Come On, Get Happy
Ken and Jeannie Veltz and their children were a real-life Partridge Family. After the band broke up, Mom and Dad hit the road alone, trying to keep the music alive.
[NOTE: A truncated version of this piece ran in the Washington Post, which you may read here. That piece excised two-thirds of the story to focus on the parents. While their journey was certainly the hook, this longer version provides much deeper history, context and insight, as well as a closer look into the curious machinations of the so-called music business. I had, after all, spent a decade following the story; there was lots to say. Also, I've changed the diminutive of microphone back to "mic" from "mike." There is no K in microphone.]
KEN AND JEANNIE VELTZ ARE DRIVING to an open-mic in Old Town. The couple mapped several such spots into the GPS for this Thursday night. A guitar rides shotgun in the back seat; the trunk is filled with sound and music equipment. The duo are scheduled to perform at Iota on Sunday and, as Ken says, “You can’t roll around with the grandbabies all day.” Playing live will limber the pair up, get them ready for the paying gig.
Unlike most of the plaintive singers on the D.C. open-mic circuit, Ken and Jeannie are in fact grandparents, twice over. Also separating them from the usual six-string strummers: they have a Wikipedia page. As the band Cecilia, the Veltzes were signed to Atlantic Records. It wasn’t just the two, it was the entire family: son Drew on lead guitar, daughters Laura and Allison singing, dad on rhythm guitar and percussion, mom completing the three-part harmonies and shaking the tambourine.
Yes, just like the Partridge Family. But real and with much better music.
And a bus, of course. It didn’t have a multi-colored Mondrian paint job, but the family did tour nationally for most of the previous decade. They were courted by MTV and Hollywood film crews, wined and dined and lived as much of the rock star life as a fairly well-adjusted musical family cared to live.
Before the label deal, when the Veltzes were just a family band from Vienna, Va., this is what The Washington Post had to say about Cecilia in 1999:
“If you care at all for melody, harmony and good songs, you must go see Cecilia. If you want to let music do what it’s supposed to do (fill your heart and soul and make you glad to be alive), you must go see Cecilia.
The family seemed poised to climb to the top of the Top 40. But, like thousands before them, the Veltzes discovered that a set full of catchy tunes and club full of eager fans is not always enough. Unlike thousands before them, Ken and Jeannie refuse to let rejection define them. Even faced with a failing economy, the aging Boomers are betting everything on one more grab at the brass ring. The couple has 37 years together singing happy, upbeat songs—and no apparent intention to stop.
So tonight, 10 years later, the car is home for Jeannie and Ken. And tomorrow, too. And for the foreseeable future. Because Ken and Jeannie sold everything that wouldn’t fit into the trunk, put some sentimental items in storage, and are now, literally, living on the road.
It’s a nice car, a spotless white Mercedes 240D they’ve nicknamed “Falkor,” after the flying white dog in the movie The Neverending Story, a family favorite. They used to have an older Benz, and a sporty BMW, too. Plus a 3,000-square-foot house in Vienna. That and more are gone now. Sometimes they sold stuff to pay the rent; this time the liquidation created a small nest egg (”Very small,” says Ken) that left the couple as unencumbered as a pair of teenage hitchhikers off to see the world for the first time. And that’s pretty much the vibe both Veltzes give off.
“There’s no safety net here,” says Ken much more matter-of-factly than you’d expect from someone who is basically homeless. But the diminutive 60-year-old with a graying soul patch has an almost relentlessly upbeat attitude, a positive outlook that sometimes seems hard to believe, but also hard to fake for long. “Kind is the new cool,” he likes to say.
“For a while, it was change in the couches, that’s how tough it got,” says Ken about life after the big time. “But since we made this decision, someone reached down and gave us a great big kiss. It’s amazing the favor that we’ve had.”
Jeannie, a willowy redhead, a bit taller than Ken, who does almost all of the driving while her husband navigates, agrees. “As soon as we made the decision to do this, we weren’t struggling,” she says. “We weren’t swimming against the current anymore. We were going with it.”
