Tom MacKenzie
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Tom MacKenzie


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"Back In Paradise CD review."

Back in Paradise, Tom MacKenzie (Lightning Ridge Music LR110)

Tom is a low profile, high quality Vermont treasure. Though not unique to this state, we certainly seem to have a higher concentration these folks here than in other places in the country. Tom’s done more, longer, with higher standards and more dignity, more resourcefully than just about anyone I can think of. He’s known far and wide as a gifted banjo and hammered dulcimer player (he plays guitar, keyboards and uke on this recording as well), and more recently has been getting noticed for singing his own songs. Except for a great 4-part tune aptly titled ‘Balkan Ride’, singing his own songs is what this CD is all about. There are songs about the combination of the wonder, love and affection he has for where he lives and people he’s known, keeping a wise and cautious eye on what’s gone before and what’s around us today, making choices, places he’s been and things he’s seen, and more. I’ve listened to this CD multiple times and discovered something new with every listen. The entire project was recorded and mixed at Tom’s home studio in Adamant, and has that radiance that comes only when the artist is in full control and command of the tools of his trade. A bunch of those other low profile, high quality Vermont treasures lend a hand, including Lee Blackwell, Jon Gailmor, Lyn Hardy, Coco Kallis, Will Lindner, Colin McCaffrey, Gordon Stone and Howard Wooden.
- Mark Sustic

"Newspaper review"

Tom Mackenzie Adamant musician quietly shares his musical traditions

July 22, 2005

By Art Edelstein Arts Correspondent

Back in Paradise
"Back in Paradise," traditional music by Tom MacKenzie. Available at local music stores, or go online to:

The varied sounds and lyrics on "Back in Paradise" belie the fact that Tom MacKenzie's claim to fame as a musician is primarily based on his years as a well-known contra-dance performer.

MacKenzie, who lives in the village of Adamant in Calais, is a popular local instrumentalist who has carved his musical niche performing near and far (in 20 countries at latest count) primarily on hammered dulcimer and old-time banjo for dancers. For those familiar with this musician's previous three albums there may be no large surprises on "Back in Paradise," but for the majority of us this album will come as a reminder that good music need not be slick or electric.

"Back in Paradise" is both pleasant and competent, charming in its softness and a very good vehicle to show off MacKenzie's considerable musical chops on banjo and hammered dulcimer as well as song-writing and singing.

MacKenzie's instrumental skills lie primarily in the frailed banjo, a much less frenetic instrument than Bluegrass-style "Scruggs" playing. Frailing is more melodic and less percussive. MacKenzie's use of a long-necked banjo allows him to perform in keys not usually associated with banjo (usually D, G and A). A lot of his tunes are in the key of E, sometimes referred to as "the people's key."

He is also a fine hammered dulcimer player. Playing this instrument, fairly unknown here before the 1970s, is, in MacKenzie's words, "like picking someone up, putting them inside a piano, and giving them sticks to hit the strings with."

Historically hammered dulcimers are a few generations removed from the harp, which he said, "morphed into the clavichord, harpsichord, and then piano." He calls it "a manual piano."

The range of songs and sounds on the album allows MacKenzie's brand of folk music to convey locality and story in a personal way. Nothing can bother this singer on the opening tune, "Adamant Day":

I could give a whit if it rains or if it pours,

I don't care one bit for that tempest on the shore,

Let storm clouds gather where they will,

I'll see them on their way,

Nothin's gonna bring me down.

Gonna have an Adamant day.

A few songs later, in "Ghost of Pekin Brook," MacKenzie has penned a story for Vermont supernatural author Joe Citro to look into. MacKenzie writes:

They say the Ghost of Pekin Brook is on the rise once more,

A soul is searching for some peace lost and far from shore,

Falling, falling, fading away.

"Songwriting is a strange process," says MacKenzie. "You never know which way a song is going to go. Songs rarely go the way you think they will ahead of time."

MacKenzie said he made up the song, adding, "But we all heard stories of jilted lovers buried in swamps. And, there have been some unsolved murders in Adamant, so who knows.

"I don't know how to classify this album it's based in traditional music and Scottish music but, it's all stuff I've written, and my take on that music," said the musician.

The album's primary instrument is MacKenzie's banjo. "The frailing banjo-led album is a very small niche," he quipped. "The hammer dulcimer (the primary melody instrument on the CD) is the crowd-pleaser but I've played the banjo longer. It's more difficult to sing and play the dulcimer."

According to MacKenzie, "the album didn't start out as a banjo album but the ideas of the songs came together and seemed to match banjo more than anything else.

"It's always been a pet peeve with me that in old-time music banjo is a rhythm instrument and nothing more, and all the glory goes to the fiddles. Banjos can carry the melodic load just as well," explains MacKenzie.

This reviewer's favorite track on this fine CD however, has no banjo part. "Moments," featuring MacKenzie's sole foray into the electric keyboard, is a musical mantra to the beginning of the day.

"It was a song I started 10 years ago and never knew what it was supposed to be – but it popped out in that form one morning," he said.

"Layers," is another favorite of mine. This anti-war lament, in a minor key, juxtaposing banjo and pedal steel guitar played by Gordon Stone, has the feel of the oft-sung "When Johnny Comes Marchin' Home Again." This chilling combination of instruments is a rarity but an excellent choice considering the song's anti-war message.

MacKenzie writes:

Hope you don't mind if I stay for a while

And share this hole in the ground

It's lonely out there with death everywhere

Laying claim to the souls gathered round.

MacKenzie gathered some fine local musicians for this project including: Stone, Lyn Hardy and Coco Kallis on backup vocals, along with instrumentalists Will Lindner, Colin McCaffrey, Lee Blackwell, Howard Wooden and Jon Gailmor.

MacKenzie, in keeping with the low-key approach to his music, recorded the album at his home recording studio over a period of months. He used a Macintosh iBook computer, and Pro Tools LE ("a workingman's version of what the big studios use") to get the music into the digital format.

According to MacKenzie, this technology means that anybody can make a recording.

"It was a project where I had all these songs that needed to be put out," he explained. "I had no plan. I just figured I better get them in the can before I forgot them. With this system it's just so easy to record and remember later."

"Back in Paradise" was released in February but MacKenzie said he has been occupied with family matters and has had little time to promote the CD beyond placing it in local stores and at his Web page.

"It hasn't gone 'wood' yet," he laughed. (Album sales are gauged by how many they sell with Platinum being a million.) "Wood is maybe 10 sales."

Will "Back in Paradise" ever reach Platinum? Probably not, but hopefully it will go way beyond "wood." It's certainly worth listening to an album so well-performed, honest, sincere and locally grown.

- Times Argus


"Back in Paradise"
"Wake Me When Its Over"
"Second Course"
"Take Two"
"Round the Bend"
"Vermont Sampler"



Tom has been a musician for over 30 years now, travelling most of the United States and more than 20 countries. Well known for his Hammered Dulcimer and Banjo playing, Tom is also a fine writer of songs and budding Ukulele picker. His emphasis is on Appalachian, French Canadian and Gaelic tunes and songs, with a few stories thrown in the mix. At present, Tom is touring full time with the Woods Tea Company but still finds time to perform as a solo at concerts , dances, weddings, schools, workshops and any place where music is needed.