Stained Grass Window celebrates 20 years

Led Zeppelin survived 12 years before calling it quits. The Beatles lasted 10. Most bands are lucky to see five. But local bluegrass band Stained Grass Window celebrates a remarkable 20 years together this month.

What are the keys to their longevity? Founding member Ken Shafranko explained.

“None of us is equipped with an ego we can’t manage,” Shafranko said. “And we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”

Even the newest member, upright bass player Doug Ward, has been with the band five years. What keeps him coming back for more?

“The love for the music,” Ward said. “It kind of gets into your soul.”

Bumps along the road are handled diplomatically and disagreements among members are rare.

“You don’t stay together this long if you have a lot of disputes,” Shafranko said.

“Everybody has their little differences at times but we normally work it out by talking it over and taking a vote,” said Ward. “If someone has a problem we bring it out in the open and resolve it quickly.”

“We don’t have a band leader – no one’s in charge,” Shafranko said. “It’s a cooperative effort.”

Quick to laugh and technically adept, the quintet harmonizes and plucks their way into the hearts of listeners.

“When the crowd gets into the music it really lifts our spirits and makes us play better,” Ward said. “We have a lot of fans that follow us around.”

The five-piece ensemble blends mandolin (played by Rick Marcera), guitar (Bob Knorr), upright bass (Doug Ward), banjo (Mark Doncheski) and dobro (Ken Shafranko) to create their unique sound.

But what exactly is bluegrass?

“Bluegrass is a combination of the old mountain music and gospel with a touch of the blues,” Ward said.

“As a musical genre, bluegrass is relatively recent,” said Shafranko. “It got its start in the early 1940s. All the instrumentation is European except for the banjo, which is African.”

Another unique feature of bluegrass is its impromptu tendencies.

“Bluegrass has strong parallels to jazz,” Shafranko said. “The music we do is equivalent to an oral tradition.”

The unpredictable and fluid nature of bluegrass music can pose challenges for some musicians but for Stained Grass Window it’s part of the appeal.

“I don’t know how to read music,” Ward said. “I just play by ear and kind of feel it. I might not play a song the same way twice.”

“None of this music is written down,” Shafranko said. “You have to adapt to the people you’re playing with, which can be difficult for musicians who come from a classical background.”

What sets bluegrass apart from country?

“Modern bluegrass is what country music used to be like 40 years ago,” Shafranko said. “Around 1955, Elvis Presley changed everything with the electrification of the guitar. Once country got electrified it became more like suburban rock and roll.”

Stained Grass Window uses exclusively acoustic instruments which creates a warmer, more intimate sound.

“The songs themselves describe pretty basic emotions. They have to do with love, death, loneliness,” Shafranko said. “Bluegrass musicians write a song because they’re homesick or they miss a girl they fell in love with. Most people can identify with these things and I think that’s the appeal.”

For Shafranko, playing music helps untie emotional knots and releases the stress of having a traditional nine-to-five job.

“Good business decisions are based on facts and discipline,” Shafranko said. “I adapted to the business environment by driving emotion out of my life. You pay a price for that. Humans are emotional creatures so playing music is my compensation.”

In talking with members of Stained Glass Window, one senses that music satisfies an almost existential longing for the beauty of creative expression.

“When we blend harmonies it’s like a hair-raising experience,” Ward said. “It gives you chills when it’s done right.”

The band’s three-part harmonies are relatively simple, but produce a complex sound: the lead singer is in the middle, the tenor a third above and the baritone a third below.

“We strive to be musically competent,” Shafranko said. “Do we pull it off all the time? No. But we try.”

“Id rather do this than most anything else,” banjoist Mark Doncheski said. “I don’t want sound like I’m bragging but we’re good.”

The members of Stained Grass Window have a healthy self-confidence.

“I’m not happy unless I’m the best there is,” Doncheski said. “If you’re satisfied with being okay, you’re probably going to always be okay. Don’t ever listen to somebody and say, ‘I could never do that.’ They probably never could either until they tried and did it.”

Stained Grass Window’s next show will be from 6 to 8 p.m. March 1 at the James V. Brown Library, 19 E. Fourth St.

“We won’t bring any amplification,” Shafranko said. “It’ll be just like we’re playing in your living room. The Rotunda Room is a big stained-glass dome that bounces the sound back to the floor pretty nicely. Our goal is to make sure we and everybody else has a good time.” For more information about Stained Grass Window, visit www.stainedgrasswindow.com.