MONTPELIER — Patti Casey traces her musical inspiration back to her teenage years, when she watched folk acts like Banjo Dan take the dusty stage at Addison County Fair and Field Days.
“At the time, I was star struck,” she said.
Now a regular on the folk circuit, Casey knows many of the players she once idolized, and she’s come a long way from playing flute in the Vergennes Union High School band. She spends her time playing guitar, flute and providing vocals for the New England-based Woods Tea Company, and she just released her fifth studio album, “The Heart of a Waiting Boy.”
The new album arrived two weeks ago. On it, Casey’s bluegrass, gospel and French-Canadian folk stylings are backed by an array of accompanists including Monkton’s Pete Sutherland on the fiddle, Bob Amos on vocals and guitar and fellow Woods Tea Company member Tom Mackenzie on banjo.
But Casey herself is the album’s main force, providing the vocals, the guitar picking, the flute and, most unusually, the French-Canadian clogging.
The clogging serves as background percussion on several of the tracks. Though it sounds, at first, like a heavy drum, Casey is actually keeping the rhythm with her feet in the tradition of Québécois players who clog while fiddling.
“I just copied the fiddlers,” she said. But with one difference: “I clog and play the flute.”
Casey started at the University of Vermont in the ’80s studying wildlife biology, then ended up getting a degree in creative writing. She spent years copy editing medical journals and test preparation questions for the medical board exams.
Meanwhile, Casey learned guitar while continuing to play flute on the side. In her early and mid-20s she played benefit concerts and receptions, for little or no money, but once her name began to get out, the bookings began to come in.
Now 47, Casey spends long stretches of time on the road, and music is a full-time gig. She lives in Montpelier, but she comes back to Addison County to play when she can. Recently, she played shows with the Woods Tea Company at the Town Hall Theater in Middlebury and the Vergennes Opera House.
But since she began playing with Woods Tea more than two years ago, she has also done a lot of playing farther from home. The band often tours out West, and will head to California in early 2011.
One trip took her to Telluride, Colo., where, she explains in her album notes, “I discovered the challenge of playing, singing and clogging simultaneously at 9,000 feet.”
That trip, she said, also gave her the inspiration for “Canyon Lullaby,” one of the tracks on the new album. The song sets out with a group of ill-fated miners on a hunt for silver.
“Daddy goes up into that cold dark canyon. / With him, nine boys, good men every single one,” Casey writes.
Soon enough, though, the thought of silver vanishes from their minds and nine perish in the avalanche, which builds to the haunting chorus:
And Daddy’s climbing a ladder to heaven
Black haired angel’s gonna meet him at the top
Sing him home with a hallelujah
That’s just the canyon lullaby.
As she read more about the mining history of the area, Casey said, the song came together. She spent time driving down to New Mexico, and while she drove she captured on her phone’s voice recorder bits and pieces of the song as they formed in her head.
“I never let an album go by without at least one tragedy,” said Casey. “I was so taken by the way that the old miners used to live. They had incredibly difficult lives, and they would just go party their brains out, then go back to work.”
That’s how Casey writes many of her songs: parts of books, films and overheard conversations stand out to her, and she takes it from there.
“I just have an overactive imagination,” she said. “I’m daydreaming all the time, but I put it to good use.”
And though it’s been five years since her last album, fans can expect another one in the next year or so.
“Usually as soon as I get a record I’m pretty much done,” Casey said. “But I’m feeling really good about writing now.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected]