The Stockwell Brothers will perform at the Retreat Farm on Thursday, June 29.
Courtesy photo
The Stockwell Brothers will perform at the Retreat Farm on Thursday, June 29.

Vermont family keeps 'brother band' tradition alive

‘I think we’ve come full circle — back to using the bluegrass instrumentation of banjo, mandolin, bass, and guitar, and approaching music with a kind of bluegrass/folk sensibility,’ says Barry Stockwell of The Stockwell Brothers

BRATTLEBORO — Our window for enjoying live outdoor music is rather short in Vermont - three months, if we're lucky. So why not pile the kids in the car, grab a blanket and some folding chairs, and head to the Retreat Farm to hear great local music while sampling appealing global cuisine? (You won't even have to clean up!)

The Retreat Farm has just what locals and tourists alike are looking for this summer as its live music summer season continues with local favorites, like The Stockwell Brothers, who will perform at the weekly Food Truck Roundup on Thursday, June 29.

A contemporary folk and bluegrass quartet, this Putney band of brothers - and one sister-in-law - is Bruce Stockwell on banjo and vocals, Barry Stockwell on guitar and vocals, Alan Stockwell on mandolin and vocals, and Kelly Stockwell on bass. They have been sharing their music in some form with audiences for over five decades.

According to their publicity materials, their music spans traditional and progressive styles, but their trademark acoustic sound features new singer/songwriter material recast with banjo, alternative rhythms, and three-part harmonies. They cover “straight-ahead bluegrass songs, finger-picked acoustic guitar ballads, full-tilt breakdowns, [and] traditional mandolin tunes mixed in with songs from other genres.”

Featuring Bruce, the winner of the 2005 MerleFest bluegrass banjo contest, The Stockwell Brothers have performed alongside artists such as Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, and Earl Scruggs to Mary Chapin Carpenter, Jonathan Edwards, and Asleep at the Wheel.

They have recorded with Mike Auldridge and Phil Rosenthal of the bluegrass supergroup The Seldom Scene, and toured throughout the United States and in Canada and Europe. As a trio, Bruce, Barry, and Alan have released two albums, Stobro and Leave My Dreams Alone.

“The performing arts are an amazing and energizing way to get folks out to Retreat Farm and into nature. It's a fun way to unwind and be part of a community,” says Kristin M. Sullivan, Retreat Farm executive director.

Sullivan continues, “One dollar of every $5 from tickets will go to support a different area nonprofit each week. On June 29, that nonprofit is Black Mountain Assisted Family Living. The rest [of the revenue] helps to keep Retreat Farm free and open to the public all year-round.”

The Commons caught up with Barry Stockwell recently and talked about his career as a Vermont-based musician and concert producer. He is The Stockwell Brothers' guitarist and lead singer, has a concert production company Twilight Music, and is the production director and co-founder of Next Stage Arts Project in Putney. Here's an excerpt of their conversation.

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Victoria Chertok: Have you and Bruce been playing together for 53 years?

Barry Stockwell: Yeah, I started playing bluegrass music with my older brother Bruce and our two cousins Doug and Tim Harlow as The Green Mountain Boys in 1969. We played throughout Vermont and a bit farther afield for about six years, until Bruce and I both ended up in college in New Haven, Connecticut, and formed a band called Old Dog, with Phil and Beth Rosenthal. Both of those bands played “contemporary” bluegrass, mixing elements of other musical genres with bluegrass.

After Bruce and I graduated from college, we moved even farther away from traditional bluegrass - forming a five-piece folk/rock and dance band, The Stockwell Brothers.

We'd played in high school rock bands with our friends, and Bruce was as good an electric guitarist as he is a banjo player. By the mid-'80s, Derrik Jordan had joined the band, and The Stockwell Brothers morphed into a world beat band called Spunk that featured Derrik's original pop, funk, reggae, salsa, and samba songs.

V.C.: Interesting! How did you get back into playing bluegrass and folk tunes?

B.S.: During Spunk's heyday, Bruce and I kept playing contemporary bluegrass/folk as a side project with our younger brother Alan. When Spunk disbanded, that became our main band again. Bruce's wife Kelly joined the band on acoustic bass about seven years ago, so we're quite the family band now.

I think we've come full circle - back to using the bluegrass instrumentation of banjo, mandolin, bass, and guitar, and approaching music with a kind of bluegrass/folk sensibility. We've always borrowed songs and musical ideas from other genres and tried to make them our own with acoustic instruments and three-part harmonies.

V.C.: How do you come up with your repertoire?

B.S.: I mostly bring in songs from contemporary folk singer/songwriters. There are so many great songs out there - ones that I want to sing and that I feel should be heard and passed on.

We rework some traditional songs and tunes, too.

V.C.: Who are some of those singer/songwriters?

B.S.: One of my favorite singer/songwriters is Antje Duvekot. We do four or five of her songs and have performed our versions with her, which is great fun. But we cover material from lots of singer/songwriters - the likes of Cheryl Wheeler, Dougie MacLean, Richard Thompson, and Mark Knopfler.

