“The Playlist” – Redefined

An in-depth conversation with Great Family Reunion Musical Director (MD) Charles Mertens, about how he blends his unique knowledge of harmony, adventure, and living in the moment to create the ultimate musical experience for your once-in-a-lifetime event.

By: Jonathan Huvard, Great Family Reunion Co-Director

Charlie Mertens – Musical Director – Great Family Reunion
Before we dive in, allow me to briefly elaborate on the important role a “musical director” plays within most all entertainment organizations and/or band(s). A great musical director lives in a world that exists both behind the scenes and in front of the bright lights. They are equal parts conductor and coordinator, absolutely essential to the overall success of the performance.

Charles Mertens (let’s please switch over to his more commonly used nomenclature- Charlie) is what I consider a Webster’s Dictionary example of a 21st century renaissance man- Alaskan Heliskier, Alpine Runner, Retro- Hippie Van Outfitter Enthusiast, International Bass Rocker, In-Demand Studio Session Cat and oh yeah.. Musical Director for Great Family Reunion. Charlie and I have been musical colleagues and all-around close compadres for over a decade. He’s forever maintained an over the top schedule and has always persued a life enriched by a diverse array of adventure. 

It was mid-March 2019 (late winter/ early spring is typically a brief, but pleasant “downtime/ off season” for the GFR crew) and after several failed attempts I was finally able to connect with my dear friend Charlie via Skype for an interview (at the time he was living in a Winnebago, hitched under some epic mountain in Alaska, on tour with an award winning bluegrass outfit by night and tearing up some gnarliest peaks in the country). Charlie’s the guy that ensures the playlist and band’s performance at your event undeniably pop off and there’s no better person suited for the job!

JH: Hellooo Mr. Charlie, Hello! (for some reason I’ve committed to this odd, strange-ish, over- the-top salutation whenever I greet my friends as of late) 

CM: Hahaha… What’s up Skip? (many of my close friends call me Skippy – a nickname, that I for better or worse have been unable to shake since the 3rd grade.. I’ll be 35 years old this fall.)

JH: I’m well my man, glad I was able to catch ya mid- journey! I’m just braving this chilly NYC winter.. How are your travels? What brought you out to Alaska?! 

CM: Alaska is absolutely epic! I’m on the road with this killer group, Rapid Grass. They’ve crushed the bluegrass scene for years and are a solid crew. I’m grateful to have been on steady call in their tour rotation as of late. Honestly… It’s been pretty hardcore… We’ve been rippin backcountry by day and throwing down awesome shows at night. Tour’s great, everyone on board is a total pro and the fans have really turned out!

JH: Sounds incredible my man, I’m stoked it’s going well! So everyone in the group is pretty tuned-in to that outdoor adventurer vibe as well? 

CM: Funny you say that.. everyone in the band does happen to be a pretty advanced skier.. Kind of a prerequisite for team if you ask us! (Charlie, then gave out a hearty chuckle) Well.. everyone but the fiddle player. The fiddler’s from Texas. We all know that Texans can’t really ski and when they try, you can usually catch them cruising in blue jeans and like a goofy- throwback Dallas Cowboys Starter jacket. All kidding aside, he’s a next -level musical talent. His picking skills more than make up for his skiing credentials, or lack thereof. That said, time to get that dude up on some sticks!

Charlie Mertens skiing like a madman
Above: Charlie Mertens “Shredding the Gnar” (Alaska circa. 2019)
(now I’m sure this must come as a total shock to everyone.. Not! I under zero circumstances consider myself to be even half a writer, journalist, investigator, reporte etc..  and if you’ve ever attempted to conduct an “official” type interview with a close friend and/or family member, then you too can likely understand how tough a feat that actually is. In an effort to finally put this “official” interview in motion, I made a sudden, hard shift mid- conversation and slowly eased into my newly self- constructed identity of the “reporter”.) 

JH: So Charles.. Buddy.. While we’ve still got service, let’s get into it. 

CM: Haha… Sounds good, ready when you are!

JH: (I clear my throat) Charles, It’s clear that you’re quite the “jack of many trades” so to speak, What inspires this internal sense of adventure both musically and in general? 

CM: Haha.. Straight for the deep feels, “reporter Skip”, I like it! I suppose I’ve always had this “now or never” mentality and firmly believe that you’ve always got to seize the moment- whatever/whenever that is! I don’t know.. it’s probably my Colorado upbringing talking. Musically, I try to keep busy as well. My primary instrument is the bass. If you want to get steady work as a bassist, it’s crucial to know and deeply feel many styles of music. