Rock Hearts – September Artist Spotlight
Artist Spotlight – September 2023
For September Artist Spotlight, I will be sharing information about the band, Rock Hearts, from the New England area. Rock Hearts officially started back in 2018 but they have all been playing together since 2013. As the years grew in number, so did the band – Billy and Ricky joined in 2018 and Austin came aboard in 2020. Within the few years as a band, they have definitely made waves. To help get to know Rock Hearts, let’s dive in and learn more about the guys that make up the band.
Alex was born on August 30th in Concord, MA but has since claimed Charlestown, RI as his hometown with his wife and children for the last 17 years. Throughout his childhood, Alex moved around a lot due to his dad serving in the US Coast Guard (32 years). Alex received Associate Degrees in Safety Studies and Chemical Dependency, a BA degree in Psychology and a Master’s in Education. During the travels between bases, Alex enjoyed singing in church choirs but later started studying with a voice teacher. As singing with no instrument seemed a little weird, he began learning how to play the guitar. With his dad’s great guitar skills and love of bluegrass since 1958, Alex learned some guitar tips and began to gain knowledge and love about the guitar itself.
It is a common knowledge that kids are the creation of their parents, Alex definitely shines on this by acquiring two strong talents from his parents. Alex inherited the ability to play guitar from his dad and his mom gifted him with his singing voice while both shared their love of music with him. It wasn’t until Alex was 20 yrs old when he finally auditioned for a band in college. After feeling the electricity and energy in the room and the applause after the first song, the bass player (Bob Smiley) of the band leaned over, smiled and said, “Well, you’re in it now!”.
Dad was as a huge inspiration to Alex as a man that served his country and a musician. If his dad would have stayed in Boston, Alex feels that he could have been a better-known musician. In Alex’s early 30’s, he lost his Grampa Smith and would give anything to be able to learn and share with him again. Grampa Smith was a decorated WWII Airmen, accomplished man with only an 8th grade education, business owner and a loving husband for over 50 years. Grampa Smith built the church their family worshipped in and taught all to always give to others. It is because of his grampa that Alex always tries to better his generation based on the sacrifices of his parents and grandparents.
The most memorable moments for Alex are:
- Opening for Seldom Scene in late 1990
- First gig at Penuche’s Ale House in the fall of 1992 with the Iron Skillet Band
- Meeting Jimmy Martin(1), Doc Watson(2), Jim & Jessie(3), Dr. Ralph Stanley(4), and Sony & Bobby Osborne(5).
- Playing with the Sam Jackson Gang at the Station Inn in Nashville in 2005
- Recording twice with the Rock Hearts in Nashville at the Dark Shadow Studio
- Signing with The 615 Hideaway Record Label
- Recently being asked by Tony Trischka(6) to sit in on vocals and guitar for the EarlJam tour
- Currently recording a third project and working with Scott Vestal(7)
For all the new/upcoming artists, Alex would tell them to “have fun at each phase of the career. A lot of the younger players don’t know “who they are”…. And that’s okay. They are uber talented, curious and driven but have no concept of their horizons which is why I suspect many of the young hot bands don’t last long…and that too, is okay. Leave your ego at the door, find friends who you want to make music with and be yourself….not who you think people want you to be or who you think you should be because someone else is like that – BE YOU!”
February 28th is always a special day; it was the day that all the guys of Rock Hearts played together but it is also the day Joe was born. Joe grew up in Mendon, MA and where he first heard a banjo. With the sounds of a banjo coming from the house next door, he instantly fell in love and headed straight over to check it out. That person, a friend’s parent, later became his mentor.
Shortly after graduating from Plymouth Carver High School in Plymouth, MA, and turning 19 yrs. old, Joe started playing with Frank Wakefield(10). Frank was an amazing banjo teacher. As Frank is an inspiration to Joe, he is also has been inspired by Rod Roach(11), John Herald(12), and JD Crowe(13) throughout his music career. Along with the banjo inspirations, Joe learned how to sing great harmonies by the inspiring Joe Val(14). Rod Roach, a great banjo mentor to Joe, is someone Joe truly misses and would love to be able to share all the great things from over the last few years with him.
Joe described his most memorable moment as the time when he was younger and playing at festivals when all the greats were on the schedule and then finding himself hanging out on busses with JD Crowe(13) and Don Reno(15) plus many other times like that. With the strong memories of his younger days, Joe would tell all the new artists in music to “never give up”.
