"There are still a lot of people who don't know this, but the level of musicianship in Payson is extremely high," says Shakey Joe Harless, arguably the town's musical figurehead. "It's just amazing, really"
There is something else a lot of people don't seem to realize, he adds.
"If you don't support live music in Payson, it will die."
Introducing local music lovers to the local talent pool, and maintaining a talent showcase for those musicians, is the twin goal of Shakey Joe's Songwriter's Cafe & Open Mic a weekly, impromptu gathering of local amateur and professional songwriters and performers which just last Friday night moved to its newest venue, the Mogollon Grille on Main Street.
"This is not the commercially-packaged crap you hear on the radio," Harless says quite rightly. "There's a lot of variation. It's a full palette."
Harless borrowed the idea and the format from Tennessee's famous Bluebird Cafe. "That's where everyone is discovered in Nashville," he says, "and this is the same thing: everybody gets to get up and do three songs, preferably originals but not necessarily. They can be renditions of other people's songs. But there can be no recorded music of any kind."
What invariably results, Harless says, is a variety-pack mix of country, rock, blues, jazz, soft ballads, classical piano you never know what's coming next. Then, near the end of the evening, for the last 15 or 20 minutes, we almost always put together a full-bore rock and blues band."
Among those commonly found onstage at the Songwriter's Cafe, Harless says, are himself on harmonica, naturally; Harless' blues-guitarist son, Gus; folk balladeer Johnny Richards; pop-folk singer Tim Miles; blues-rocker Jumpin' Jimmy; and Tim Hines, who Harless says is "our only real country player, real reminiscent of Johnny Cash."
Another attraction is the professional musicians who just drop in when they're passing through the Rim country or not otherwise engaged.
"We've had Big Tank Taylor from Oklahoma drop in," Harless says. "Walking Cane Mark. Michael Shields, who's a songwriter big on the folk circuits. We've had members from Chuck Mangione's band stop in. We've had musicians come from Alaska, California.
"One night, we had the Skagway Beach Party two ladies, one is 78 and the other is 83. They do Alaskan folk music on autoharp, and they were awesome. The audience just howled, they loved it so much. We put those women on stage three times that night."
The drop-ins have also included the director of the Phoenix Symphony and his first-chair violinist, both in tuxedos.
"The violinist wanted to play Charlie Daniels, but she's type-cast in the Valley as a classical musician," Harless says. "So coming to the Songwriter's cafe allowed her to really cut loose."
Shakey Joe's Songwriter's Cafe sprang to life about four years ago at the now-defunct Michael's Restaurant at the Inn of Payson. "We did it there for about four months, and it took off. From the very first night, it was packed. We started the program to promote individual live music in Payson not on just a professional level, but all levels: beginners, intermediates and professionals. We wanted to give these people a showcase so that they could present their songs to the public."
Harless has also given musical greenhorns a place to learn from their seasoned counterparts learn "how to use a microphone, tips for performing in front of a live audience, everything," Harless says. "That gives first-timers a feeling of confidence, and it really underscores the fact that the Songwriter's Cafe is not a competitive thing. We have had over 60 songwriters and musicians step on a stage for the very first time in their lives. I am very proud of that little statistic."
For the past two-and-a-half years, the stage to which Harless refers has been in Mario's Restaurant. But now, it's been moved to the main dining room of the Mogollon Grille, where the Songwriter's Cafe will unfold every Friday night from 8:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Great music isn't the only benefit of the program, Harless says with a nod of appreciation toward the management of the Mogollon Grille.
"They're going to have a new blues menu and different drink and food specials every hour; they'll change all night."
To participate, Harless says, "All you have to do is show up and put your name on the performance list. You play in the order that you sign up. We have a house guitar and a full professional sound system. We'll work with you, position the microphones, teach you what to do, if that's what you want or need. It's a zero-pressure environment."
Meantime, every Friday night, Shakey Joe Harless gets to go home happy.
"This is the way I contribute to art and culture in Payson," he says. "I wanted to provide an alternative to the bar scene a place to go where you can enjoy a variety of music, and to see young performers and watch them progress.
"Drop by. You'll be surprised to find out how well we're doing just that."