“And so far it’s just really worked,” she continues, adding almost merrily, “I have no idea where we’re going, what we’re doing, where we’re going to live—we have no idea. And in the end it’s kinda refreshing, to not have every “i” dotted and “t” crossed. It’s a day-to-day life.”
As Ken says later, “A normal wife couldn’t do this.”
Jeannie double-checks the start time for the first open mic. “It’s 8 o’clock,” confirms Ken. “Do you know where your children are?” Jeannie answers wryly. “As a matter of fact,” replies Ken, “no, we don’t.”
AFTER SPENDING 10 MORE YEARS living with mom and dad than most children, the kids are now out on their own. Son Drew, is a videographer living in Chesapeake Beach, Md., with his wife and two children. (Grandma and Grandpa are staying with him while in D.C.) Laura and Allison live in Nashville, both independently pursuing songwriting careers. Laura has several songs on the new album by rising country act Edens Edge. Allison was recently signed by Carrie Underwood’s producer Mark Bright, and scored a No. 1 hit in Japan with her song “Mr. Taxi.” That is, she wrote it; the nine-member girl group Girl’s Generation are singing it on the radio.
As the car passes Exit 6 on I-395, Jeanne calls out, “Oh, remember Shirlington?”
“That’s the beginning of a story there,” says Ken. “That was the beginning of the end.”
“That was the beginning of the end,” Jeannie agrees, softly.
It was an end to one life and the beginning of another, which led to this current new beginning. Or end. The Veltzes have had plenty of both.
STEPPING INTO TIFFANY TAVERN on King Street, Ken writes his name on the list. He’s No. 5. Brian McMahon, the tie-dye-shirted host for the evening’s music, explains that each act gets 12 minutes, maybe 15 depending on the crowd. So there’s lots of time to kill. The good news is there is a crowd. The bad news is that most of that crowd is a bridesmaid party, which has taken over almost all of the room in the narrow restaurant and the women don’t seem particularly interested in anything outside of loud wedding talk.
The Veltzes repair to the back room for “the best burger in Old Town” and to discuss their journey thus far.
In the big house in Vienna in 1999, the Veltzes were living a pretty good suburban life. Ken was composing music for the Discovery Channel, National Geographic and other TV and commercial clients, Jeannie was doing voice-overs, and the kids were playing music together and going to James Madison high school.
Then the Military Channel called. The company licensed one of Ken’s songs for $80,000 and offered a contract to score 28 documentaries for $300,000. The executives took the Veltzes out for a celebratory dinner in Shirlington.
“It was our big ship,” says Ken. “The children are dancing, we are like…”
“We are like in disbelief,” says Jeannie, laughing, “And with good reason!”
Because before Ken got paid for the first program, the Military Channel filed for bankruptcy. Ken admits he “burned a lot of bridges” with other clients so he could grab this brass ring. While he was passing his lower-paying commitments on to other composers in anticipation of the more lucrative job, he also sank nearly 30 grand of his own money into new equipment for work that had now vanished.
“We’re selling assets, I don’t know what to do now,” says Ken. “My brain is numb.”
And then came a call from a veteran’s hospital. Ken’s father was dying.
As the family was trying to deal with the financial blow, they started gathering around grandpa, singing for him. The nurses took notice and the Veltzes started doing little shows of big band songs for the other patients.
At 4 a.m. one night Ken wrote a song expressing his current philosophy: “It Don’t Matter.” Typically, it’s got a brisk beat and you can really dance to it. With sisters Laura and Allison brightly harmonizing over older brother Drew’s melodic electric guitar, Ken’s subtle percussion and Jeannie’s lower-third harmony, the Veltz family started recording in the home studio. As artists from the Andrews Sisters, Ames Brothers, the many Osmonds, and Karen and Richard Carpenter have demonstrated, there is something about sibling harmony that just shimmers more euphoniously than unrelated vocal chords do. Soon, the idea of a family band presented itself.
The children, then 21, 19, and 17, were already playing together at open mics, bringing home some cash. They now decided that adding mom and dad to the act wasn’t entirely uncool and actually sounded pretty good.
“And Jeannie and I are looking at each other going like, Could this be a better Plan A—or Plan B?” says Ken.
