On September 18, 2023, Kerry Earl Blech passed into the next realm, following a long struggle with Parkinson’s Disease. He spent his final days at the E.T. York Hospice Care Center at Haven Hospice, in Gainesville, Florida, the city that had been his home since 2005.
Kerry Blech was born September 24, 1947 in East Cleveland, Ohio. He grew up in nearby Parma, where he attended Catholic high school. After spending one year at college in Detroit (where, in his own words, he “mainly majored in basketball”), he returned to Ohio to major in art at Kent State University.
Though he had met some people in Detroit involved in traditional music and field collecting, Kerry’s interest in folk music began in earnest soon after he came to Kent. One of his art professors, Doug Unger, who was also a banjo player and instrument builder, introduced Kerry to the local folk music community and to the then one-year-old Kent State Folk Festival. Kerry began visiting local coffee houses and honing his skills on various instruments.
Kerry and Doug later formed the Standing Rock Stringband. Kerry played mandolin and fiddle in the band, which also included Doug’s wife, Lois, on guitar, fiddlers John Hilston and Mary DuShane, and banjoist Mary Siders. It was at this time that Kerry first took an interest in doing field research and collecting recordings of a similar nature done by others. He and Doug visited Tommy Jarrell in North Carolina, and for many years, Kerry would informally record and document the music of traditional fiddlers at the West Virginia Folk Festival.
In the early 1970s, Kerry co-managed the non-profit Kent Community Store, where his responsibility was to stock folk and traditional music records. He also began hosting a traditional music show on the KSU public radio affiliate station. Through his predilection for playing and thus exposing listeners to real old time music, and by making sure that his store was stocked with essential releases from the labels that issued old time music, Kerry guided people who were just discovering this music. He was always available to share what he knew, whether by pointing out the best records, sharing a tune he had just learned, or copying resources from his growing and carefully-annotated collection of recordings.
For more than a decade, Kerry was on the advisory committees of most of the annual KSU Folk Festivals. He was a respected and guiding influence toward booking diverse programs and quality performers. In large part through Kerry’s guidance, the annual festival featured authentic traditional artists along with younger interpreters of the older styles.
In the mid-‘70s, Kerry played fiddle and mandolin with the Radio Aces, a string band that also included Gary Hawk, Tim Goodall, and Joe LaRose. The band played songs and tunes learned from 78 rpm records by performers such as the Skillet Lickers and Charlie Poole, as well as from recent recordings by young bands such as the Highwoods Stringband. In the early ’80s, Kerry joined with Lynn Frederick, Beth Braden, Larry Miller, and Joe LaRose to form the Rhythm Gorillas, a band whose repertoire was shaped by Kerry’s deepening interest in obscure old-time music 78s and the beautiful playing styles found therein.
In 1983, Kerry moved to Seattle, to be with his then-girlfriend, Sheila Klauschie. They were married in 1985, at a ceremony where they were surrounded by their many friends, including traditional music notables Clyde Davenport and Alice Gerrard. Kerry and Sheila raised two children: Mirabelle (born in 1993) and Gil (born in 1996).
In 1984 or ’85, Kerry and Sheila met Allen Hart, who became a close friend and constant musical companion. Their three-piece band, Hart & Blech, recorded two CDs; played at the Northwest Folklife Festival and at numerous dances; and for gigs in Ohio, North Carolina, and Oregon, as well as Washington State.
During his years in Seattle, Kerry’s encyclopedic knowledge of traditional old-time music, along with his authenticity, humility, and generosity had lasting impact. Peter McCracken, Centrum’s Program Manager for the week-long Fiddle Tunes festival, writes:
“[Kerry] had a profound effect on Fiddle Tunes and was a constant counsel to me as I learned how to put a gathering together; how to give a workshop an identity. We were incredibly fortunate on the West Coast to be able to spend time with Joe and Odell Thompson, Matokie Slaughter, Bruce Greene, Wilson Douglas, Lauchlin Shaw, A.C. Overton, and many others – all of whom were somewhat under the radar at the time. All were recommended by a trusted source – Kerry Blech.”
David Cahn says:
“Every year just before I taught my band lab at Fiddle Tunes, I would call Kerry, and he would list every recording ever made of the tunes that I was planning to teach.”
