Special Guest to Marquette Music Scene: Cory Phare
“Be better to your neighbors and you’ll have better neighbors.”
We lost a good one yesterday.
I worked as a board operator for Elmer Aho‘s American Country Gold on WJPD from 1997-2004. For six hours every weekend, he’d take requests and play old-school country music (rule: nothing after 1984). Pretty much that entire time, the phone would be lit up like a Christmas tree with people calling in from saunas and deer camps, from Sagola to Naubinway, ostensibly to request their song, but really for a chance to talk to the legend themselves. And take the time to talk with them he did, the nonstop ringing be damned.
When I asked him how he did it, he scratched the back of his neck in thought and said, “Well, I guess you just gotta take it one song at a time.”
Elmer was a musician himself, with his “Gwinn Model Town Blues” becoming a local hit – so much so, it led to him instituting another rule of not being able to honor more than one request for it per show. He was also an art teacher at Gwinn High School (where I graduated from in ’99), and would continue being an educator of a different sort the rest of his days.
In the rare downtimes we had a chance to chat, he’d share stories of his time in Nashville, tooling around the scene to pitch songs and recording songs in legendary studios. Listening with wide-eyed wonder, I became intoxicated by the prospect of adventure and creativity; as I grew older and began to live my own story, he’d also listen to me prattling on about punk rock escapades with bemused patience, offering sage advice with love and kindness I carry with me to this day. Getting to honor him on stage at the Marquette Music Scene Hall of Fame induction ceremony a few years ago was truly a blessing and a memory forever tattooed on my heart.
Listening through tears to Red Foley’s “Midnight,” his signature sign-off tune, I’m sad, but also profoundly grateful. I had the opportunity to share space with this gentle soul and gain lessons that I’m only now beginning to understand. It’s all part of the human experience that also asks us to “move the furniture and kick up your heels” to some bluegrass now and then, too.
To say Elmer’s life was one well-lived is an understatement. But understatement – or rather, empathetic humility – is what made him touch the hearts of so many through the vessel of music, one person at a time. On my best days, I’d like to think I – all of us, really – can live up to the promise of that.
Goodnight Lilian, and goodnight Elmer. Until we meet again, my friend.
Cory Phare is a graduate of Northern Michigan University & Michigan State University and a Gwinn native. He is a founding member of NMU’s First -Aid, and guitarist for the punk band “The Minor League.” Currently Cory is Senior Staff Writer/Content Strategist at Metropolitan State University of Denver, Colorado. He aspires to someday return to the region.