They christened the band Cecilia, after the patron saint of musicians, and tested the idea with a weekly gig down Rte. 123 at That’s Amore, part of a local restaurant chain. As would be the story with the group, audiences steadily grew until it was standing room only between the tables full of pasta.
This time the repertoire wasn’t old swing music. Despite beginning his career as a drummer, Ken has a strong sense of melody and a skill for crafting a catchy pop song. In addition to “It Don’t Matter,” he began pumping out other radio-worthy tunes, enough for two home-burned CDs that the band sold at shows. Though the tunes were written by a 47-year-old man, the ear-worms sounded great sung by 19- and 17-year-old girls. That’s because the lyrics were often inspired by the girl’s lives.
Son Drew inherited his father’s sense of melody, evident in his tasteful guitar leads. Likewise, the girls are natural performers. Jeannie describes daughter Laura as a “cheerleader” and indeed the energy she devotes to each song is almost draining to watch. Allison’s strong delivery and Mariah Carey-like range belies her years.
On the homemade Kitchen Mix CD, several cuts recorded live at the restaurant reveal a frenzied crowd excitedly singing along. Soon, area music professionals were showing up in the audience. That’s when the Post’s Eric Brace wrote his wildly enthusiastic paean to Cecilia. Without any corporate street-teaming or marketing, a fan base was growing. People loved Cecilia songs. The family loved playing them.
Gigs at real nightclubs followed: Zig’s in Alexandria and Iota Club and Cafe in Arlington. Stephen Negrey, co-owner of Iota, remembers the band’s fans as “21 to 70, of all creeds and philosophies—all over the map.” Most bands, he notes, cater to a single demographic, but a Cecilia show was, literally, fun for all ages. “That was what was so exciting about them,” Negrey adds, “what could happen, how big they could get.”
But Ken knew that Cecilia could only get so big in Washington. Yes, the RIAA is here, but they’re lobbyists. That’s the business of D.C. In 2000, with a strong local buzz in their ears, the Veltz family chose a new roll of the dice. Allison was taken out of school and Ken sold his beloved BMW to finance a trip to Nashville to record. Within a few weeks, Cecilia the family band had a manager and an offer from Warner/Chappell Music, one of the world’s largest music publishers.
AT TIFFANY TAVERN, THE ORIGINAL SONGS Ken was hoping to hear from the other open-micers are not on the agenda tonight. Instead, there are lots of pleasantly performed classic rock staples: Beatles, Everly Brothers, “These Boots Are Made For Walking”—which is on the Veltz’s songlist, too, so scratch that. When Ken and Jeannie finally step behind the microphones, it’s clear that they have something different to offer. With some practiced patter they launch into a string of original compositions. Ken announces, “We’re an old married couple,” which doesn’t seem to register with the bridesmaids.
There is some applause, but that, as well as most of the music, is lost in the din. An older guy gives the pair a thumbs up sign as he walks past them to the door. The important sign is that he’s out the door. After a couple more songs, the Veltzes wish the crowd a good night.
Walking back to the car, Jeannie offers a positive spin on the boisterously inattentive bridal party. “They were there to party. And the girls were cute. I’m very glad we got to sing for them before the wedding.”
Ken is focused on the next open mic. “If it looks like a big long waiting list, we’ll move on. But you never know.”
Back on the road, Ken suggests that D.C. is “a ‘Bad Bad Leroy Brown’ town. For some reason, this area has a preoccupation that precludes listening,” he grumbles. Jeannie is more philosophical. “I think what we went through tonight was a self-administered stress test,” she says, between navigational nudges from her husband. “You have to be injected with some of that stress, then by the time you get up there, you’re not as keyed up.”
The rejection in Old Town still stings. “I’d rather play for seven or eight people and leave a part of us there and take a part of the people with us than a packed house of not-interested people,” Ken says. “Like that first table, those guys—could you talk louder?”
“Where I was coming from as a communicator,” Ken explains, “I thought we could grab the wedding vibe—that we were married for 36 years. For god’s sake, you’re getting married? Listen to somebody!” he says, becoming more animated. “We might just have something to say that can help you here.” He recites lyrics from some of his songs that could offer long-term relationship advice. “That’s what love is all about,” he says, quieter. “Sometimes you want to walk away, but you can’t.”
