Local ties: Harmonica player Gary Green hits a familiar stage

Gary Green takes the harmonica to a new level when he joins Mayer Kirby Mayer for a special benefit show at the Paramount. Photo: Courtesy subject Gary Green takes the harmonica to a new level when he joins Mayer Kirby Mayer for a special benefit show at the Paramount. Photo: Courtesy subject

As audio engineer for Charlottesville’s Paramount Theater, it’s Gary Green’s job to make musicians sound great.

What many people don’t know is that Green is an accomplished musician in his own right. A virtuoso harmonica player, he won the Hohner-sponsored 1987 World Harmonica Championships, and by his own estimate has since played on recordings for more than 60 artists.

This month, Green will sling his harp—slang for harmonica—skills on an eight-city East Coast tour with the Mayer Kirby Mayer Acoustic Group, which makes a stop at the Paramount on September 16.

These four musicians—Green, Peter Mayer, Scott Kirby and Brendan Mayer—have known each other for years. Green and Kirby grew up together in New Hampshire and played in bands throughout high school and then met Peter Mayer through the East Coast music scene. Brendan Mayer (Peter’s son) has known Green and Kirby his entire life.

Five or six years ago—neither can remember quite when—the elder Mayer and Kirby organized a small tour during a break from their usual gigs—Peter Mayer has toured as lead guitarist for Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band for more than 20 years. When he’s not on the road with Buffett, he tours with his jazz- and gospel-inspired project, the Peter Mayer Group.

Kirby is a self-taught fingerpicking guitarist who weaves a laid-back, beach vibe into his classic Americana and country sound. He has seven solo albums and plays upward of 150 shows a year. Like Peter Mayer, Kirby is a fixture on the Key West/Margaritaville/Parrothead scene.

That first small tour was a success, so they organized one each subsequent year, and three years ago folded Brendan into the mix. He may be young, but he’s no stranger to the stage. He released his debut EP, Getaway Car, in October after spending most of that year as a featured artist with Jimmy Buffett’s This One’s For You tour.

The current tour is a celebration of song stripped down to three guitars, three voices and some light percussion. The group performs in the round, with each taking turns leading his own tunes and telling stories. Don’t expect a set full of Buffett covers. That’s not what this is about.

The trio invited Green to join the 2015 tour after the four of them played a spontaneous-but-by-all-accounts-explosive set of shows at the Smokin’ Tuna Saloon in Key West in April-—the chemistry was palpable.

Green’s melodic harmonica fills the role usually played by a keyboard, violin or lead guitar. He taught himself to play while hitchhiking as a teenager, and had the chance to study with harmonica masters such as Howard Levy and Peter Madcat Ruth. And then there’s that whole world champion thing. Most people think of Bob Dylan when they hear the instrument, but Green proves there is sonic force in a subtle harmonica melody.

“I work with songwriters, so I have to pay attention to what’s happening emotionally and lyrically in a song,” says Green. “I try to be sensitive to that in a way that also honors what the harmonica can do as a musical instrument.”

The Mayer Kirby Mayer tour marks a new phase in Green’s own music career. After he took the audio job at the Paramount, he all but gave up his instrument (he plays nothing else), gigging occasionally with local musicians such as Peyton Tochterman and Terri Allard.

On a trip to Herat, Afghanistan, in June 2012, Green was suddenly—and unexpectedly—tossed out of that rut. He had been invited to Herat by Tochterman, who had been tapped by the U.S. State Department to serve as a cultural ambassador and share traditional American music with Afghani musicians and audiences. “Some connection that needed to happen between my music, my mind, my mouth—it happened [there],” says Green. When he returned to the U.S., he began performing regularly again.

The Paramount show is unique among the tour’s eight stops. It’s a hometown show for Green, and it is also a benefit show for the Robin and Mani Aldridge legacy projects.

Robin Aldridge, the Albemarle County special education teacher, who, along with her teenage daughter, Mani, was murdered in her Rugby Avenue home in December 2014, was a longtime friend and fan of Green, Kirby and Peter Mayer. They all met in New Hampshire in the late 1970s, when Robin was waitressing at a bar where they often played music.

The group will donate their artists’ fees to the Robin Aldridge Memorial Playground at Hollymead Elementary School and Robin and Mani’s All Buddy Camp, which partners preschool students with disabilities with local high school “buddies” for a week of activities and field trips focused on arts, dance, drama and music.

The program, run by Charlottesville and Albemarle Parks and Recreation, honors Robin’s passion for special education as well as Mani’s love for the arts, especially music.

“Our main focus is to offer the community a night of great music, a set that Robin would not have missed,” says Green, noting that music—the thread that continues to hold him together with Kirby, the Mayers and the Aldridges—is what tied them all to each other in the first place.

— Erin O’Hare