The blond songman at Ruth's Diner last Wednesday evening could have been any young musician strumming a rather beautiful Martin guitar. Most diners would have been surprised to have known that Paul Stowe literally sang for his supper on the streets of Europe. Even more surprising is the fact that Stowe is now a member of Kentucky Bluefields, a successful country rock and bluegrass band in West Germany as well as one-half of "Matching Ties," a duo that is booked as often as Kentucky Bluefields.
Most musicians can only dream of making a living with their music. Stowe has made the dream come true. He was born in Connecticut with music in his genes. His father was a violinist and music critic and his mother, Dorothy, a church soloist and singer in little theater. After the death of her husband, she moved her family to Salt Lake City and became a Deseret News dance and music writer.
Paul Stowe was a Suzuki violinist at age 5 and played trombone in junior high school. "But junior and high school sports were more appealing than music so it wasn't until I was at the University of Utah that I really became involved deeply in music," Stowe said in a recent interview. "I sang in choral groups, arranged choruses and was vocal director of a band." He and a partner playing the flute performed locally at the university coffeehouse, Gepetto's and the Pie Pizzeria.
With a degree in English (that would later be beneficial in his lyric writing) in his pocket, Stowe spent one year in Wyoming working at a gas plant project saving money for a trip to Europe. Strapping his guitar to a backpack and purchasing a Eurorail pass, Stowe hoped to finance his trip as a street musician. "I hooked up with a harmonica player from Ann Arbor, Mich., while I was in Paris and we traveled to Spain and then to Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany," Stowe related. "Then we met a wild, rich Italian who owned half a ski town near the Swiss border. He hired us to play nightly for $1,000 a month plus free room and board and free skiing," Stowe said.
When that job ran out the real education came. Almost every European city has extensive pedestrian zones where performers gather. A tradition that dates back to medieval times, the European street scene is alive with musicians, little theater groups and street acts (magic, juggling, etc.). "Laws differ from country to country," Stowe related, "and you have to learn the circuit; which cities are better for street musicians."
Learning the circuit meant knowing which places were good for street musicians and which places were hostile. "Paris was an absolute zoo, real tough. It was better to board the Metro and ride all day playing and passing the hat. But Holland and Germany were really good. A one mark coin is worth approximately 50 cents while the coin given in Italy is worth just a nickel," Stowe explained. A street musician is called a "busker" and he cannot survive without a "bottler" who circulates among the crowd passing the hat. To "bottle the crowd" one must be personable and non-aggressive. And to be successful, the musician must not only play or sing well, he must be able to communicate well with his listeners to keep them watching.
Stowe found that he could get good connections off the streets. "We often got two or three jobs from people who saw us perform on the streets," he said. "We played clubs and parties and were interviewed on television by the Munich Hit Parade. We even played for NATO's top logician who heard us playing on the street," he said.
During his years in Europe Stowe teamed up with a banjo and guitar player named Livio Guardi and then with Trevor Morriss, a British guitar and mandolin player who plays in Kentucky Bluefields and is Stowe's partner in "Matching Ties."
To the casual observer, Stowe's travels sound like the arm-chair traveler's wildest fantasy. He's played in Switzerland, on the Spanish Steps in Rome, in Venice, Turin and Milan. He lived in a medieval palace 300 yards from the Ponte Vecchio in Florence and also spent a winter in Antiparos, Greece where he stayed in a tent on the beach and spear-fished when he wasn't playing in the local pub. Stowe played the Adriatic Riviera and learned the cabaret scene in Freiburg and Munich, Germany.
But it took a lot of work. "I bombed the first show because I just got up and played. The people turned right off. I watched other performers and discovered that audiences wanted me to ham it up and to be an American. It is very natural for me to be a comedian, a ham, so the humor is very slapstick and I tell the audiences about the songs we do," Stowe said. He has discovered a gift with languages and speaks fluent German and Italian without ever having taken a class. The Kentucky Bluefields brings a little glimpse of American folk music and bluegrass to Europe. Matching Ties is an experimental group trying out rhythmic concepts and often doing the musical job an entire band would do.
Stowe has deep ties in Germany now with a girlfriend named Marianne who does booking for the groups. He calls Munich home and is comfortable with the European lifestyle. "I love the warmth of the German people and the arts and the food," he remarked. This troubadour has found his niche.