Jeannie again sees the upside: “You never know. [The bride] could remember the hook, ‘I can’t follow but I can’t walk away.’”
GROWING UP THE SON OF A JAZZ DRUMMER in upstate New York, Ken Veltz took to the instrument as well. “He’s still known as the best drummer that Batavia has ever seen,” brags Jeannie. So good, admits Ken after some prompting, that both Paul Revere and the Raiders and Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels tried to take him on tour while he was still a teenager. His parents said No.
But by age 13, Ken “was already headlong into drugs,” he says. “By about 14, 15, I was spending most of my nights at other people’s homes.”
After high school, Ken hitchhiked to New York City, losing himself even more to music and drugs. “I had a lot of talent but I didn’t have the foundation of an upbringing,” he says. “Whatever I wanted to do, I did. I made a lot of stupid choices. So I ended up burning out pretty bad.”
In 1971, looking to get away from the caustic New York scene, Ken joined the aptly-named-for-its-time band Country Granola—which also featured the young Tony Trischka—and found his way back to upstate New York.
Meanwhile, 21-year-old Jeannie Eagan was “totally devastated” by the death of her best friend in a car accident. She quit college and moved in with another friend in the same area.
Eventually, the two found their separate ways to a small head shop in Albion, N.Y., that had been converted into a mission. “It was a bunch of former drug addicts and a bunch of people with problems,” explains Ken. “And they were just feeling the love of the Lord. So I said, You know, this is kinda interesting. Maybe this is for me.”
In addition to eyeing each other at the weekly meetings, the two also began bumping into each other around town. “You thought I was 14,” Ken says. “I thought he was 12,” Jeannie corrects. “He looked so young. But he had a continuous smile on his face, and I thought, Well, that’s nice. Because I was very dark and not very happy.”
“We were very opposite,” says Ken. “I was very demonstrative. Jeannie was very shy. I mean she hardly said a word.” But she sang. And, says Ken, Jeannie “had an amazing sense of rhythm. I looked at her foot tapping—and I’m a drummer and I couldn’t take my eyes off her foot!”
Both credit the little storefront mission with getting them together, in all senses. The group engaged in lots of community service, visiting prisons, nursing homes. “It was a huge part of the healing for me,” says Ken. “Just to care for other people and not just myself.” The early ’70s, says Jeannie, “was a very spiritual time. There was a lot of peace in the air. And if you have that peace in the air, it’s going to lead you to goodness and God. And a lot of, you know, cults came out of that.”
The little religious clan started becoming more controlling and demanding. The members were moved into communal houses, one for the men, one for the women. And then the group’s leader was arrested for indecent exposure. Ken and Jeannie decided it was time to move on.
EVEN WITH GPS TECHNOLOGY, THE MERCEDES drives up and down Columbia Pike three times before any of its passengers spot the small sign for LA Bar & Grille on the side of a low-rise brick building. The bar is around back, in the basement of the strip mall. Once inside, the place looks even less promising than Tiffany Tavern.
There is no stage, just microphone stands and speakers set on the floor between the dart board and the door. Ringing the low ceiling are more flat screen TVs than seem necessary, each glowing various ESPN channels. There is a lively crowd, but most seem like the Mutt & Jeff pair with severe military haircuts standing right next to the PA system: more interested in their dart game than music.
At the moment, a fellow even older than the Veltzes, 70 if he’s a day, is at the mic. “Marty,” according to the stitching on his wide leather guitar strap, introduces “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” with a story about how it was originally written about Jesus.
“Are we in Nashville?” laughs Jeannie. The scene reminds her of the family’s time in Music City. They had a standing joke about bringing enough Kleenex to the open mics.
Marty finishes and host Jamie Potter points to the Veltzes. “Saw you getting pumped. You got that Eye of the Tiger thing going.”
The Veltzes take their places behind the microphones, and this time the set includes some cover songs. Ken says he learned a humbling lesson about the value of playing other people’s hits on a trip to Ireland. Walking into a pub and announcing that he was a musician got the predictable response: play us a song. He quickly realized that there was “absolutely nothing I could do for a whole house of people who really didn’t want to hear my original songs.” The people wanted something familiar to sing along to.
