If you look up the definition of yin and yang, you’ll be informed that “in Chinese philosophy, yin and yang describes how apparently opposite or contrary forces are actually complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world, and how they give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another.“ You’ll then notice how our conversation with Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer reveals this wonderful interplay and textbook definition.
Marcy is soft-spoken. Cathy, not so much. Marcy is passive. Cathy is anything but. Marcy may have an opinion, but will usually keep it to herself. Cathy always has an opinion and you will surely know it.
I love their yin and yang and I love them both individually and as one. I can relate very well to them because we share a demographic spawned in the great age of peace, love and happiness.
They are indeed complementary, they are wonderfully interconnected and they are surely and impressively independent in their natural world. They love old time music, folk, bluegrass, swing — anything and everything Americana. They are also Grammy-winning musicians and superb teachers.
Here are their stories, largely in their own words…
What inspired you to become a musician?
MARCY: My family played music. My grandmother played barrelhouse piano and hammered dulcimer. She would often get hired by Henry Ford to play for dances and parties at his large house. Her name was Florence Kohnke. Her mother, my great-grandmother, played the fiddle and was known as quite a wild woman because she had a car and would drive from Detroit to Cicero, Illinois by herself to play for parties and dances. Her last name was Bennett. Great-great grandma Monzo disapproved of both of them from what I hear.
CATHY: I always loved music. My earliest recollections of music are of me standing next to my mother, singing my heart out, while she accompanied me on piano. Favorite songs then were “Little Brown Jug” and “Beautiful Dreamer”! I had a music bug from day one and sang in every chorus possible throughout school. I sang along on all of the popular music heard on one station on the radio, at the same time you could hear the Supremes, Temptations, Beatles, Weavers, and more. Each radio station was diverse back then. My first official concert was the Temptations and the Supremes at the Baltimore Civic Center in Junior High. Awesome.
Why the guitar as your first chosen instrument?
MARCY: The guitar spoke to me before any other instrument. My aunt lived across the street from us and she played the guitar and sang only gospel music. I remember being too small to get up on her couch by myself. She sat me up there and pulled out her guitar and sang for me. I loved it. She went on to do something else and came back later and I was still sitting there waiting for more. She did play some more. I still feel like that. I just can’t get enough music and I love to hear people play.
CATHY: I started on piano at about age 10, but didn’t stick with it after about three years. When I was 12, my best friend and next-door neighbor started guitar lessons, so I simply HAD to. I had six months of lessons and they were a financial stretch for my mother (my father died that year). She hinted that I may have had enough guitar lessons, probably assuming that without lessons I would stop playing. Wrong!
What did your parents think about your decision to become a professional musician?
MARCY: My mom loved that I became a musician. It took her several years for her to stop worrying about me, though. Every time she came to visit she would sneak a peek in the refrigerator to make sure I had food. She didn’t start to relax until Cathy and I won our first Grammy. Ha! My dad thought pretty negatively about the arts. He changed his tune in the 1970s when Michigan fell on hard times and I came home and got a job on the assembly line at Chevrolet Truck Assemble in Flint. I bought a mobile home for us to live in and paid the bills for 3 years. Dad never questioned me again.
CATHY: No one in my family really understood what I was doing. I ended up leaving school twice – the first time from Oberlin to be an intern at Rough Rock Demonstration School in Chinle, Arizona. I did many things there, but it is where I started playing music for kids. There was no music teacher and so I was invited into classrooms with my guitar to sing with the kids. The next year, 1972, I went to McGill University in Montreal (where I ultimately left again). There was a very active folk and coffeehouse scene there and I immersed myself in it. I actually never asked my mother or grandparents what they thought about my decision. I knew they all thought I should get a college degree.
What was it like leaving home to become a professional musician?
MARCY: I left home in the summers of high school to study acting and quickly ended up getting parts that incorporated music and instruments.
CATHY: I left home before the dream of playing music full time had really solidified. I was living in Montreal and had completed my first year at McGill University. I also played coffeehouses, open mics and made some money subbing in day care centers. Word got out for folks to get the girl who would sub for teachers and bring a guitar and play music. That summer, I got a grant to take 10 musicians into institutions in and around Montreal and play music. We called it the “Devil’s Dream Traveling Folk Festival.”