V.C.: Who were some of your early music influences?

B.S.: I was listening to country and folk singer/songwriters from the beginning - focusing on their singing and lyrics. Merle Haggard stood out from all the other country artists, and by the time I was in high school, I was listening to Gordon Lightfoot, Jonathan Edwards, and Jim Croce. Bruce and I listened to a lot of bluegrass - first-generation bluegrass players like Flatt and Scruggs, The Osborne Brothers, The Stanley Brothers, J.D. Crowe, The Country Gentlemen, Bill Monroe, and others.

Then, high school friends introduced Bruce and me to Led Zeppelin, The Allman Brothers Band, and Aerosmith, and we started playing that stuff. Pretty different, but we were open to exploring all of it.

V.C.: Do you play any originals?

B.S.: We currently do some of Bruce's original banjo tunes. He wrote an entire record of songs - our Leave My Dreams Alone CD - but that was during our more “electric” days, and we don't do those songs out anymore.

V.C.: Which instrument did you start on when you were a student at Putney Central School?

B.S.: My first instrument was the acoustic guitar. My dad played mandolin, guitar, and harmonica, and he got me started. I played bass with The Green Mountain Boys at first, but switched to guitar when I bought a better one than the Gibson that Doug was playing. I still play that 1971 Martin D-35.

V.C.: I bet you listened to a lot of music in your house growing up since your dad played and sang, too.

B.S.: Yeah, we listened to our mom's 78 rpm records and bought every bluegrass LP that we could find at a couple of area record stores and by mail order.

Bruce started with a Pete Seeger How to Play the 5-String Banjo book, but spent hours and hours slowing our 33{1/3} rpm LPs down to 16 rpm on the phonograph to pick out all those banjo notes one by one. I just cranked up the volume and sang along, as loud and high as I could.

V.C.: What did music mean to your dad?

B.S.: A lot. My dad Raymond's whole family was musical - he and his six siblings all played instruments. I remember my dad and his younger brother Earl playing at parties, and they actually recorded a 78 - just one copy of “The Wabash Cannonball.” I don't know what was on the B-side. The story goes that they added it to the Putney Diner jukebox, and people played it so much that it wore out and was discarded.

Before my time, but that song was Earl's trademark song for decades. I'd go to parties as a kid and hear them play that one four or five times. The Stockwell Brothers can do the “Wabash,” but not like Ray and Earl.

V.C.: Tell me about Alan's other business.

B.S.: Alan is a recording engineer, as well as The Stockwell Brothers' mandolinist and sound man. He worked at Soundesign Recording Studio in downtown Brattleboro for years and now has his own recording studio, Black Mountain Audio. He does live sound for shows at Next Stage, too.

He is six years younger than me, and joined the fun after Bruce and me - first as a sound man for Spunk and then The Stockwell Brothers.

V.C.: I'm intrigued about the long history of brother bands that The Stockwell Brothers fits into. Which brother bands were you listening to growing up?

B.S.: There have been a lot of great ones. The “father of bluegrass” - Bill Monroe - started out with his brothers, and there's a long list of brothers who played together their entire careers - the Osbornes, Stanleys, McReynolds, Allens. The Kruger Brothers is an amazing bluegrass trio originally from Switzerland who have been playing together since 1979. They will perform at Next Stage on July 7.

I think it's a natural thing - you grow up together and are exposed to so many of the same things, including music. And you're kind of wired the same way - everything from your voices to your temperament.

V.C: There is a plethora of live music offerings this summer at Retreat Farm, Next Stage, Stone Church, etc. I heard you say, “It seems that we're back after Covid.”

B.S.: It's amazing and wonderful that there is so much live music happening in our area. It does feel like we're back after three years. The summer outdoor concerts - Next Stage Bandwagon and Twilight on the Tavern Lawn - got us through it, and it seems like the crowds are back inside our theaters, too.

V.C.: Lastly, how has growing up in Vermont informed you and your music?

B.S.: Certainly, growing up in Vermont has shaped me and my music. I'm third-generation Putney, and I love this area - a sweet spot with a small-town feel, with so much happening in the arts.

I grew up across the street from Windham College (now Landmark College), and got used to that mix early on. We weren't listening to a lot of radio, and we got only three TV channels, but we were picking up music from our friends (two banjo players and a mandolin player in the neighborhood) and family.

Pretty lucky, I think.

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The Stockwell Brothers perform at Retreat Farm's weekly food truck roundup Thursday, June 29 at 5 p.m. at 45 Farmhouse Square. Thirsty Goat Bar, HAngry Traveler, Anon's Thai Cuisine, Mach's Mobile Pizza, Vermont Gelato, and Cousin's Lobster will be on site this week. Tickets are available online or at the door, “and free options are available, no questions asked,” says Kristin M. Sullivan, executive director of Retreat Farm. For more information and to buy tickets, visit

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