Iconic and ironic, O’Donnell releases Rogue Element
This article first appeared in the Chronicle in 2009. It is republished here in her memory.
by Bethany M. Dunbar
ALBANY — In these days of excitement about renewable energy, it just might be the perfect moment for Maureen O’Donnell to release her new compact disc.
Years ago, Ms. O’Donnell was a local celebrity as part of a band called the BTUs. The BTUs rocked out at the Valley House in Orleans and other local venues, back in the days when dancing was the preferred weekend aerobic exercise in the Kingdom.
“We were ironic as hell and iconic,” says Ms. O’Donnell, when the timing is pointed out to her.
Ms. O’Donnell has been making music by singing and with a guitar and harmonica and other instruments since she was a small child. She remembers thinking that someday she would get rich and have a place in the country. It’s all true except for the rich part (so far).
This is the introduction from Ms. O’Donnell’s notes to be included with her new compact disc, Rogue Element.
“Listening to another ‘final mix’ thru JBL’s in a 20’ X 24’ room with a large window view of beautiful meadows, free of all traces of human endeavor. A moose gazing in at me, so close I could count the flies on her magnificent mouth. Fifty or so wild turkeys strutting in a line through the yard; crows cackling, calling; hawk soaring, swooping, elegant, effortless in the totality of its being, nothing more, nothing less.”
The cover photo is Ms. O’Donnell practicing — not with her guitar. She is shown in a black T-shirt and cap, ear and eye protection in place, holding — with what appears to be complete comfort — a rather large rifle. The photo was taken by David Bradshaw, a shooting friend.
Ms. O’Donnell’s album could be described as rock or folk, alternative, or something like that. She has written all the songs except for “Cover Me” by Bruce Springsteen, which was recorded live with the Reused Blues Band at Burlington City Hall.
Ms. O’Donnell’s voice is, on some tracks, Bonnie Raitt-esque. It’s full of soul and life, and life experience. It’s less frightening and more forgiving than the cover art.
She produced the CD herself. Its sound is homegrown and authentic. On the intro, she puts it this way:
“This slim collection represents my first solo process relying almost entirely upon my own skills (or lack thereof), as writer, musician, engineer, producer, singer, objective witness and executioner…
“Honest and raw as November, sonic imperfection becomes part of the charm of this offering, no opting for technical preciousness.”
At age four, Ms. O’Donnell first saw a Telecaster guitar and remembers it in perfect detail.
“It was kind of a blondish vanilla with a white maple neck, and I was just gone. I didn’t want anything else ever,” she said.
One issue right away when she was growing up was that girls did back up. Ms. O’Donnell had talent, but people kept telling her “chicks didn’t play lead.”
They wanted to put her in tall, white go-go boots and a short skirt with a tambourine. She said she thought she would prefer her Carhartts.
“When I saw the Beatles, I wanted to be one. I didn’t want to marry one,” she said.
The Beatles were a huge influence on her because it seemed possible for music to be a career.
“All of a sudden you knew you didn’t have to go to home ec. You knew you didn’t have to be Betty Crocker or a Barbie Doll.”
Ms. O’Donnell grew up in Brookfield, Connecticut, which she said was — in those days — a lot like Vermont is now.
“It was a great place to be a kid,” she said.
“The Moody Blues were my parents,” she said. It might be a slight exaggeration, but her actual parents were dysfunctional and abusive. Her mother was married six times, her father was married four times, and they married each other twice. Ms. O’Donnell went to ten high schools due to her parents’ moving around. Her father was a Teamster. She got into drugs at age 15.
But music kept her interest.
“When I was ten I joined the drum corps,” she said. She learned drumming from a man named Earl Sturtz, who was drum champion 36 years in a row. He had an “impeccable sense of meter,” and she soaked it up.
She dropped out of school but was reading voraciously. She would go to college campuses and argue Nietzsche and Kierkegaard with the students and professors. She tended bar in a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall and met a band there called Spiral Country because all the songs were written in a spiral notebook. She joined them, they got on the radio and got fan mail from all over — including truck drivers in Colorado.
She came to Vermont with a former lover who was going to Goddard. Ms. O’Donnell graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and theater from Goddard.
“She and I had done a lot of feminist theater,” Ms. O’Donnell said, including at Yale Drama School. She found more music in Vermont.
“Denny Clifford taught me the fundamentals of how to do the dobro,” she said. And then there were the BTUs.
She recently went back to Ohio and got to play with old friends and some up-and-coming musicians, including one woman she had mentored out there years ago. The shows were a blast — 1,000-seat venues, some with a packed house.
“I always knew I was meant to be on the big stage,” he said. “I made good use of it. I didn’t just stand there.”
Music has kept her going in hard times and good times.
“It’s just really nice to feel that you have something in your life that gives you a sense of self-respect and dignity, that you have something to offer the world,” she said.
“The tunes on this album kind of picked me,” she said. “I was really shocked at the serendipity.”
She said she used to “push the river” a lot because of her own aggression and compulsion, but these days she’s trying, with some success, to let the music just come through.
“Now I’ve learned to empty yourself out and get out of your own way,” she said.
Ms. O’Donnell has a web site at http://InHouseMediaWorks.com, and by April 15 Rogue Element will be available for sale through CDBaby.com. Anyone interested can also reach her by snail mail (1535 Creek Road, Irasburg, Vermont 05845) or e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org).
“The response to the CD has been amazing, considering so far it’s only been word of mouth,” she said.
“I wanted to just thank everyone for remembering.”
contact Bethany M. Dunbar at email@example.com
An obituary of Maureen O’Donnell appears here: /bartonchronicle.com/category/obituaries/