Chris Aaron: Generosity on display.
He died last week sitting in his music studio. On the phone with his son. The two most important things in his life, family and song, defined and sustained Chris Aaron to the very last beat of his lion heart. He was 44 years old.
"We had plans," said Madison musician and Aaron collaborator Jim Schwall the night after Aaron's passing. Schwall was between sets at the Harmony Bar where a single candle burned brightly on stage in memory of the beloved blues guitarist.
"We were putting together an entire set of new songs. Gearing up to make a tour next year."
Aaron's incandescence on and off stage was legendary among his many friends and fellow performers. And for all of the show business in him (no gig too small, no benefit or cause too insignificant), despite the rigors of travel and late nights that a professional player endures, he was a family man of the highest order.
"His wife, his children...they made the music inside him," said Schwall.
Indeed, whenever I bumped into Aaron and his wife, singer Lisa Bethke, the subject was never music. It was always about family and the thrills and chills of parenthood.
That said, before I ever met him, Aaron's staggering blues/boogie guitar skills were the reason I sought him out to perform on my Wisconsin Public Television show, 30 Minute Music Hour.
Like the pro he was, he and his band arrived right on time.
Handshakes weren't Aaron's style. Hugs were. To be hugged by Chris Aaron was to be lifted off the floor. With his barrel chest, meaty hands and Popeye arms, he looked more like a roadie than a rock star. In fact, that's what I thought he was when the band first entered the studio.
We create three episodes of 30 Minute Music Hour in one production day. It can be tiring because musicians arrive in an array of mood and need. My job as producer is to meet what comes and massage it, as best I can, into a half-hour of watchable entertainment.
Within minutes of his arrival, even as he unpacked his gear, Aaron was putting us at ease. Teasing the university students who work the studio. Joking with the sound engineers. Aaron was at home wherever he went.
Then the music started. And you only had to hear him play the guitar to know who he was.
Mid-song he would wait, listen. There was his patience and his generosity on display. Then, with no notice, he would dive into a previously unexplored corner of a piece. There was his courage. An unexpected twist of the knife with the weapon that was his slide? There was his sense of humor.
Although Aaron and Bethke were based in Madison, their adopted second home was Sturgeon Bay. With its blossoming music and arts scene, Sturgeon Bay has become Wisconsin's Big Sur. And Aaron was right in the middle of it all.
Fittingly, that's where the first memorial took place on Sunday. By all accounts it was a marathon of love, remembrances and music. Bethke and daughter Abi sang. His son, Aaron Shoemaker, played drums.
Chris Aaron was joined in spirit Sunday by another member of the Sturgeon Bay musical family who passed too young and too suddenly last year, Holiday Music Motel sound engineer and Grammy nominee Billy Triplett.
As it happened, Aaron had penned a song about his departed friend Triplett. Now his lyrics speak anew. The chorus:
Life is a river
So ride the wave as it rolls by
Life it is a river
With every single breath
More time goes by
...more time goes by.
In the blink of an eye.
The words have a timeless, Native American feel. That's not surprising. Aaron's mother worked on Indian reservations in Wisconsin, and it's likely that the sound of the pow wow drum was among the first music he was exposed to.
His mother was with him and sang back-up vocals during the 30 Minute Music Hour performance. After the show ended, Aaron spent extra time helping the crew put things back in order before he left. Smiling all the while.
When a soul is taken in the prime of life, we contemplate how precious life is. That doesn't apply here. Chris Aaron reminded us of how precious life is as he lived it.