As a resident of Cumberland RI, Billy was born on October 11th in Webster, MA but grew up in Cambridge, ME. While he grew up doing all the things boys do, Billy also learned how to play the mandolin at the early age of five. Choosing the mandolin was all because of him liking the sound and a shortage of mandolin players. After graduating from Piscataquis Community High School in Guilford, ME, Billy joined the US Air Force and became a jet fighter crew chief. After serving our country, Billy started sharing his talents with us by joining the band Bluegrass Supply Company from Bangor, ME.
Although his father, Sam Tidwell(8), was away from his family often due to his musical career, he always encouraged Billy to pursue his music dreams. Sam loved bluegrass and country music more than anything. If there was one person that Billy could spend more time with, it would be his late grandfather. He would love to be able to sit and learn how to read and compose classical music from him. After moving away many years ago, playing at a sold-out concert in Dover-Foxcroft Maine (near the geographic center of the state) was a bit of a homecoming.
The advice Billy would give a new/upcoming artist would be, “Always be kind to fans and friends of the music. Every musician has something to offer. Inspire and respect.”
Ricky was born on September 21st and grew up in New York City. He graduated from Great Neck North High School in Great Neck, NY. Ricky futured his education with a degree from SUNY Oneonta College in Oneonta, NY and then receiving his graduate degree from Yeshiva University in New York City. At the young age of 11yrs old, he started playing guitar but then picked up the bass guitar less than five years later. Several years after playing guitar and dobro, there was an opportunity to play bass in a small jam session. From that point on, his life was changed and has been playing bass ever since.
Ricky has been surrounded by very supportive and inspirational people throughout the years. He felt tremendously fortunate when Jonathan Edwards(9) asked him to go out on tour with him. Jonathan, Ben F., and Stacy P. have always believed in him and encouraged him to pursue bluegrass bass. He gives so many thanks to them for all their support and opportunities. In 2018, Ricky found himself with another great moment, the opportunity to join the Rock Hearts. Having the reality of becoming an artist became even better when Rock Hearts songs started charting. Being able to introduce Jonathan, his close friend, to the band has been an absolute thrill and even better for all of them spending time together.
Touring with Jonathan and playing all the great New England venues, recording and touring with Rock Hearts and playing at all his favorite festivals have been some of the most memorable moments in Ricky’s life. He would offer this little bit of advice to all new artists, “I would suggest subscribing to life-long learning on your instrument. Take advantage of any opportunities to learn, especially in the beginning.”
The newest and youngest member of the Rock Hearts was born on February 23rd and is from Danbury, CT (approximately 50 miles northeast of NYC). Danbury, CT is known for making electronic equipment, machinery and furniture. Danbury is also the home of the Western Connecticut State University where Austin received his degree. During his high school years at Sheehan High School, Austin started singing in musicals, choirs, and acapella groups. In college, he found himself becoming a choir intern, singing in all school choruses, and that he loved being in an all-male acapella group. Austin considered himself an uninspired school orchestra violinist until he started attending fiddle camps. He found himself hooked to the early Mark O’Connor(16) camps. He became inspired to play the fiddle. Austin heard of the endless capabilities and was enamored by the pure JOY that he observed in the jamming culture of staying up late and playing fiddle tunes.
Well into the pandemic, Austin thought a lot about what his next steps in life would be. At the time, he was a school orchestra teacher, but he wanted to play more and teach bluegrass music rather than the traditional school symphony orchestra set up. Taking his own advice of “dreaming big! I want to play on all the big Bluegrass festival stages” that he always told his students, Austin hired a business coach and made the transition.
His business/life coach, Christian Howes(17), is also a jazz violinist and pedagogue. You can check out an interview between the two on Christian’s ‘Creative Strings Podcast’ on YouTube titled “Orchestra Classroom to Music Entrepreneur w/ Austin Scelzo”. Another inspirational person in Austin’s life is Pete Wernick(18). Pete encouraged and convinced Austin that he could “make a life in bluegrass music” and helped lead him through years of well timed “next steps”. Through all the years, twists and turns, Austin still finds Jesus as the most captivating and inspirational teacher of all. He has learned so much from Jesus and also finds himself challenged every day to grow in joy, patience, peace, love, kindness, faithfulness and self-control that he observes in those that follow him closely.
