Eulogy delivered at Mike’s service by Rob Ickes:
Like all of you here today, it has been a tough few days for me…Mike was the person who set me on the path of music when I was just 13 years old… I still remember very clearly the first time I heard him play. My family was returning home from my first bluegrass festival, and my brother put a tape in the car stereo. It was Mike’s first solo album, so aptly titled “Dobro,” and I couldn’t believe the incredible sound I was hearing. I started playing the Dobro as soon as we got home, and I have been playing ever since.
I can’t tell you how GOOD that record made me feel. It was like a drug, I could not get enough of that sound! I had a cheap little cassette deck in my room and for several months after that first encounter, I would fall asleep listening to that album, and the first thing I did when I woke up in the morning was turn the tape over and listen to it again! I was definitely an addict!
Since then I have talked to so many people who have had a similar life changing experience with Mike’s music.
And so this week, I’ve been wrestling with a lot of different emotions. But as I reflect on this great loss, two feelings come to the forefront – sadness, of course, and yet in the midst of that sadness, there is a lot that I am grateful for.
I am sad that I won’t be able to ask Mike any more questions. Things like – how he played a certain song, how he recorded his Dobro on specific albums, how do I handle the fact that my daughter turns 13 next month…
but I am so grateful for the time that I did have with him, and the questions he did answer for me. Things like – how that first incredible solo album came together, how the Seldom Scene got started, and the great story of how he met Josh Graves for the first time.
So I am grateful for those things. I know that most people don’t have the opportunity to go have lunch with their hero, or better yet, spend the day playing music with their hero in his basement…so I am very grateful for that time with Mike. And I am so grateful for the incredible legacy of recordings that Mike has left us. I know that I will continue to study those records for years to come.
So yes, I’m sad, yet also grateful…
I was sad when Mike e-mailed me a few months ago saying that because of his cancer, his voice had gotten really hoarse, and he would not be able to speak at the prestigious Awards Ceremony where he was to receive the 2012 National Heritage Fellowship from the NEA. But I am now kind of grateful for that hoarseness, because it gave me an opportunity to speak on his behalf at the ceremony. And in so doing, I was able to tell a national audience how great he was, in a such a way that his own humility would NEVER have let him.
Of course I am deeply saddened for Elise and the girls and their loss of a husband and father, but I am so grateful to them for sharing Mike with the rest of us.
They were the ones who had put up with Mike’s busy schedule, him being on the road and his late nights in the recording studio. The missed birthdays and anniversaries, the challenges of living with a musical perfectionist, the 8 hours a day of pedal steel practice…
But I am very grateful to them for sharing him with us.
Mike was passionate about his music, and when you follow your passion as seriously as he did, it demands a lot of patience and sacrifice from your family. I am sure that even though there were many times when they would have preferred it if he’d just stayed home with them, I am grateful that they loved him enough to let him go play his music.
And I’d like to talk about that incredible music that he made:
While Mike excelled at many stringed instruments, and was one of the best harmony singers on the planet, the Dobro is where he made his deepest mark.
It would take a long time to list everything that Mike brought to the Dobro, but I will try and narrow it down to just a few things:
As most of you know, the Dobro is played with a metal bar, which is placed on metal strings, and the guitar itself has a metal resonator inside of it. All that metal on metal can create a lot of unwanted noise. Somehow, Mike figured out how to get rid of the noise and leave only the music. He brought an elegance, beauty and tone to the instrument that did not exist previously.
But in addition to the beautiful tone and many new techniques he brought to the Dobro, Mike brought a great and far-reaching artistic vision to the instrument. Where most people saw the instrument as limited and simplistic, he saw a world of possibility, complexity and beauty. And he spent his life searching out those beautiful possibilities day after day. In doing so, he greatly expanded the Dobro’s musical range and potential. And as a result of this vision, he changed many people’s minds about the instrument and what they thought was possible on it. And not just what was possible on the Dobro, but what was possible in bluegrass and acoustic music in general. With Mike’s work on his solo albums, and with the Seldom Scene and other groups, you start to see some of the first really skillful blending of Bluegrass with other genres. And I know that Mike’s work had a big influence on other trailblazers in our music. People like Tony Rice, David Grisman and Jerry Douglas, to name just a few.
A great example of this vision is with Mike’s first solo album “Dobro.” To my knowledge, this was the first time that a Dobro was put front and center for an entire record. And the great thing about it is that while, yes, the Dobro is front and center, it is one of the most amazing examples of musical teamwork that I’ve ever heard. Every player’s solo leads to the next so perfectly, and the musical conversations that occur between Mike and guitarist David Bromberg are so exquisite, and who can forget the haunting beauty of Vassar Clements’ fiddle solo on “House of the Rising Sun”. . . I have often marveled at how Mike was able to hit it out of the park during his first time “at bat” for a solo album. . .
And that great record was just the beginning. With each new solo project, Mike’s artistry kept expanding. With brilliant forays into blues and jazz and modern country and swing, it seemed there was not a music form that he couldn’t lend his tasteful artistry to. A far-reaching vision, indeed.
In addition to the techniques and artistic vision that he brought to the table, I’d also like to mention his incredible playing behind a vocalist. Mike once told me that when he started making records, it was important to him that the Dobro fills be heard. Before Mike started recording, the Dobro was often heard clearly on solos, but a lot of the subtleties behind the vocalist were lost in the mix. Maybe because he was a great singer himself, Mike knew that there was a beautiful conversation that could take place between a Dobro and a vocalist. He took that conversation to heights never before imagined. And he worked hard to make that conversation happen, and he wanted to make sure it was shared with the listener. Maybe that’s why so many great singers wanted him to grace their recordings. SIngers such as Dolly Parton, Patty Loveless, Tony Rice, Emmy Lou Harris, Vince Gill, Linda Ronstadt, and so many others.
When you play music professionally, there is a part of the process where music is like an infinite puzzle you return to every day and fill in a few more pieces. Mike filled in a lot of the puzzle for us Dobro players.
I would like to share a few more things I have learned from studying Mike’s music over the years:
Play as cleanly as possible, so the music can shine through.
Always push the envelope and explore new musical territory.
Never, ever stop learning.
But enough about Dobro theory! As I heard someone say recently about Mike-”You might have to be a musician to appreciate the techniques he brought to the instrument, but you only have to be human to appreciate the beauty and elegance of what he created.”
In addition to his musical talents, we all know what a kind and genuine person Mike was. I have been playing for over 30 years and I have NEVER run across another musician who has garnered more respect, musically and personally, than Mike. When you mention his name, people stop whatever they are doing and tell you a story about not only his incredible musicianship, but they also mention his humility and his friendliness, his willingness to take time for his fans and his patience in showing things to other Dobro players. He has really set an incredible example, not only as a musician, but as a person. And I know his influence will continue long into the future.
So yes, we are all very sad today, yet I am also grateful that he sent me a musical message when I was thirteen, and that message changed my life. And I know that Mike sent you all a message through his music, and through his great personal kindness and humility, and he made all of our lives better because of it.
Thanks Mike, we will miss you.