SEPTEMBER 7, 2017 – For Matt Stamell, it’s always been about the music. He first strummed a guitar as a teen growing up in Swampscott, and started writing songs that reflected the changing times of the ’60s and ’70s. After college in upstate New York, he was drawn to the source of the notes, and began making guitars and violins – eventually opening Stamell Stringed Instruments in Amherst, and a second shop in Poughkeepsie, NY.
But the songs that he wrote decades ago stayed with him, along with his newer pieces, and last winter he decided it was time to record them. An old Amherst friend, Craig Eastman, offered his studio in Los Angeles and Stamell flew out to record his songs with Eastman, a violinist and guitarist who has played with the likes of Elton John, Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, and Sheryl Crow.
In LA, Stamell recorded 13 songs with some top studio musicians, including bassist David Jackson – who has played with Jackson Browne and Kenny Rogers – and Blair Sinta, a drummer who has recorded with Alanis Morissette, Annie Lennox, Stevie Nicks, and Melissa Etheridge.
“I had all of these songs stored up and it’s been a lifelong dream to make a record,” said Stamell, who recently released “Hello Old Friend,” which is available on cdbaby.com, or at stamellstring.com.
Listen to Stamell’s music, and you’ll find hints of Bob Dylan, David Grisman, Arlo Guthrie, and Jerry Garcia. “The songs are about love, longing, protests, and family,” Stamell said. His earliest piece, “Song for Paul,” was written in 1973 for Paul Dann, a Swampscott friend. “Last of the Line” is a ballad he dedicated to his sister Lisa, who was the last of his four siblings to marry. The cover track, “Hello Old Friend,” written when Stamell turned 60, is an exploration of loss. “It’s partly about the death of a friend and the ending of a relationship with a woman,” he said.
While Stamell spends most of his time in Amherst, Swampscott is never far from his thoughts. It was there that he first began listening to Dylan, Cat Stevens, James Taylor, Tom Rush, Bill Staines, and John Prine – musicians who laid down a foundation that moved him.
In the early 1970s while in high school, Stamell began to listen to folk musicians at the Me & Thee Coffeehouse in Marblehead. “I just about lived at the Me & Thee,” he said. “I used to go every Friday night. They had all these different folk musicians – like Bill Staines – who came through and it became a big part of my identity.”
At Hobart College in the Finger Lakes region of New York, he began to perform at local venues and went on to create a folk festival at the college that lasted 26 years. After graduating, he returned to Boston and decided to craft instruments. Since then, he’s rubbed elbows with many of the musicians he listened to in high school and college. Some, like David Bromberg and Chris Smither, have become friends.
Stamell, who has four daughters and four granddaughters, comes from a family of musicians. His brothers, Gene and Neal, also play guitar, and his late father, Sid, also dabbled with the instrument and built his own guitar. His family has strong Jewish roots in Chelsea and Lynn, and over the years, the siblings traveled to Poland together, and also Israel. He even built a guitar for an Israeli cousin who lives in Kiryat Ono.
Stamell still considers himself a folk musician and believes that people who appreciate good lyrics and a melody will be drawn to his music.
“I don’t think it’s really background music. It tells a story,” he said.