For many years, Kerry was on staff at Fiddle Tunes as a tutor or in some other supporting role. Kerry had an immense repertoire of unusual tunes and unusual versions of better-known tunes, which he delighted in sharing with anyone who showed interest.
Molly Tenenbaum describes this beautifully:
“There are so many tunes that I first heard from Kerry. He alerted me and the entire Seattle old-time community to Cush Holston, to Will Adams, to Gribble, Lusk, & York, and so many others.
“He would hand you a tape or CD for your birthday, personally curated for you. He made anthology tapes, CDs, passed around to everyone. If you expressed curiosity or ignorance of this or that musician, he’d soon be pulling out recordings and telling you stories.
“Every party, he’d plunk himself down right away in the living room-no hiding away in upstairs rooms with select friends, but right inside the front door, and everyone could join. He picked the tunes, always good session tunes, and his solid fiddling invited following. He and the late Allen Hart played every tune for a long, long time, usually at the center of the session, solid and strong.
“We talked in tunes. We talked in fiddlers’ names, stories of their lives, dates of their recordings. He passed along his enthusiasms for this or that tune or player, and then we all shared them.
“When he and Sheila moved to Seattle’s South End, they organized an open jam session at his neighborhood coffeehouse, and for years that was the only session in town. All us North Enders would troop down there every other week. I think it’s because of that session that Seattle now has several sessions going in all parts of town.”
Candy Goldman says, “He never forgot a birthday and always showed up with some thoughtfully curated item: [usually these were] amazing compilations, with copious notes and often [with] beautifully hand-drawn, artful covers.” And then she notes how “Kerry [also] was opinionated and sometimes downright intolerant: ”NO IV-CHORD IN THAT B PART!” He was passionate about the old sounds and the old players, and one simply had to accept this intolerance in return for the privilege of sharing tunes with Kerry.
In 2005, following the dissolution of his marriage, Kerry moved to Gainesville, Florida, where he was welcomed by the old-time music and dance community. During this time he played and lectured at music workshops around the country and received several awards for his service to the old-time music community. In Florida, Kerry taught fiddle and was a leader in the Florida State Fiddlers Association. He was a frequent record reviewer (e.g., for the Old-Time Herald), wrote liner notes for CDs, and even edited a graduate dissertation on old-time music. In 2018 Kerry was the recipient of the inaugural Tom Staley Award presented by the Florida State Fiddlers Association “For his dedication to supporting and preserving old time music.”
Soon after arriving in Florida, Kerry joined Susan Staton and Bob Lanham to form Streak of Lean, a band that played for some 15 years at a wide variety of events and venues. They competed both as a band and individually in fiddle, banjo and string band contests, winning quite a few ribbons, including the top prize at the 2015 Florida Old Time Music Championship.
While playing and sharing music was a never-ending source of joy to Kerry, the latter part of his life was far from easy. In 2002 or 2003, Kerry’s IT job with Boeing was sent offshore, and he was assigned the awkward task of training his successors before he was laid off. After moving to Florida, he struggled to find regular employment. Fortunately, members of the music community made certain that he had a roof over his head. In 2012, Kerry was given a cancer diagnosis: an aggressive form of lymphoma. Following chemotherapy, he was deemed “cancer-free” in 2015. However, in 2016 he learned that he had Parkinson’s.
Kerry leaves behind his two children, Mirabelle Blech and Gil Blech, whom he loved very much. He leaves behind, as well, a huge cadre of admirers and beneficiaries of his wisdom, kindness, and generosity. A very special thank-you goes to his guardian angel, Annie Orlando, who oversaw Kerry’s care for the last few years of his life. That care was complex, and managing it demanded a great deal of time, focus, hard work, and skill at navigating bureaucracies. Also, a special thanks to Jack Combs and Marcia Burr for their support and kindness in caring for Kerry during his decline.
A gathering to celebrate Kerry’s life will be held at a time and place to be announced. Arrangements are in process for preserving and providing access to his massive, well-organized and annotated collection of music and music ephemera.
Kerry was involved in, played in or produced these recordings.
Kerry took photos of Old Time musicians that are post on Slippery Hill.
To plant trees in memory, please visit the Sympathy Store.
This remembrance was originally posted on Legacy.com
Thanks to John Schwab, Joe LaRose, Susan Staton, Peter McCracken, Molly Tenenbaum and David Cahn for the contributions.
(September 24, 1947 - September 18, 2023)