MERRIMACK – It’s a long way from the beaches of Normandy to the Nashua Senior Activity Center on Temple Street.
Nevertheless, music man Jerry Jean, 96, of Merrimack, is one who has made the trip, alive and pickin’ – that is, pickin’ bluegrass music with his bluegrass buddies, every chance he gets.
“I don’t think I’d live very long if I retired,” Jean said after a gig there on June 20. “I could limit my activities, but I could never limit my music.”
The free music fest, held from 7-9 p.m. on the third Tuesday of the month at the senior center, 70 Temple St., is a tradition of 30 years. The group also plays other venues as requested. Fun and snacks mostly suffice as pay.
A Navy radioman during World War II, Jean is one of two survivors among a crew of 30 whose troop transport, LST-133, detonated a submerged mine in the English Channel. The ravaged hulk was towed back to France as the Allied operations against the Germans, launched on D-Day, June 6, 1944, progressed.
Histories note some 73,000 Americans among the 156,000 Allied troops storming the beaches at Normandy, France. The attack squelched the enemy’s progress.
Jean now handles a dobro instead of a ship’s radio. He plays the acoustic “slide guitar” while seated, plucking strings with his right hand while his left hand runs a slide along the neck. The tones are pure and melodious.
All around him, his buddies play fiddle, guitar, mandolin, bass or whatever else they favor. Most sing when it’s their turn to solo. Then, Jean takes over again.
“Take it away, Jerry,” is the toss to their leader. Renditions of “I Walk the Line” or “I’m My Own Grandpa” or Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight” follow.
Regulars nowadays include Jean’s “right-hand man” Bob Pope, of Nashua; Ed Broussea, of Nashua; Dick Moore, of Merrimack; Chuck Poltack, of Merrimack; Bill Quigley, of Brookline; Don Hurt, of Hollis; Earl Jordan, of Derry; Patrick Belanger, of Nashua; Al Lafrance, of Nashua; and Chris Caruso and his wife, “girl singer” Jessie Caruso, of Merrimack. Others perform whenever they can.
Jean said the group shares a love of singing and performing. A good intro and good words keep it all a joy.
“Put feeling into the songs,” Jean said. “That way, we keep the crowd enjoying the music.”
Pope, guitarist and vocalist, said he met Jean in 1987 through a couple of fellow musicians. An invite to play at the senior center followed. The people there loved it, he said, and they’ve been going ever since.
“In the beginning, we called our group the Temple Street Stompers,” Pope said. “Later, we changed to Jerry Jean and his Bluegrass Picking Buddies.”
Jean calls Pope a “great musician” who was playing in a group called Nothing Fancy when they met.
“First thing I know, we had a solid group,” Jean said. “He’s a great person. And now I’ve got 10 or 12, sometimes more.”
Jean credits his lifelong passion for music as one of the reasons for his longevity.
“I think the secret is loving life,” Jean said. “Enjoy life. When you’re enjoying playing music, you’re enjoying life.”
Jean was a Nashuan who had moved to Keene, where he owned Noel’s Music and House of Guitars. He learned to play 40 instruments. He played 12 over the years as a professional.
Jean and Ruby Naylor, also a musician, wed after the war. A widower now, his grown sons, Jerry Jr. and Peter, along with their wives and a gaggle of grandkids, carry on the musical heritage.
Peter Jean, of Hudson, said his mom played bass guitar. Peter played drums in his dad’s band at age 14. Jerry Jr. was an entertainer.
“My dad is my hero,” he said. “He may have a pacemaker, but it is music that makes his heart beat and his heart sing. “
Jerry Jean’s contemporaries became friends. Dolly Parton, Tex Ritter, Kitty Wells and many more performed nearby at the Cheshire Fairgrounds. Borrow an amp? No problem. Need a microphone? Sure. Jean had fans, too, for he played for WKNE radio and on television for WMUR and WBZ.
Jean and his bluegrass buddies stayed late, by popular demand, until 9:30 p.m., at the Nashua gig on June 20.
“You can hear the stories that people have put into bluegrass music,” Jean said. “You can feel the passion in the stories.”
Sure as shootin’, the crowd of around 40 wanted more.