Alan Chartock | I, Publius: The Mammals and The Barn a good mix of musical history

GREAT BARRINGTON — We have watched the Mammals mature from a very early age.

They were favorites of the iconic Pete Seeger, whose grandson, Tao, played with the group from their inception. Tao is gone now, living elsewhere, and the Mammals are better than ever.

Their lead performer, Ruth Ungar Merenda, comes by her talent naturally. Both of her parents are superb musicians. Her dad is Jay Ungar, whose composition "Ashokan Farewell" is now enshrined in American folklore and beloved by millions thanks to Ken Burns' "The Civil War" miniseries on PBS.

One magical night many years ago, Pete Seeger and his wife, Toshi, Jay and his wife, Molly Mason, and the Mammals, who had a gig in Great Barrington, all stayed at our house. Somehow they all fit. Jay's mom, Becky, came along, too. The Mammals went to play at Club Helsinki, which was then located in Great Barrington and Pete, Toshi and the Chartocks sat around in our den and learned once again that Pete loved chocolate chip cookies.

When Joe Donahue announced after every break of the Roundtable Panel on WAMC that the Mammals would be playing at the Barn at the Egremont Village Inn, we decided we really had to go to see how the group was doing. We went and we were astounded at the metamorphosis of the Barn, which has had different incarnations over the years.

First of all, the Mammals were great. Ruthy is an incredible talent backed by her wonderful husband, Mike Merenda, and an all-star band. They were at their very best playing their entire new CD. Ruth is some performer and has come a long way since the innocent kid stood up with her father to play fiddle duos.

What we see now is a woman who makes superb contact with her audience and can play with the very best anywhere. Make no mistake about it — she is in charge of the band, but in the most sharing and egalitarian way.

One really unexpected benefit was that we were introduced at this sold-out performance to Sara Keene, now in her mid-80s. Sara is the matriarch of the newly reformed Egremont Village Inn. It was mostly her money that bought the inn, where she now resides and keeps an eye on her mid-40s dynamic children who actually run the place. If the music from the Barn is too loud, Sara will pick up the phone and let them know to tone it down out of respect for the neighbors

This is one hell of a lady. An opera singer herself, she was once married to one of the legends of the opera world, Christopher Keene, the late director of the New York City Opera, who died at a very young age. Sara is committed to opera in the way that I am in love with Pete Seeger and Earl Scruggs. She can tell you all about the great performances and the lousy ones. She has traveled the world and has visited all the major opera houses, either as a performer or as an observer.

What is great about the way the family operates is their ability to work with one another. In most cases such cooperation would last about 10 minutes after the deal was originally set.

The barn has a great fireplace. Tom, Eric, Jenny, Gigi and Nick are ever present, making it happen, answering phones, introducing the acts and making sure that everyone feels welcome. The Barn now joins the pantheon of great performance places including the Guthrie Center, the hub of what is left of great folk music.

Some of the great rehabilitation experts put the badly dilapidated Barn back together. Carpenter Joe Bozza did his magic and Will Conklin did the roof. Somehow it got done and we are all a lot better off.

Said matriarch Sara, "I don't like heavy metal. And it won't happen here."

Alan Chartock, a Great Barrington resident, is president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio and a professor emeritus of communications at SUNY-Albany. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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