So Ken learned some hits by his musical heroes—the Beatles, Dylan, Tom Rush, Hank Williams—and added them to the setlist. Musicians, he says, are often “too involved in their own creativity” to recognize that “sometimes a house full of people just wants to have some fun. And that’s your job, too—give people some fun.”
“And, again, hindsight’s 20/20,” he says. “Maybe if we’d opened with a Beatles cover we might have done better at Tiffany Tavern.”
These days Ken and Jeannie only sing a few of the songs that were on Cecilia’s setlist. An ode Ken wrote for his wife was charming with his children harmonizing on the sing-song chorus, “You like her, you like her, you know that you do.” Now the song is a heartfelt conversation between old lovers, with Jeannie answering Ken’s litany of reasons why the relationship shouldn’t work with a sly, “You like me.”
Other new songs include Jeannie’s first stab at writing: “I Want to Win the Lotto.” The inspiration for that one seems too obvious for comment. The new material is more reflective than the bouncy Cecilia grooves. Cecilia was a hit-heavy party band. Ken & Jeannie are a mature folk duo.
With the judicious mix of popular favorites and hummable originals, it soon becomes clear to the LA Bar crowd and the other musicians that these newcomers aren’t the usual Thursday night crooners. Though the crowd noise remains high, the applause grows louder and longer with each song. As Ken starts strumming an acoustic version of “A Little Help From My Friends,” a few “Whooos!” erupt around the room.
Marty heads outside and quickly returns with a small fiddle case. Soon he’s sitting in on Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces.” Then host Jamie adds his guitar to a rambling group version Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.” The impromptu band ends the night with the Eagles‘ “Peaceful Easy Feeling.”
As they’re packing up, host Jamie invites Ken to play a house concert at his home in Blue Ridge, Virginia. Ken also pockets the business card of a man who says he’s in charge of entertainment for a cruise ship company and is very interested in booking the Veltzes. That’s where the big dollars are, notes Ken happily.
“This was awesome!” Jeannie exclaims on the way to the car. “And Jamie, what a nice kid he was.”
Ken tells her about the house concert invite. “And he said, Stay there, spend the night!”
“At his place!”
“Oh, my gosh, that’s crazy! We bonded with him right away.”
“We bonded with everybody!” says Ken, beaming.
Jeannie compliments Ken on the setlist. “Beatles and Bob Dylan. That was nice. Good call, honey.”
“But I need a guitar, baby doll,” says Ken, quietly. “I need a guitar.”
“I know,” Jeannie whispers back.
Ken’s pricey Martin guitars were sold to help launch the Veltz’s current journey. This guitar doesn’t hold tune as well as a higher-end model, but it is signed by the guy who started the Goya Guitar Company.
IN 2000, THE VELTZ FAMILY LEFT NASHVILLE armed with a manager and publishing deal and headed to New York City. They rented a place in Queens and started playing wherever they could, while knocking on doors at all the record labels.
At the trendy Tribeca nightclub Wetlands Preserve, the family found a gig in the basement lounge that people had to walk through on the way to the bathrooms. The Cecilia experience of That’s Amore repeated itself: crowds grew and grew more enthusiastic. This was noticed by people from a small Warner Bros.-affiliated label, Blackbird Records. A recording contract was offered.
But days before the Veltzes could sign their deal, the AOL/Time-Warner deal was approved. In the quest for corporate synergies, Blackbird was no longer in business.
However, Cecilia now had champions inside the biz. A showcase was quickly scheduled for Atlantic Records, another Warner imprint. The legendary S.I.R. Studios were booked, engineers hired, fruit baskets and cheese platters arranged. “The suits start showing up,” remembers Ken. “Attorneys, secretaries, everybody’s there. Of course, the last one to show up is Craig Kallman.”
Kallman was then the head of A&R for Atlantic. He has since become its CEO. Kallman is credited with discovering Missy Elliott, Brandy, T.I., and Death Cab For Cutie, among many others. Not artists that share much in common with Cecilia’s happy pop, but Kallman was and is a big deal in the industry, with a history of chart success.