The Banjo player for Special Consensus, Greg Cahill, and Austin had been sharing a bunch through email about bringing bluegrass music into the public schools but also jammed a bunch at the Ashokan Center’s Bluegrass Week. While recording in Nashville, Special Consensus was playing at the Station Inn. During the show, Greg asked Austin to join them on stage. He was overjoyed and has kept that moment close to his heart.
Rapid fire questions –
What is your favorite Holiday?
Alex – tie between Easter and Thanksgiving – days are ALL about family, church, giving thanks, humbling ourselves, and togetherness.
Ricky – Thanksgiving because of getting extended time with family
Billy – Veterans Day because he gets to take part in the free breakfasts around town
Joe – Thanksgiving when all of the family is together
What is your favorite saying/quote?
Alex – “With You” is a phrase from rugby playing days that allows a player to know that their support players are coming behind them/supporting them. That phrase has since transcended into my personal life, always telling my friends, “With You”, meaning that I’m ALWAYS there for them, any time, any place, and for anything. It is also related to scripture ISAIAH 41:10(*).
Ricky – “I want to turn the clock back to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other”, Pete Seeger.
Billy – “All Right Then”
Joe – “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”
What is your dream destination?
Alex – Alaska or perhaps back to Guantanamo Bay Cuba where he spent three years…. His “Wonder Years” (1979-1982). Who else just said, “You can’t Handle the Truth!” ha ha!
Ricky – has many favorite places all around USA but would like to travel to Europe or Israel.
Billy – Greece
Joe – Barbados
What state has been your favorite to do a concert/event in?
Alex – Maine has been a tremendous success and have created a wonderful following (including several house concerts, festival and sold out theater shows).
Ricky – Maine! People love bluegrass up there and the venues are always full.
Billy – Don’t really have a favorite but do love performing in front of all the energetic audiences in Maine.
Joe –Jekyll Island, Georgia
What is your favorite type of car?
Alex – 2010 Toyota Extended Cab. If it wasn’t for towing things, he wouldn’t mind driving an Alfa Romeo (first ride around when he was 14 yrs old).
Ricky – 71 Corvette Stingray
Billy – One that doesn’t break down. 1967 Ford Galaxy two door fastback.
Joe – Aston Martin
Do you have a hobby outside of music?
Alex – Well, age and injury have retired him from the sport of rugby but he loves fishing with his daughter and doing photography.
Ricky – Cycling, hiking and martial arts
Billy – Movies, gardening, and spending time with his grandkids
Joe – Fly-fishing with his wife
What is your favorite kind of Ice Cream?
Alex – Black Raspberry with chocolate jimmies or Mango sorbet
Ricky – Salted Carmel Cluster – non-dairy
Billy – Maple Walnut
Joe – Black Raspberry
What is your favorite junk food?
Alex – Nacho chips and cheese
Ricky – pizza
Billy – homemade chocolate cookies
Joe – beef jerky
Do you have any pet(s)?
Alex – Ace (standard poodle) who is a brilliant and very rambunctious one yr old puppy. He misses their little Buddy (cockapoo). They have chicken, fish and even a rabbit around the property.
Ricky – no pets
Billy – no pets but sure sounds like they like watching Bebe and Bentley for their stepdaughter.
Joe – dog name Duppie
Who is your favorite Actor/Actress?
Alex – Tom Hanks and of course, banjo actors like Steve Martin and Ed Helms.
Ricky – Robert DeNiro and Clint Eastwood
Billy – Kelly Reilly from Yellowstone
Joe – Michelle Pfeiffer
What is your favorite movie line?
Alex – “I Feel the Need, the Need for Speed” from Top Gun
Billy – “It’s not a tumma” from Kindergarten Cop
Joe – “We’re gonna need a bigger boat” from Jaws
Wanderlust Album band picks
‘Let Me Be the Best Bible’ is an original song that Alex wrote inspired by a message from his Gamma Smith. As a Sunday School teacher, she was known to say “we are the only Bible some people may ever read” a lot. While ‘Let Me Be the Best Bible’ may be Alex’s favorite song, he also felt the recording session with Scott Vestal(7) went smooth as butter.
Ricky and Billy had a hard time choosing their favorites. They both agreed that ‘Driving Nails’ is a good one. Ricky also said he especially likes ‘Green Mt Girl’, ‘Driving Nails’ and ‘Today I Started Loving You Again’. Now Joe on the other hand says that his favorite song on the Wanderlust album is the title track ‘Wanderlust’.
