There are many iconic Vineyard lifestyles available for the dreaming, but Kevin Keady is living what might be the most romantic of them all: he is a singer-songwriter (his band, the Cattle Drivers, has a cult following here) whose dayjob is a farmhand on Chappaquidick. Yes, really.
He fits the part — all aspects of it — very well: he emanates the pleasantly distracted air of a poet, but the callouses on his hand are as much from haying as from playing guitar. A fan of his described his gravely voice as “chock-full of coffee and cigarettes” (I have no idea if he indulges in either vice). He speaks well of everyone he mentions, from poet Allen Ginsberg (they used to hang out) to Will Coogan, owner of The Wharf Pub and Restaurant, where Mr. Keady’s band will be playing on Saturday night.
Born in Shirley, Mr. Keady is the middle son of five boys born in six years. He grew up an avid athlete and wanted to play pro ball, but, he laments, “my legs never grew long enough.” Although the only one of the brothers to go to prep school, he didn’t go to college. Instead, after a brief stint in Los Angeles, he settled in Northampton for nine years starting in 1982. During that time, he began to play music, and he and some friends got to know Allen Ginsburg. In 1986, he went to Cherry Valley to oversee Ginsburg’s nonprofit farm, The Committee on Poetry.
“That was a place where he would take the crazy New York scene, where they could just be chill,” Mr. Keady explains. He and a friend, after a few visits to the Cherry Valley, became live-in caretakers. “It [the caretaking gig] eventually ended and I went back to Northampton, at which time I started an open mic (with a focus on folk music). That was a pretty significant time, standing in front of the mic every Monday night for two years.”
He started coming to the Vineyard in summers, as part of what he calls the Northampton enclave, in the late 80s and early 90s. Almost immediately he found his current job on Chappy, which at first was only a summer gig; after a few years the work blossomed into nine months, with year-round housing.
His job is caretaking Pimpneymouse Farm on Chappaquiddick, owned by Edith Potter. “She’s an incredible woman,” says Mr. Keady. “Yankee Magazine said she was one of the eight people saving our coastlines. She’s just a remarkable person ... that’s one of the things that I feel is unique to my situation, that I’m really tied into the farm and the life here, so I can’t separate that from what I do. I don’t pay rent but I don’t take money; I can catch striped bass without ever leaving the property. I am so grateful for the level of privacy I have. I feel very blessed to have such a unique situation. If I wasn’t on the farm I probably would leave the Island.”
His work includes haying, maintaining trails, bringing in firewood, doing lawn work on a few different houses, and helping with the care of the horses. “The hay has to come in during the summer, during certain windows of time, so I have to be very careful about my musical commitments.”
Which brings us to the other aspect of his very Vineyard life: music.
Mr. Keady started as a singer/songwriter who performed “strictly original music, because I still don’t think I have a voice that could get by singing other people’s music. So I sang my own songs for years and years and years, and went through the Wintertide [Cafe venue in Vineyard Haven] while it was here. During the course of all this time I’ve accumulated songs.”
With continued, cheerful self-deprecation he adds, “I think I use the guitar as a rhythm instrument, really. I don’t think I’m a very good guitar player.” He frequently played music with violinist Becky Tinus.
About four years ago, he began the band The Cattle Drivers, with Becky and her husband, Mike, who is the strings teacher at the high school. Other original members were Don Groover and Buck Shank. “Now it’s me, Becky, Nate Davis on banjo, Ben (“Bones”) Barber on bass, and drummer Matt Rosenthal,” he says. They play a lot of Mr. Keady’s original work, as well as “a couple hundred tunes I’ve learned — America, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits.” And here he fluidly lists more than a dozen artists, ranging in style from rock to blues to folk.
“After the gig at The Wharf on Saturday, we’ll talk with Will [Coogan] and decide if it will become a regular gig. It’s really nice that Will is making an effort to make something happen, and it’s sweet that he does it for the people who like to go out and see each other. We appreciate that. He grew up here, he lives here, he understands it. Otherwise it’s tough down in Edgartown.”
He loves performing with The Cattle Drivers, “but it’s not original songwriting, which is what I feel like I should be doing more of.” He has released four compact discs since on Island, all available at Aboveground Records and the last two produced by Mike Benjamin, who has been (if you will excuse the term) instrumental in his most recent project: a musical rendition of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven.
For The Raven production, Mr. Keady wrote a chord progression which he turned over to Mr. Benjamin. “Mike took everything from there — electric guitars, drums, all of it. He’s a super-talented guy. We had actually hoped to include The Raven on the last CD we released, but it didn’t happen — just a lack of money and time. So when the bicentennial [of Edgar Allen Poe’s birthday] came up, it seemed like the time to do it.”
Why The Raven, and why this particular interpretation of it? “I’ve always been fascinated with poems, especially ballad and narrative poems that tell a terrific story and seem to rhyme effortlessly. My dad used to recite Casey at the Bat, Gunga Din, those kinds of things, so maybe it started there. About 10 or 12 years ago I just started reading and reciting The Raven, an then about four years ago I put a chord progression to it, and then this last year Mike applied his thing to it.”
The chord progression, he explains, is all about “the rhythm of the words and the way they tumble out, the voice inflections and such. It’s very basic for me, it seemed to be so obvious that I wonder how someone else would turn it into music — how could you do it any differently?
“I had the poem broken up into three parts, so the first part, it’s sort of like a Spielberg thing: it sets up tension but nothing happens. Then the second part is the trickiest part, because that’s when the mood swings happen, because he’s torn between amused and being oppressed. When he reaches a realization of why the raven is there, it’s like the room is going to fall in on him, and a rock and roll band can do that for you. Even the lines support it: ‘Then me thought the air grew denser’ — bring in the electric guitars!”
Mr. Keady sings Mr. Benjamin’s praises. “Mike’s awesome, he did this in such a short period of time, three or four days, and he really understood what I was trying to do, because he certainly nailed it,” he raves.
The Raven recording is available as a stand-alone CD, has been riotously well received whenever he’s performed it live; he does it as a call-and-response, surely unique in the history of Poe recitations.
Does Mr. Keady, with his apparently-idyllic life, ever get lonely out there on the isolated Chappy farm? “You can get lonely anywhere. This is a good place to be lonely, I guess. But I also enjoy my own company, and I have great neighbors. I do wish I had someone I could play music with more frequently, and I do think about going out to the city. But it’s always so wonderful to come back. It’s always so gratifying.”