Cecilia played their full set. Ken says people were shouting for more. He clearly remembers Kallman’s reaction. “This literally happened,” he says. Kallman took the stage and announced, “What we heard tonight is the reason why Atlantic Records is in the record business.” recalls Ken. He quotes Kallman saying, “I look forward to this legacy, a long relationship with Cecilia the band and the day there will be box sets with the Atlantic logo on it.”
Close observers of the music business will note that there are currently no Cecilia box sets available. There was never even one Cecilia album with the Atlantic logo on it. After being wined, dined and signed, the family began a two-year struggle to satisfy both the label’s demands and their own creative instincts.
Surprisingly, after signing the band Atlantic wasn’t interested in any of the songs that audiences has clamored for. “First they said, ‘We don’t hear a hit,’” says Ken. “Then they said, ‘We don’t even hear songs for the record.’”
Even more surprising, when the band would discuss what their fans responded to, Ken says the execs told them, “You’re going to forget all that. Just forget those people.”
Interesting advice, especially considering how rabid Cecilia audiences could be. Iota’s Negrey remembers packed shows at his club. “One thing about Cecilia that always blew my mind,” he recalls, “is that their fans and supporters took that to another level. With all these shows we did, I found their fans were more than supportive.” Negrey remembers fans volunteering to work the merchandise table, making posters. “Just the enthusiasm of everyone wanting to see them blow up,” he says. “It just seemed like the fans were wiling to take three steps closer and do
Clint Alley was one such fan who, after hearing the band at Zig’s, signed on to become the group’s driver and tour manager. He recalls fan reaction as “simply remarkable.” Working the merch table, he says he heard “literally thousands of comments like ‘best I’ve ever heard,’ ‘most amazing show I’ve ever seen,’ ‘they make you glad to be alive.’”
These were the people Atlantic Records wanted to forget?
Alley thinks the label “squandered the musical opportunity of the decade.” Maybe so, but Alley is a retired engineer, not a record exec.
Which raises the question, of course: why did Atlantic sign Cecilia in the first place?
And that prompts another question: What makes a hit song? Short answer: nobody knows. If they did, the Top 40 would be the Top 40 Billion-to-the-10th-Power. A slightly longer answer might paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous quote about pornography: “I know it when I hear it.” While nearly everyone who heard Cecilia play expected to someday hear those songs on the radio, actually getting them there has never been, outside of payola, much of a science. The current process for second-guessing popular taste involves hooking multiple musicians up on a “co-write,” hoping that enough chefs will stir up a good-sounding broth.
Ken was flown hither and yon for such meetups, but fought the process. “I’ve been writing since I was 13. I’m an older, seasoned guy and they’re sending me to meet with the team of 34 writers that wrote ‘Torn,’” he scoffs, adding quickly that he was exaggerating about the number of co-writers. A bit. He says he met with the man who wrote Lee Ann Womack’s Grammy-winning Song of the Year, “I Hope You Dance.”
“And I said, let me guess, there’s no mother, there’s no daughter, there’s no mother that once danced and there’s no daughter she hopes will dance. He said, ‘Yeah, you’re right. It was a concept for a song.’” Again, Ken is quick to say he respects the craft, but reiterates his need for a personal story to hang his music on.
Cecilia also was at a stalemate in finding a producer for the hoped-for album, should any hits be found. Ken wanted to work with Frank Filipetti, who had recently won a Best Pop Album Grammy for his work with James Taylor. Ken remembers Kallman nixing the idea with the comment, “I want hits. I don’t want Grammies.” Never mind that Grammies only go to hits.
Ken and Jeannie suggest that the executives were more interested in promoting their two attractive young daughters as the next Britney Spears than in trying to market a modern Partridge Family. “The industry constantly tried to push us out,” says Ken.
“It bewildered us,” adds Jeannie. “They signed something unique and they want to change it into cookie-cutter.”
(Neither Kallman nor Atlantic Records responded to repeated requests for comment about the band’s time with the label. For her part, daughter Allison completely disagrees with this assessment of the situation, but doesn’t wish to speak about the Atlantic deal.)
