By Ron Hayes
On the second Friday of most months, Barbara Mulvey takes her dobro across the water from her home in Briny Breezes to VFW Post 5335 in Boynton Beach to see if anybody else shows up.
You’re welcome to come, too, but don’t be too disappointed if nobody does.
“There might be a good group,” Mulvey will warn you, “and then it might be nothing. Health is a big problem, so some people can’t come sometimes. We’re certainly quite aged.”
Mulvey, a retired art teacher and farmer from the Adirondacks, is 82, and she’s not the oldest by far.
“One of the people who sings and plays cowboy songs is in his 90s,” Mulvey says. “He always wears a cowboy shirt and hat, but he’s not in the best of health.”
Sometimes as few as three show up, but never mind. They circle their chairs back away from the pool table and bar and play for a couple of hours anyway. Nobody quits pool to come listen, but nobody is paying to listen or gets paid to play, and besides, this makeshift band doesn’t even have an official name.
ABOVE: Ray Senecal plays guitar as Jimmy and Connie Abbott watch. The Abbotts started the sessions, and the group is informally called Jimmy & the Geriatrics. BELOW: Barbara Mulvey’s dobro has lyrics from If I Could Only Win Your Love, by the Louvin Brothers.
Mulvey started joining these monthly acoustic jams with her dobro after a friend in her tai chi class at the Boynton Beach Senior Center told her about them.
Friends tell friends, who tell friends. That’s how it’s been for nearly three years now, ever since Jimmy and Connie Abbott, VFW regulars, spotted a photo of Dale Kane, another member, and her big old Gibson guitar taped to the fridge in the post kitchen. The Abbotts had a country band called Southern Moon that played around town off and on.
“Do you play?” Jimmy asked Dale, who did, and pretty soon they heard about others and asked Bill Bourke, the post commander, if they could have a venue.
The first and third Fridays are trivia nights, so they got the second.
“It gives the vets a part of their youth back,” Jimmy Abbott says. When they show up, that is.
This second Friday, Jan. 12, is a very good night, even though Wes Smith, the 93-year-old cowboy singer, isn’t here. Somebody heard he moved to Fort Pierce. But nine others are. Five women and four men. Four guitars, an accordion, mandolin, ukulele, dobro, and Connie, who mostly sings.
“Waltz Across Texas,” Mulvey calls out. “In C. And I don’t know this one very well.”
Pages flutter in the binders full of cheat sheets — just the lyrics and chord changes, minus the fancy melody lines — and the January jam begins.
“When we dance together my world’s in disguise,
It’s a fairyland tale that’s come true,
When you look at me girl with those stars in your eyes
I could waltz across Texas with you.
Oh, waltz across Texas … waltz across Texas …”
They don’t waltz across Texas as smoothly as Ernest Tubb did back in 1965, but they make a joyful noise.
Tonight, Mulvey has brought along a neighbor in Briny Breezes named Andy Neureuther, 76, who taught electrical engineering at UC Berkeley for 40 years. Neureuther has recently switched from guitar to ukulele because, he explains, he can just leave the uke in Briny when he returns to Walnut Creek, Calif.
“I’ve been playing two weeks and I know two keys,” he reports. “But I can’t sing and play at the same time.”
Next, Ray Senecal tackles Kansas City. A retired firefighter from Schenectady, N.Y., Senecal favors a bright yellow guitar strap with black letters that read “Crime Scene, Do Not Cross.”
“I come a few times a year,” he says. “It’s fun. It’s spontaneous. I appreciate that they let me play.” He laughs. “Anybody who’s 60 years old here is a kid.”
Senecal is 78, and the closest this gang has to kids are Jimmy and Connie Abbott, both 64.
Joyce Michayluk, 80, a retired critical care nurse, takes a lead break on the accordion during Kansas City.
“I’m playing since I’m a kid,” she says. “I play bass guitar, too, but there’s nobody to play with until I go to Canada and play with my two brothers.”
They play Crazy, that Patsy Cline classic, and Take Me Home, Country Roads, John Denver, of course. If anyone starts strumming I Can’t Help Falling in Love, everyone sings along without checking the cheat sheets, and for a few minutes Elvis is back in the building.
They play the songs they heard first when they were first falling in love.
“I love ’em all, but I’m partial to the old stuff,” says Dale Kane, 68, a VFW member for 45 years, former president of the Ladies Auxiliary, and player of guitars, mandolins, banjos and bass. “But I don’t have anybody to play with now. My whole family plays, but they’re not here. I’ve got one brother in Jacksonville and the other one’s in Rhode Island. And my parents have passed, so I come here. It’s so nice. It’s so nice.”
Ida Sands, 71, is a retired special education teacher from Boynton Beach who adds a slight touch of the risqué to the evening’s entertainment, strumming her guitar and singing.
“Well, I got a brand new pair of roller skates,
You got a brand new key.
I think that we should get together
And try them out, you see.”
When the folk singer Melanie debuted that tune back in the early 1970s, some perceived a hidden, hornier relationship between those skates and the key.
“Yuh think!” Sands chirps, and knowing laughter fills the circle.
“I go to different jams,” she says, “but I think of this as the fun jam. We don’t take ourselves too seriously.”
They don’t even have a name.
Well, not an official name.
“We call it Jimmy & The Geriatrics,” the bartender, Tina Black, confesses.
Most of the regulars seem to find that unofficial name cheeky and funny and true, but Mulvey doesn’t like it at all.
“No, I don’t like it,” she says. “And it might make younger people feel they’re not welcome.”
She has a point.
“Anybody’s welcome,” says Bourke, the post commander. “You can come with bongo drums or anything, you’re welcome. You don’t have to be a member of the post.”
Tonight, the honor of oldest Geriatric goes to Lauren Bates of Boynton Beach, who is 88.
“I had a country-western band back in Leominster, Mass.,” he says. “We called ourselves The Country Neighbors. Because we were all neighbors. I played guitar and my wife played bass and sang in French and English. I lost her six years ago.”
When the mic stand comes his way, Bates strums and sings an old Merle Haggard tune called Swinging Doors.
“I’ve got swinging doors, a jukebox and a bar stool,
And my new home has a flashing neon sign.
Stop by and see me any time you want to,
’Cause I’m always here at home till closing time …”
“Sometimes I play at home now,” he says when the song is done. “I put on the CDs and play to them. It just keeps you going. I’m going to karaoke in Palm Springs after I get out of here.”
Ray Senecal does Bed of Roses and Barbara Mulvey croons Have You Ever Been Lonely? and then it’s pushing toward 8 o’clock and Lauren Bates is packing up his new guitar and slipping out a little early, heading to karaoke.
Finally, they do the one everybody knows and no one can resist.
“You are my sunshine,
My only sunshine …”
They strum fast, and they sing loud, and for a circle of geriatrics, they sound almost young.
This does not surprise Connie Abbott.
“You can lose your hair,” she says. “You can lose your figure. But you don’t lose your music.”
The next acoustic jam will be 6-8 p.m. Feb. 9 at VFW Post 5335, 500 NE 21st Ave., Boynton Beach. Everyone is welcome. Post membership is not required.