Hill’s Music Men Find Little Time for Tunes

Posted February 19, 2007 at 1:50pm

Since his 2006 election to the House, musician and Rep. John Hall (D-N.Y.) hasn’t had much time for the guitar. In fact, Hall’s Congressional schedule has been so hectic that he hasn’t even gotten around to finding a place to live and is currently crashing with his Jesuit brother Jerome at the “priests’ residence” at Gonzaga on North Capitol Street.

“For my own mental health I should probably play for 15 minutes a day or something, but it doesn’t seem to be there,” says Hall, co-founder of the band Orleans, whose credits include the soft-rock staples “Still the One” and “Dance with Me,” both of which Hall penned with his first wife, Johanna.

Hall found that time last week in an interview in his Longworth Building office, pulling a six-string acoustic guitar out of its case and strumming briefly. He notes that he hasn’t played “since Williamsburg,” when he and other Members took to the stage during the Democratic House retreat earlier this month to perform “Still the One” and other songs.

But Hall’s hardly the only freshman Representative whose new role has put a crimp on his jam time. Joining Hall in the class of 2006 are two other lesser-known, former professional musicians: Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.), who with his wife, Peggo, founded the family and children’s rock band Peggosus; and Rep. Bill Sali (R-Idaho), who’s played in various country western and classic rock bands over the years. Hodes and Sali also say the intensity of their new political life leaves little room for their musical side. (And both Hall, 58, and Hodes have had to turn down requests to play since becoming Congressmen.)

That doesn’t mean music hasn’t remained an integral part the lives of these freshmen.

The 55-year-old Hodes has a recording studio in his New Hampshire home, where Peggo recently put the finishing touches on her new solo CD: “In Love: Jazz with a Happy Ending.” Hodes and his wife — whom he met during law school when she put an ad in the Boston Phoenix seeking a guitar player for her band (which ironically also included a future Canadian Parliament member) — also have recorded as Peggo & Paul and even performed at the White House.

Sali, 53, got his first snare drum in 1965 and never looked back — even while practicing law and serving in the Idaho state Legislature. Along the way, he played in three bands: Idaho the Band, Cimmaron and Redstone, which opened for the likes of Toby Keith and Billy Ray Cyrus.

Hall, whom The New York Times dubbed “the first bona fide rock ’n’ roll musician in the House,” left Orleans in the late 1970s to pursue a solo career but returned to the band in 1986. He’s since played on and off with the group, including a half-dozen gigs last year.

All three new Representatives incorporated music (to varying degrees) into their recent campaigns.

Hall famously turned to his high-profile rocker friends — including Bonnie Raitt, John Sebastian, Jackson Browne and Pete Seeger — to play fundraising concerts. And he is quick to acknowledge “I wouldn’t be” in Congress without their help. “Jackson Browne single-handedly turned the campaign around,” he asserts. Not until Browne “did four shows in two days” in barns in the district last summer, which raked in “over $100,000,” did people start “to look at me like maybe we can do it,” says Hall, who hopes to be able to turn to his rocker buddies again in the 2008 cycle.

“The musical events recharged everyone’s batteries emotionally,” he adds.

Sali called on some of his bandmates from his days in Redstone for appearances on the hustings and even enlisted his four daughters to sing a patriotic medley at some campaign events.

But Hodes, who played with Hall at the Democratic retreat, says he tried to limit his guitar picking on the stump to a few “on-demand” performances. “In the first campaign in 2004 we did a ‘Rock and Roll Back the Deficit Tour’ and we lost by 20 points, so in the second campaign my wise advisers suggested I leave the guitar in the case,” Hodes quips. “I did, and we won by 8 points.”

Along the way, music has brought these Members into contact with iconic figures.

For instance, both Hall and Hodes have Bob Dylan stories. In his youth, Hodes, who once chatted up John Lennon at a party, hung around the folk music scene in Greenwich Village, where he met Dylan at a guitar store and once played a pickup game of basketball with him. Likewise, the teenage Hall snuck out on the weekend during a National Science Foundation summer program to see Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival. Years later, Hall would be hired by Dylan to play guitar on a music project only to be “fired” two weeks later when Dylan abruptly pulled the plug on the project and sent all the musicians home.

“Bob would write songs every day, and every one sounded like a great Dylan song,” Hall, who also toured with Taj Mahal, says. “We’d start jamming on some chord progression … and he’d have a legal pad there on a piano … and the next thing you’d know he’d be singing a song that would have six verses all rhymed. And then you’d never hear it again.”

For both Hall and Hodes, music and politics have been intertwined from the get-go. As a teenager, Hall remembers listening to his grandmother’s records of Seeger (who’s now a constituent) singing about “sprawl and cookie-cutter housing” — issues Hall says he and his staff are grappling with today. And Hall’s Congressional priorities include emphasizing “renewable energy,” appropriate for a man who co-founded Musicians United for Safe Energy, helped organize the legendary “No Nukes” concerts at Madison Square Garden in 1979 and composed environmentally oriented songs.

In contrast, Sali says music has had almost no impact on his politics — if anything, quite the opposite, he asserts.

“I’m a pretty conservative guy,” says the jovial Sali, the father of six. “When people see me playing and singing ‘Walk This Way’ or ‘Tush,’ it’s a real eye opener for ’em.”

Case in point: Sali remembers a gig in a Boise club when “Butch Otter’s press guy” came in while “we were playing ‘Fortunate Son,’ a war protest song. He was probably shocked by that, but to me it was just a Credence Clearwater song. I’m certainly not a war protester.”

While Hall makes it clear his priority is “to look out for” the interests of his Hudson River Valley constituents — “He’s been a star, now he just wants to stop the war,” says his communications director, Arthur Harris — music has still found a way into his Congressional life, whether it’s singing at an event for Martin Luther King Jr. Day at a Baptist church in his district or breaking out in the occasional Stevie Wonder song while driving in New York with his press secretary. And, though Fly Amero has replaced Hall in Orleans, Hall will go back to the studio in the spring to do some touch-up work on the vocal tracks for a musical DVD the band plans to release this summer.

As for Hodes — a former actor who built a successful entertainment law practice and once had a play he wrote performed “off-off Broadway” — he has completed a rough draft of the libretto for an opera about Oscar Wilde but otherwise hasn’t been doing much music. He’s currently looking for someone to take over the business portion of the label — Big Round Records — that he and Peggo founded.

All three men say they’ve talked to members of the Congressional rock band, the Second Amendments, about possibly playing with the group — though none has yet to officially join.

It may only be a matter of time.

Not playing the drums “is killing me,” says Sali, adding that he may buy an electronic set for his Capitol Hill apartment (or maybe even his Cannon Building office) “because it doesn’t make any noise.”

In the meantime, Sali is anticipating the moment when the career of his daughter Anna — a 20-year-old singer-songwriter who just wrapped up work on an album, which she’s shopping around for a distribution deal — takes off. “I have a lot of confidence that Anna is going to play some big dates, and I’m very much looking forward to the day when I can get on stage and play with my little girl,” Sali says. “She’s a tremendous talent.”