ATWOOD — It’s not every band that can turn death into a toe-tapping, sing-along number.
But the bluegrass-gospel sextet Mackville sees beyond the grave to the “beautiful shore,” where the reward of the faithful is celestial harmony in the key of joy. And yet heaven can wait when there are still great songs to be sung down here amid our veil of tears, and the Atwood-based band averages a gig or more a week, playing everything from bluegrass festivals to church basements and nursing homes.
“There are a lot of sad elements to our songs, about death and such,” says Larry Schlabach, 40, on fiddle. “But it’s the bright side of death,” adds his brother Gary, 41, on guitar, who says Christians tend to move through mortality with their ultimate destination in mind once the music of life stops.
And Larry Schlabach believes bluegrass has never been one to stray far from God, anyway. “Faith and gospel is a huge part of that genre of music,” he explains.
It’s not unusual for Mackville to see the
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echo of a tearful response shining in the eyes of their audiences, especially the older ones who perhaps sense time’s winged chariot hurrying near. Lori Schlabach, who shares vocal duties with her brothers and the rest of the band, just keeps her own eyes on the prize: “A lot of times I am so into the song myself I don’t even notice people crying,” says the 42-year-old. “Until after.”
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Making up the rest of the band is yet another brother, 37-year-old Terry Schlabach on upright bass, while Jeff Lee, 49, plays mandolin and Mike Waddell, 60, knows how to pick a mean banjo. Waddell’s wife, Pam, who handles Mackville’s sound chores, says some of the moist eyes are brought on by nostalgia, especially in the nursing homes, where those who sit and wait suddenly find fond memories kindled to life by a bluegrass tune they haven’t heard for half a century.
“At first the people are just there, and then all of a sudden the band starts playing a particular song and you will see people eventually put their hands together and they will smile,” recalls Pam Waddell. “They just come to life.”
Mackville, which takes its title from the name Atwood had before it was Atwood, came to life itself about four years ago. There’s a rich tradition of country, gospel and roots music in the area, and it didn’t take long to find fellow travelers with a passion for playing. “I’ve always loved music,” says Lee as Mike Waddell nods is head. “I love to listen to it, I love to play it, whether there’s an audience or no, it doesn’t matter.”
They’ve all got busy day jobs ranging from building garage doors in a factory to running soybean seed plant operations to maintenance supervision, but manage to squeeze it all in around a growing gig schedule that’s got them bookings stretching through October.
The band has been noticed by other bands that have invited them to their hometown bluegrass festivals, a form of flattery Mackville values above all others, and they’ve taken their gravely upbeat ballads about death and salvation as far as Burlington, Iowa.
Larry Schlabach says the more they play the more they get noticed, and who knows what the future holds? And should the band ever live to see the glory of the coming of a call from Nashville, it’s ready. “But I’m not waiting by the phone,” adds Schlabach, smiling.
His sister matches his grin. “But we do have our bags packed,” she says.