We were definitely hippies living the dream. I ran the group at 19. We made about $70 a week. At the end of the summer I thought, “I’m rich. I’ve got $560! I’m gonna try to make a living at this. I have enough to live on for a year if I never get a gig, and I’ll have more if I do get a gig. I knew gigs wouldn’t come to me, so I went through the phone book and wrote handwritten notes to every community organization I could find and offered to do a concert or a workshop on the guitar or Appalachian dulcimer. One gig led to another, and another and I had a career playing music for both kids and adults and seniors and whoever.
One thing was clear to me. There were only five coffeehouses, so if I wanted to make a living, I’d learn to work and adapt outside of traditional venues. That has served me well. In 1974 my former partner, Duck Donald, and I hitchhiked across Canada playing house concerts, health food restaurants and giving lessons and workshops.
We auditioned for the 1st Winnipeg Folk Festival, held in August 1974 and were accepted. We joined the musicians union there and a few months later, made Winnipeg our home base. At that point, we were doing about 250 shows a year at schools, coffeehouses, concerts, etc. and driving about 70,000 miles a year. And, I took up the BANJO!
A quick synopsis of your gigging career?
MARCY: My first gigs were street festivals around Detroit with my grandmother. Then I played in bluegrass and old-time string bands in the midwest. The best known was the Bosom Buddies. We were regular guests on Prairie Home Companion and played festivals and clubs around the country for a couple of fast years, then the Robin Flower Band out of San Francisco for a year.
I met Cathy in 1980 while I was in the Bosom Buddies. We started playing together regularly in 1984 or so. Together we played with Patsy Montana for about 12 years. Cathy and I have been on a world tour for years now. We should have jackets made up that say “Fink and Marxer World Tour 1984-?”
CATHY: Between 1974 and 1979 there were hundreds of gigs in Canada, north, south, east and west. Also, many coffeehouses and festivals in the States. Between 1980 and1983, I performed solo all over the US, Canada and UK.
From 1983 on, Marcy and I became a full-time duo. Our touring has taken us throughout the US, Canada, the UK, Israel, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and recently China, Malaysia, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea.
We also curate and run a few annual festivals and events such as the Annual Tribute to Hank Williams at the Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria, Virginia and the Uke & Guitar Summit at the Music Center at Strathmore, North Bethesda, Maryland. We also do the Old Time Banjo Festival in Alexandria and Takoma Park along with the Ashokan Family Camp in Olivebridge, New York.
Name the three most important things you learned — and now practice — about earning a living as a musician?
MARCY: Number one would be; Success is doing what you love. Number two; Never compare yourself to others. Play like yourself and enjoy the playing of others. And number three; Respect your elders so much that you learn about them, go see them, meet them and look out for them. You’ll be “in the club.”
CATHY: Number one, practice early and often and make it fun. Second, the more versatile you are, the more different and interesting gigs you will have. And third, do not fly with anything irreplaceable and do have excellent insurance on your gear.
I usually fly with good instruments, but not the ones I am most emotionally attached to. And I always use a high-end carbon fiber flight case and Colorado Case cover along with TSA locks. But, shit happens and insurance comes in handy for damage, loss or whatever.
What do you do today to maintain your career as a musician?
MARCY: I love to practice and write up new arrangements. Any day that includes working on music is a great day.
CATHY: I write songs, practice, just released Cathy & Marcy’s 44th Album, DANCIN’ IN THE KITCHEN, mentor other musicians, produce other artists’ recordings and do most of the management for the Cathy & Marcy Duo. We are also recording engineers and have a list miles long of projects we want to do both collaboratively with other musicians, and with each other. The business takes up a lot of time and I long ago reconciled that it is simply part of the deal.
What advice would you give a young player who is thinking about a career in music?
MARCY: Learn, be generous, enjoy, listen to everything, take chances and don’t forget to eat and sleep.
CATHY: Don’t give up your day job until you feel confident you can cover your living expenses, car expenses and health insurance. Be patient. This is a tough time in the music industry with people expecting more music for free than ever before.
So, build your career over time and make the jump when you have a strong email list and large social media following or get an offer to join a solid band. Never hesitate to hire a great music attorney before signing anything important. Don’t give up your dream, but be realistic about it and build your dream so it becomes a solid career.
There you have it — the inside scoop on TrueFire’s very own Yin and Yang and the seeds for our vision to build a diverse and meaningful Americana music category. Thanks to this dynamic duo, you can already learn clawhammer banjo, swing guitar, ukulele and bluegrass guitar — no moss growing under Yin and Yang’s feet!