Still, even now, with all that they own in the trunk of their car, the Veltzes accentuate the positive. “No sour grapes,” says Ken and Jeannie immediately agrees.
“Even Craig,” says Ken. “I like Craig. We all liked Craig. Craig wasn’t the problem.”
“He was a victim, too,” says Jeannie.
Ken theorizes that the AOL merger put pressure on executives to meet steep financial objectives instead of artistic ones. Shortly after signing Cecilia, Kallman was promoted to president of Atlantic. “Rather than nurturing this little family band, now he’s got a chopping block over him.” says Ken, by way of absolution.
Insisting that he has “no enemies in the industry” that failed him, Ken does offer one sad lament: in the two years Cecilia was signed to Atlantic, no one from the company ever came to any of their shows.
After head-butting for two years, the parties agreed to go their separate ways in 2002. The newly re-christened Veltz Family Band “took our story to the streets,” as Ken puts it, playing in subways, parks, and continuing to tour nationally for the next five years.
But there was other industry interest. Producers from Carsey-Warner, makers of The Cosby Show and Roseanne, shot a TV pilot starring the Veltzes as themselves, or rather, as some kind of millennial Partridge Family. The promo even begins with the animated logo from the ’70s show. But, again, the professionals had one idea and the family another. The producers suggested contrived scenarios that the family gamely improvised. “They would have done better to just have things happen like they happen,” says Jeannie today. The actual ups and downs of the family were far more interesting, she says. “There were fights and that’s OK. I mean, the Kardashians—that’s why they stay up in the charts, because of all the fights and disagreeing.”
She adds with a laugh, “It’s like we’re the most functional dysfunctional family. But aren’t we all?”
AS ANY TOURING MUSICIAN WILL TELL YOU, life on the road can become a blur. And so the boundaries between the Veltz family and the Veltz Family Band were growing fuzzy. While she loved the freedom of highway life, Jeannie often found herself wondering, “Am I a bandmember? Or am I a mom?” As a mother, she’d be tempted to, say, nudge a stray tag back inside a shirt collar. But, she notes, “a bandmember wouldn’t do that.” Making those distinctions was not always clear. “Sometimes I was mom when I should have been band and band when I should have been mom.”
But the band was facing pressure from the inside, as well. In between gigs, both Laura and Drew had found partners and got married. Soon thereafter, Drew’s first child showed up, which slowed things down, but only a little. Still, Jeannie would sometimes sit in the back of the van looking at her brood and think, “I don’t know how much longer we can do this.” She could see that her children were eager to start their own lives.
Then Drew’s second child was born with severe health issues, ultimately requiring four surgeries. The family would be in and out of hospitals for the next three-and-a-half years. Life for the band outside of the ER became more tentative. Jeannie is still struck by the memory of driving four hours to a show in Connecticut but having to turn back and head for the emergency room when the infant became suddenly ill. “It was an eight-hour driving day of insanity,” she says now with a shudder in her voice.
Even after recounting such horrific stories, Ken opts for the upside: “It did wonderful things for us,” he says. “It brought is down to the bone of reality. No more complaining that I don’t have the five-razor Gillette because I only have the three-blade. All that stuff just falls by the wayside.”
“I don’t think Andrew necessarily ever thought the band would break up,” adds Jeannie, “but the responsibilities of being a father—he had to be there.”
Drew moved his family to Maryland to concentrate on caring for his daughter. Today, she’s a healthy child. Laura and her husband moved to Nashville to focus on her own songwriting, followed shortly by Allison. Though the sisters are in touch and sometimes collaborate, mostly they pursue separate careers.
The Veltz Family Band unplugged.
Now the parents were faced with another decision—how to reinvent themselves once more at an age when their peers are thinking of retirement. Ken jokes about applying for a job at Mr. Donut. “‘What’s your past experience?’ I’m the father of a family band and I…”
“I ate donuts on the road,” Jeannie laughs.