Austin found himself challenged to keep up with the fast tempos but so glad that he has been pushed by the band. It has made him a better musician. His favorite song on the album is the classic Merle Haggard (19). Austin laid down triple fiddles and loved the heart wrenching nature of the song.
Be on the lookout for their new album, Wanderlust, that is to be released in the very near future by their label company, The 615 Hideaway Record Label. The album is packed with awesome writers: Alex MacLeod, Billy Thibodeau, Brink Brinkman and fellow New Englanders – Bob Amos, Rick Lang and Stan Keach.
By the sounds of it, the song titled ‘Wanderlust’ is the song to keep in mind! Along with being a great song, it has multi-award winning fiddlier, Michael Cleveland, knocking it up a notch. They might have put some big names on the instrumental and songwriter list, but they also brought one of the most beautiful voices to the album as well. Multi-award-winning Female Vocalist, Dale Ann Bradley, joins them as a guest on a gospel song titled, ‘Driving Nails’. Billy says Dale Ann definitely captures the feeling and sets a visual of the story.
The rumor also has it that they are already in the studio working on their 3rd project! Make sure to keep up to date with the Rock Hearts, their schedule and check out all the great items the Rock Hearts have to offer on their website https://rockheartsbluegrass.com/store
- Isaiah 41:10 – So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
- Jimmy Martin – American Singer, “King of Bluegrass” and member of Grand Ole Opry. IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) Hall of Honor.
- Doc Watson – American guitarist, songwriter and singer (bluegrass, folk, country, and gospel music). Won seven Grammy awards and won the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. IBMA Hall of Honor. Received the National Medal of Arts along with receiving the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
- Jim & Jessie – American Bluegrass Duo of brothers. Inductees of the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Walkway of Stars, Virginia Country Music Hall of Fame, IBMA Hall of Honor, and Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Hall of Fame. Received National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
- Dr. Ralph Stanley – American Bluegrass Artist (singer and banjo), received his Honorary Doctor of Music from Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, TN. His work and singing was featured on the well-known movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? which won him a 2002 Grammy Award. Member of the Grand Ole Opry and IBMA Hall of Honor. Has received the National Medal of Arts, National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
- Sonny & Bobby Osborne – known for the song, ‘Rocky Top’, named an official Tennessee state song in 1982. In 1973, the Osborne Brothers were the first bluegrass group to perform at the White House. Members of the Grand Ole Opry and IBMA Hall of Honor. Bobby served in the United States Marine Corps.
- Tony Trischka – American five-string banjo player. Toured and played with many well-known artists. Written numerous instructional books. 2007 IBMA Banjo Player of the Year. Awarded the United States Artists Friends Fellow in 2012
- Scott Vestal – American banjoist, songwriter and luthier. 1996 IBMA Banjo Player of the Year and 2017 won the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass.
- Sam Tidwell – US Air Force Veteran, chosen among 250 “Pioneers of Bluegrass” to be in an exhibit at the National Bluegrass Museum in Owensboro, KY. 2018 Class of Rhode Island Hall of Fame.
- Jonathan Edwards – Musician in Country Rock, Progressive Country and Folk Rock. Known for song, ‘Sunshine’ that climbed to the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
- Frank Wakefield – Bluegrass musician and singer. Known for his collaborations with the greats (Red Allen, Jimmy Martin, Ralph Stanley, Don Reno, Chubby Wise and more) and even opened for The Grateful Dead (rock band).
- Rod Roach – New England Five-String Banjo Champion
- John Herald – American Bluegrass and Folk songwriter. Solo and studio musician
- JD Crowe – American Banjo player, led Bluegrass group New South (1971-2021), received Bluegrass Star Award
- Joe Val – Bluegrass musician and singer from New England, known for his mandolin skills and tenor voice. 1995 IBMA Award of Merit. Joe Val Bluegrass Festival kept alive by the BBU (Boston Bluegrass Union) – won 2006 IBMA Event of the Year.
- Don Reno – American Bluegrass/Country musician.
- Mark O’Connor – 3-time Grammy Award winner, multi-instrumental award winner and has been inducted into The National Fiddler Hall of Fame.
- Christian Howes – American violinist, teacher and composer. Associate professor at Berklee College of Music.
- Pete Wernick – American musician, known as “Dr. Banjo”. First IBMA President (1986-2001).
- Merle Haggard – American country music singer, songwriter, guitarist and fiddler. Inductee of Country Music Hall of Fame (1994). Kennedy Center Honor and Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.