By Eileen Alexander
Patrick Ross has been making music around the North Country ever since he received his first fiddle at age three and began playing at house parties. The 5th generation fiddler, born and brought up in the small town of Canaan, Vermont, left the known for the unknown at age 19, and moved to Nashville. He has performed along with musicians including Willie Nelson, Bela Fleck, Sheryl Crow, The Counting Crows, and lived for a time in Los Angeles and the suburbs of London. His experiences — at home and abroad — have helped him to mature as a musician, but they also opened his eyes to what is most important in his life — his connection to the northern landscape and her people, and a desire to live simply and close to the land.
Patrick and his fiancée, Cindy Lindstrand, share a small house on a dirt road in Groveton, NH with their dogs Roody and Stella. Cindy, an ornithologist, currently works for Gordon and Nancy Gray on the GrayMist Farm just down the road, caring for the dairy herd. In a pinch, Patrick can drop everything, lend a hand, then return to creating new music or teaching his students.
The couple’s home is filled with her paintings and his musical instruments. The dogs greet guests eagerly, but are well-behaved. For dinner, we have a home-grown pizza; the dough is purchased fresh in Colebrook, and topped with offerings from the garden. As we savor the food and conversation, we watch birds come to the feeder just outside the window.
This is Patrick’s base camp, the place where he returns to refresh, recharge and create after spending time on the road. His small studio, down a couple of steps just off the kitchen, is crammed with musical instruments, including his collection of violins. The Ethan Allen gun cabinet standing against one wall was his mom’s gift to his dad some 45 years ago. These days, microphones, not guns, crowd the shelves.
Patrick was 11 years old when his dad died of a massive heart attack. Arthur Ross had given Patrick his first fiddle at the tender age of three, and his first fiddle lesson at eight. The music passed down from father to son for five generations was to become his legacy, and his influence still resonates in Patrick’s music and life.
After his father’s death, Patrick’s mother stepped in and began taking him to fiddle events that he had once shared with his dad, and once she remarried, his stepfather took over that role. “My father went away,” Patrick says, “but the events, like festivals and house parties, didn’t.”
By the time he was 14, Patrick was giving fiddle lessons for $15 an hour, at the Stark Town Hall. His mother would drive him there once a week and read the newspaper while waiting in her little red pickup for the three hours it took. His first student was Gordon Gray, whose house he and Cindy now live in. With his first earnings he purchased a mountain bike and a fishing pole.
At 18, he took the money he’d saved and produced his first album, and the following year he moved to Nashville.“I kept my eyes and ears wide open and listened more than I talked,” he says. “I worked hard to get to know myself.”
Grammy winner and outstanding banjo player Bela Fleck, whom he met and recorded with at the Sound Emporium in Nashville, is one of his heroes. He once asked Bela, “If there is one thing I should practice, what would it be?” Practice playing softly, was the great musician’s reply. “To this day, I work on that,” Patrick says. “When you’re playing softly you’re not wasting energy. That’s where grace comes into it. You can articulate more flexibility if you don’t waste energy.”
Click "Play" to listen to an excerpt of a recording session at Nashville's Sound Emporium. "Burning In The Sun" written and sung by Lucas Reynolds (guitar) with Bela Fleck on banjo, Sam Bush on mandolin, Jason Oettel on bass, William Ellis on drums and Patrick Ross on fiddle.
He tries to keep this in mind, especially when he’s playing with a group, like the Vermont bluegrass band Hot Flannel. “It can get really exciting and cranked up. If I can remember at this point to let off, then I can listen better. I can be more of a producer and have producer mentality, rather than a performer’s mentality. It becomes less of ‘Hey, look at me,’ and more of observing everything around me. It produces a connectivity.”
Connectivity is important to Patrick. “As I mature, I find I want to be on the road when I want to be, rather than when I have to be. When the studio gets to be too much, I choose gigs by where they are rather than how much they pay. It’s about finding a lifestyle that keeps me whole, especially being here with Cindy.”
The couple enjoys living close to the land, and are, “establishing good habits,” says Patrick. That includes living without a television, growing and canning their own food, cooking healthy meals, having beehives, a bat house, a chicken coop. “I like getting up early after going to bed early. I do my best to be the steward of my own body.”
Having lost his father at a young age has profoundly influenced him. He admits to burning the candle at both ends as a younger man traveling the world, but now he says his goal is not to be “in balance,” but to “be.”
He’s put this philosophy into practice by playing with and recording the region’s old-time musicians. Rather than seek out projects that would take him to LA or some other far-off place, Patrick has chosen to focus on a generation of fiddlers who will soon be lost to very old age or death. Each of these fiddlers have their own distinctive style and the recordings capture this. “Acoustic music is becoming a dying art, especially in rural townships where there isn’t the infrastructure to support new musicians coming along,” says Patrick. “I want to spend the time and learn from these elders by listening. Being a musician has taught me how to listen. And with today’s technology – a laptop and the right mics – you can get professional quality recordings.”
Patrick’s stepfather, Jean Nil Theroux, learned to play the fiddle in logging camps, but had stopped playing for over 40 years before picking up his instrument again. In the album “In De Good Mood” Jean and Patrick demonstrate their versatility and virtuosity on almost two-dozen French-Canadian tunes, Patrick on the fiddle, mandolin, guitar, banjo, bass and spoons, and Jean on fiddle, accordion, harmonica and voice. “Jean was able to be part of a professional record,” says Patrick. “When he was my age 50 years ago, you just weren’t able to do that.”
Click "Play" to listen to an excerpt of a recording session from Jean's Kitchen. Huquavarna Waltz with Jean Nil Theroux on fiddle and Patrick Ross on bass, second fiddle, banjo and guitar.
Patrick’s proud of what he’s accomplished with his music, and prouder still that he doesn’t have $200,000 in college debt. Instead of attending college, he’s invested his money in his instruments and the time to learn them, and that gives him the flexibility to go on the road when he gets the call to do a gig.
“I focus on my craft and living a life with Cindy and the dogs,” he says, “and just being somebody. That’s what comes through the music, unlike those who try too hard. I’d rather be somebody, than try to be somebody.”