The couple moved once again to upstate New York, this time to the artsy town of Cold Springs. They created a weekly music showcase called SongNest that featured regional singer/songwriters playing in the Veltz’s apartment. Ken posted videos of the living room sessions online, hoping to create a buzz, maybe sell the concept to a TV syndicator or radio network, like Mountain Stage or Austin City Limits. The couple also played for tourists from the comfort of their porch, singing songs, telling stories, passing the hat, morning, noon, and night.
Christian Livermore, a reporter for the local Times Herald-Record who lived above the Veltzes in Cold Spring, remembers, “I would go to sleep every night listening to the Veltzes play,” she says. “It was wonderful.”
For two years, the couple kept at it, “working 60, 70, 80 hours a week to not make ends meet,” says Ken. One day on the porch, he had an epiphany: When he and Jeannie met 37 years ago they toured around, a singer/songwriter couple with little more than each other and a desire to see the world and play their songs. Now their parents were gone and their children and grandchildren were healthy, happy, and living their own lives. There was nothing tying them to any place in particular. Another roll of the dice.
“We’re just gonna go out and see where the wind blows us,” Ken says with renewed excitement in his voice. “It’s kinda like the same feeling of getting out of high school.”
Livermore calls the Veltz’s decision to hit the road “extraordinarily brave. They faced the option of staying here, where it just wasn’t working, where people say they’ll support you, but they don’t support you—because, you know, nobody’s got money, nobody’s got time, everybody’s tired—or, you know, taking a leap of faith. And they took the leap of faith.”
For some people in this economy, the leap was more of a push. The Veltzes, at least, made the choice their own.
The couple left Cold Springs in June. They drove from gig to gig, town to town, some shows scheduled in advance, more often finding a place to play on the spot. Using contacts from years of touring and Craigslist, the Veltzes have stayed with and played for friends and fans in horse-country mansions and rural crab shacks—and once on the patio of a strip club.
“So far we’ve been able to eat off the top of the barrel,” says Ken, meaning that the trip is paying for itself.
The kids are supportive. “I think that it’s awesome that they’re going out and doing this,” says Allison over the phone from Nashville. “It’s a fearless journey and I’m really proud of them.”
SUNDAY NIGHT IN ARLINGTON, it’s an hour or so before showtime at Iota. “A lot of great memories in this place,” says Ken as he calmly finishes a bowl of gazpacho. Jeannie sits to the side of the stage autographing CDs for sale. Opening act Jim Dugan does his soundcheck. Dugan is a friend of son Drew, who is staying home tonight, minding the grandkids. Dugan’s wife and a few of his fans are here. The Veltzes have brought in a couple tables of old friends and fans. The people from LA Bar & Grille who said they’d make the show will not be here tonight. In fact, this will be the smallest crowd the Veltzes have played to all week. It’s a sharp contrast with the packed houses that Cecilia drew to this same venue.
Still, Ken and Jeannie perform as if it were standing room only. For this show, they’ve brought out the full rig. Ken has adapted a middle eastern dumbek as a bass drum, with a tambourine he can play with his foot, one-man-band style. It’s surprisingly effective in creating a fuller sound for the songs.
Undaunted by the turnout, Ken has got his wish to play for a small crowd of enthusiastic supporters rather than an uninterested packed house.
There’s a new song on one of the CDs that won’t be played tonight because it requires a full band. “Something Out There” was recorded with all the modern bells and whistles that pop hits require. Though grandma Jeannie sings it, you’d be forgiven thinking it was one of her daughters, or any number of current chanteuses. It’s a solid toe-tapper that could definitely be a hit. Maybe even in Japan. Ken has not given up on making a mark on the charts.
“Life’s still good to us,” he insists. “And I think the best of our family story is yet to come.”
The benefit to not being a large family band is that the load-out at the end of the night is pretty simple. A guitar case, the small drum, and a couple bags of chords and such. Everything fits snugly, “like Tetris,” into Falkor’s trunk.
It’s after midnight when the Veltzes are finally in the car. Tonight they’ll stay with their son. Then it’s back on the road by Tuesday, maybe heading to Nashville, maybe north.
“We’re still making it up as we go,” says Ken. The car disappears up Wilson Boulevard.
Photos by Bill O’Leary, the Washington Post, and courtesy of the Veltz family and the Nuttycombe Archives.