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Roots Rock From Southern Jersey

By Gary Wien

Deep in the Southern part of New Jersey lies a band called Casual Gypsies. Their sound is like a natural extension of the Jersey Shore's roots rock and roll mixed with a bit of country flavor. But unlike true Gypsies, this band is just starting to move around a bit. So, keep your eyes open for them because they're somebody you're going to want to check out.

The core of Casual Gypsies is Buddy Ayars and Mark Wilkins. The two first got together about seven years ago while attending the University of Delaware. Back then they were just "drinking and playing Springsteen songs after class" said Ayars. Both are originally from South Jersey. Ayers is from Alloway and Wilkins grew up in Cherry Hill.

Their first CD, "Crazy Places We Take Ourselves", was released last October. The record contains songs, which move fluidly from rock and roll to country. Instruments on the CD include pedal steel guitars, dobros, banjos, organs, horns, and even an accordion. The various instrumentation and the style of guitar playing (Mark mostly uses a finger picking technique he picked up from his classical guitar background) aid in giving an alt-country rock and roll blend.

"If you listen to (John) Mellancamp or (Bruce) Springsteen, you hear a lot of country stuff in there," said Wilkins. "It's not the instrumentation on a lot of stuff, but the structure of the songwriting is there."

Ayars adds, "I think both of us kind of like that sound. It's funny because we both grew up in the 80s and we both had metal Cds and Garth Brooks Cds in our dorm room."

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Their record contains several special guests like Tommy Conwell, a legendary performer from Philadelphia, P.K. Lavengood from John Eddie's band, members of Marah, Johnny Neel, Patty Reese, and Nancy Falkow. The guests all came on board because they really liked the band's music. Although they don't try to make a big deal out of the guest performers, it's certainly something that attracts people to Roots Rock From Southern Jersey the record who haven't heard of the band before.

"The special guest thing came about for a couple of reasons," explained Wilkins. "First of all, we were always into those guys. When we listened to music those were the guys we listened to and they're still around. They just didn't get huge and then drop off the face of the Earth. They're still out there playing, touring, writing, whatever. And we'd see them at clubs and talk to them. These guys are great, but they're just real guys. It's not like it's Springsteen. You can go up to them. It was kind of a way for us to bring back some of the stuff that we listened to that's not around anymore. It's like, well it's not on records anymore so hell put it on ours!"

The band has been developing a following in the South Jersey/Philadelphia/Delaware areas, but they're looking to branch out. They'd like to play some shows at the Jersey Shore and eventually start playing New York City. But the pair of business majors recognizes that success in the music business is a long shot, so they're being realistic and taking things slowly.

"I'm all about playing live", explained Ayars. "I think ideally it's one of those things where if the money was there we could go out and do it. But it's a hard living. It's a labour of love. You want to go out there and stuff, but ultimately you do have to have a little scope and go, hey, I've got to pay for health insurance, want to have a mortgage – have something to come home to and stuff."

"We have this game plan," explained Wilkins. "We figure in five hours we can be in Boston, in five hours we can be in Richmond, and in five hours we can be in Pittsburgh. In that that radius we can cover a hell of a lot of people. And in five hours we can do an overnight and play and go home. In the next year, year and half, that's what we're looking for."

The band will be playing a couple of shows in July. On July 14th they'll be at the Whiskey Tango in Philadelphia and on the 17th they'll be opening up for Tommy Conwell and the Little Kings at the North East Water Festival in North East, Maryland. During the summer, they generally play a mix of clubs and outdoor shows. While they like the idea of playing to large festival crowds and introducing people to their music, their heart seems to lie in the club shows.

"There's nothing better than those hole-in-the-wall bars where you get the people packed!" said Ayars. "There's nothing better than when you get a bunch of people and they're all revved up. We've played shows where there are a few hundred people and we've played shows where there are just a few people. When you play and the people are just really having a great time, it just feeds the energy into you. I think some of the magic gets lost when you get into those big places. There's something about that intimacy when you get up close."

The key to success is different for every band. For Casual Gypsies, the key is building slowly but surely. Wilkins believes that if you build slowly it will last longer in the end. They'd much rather take longer than be an overnight success that fades away.

"We really believe in our songs," said Ayars. "We believe in the guys that are playing with us and there are people out there that realize they are good songs. We want to do it no matter where it goes because we enjoy doing it."

"And who knows when you do make it?" adds Wilkins. "I mean, five years ago, if you said we're going to have a CD and be in a bar in Asbury Park with a guy waving a digital recorder in our face – it would be like oh my God, this is it! But all these things are just steps. So, it's still on the uptake and that's a good thing. It does seem to be building. We're not doing Spinal Tap puppet shows yet!"

Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at gary@newjerseystage.com.

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originally published: 07/01/2004



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