All good things

After 32 years, The Brian McCarty Band is calling it quits


by Joe Bollig
joe.bollig@theleaven.org

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Brian McCarty was only a little boy when he caught the fever.

Polka fever, that is.

He was four or five years old when his parents took him to a little polka dance in the social hall of Holy Family Parish in Kansas City, Kan.

There he saw something that would change his life: a man whose fingers fairly flew over the keyboard of the accordion he was squeezing to, well, beat the band.

“I literally dragged my mom by the arm over there and pointed to the accordion and said, ‘That’s cool. I want one of those,’” said McCarty.

While the other kids were running around playing, McCarty sat rapt, crosslegged, right there on the floor in front of the band. He watched and wished that he’d be able to play just like that guy.

McCarty got an accordion for Christmas that year and right away began to teach himself little songs. Eventually, he grew up and became that guy, playing the accordion at the head of his own band.

Just as it often had, The Brian McCarty Band played a polka dance on March 19 at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Shawnee. As usual, the faithful filled the floor. As usual, the happy music got them stepping.

This dance, however, was different. After the last song, The Brian McCarty Band packed its gear and instruments away for good. Their 32-year run was over. Brian and his band members were retiring.

Polka nation forever

You have to grow up in a place like Strawberry Hill in Kansas City, Kan., to really understand the allure of polka. It’s in the blood. Polka was the lingua franca that brought together the little ethnic enclaves — Germans, Poles, Slovenes, Slovaks, and Croatians — in a way nothing else could.

“My mom is full-blooded Slovenian; my dad is Irish and German,” said McCarty. “Accordion music is in the culture.”

When he was growing up, his neighbors visited across the backyard fences in Croatian and Slovenian.

“We’d go to a friend’s house, and there was polka music playing,” he said. “You’d go down to the church hall, and there was polka music playing. We’d go to a wedding, and there was polka music playing.

“And sometimes it went on for days!”

When McCarty first got his accordion, he taught himself to play by ear, and learned dozens of songs that way. To expand his repertoire beyond the tunes he was familiar with, he’d listen to records of polka music and try to produce something sorta-kinda close.

“I was making music,” he said, “maybe not great music.”

He’d even take his child-size accordion down to the church hall and try to pick up what he could from visiting polka bands.

Finally, he had his first accordion lessons at age 11.

“Play me something,” said his teacher at his first lesson. “Show me what you know how to do.”

McCarty hit six bars.

“Stop! I’ve heard enough,” said the teacher. “Now I know where to go — right back to the beginning!”

McCarty started his first band, Four of a Kind, in 1979. Five years later, he formed The Brian McCarty Band — the same one that closed out its run on March 19.

He formed that first band as a teenager — and the other band members were teens as well. They came from the same ethnic groups that populated the neighborhood: German, Polish, Croatian and Slovenian. Like McCarty, they were largely self-taught.

As a boy, John Schneller, now a member of St. Joseph Parish in Shawnee, had always dreamed of playing in a band. His first drum was his mother’s washtub; his first drumsticks were limbs he sawed off a tree in his back yard. Later, his parents bought him some real drums. He, too, learned first to play by ear, mimicking the drumming he heard on records.

One day Schneller dropped by the McCarty garage and mentioned that he owned some drums. Brian said, “Bring them over,” and Schneller retrieved them from his attic.

“I didn’t know how to [drum for] polka,” said Schneller. “Brian gave me some pointers, and that’s how I got started [in the band].”

Ironically, Schneller only began taking drum lessons after he joined the band.

When McCarty decided to recruit his younger brother Gary to play in his band, there was just one problem. Gary only played guitar, and Brian needed him to play banjo.

So they compromised. Gary was given a whole month to learn to play banjo.

“The [band] member I replaced took a job in Des Moines,” recalled Gary McCarty, a member of Holy Family Parish, Kansas City, Kan. “I think he bought me my first banjo.

“We worked through it a bunch of evenings, and finally Brian booked a job and I showed up.”

The coolness of polka

The dominant youth music of the late 1970s was heavy metal, stadium rock with big hair, pop and disco. Pretty much everything but polka.

“We took a lot of heckling from people in our own age group,” said McCarty.

While their teen peers couldn’t get their rock bands out of their garages, however, The Brian McCarty Band was landing gigs and making money.

“It was excellent money for a high schooler,” said McCarty.

As the years went by, the band played on. Despite the addition of wives, children, and day jobs, there was a lot of continuity in the band. In fact, only 11 people cycled through The Brian McCarty Band during its 32-year existence.

Generally, the band was comprised of four musicians — one each on drums, saxophone, accordion, and banjo. The style of their music was Slovenian-American, said McCarty.

The band played at dances, weddings and ethnic festivals. Over the years, they took a lot of day trips and even got as far as Denver and St. Louis. Often, a busload of fans — not organized by the band — followed the band to these far performances.

No fans were more loyal. One time a local dance had been cancelled due to heavy snow, but a crowd showed up anyway.

Polka people are positive, because the music won’t let you be otherwise. The blues it ain’t.

“It’s happy, happy music,” said Schneller. “And all the people who followed us enjoy this happy music.”

Sometimes band members’ families had to take the back seat. It may not have been high art, but the band sacrificed for it.

“We booked jobs months or a year in advance,” said McCarty. “[They were] commitments we made. We always honored those commitments.”

They did it for the love of polka . . . and for their fans.

“We always said the scheduling, the setup, and equipment and those kinds of things are what we got paid for,” said Gary McCarty. “The music we’d do for free.”

Save the last dance

One of the band’s favorite places to perform was the Knights of Columbus Hall in Shawnee. Playing there was like playing a home game. A lot of the polka fans that showed up had roots back in the old neighborhood. The band played there six or seven times a year.

These “home field” polka dances had a dash of the family reunion/wedding dance vibe to them — fun and food, friends and fancy footwork. A group of Knights’ wives would cook homemade food for each occasion: Polish sausage and sauerkraut, potatoes and seasoned pork — all washed down by beer and wine.

The band played at the hall for 25 years, and the price of admission stayed just $10. That covered everything. The band made that possible.

“We never raised the prices because we wanted every penny to go to the seminarians,” said Gary McCarty. “Brian gave [the Knights] a fantastic rate to play. He never raised it.”

When Knights of Columbus polka dance organizers Joe Borders and Dan Nicks learned that The Brian McCarty Band was calling it quits, they urged the band to take their victory lap at the hall.

The hall was packed the night of March 19, of course. But there were no tearful goodbyes — everybody was having too good a time.

At the end, band members included Brian and Gary McCarty, John Schneller, Coker Thomas and Steve Smith.

Thomas and Smith are the anomalies. Thomas, a Texan, holds a bachelor’s degree in music. He answered an advertisement Brian McCarty placed in a newspaper. When he found out it was a polka band, he said, “No thanks. I hate accordions.”

Brian McCarty was persuasive, and now Thomas is a convert. Smith, a music teacher and conductor of the Olathe Community Orchestra, was a non-polka player until he joined the band, too. Another convert.

At the last performance, there was a reunion of sorts, and former band members joined the current band onstage for an impromptu jam session.

When the night ended, the dancers left, and the musicians put their instruments away.

“I still love the music,” reflected Brian McCarty. “I still love my instrument. I still love to play. But it’s time to just let go of all that and get along with it.”

But is it really over? Maybe not.

“There may come a time when we want to get together and play. We’ll miss it and we’ll want to have a party,” he said. “If and when, we’ll sent out e-mails and make phone calls, ‘Hey, guys, let’s have a polka party.’

“I’m pretty sure people will show up.”

 

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