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Group busy with opening slots and side projects

by Jordan Green

From the lobby of Greensboro’s War Memorial Auditorium the soaring female harmonies and delicate instrumentation emit from the concert hall ‘—’ a hushed wall of sound amidst the shuffling sounds of middle aged to elderly patrons trying to get situated in the semi dark.

The acoustic folk-country unit of Polecat Creek has the opening slot for Garrison Keillor’s ‘“Lake Wobegon Days’” monologue and song act ‘—’ an abbreviated version of his nationally broadcast show, ‘“A Prairie Home Companion.’” There are three of them this afternoon: the group’s core songwriting partnership of Greensboro’s Laurelyn Dossett and Asheville’s Kari Sickenberger, along with Asheville fiddle player Natalya Weinstein. It’s a Tuesday afternoon, just after 4 p.m., not when you typically expect to find a band playing music on a stage, but these are the requirements of this particular crowd.

The throngs of oldsters in the lobby, where sunlight streams through the broad plate glass windows facing toward High Point Road, have a certain look: middle-America liberal, shambling, somewhat broad in the waistline and disgruntled. They grumble coming out of the auditorium with the realization that their designated seats are in the mezzanine.

The hall is so busy that there’s even a scalper staking out the corridor to the ticket window, and true to form he wears the professorial look of grey hair, beard and glasses.

Polecat Creek finishes their set ‘— a handful of songs from their two albums, 2001’s Salt Sea Bound and 2004’s Leaving Eden, as well as an unrecorded song written by Sickenberger called ‘“I Need A Beer and an Explanation.’” Later, Keillor appears on the stage without introduction. All bushy eyebrows and thick brown hair flopping over his heavy glasses, he has the look of someone walking into his living room. He reaches center stage, bows and begins out of nowhere: ‘“Continuing our program of traditional American music’….’”

Then he sings a song before launching into a monologue that hinges on the irony of ‘“Fighting Quakers’” and says something about college mascots tending to be feral, wild animals.

‘“Keillor is more than eccentric,’” Guilford College spokesman Ty Buckner has said. According to Buckner’s report, the acclaimed radio host shows up for his performances moments before show time and does his gig with minimal interaction with his hosts.

The college booked Polecat Creek separately from Keillor, Buckner says.

‘“They’re appearing for a very nominal honorarium, probably to get some exposure for their roots country music, and I think the audience will be very receptive,’” he says.

In fact, Keillor is more approachable and spontaneous than the initial warnings might suggest. During his set the ‘“Prairie Home Companion’” host will invite Polecat Creek to join him for an a capella version of the gospel standard ‘“Farther Along.’”

‘“He just came out after we finished our set and asked if we’d do it,’” says Dossett later. ‘“Our hope was he’d hear us and notice it.’”

To warm up they sang some Carter Family songs together during the break before Keillor’s set.

‘“I think he enjoys harmonizing,’” Dossett says.

Keillor made small talk by asking about Polecat Creek’s CD. He asked if the band had heard of this or that traditional music artist from the Southeast and how someone he’d played with was doing. Dossett’s family got to come backstage during the break and meet Keillor.

‘“He’s very friendly but he’s not effusive,’” Dossett says. ‘“When my kids came in he stood up and walked over to them and shook their hands. He tuned into them in a way he didn’t with adults. I mean, all the adults wanted something from him ‘—’ us included.’”

Following the meeting Dossett and her fellow band members are nourishing the hope that they’ll get a chance at national radio exposure as guests on ‘“A Prairie Home Companion.’”

‘“He said, ‘We’ll talk,”” Dossett says.

Dossett has earned a bit of local notoriety on her own as the musical director of Brother Wolf, Triad Stage playwright and director Preston Lane’s Appalachian adaptation of the Old English classic ‘— which completed a three-week run in early April. Dossett’s contribution was so well received that she and Lane have already agreed to collaborate on a Christmas stage production called Beautiful Star.

For Brother Wolf Dossett compiled three primitive Baptist hymns, including the song ‘“My Warfare,’” and wrote some originals. Dossett had to start composing songs before Lane had finished the script in order to have the play ready for its March 12 premiere.

‘“I thought it would be really interesting to write songs within the constraints of a play,’” she says. ‘“[I would tell myself] ‘I need to have this kind of song and it needs to be right here.’ It was very collaborative.’”

During productions Dossett performed with the accompaniment of banjo player Riley Baugus, who also plays occasionally with Polecat Creek.

‘“For both Riley and I, we had to use a whole different skill set,’” Dossett says. ‘“We had to learn [to respond] in terms of cues. I think Riley and I were made characters. We kind of had a role as storytellers.’”

Dossett, who is 45, started performing professionally later than many musicians. Polecat Creek’s first CD was released in 2001, and that’s when she decided to make music her fulltime occupation.

‘“I’m basically a housewife,’” she says. ‘“I’m trained as a mental health counselor. The band got busy, and I was not making money doing that, so I decided to not make money playing music.

‘“It’s quite possible that I couldn’t do this if I’d started at a different age,’” she says. ‘“I don’t think I’d have as much to say.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com

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