, few people other than her parents refer to her as Lillian. After she started playing guitar, as a youngster, she realized that it was easier to create her own songs then it was to learn other music. She honed her skills in the summertime, while tending the family’s vegetable stand along Route 51. “There were six kids, and we were all one year apart,” Maring says. Each sibling worked a shift. When her turn came, Maring would take her father’s cheap guitar out to the stand with her to occupy time. In her spare time she listened to John Denver and James Taylor albums and tried to figure out the chord progressions.
But Maring’s musical career might have wilted at the roadside if it hadn’t been for the influence of friends and family. Both of her parents, Ester and Joel Maring, were anthropologists at Southern Illinois University. Her father befriended another faculty member, Dale Whiteside. The two academics shared a special interest in ethnomusicology. Whiteside taught a class in American folk music. The Marings would often visit the Whitesides’ rustic homestead near Jonesboro, which was called Rivendell after the mythical place created by J.R.R. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings. “It was always fun to go there as a kid,” Maring says, “because it was like camping.”
In 1971 the Whitesides began hosting a biannual private music festival at Rivendell, inviting university students to the farm. The gathering ended up attracting folk musicians from far and wide, with attendees camping in the nearby Shawnee National Forest. Maring was inspired as she watched and listened to other children playing their instruments, including her friend Ann, one of the Whiteside kids, who managed to pluck the bass fiddle by standing on a box. “That’s where I think I got the bug to try and play,” Maring says. “I thought, ‘Man, if she can do it, I can do it.’”
Later, during her college years, Maring developed her rhythm-guitar playing by backing up her then-boyfriend at fiddle contests, which culminated each year in Springfield with a competition at the Illinois State Fair. After receiving her bachelor’s degree, she followed her parents into anthropology, earning a master’s degree in ethnomusicology from SIU. From 1984 to 1986, she lived in Japan, collecting folksongs for her thesis. While there, she taught English and played in two bluegrass bands.
During a 1988 European vacation Maring met Mark Stoffel, a German-born mandolinist. They returned together to Carbondale. Stoffel enrolled at SIU, and the couple formed Shady Mix, a bluegrass band, in 1989. In 1992 they married and moved back to Germany, re-forming the group with Munich musicians. For the next decade Shady Mix toured Germany, Italy, France, and the Czech Republic. Most of the touring involved traveling with a Wild West show in Germany called the Red Grizzly Saloon.
The mock Western town was set up inside convention centers as part of trade fairs and home-and-garden shows. Maring describes the entertainment as a combination of Buffalo Bill and vaudeville. “There were stuntmen. There were bank robberies four times a day,” she says. “We worked together in close conjunction with the actors. It’s so weird, now that I’m in a different phase of my life. I think, ‘Did I really do that?’ ”
Maring and Stoffel returned to southern Illinois in 2001 and bought a farmhouse outside Murphysboro. That place was the inspiration for one of her songs, “Keeper of the Farm,” which was a finalist this year in the prestigious songwriting contest associated with the annual Kerrville (Texas) Folk Festival.
Red and golden on a farmhouse wall,
The sun shone in and showed a place that I’ve known all along.
A place that needed me,
A place that I’d call home,
A place I knew where I belonged.
“I’ve always had an affinity for old houses and old farms,” Maring says. “When I was the tiniest kid, I would get excited if I saw an old farm. I don’t know why.” But this particular farmhouse charmed her more than usual. “When I walked in, it was like one of those eerie déjà vu things. I felt like I had already been there to the point where I knew where all the rooms were.”
They came a hundred years ago to rest beneath this tree.
They built a home just like the home they left across the sea.
Three generations and now it’s come to me.
I am the keeper of the farm.
Memory, a sense of place, and history are evident in all of Maring’s lyrics, as well as a strong visual element. If she appears to have the eye of a painter, it is because she is one. She studied art as an undergraduate and worked at the University Museum at SIU. Her watercolors and other graphic designs are displayed on the covers of her albums, as well as on others’.
“Landscapes are things that I build into the songs,” she says.
Weathered wood against a bright blue sky,
The whites just aren’t as white now as they were in Grandpa’s time.
But I have the power and I hope I still have the time.
I am the keeper of the farm.
Her songs are personal and introspective, but they also draw from the lives of others, merging their stories and hers with pictures of the land. The result is an authenticity that would be impossible for the music industry in Nashville to replicate. The music itself crisscrosses the boundaries of bluegrass, country, and folk to form a montage of American roots music.
The Calling, Maring’s latest CD, coincides with Maring’s recent divorce, and many of the songs on the album reflect the changes in the musician’s life and career. While living in Europe Maring wrote songs, but cultural and language differences there made it difficult for her to measure their quality. That changed in 1998, when she won a songwriting contest in North Carolina for her song “Bottomlands,” which she performed on the Grand Ole Opry in 2004. In the intervening years, Maring says, she has received plenty of positive feedback from Nashville professionals, but her music has gained more recognition and exposure lately on the Internet.
Maring’s MySpace page (myspace.com/wilmaring) has received more than 39,000 hits in less than a year. Four songs posted at the site have been listened to more than 42,000 times. More than 19,000 “friends” have linked to her site. Last Wednesday, 68 people had listened to her music by 8 a.m. — either the listeners rose awfully early, or Maring now has an international following. The page averages between 300 and 400 hits per day.
These numbers astound Maring. She attributes much of her online popularity to a 21-year-old fan, Jared Ingersol, of St. Charles, Mo., who has volunteered his time to manage the Web site. The online popularity seems to indicate that her homegrown music has the capacity for mass appeal. The buzz generated by MySpace hasn’t translated into any significant increase in CD sales, but the site has helped her find some new gigs, and her energetic webmaster is hoping that Maring’s presence on My Space and YouTube will help promote a California tour in November.
Although her home in southern Illinois is her muse, home life is not always conducive to songwriting. “I actually look forward to going on the road,” Maring says. “You don’t have the house to take care of and all the other things that distract you. You’re in a hotel room with your guitar.”
Maring performed regularly in the Springfield area in recent years, in the now-defunct Cabin Concerts series. Her longtime friend Ann Bova, formerly Whiteside, started the series, along with then-partner Joe Bohlen, in 2004 to promote acoustic music in central Illinois. The concerts were held at Bohlen’s spacious log cabin north of Pleasant Plains, and Maring became a favorite of the concertgoers. To Bova, the secret to Maring’s innate talent is the way she conveys real life in a sincere way: “The sweetness of her voice has a magical way of delivering a message straight to your heartstrings.”
Through the concert series Maring met U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, who, she says, has become one of her biggest fans.
A few months ago Maring attended a dinner party in Springfield at which she had a tête-à-tête with the senator about the influence of cyberspace on their careers.
“We sat around in the kitchen for a long time, talking about Internet promotion,” Maring says. “He was brainstorming, trying figure out a way that I could get my music out there, because he feels like it needs to be heard. He had just started a MySpace for his own political stuff, and I was telling him about [its] potential if you know how to manage it.”
When asked about her goals, Maring laughs. “My goal is to be able to pay my bills and fix up this house,” she says. Then she considers the question more seriously. She talks about setting her sights higher and winning a Grammy.
But in the end she reiterates her first priority: “This house is one of the oldest houses around. This part is a log cabin. It would be a shame to bulldoze it just because somebody didn’t want to spend money to keep it. . . . So that’s my goal.
“I’m the keeper of the farm.”
C.D. Stelzer of St. Louis is a regular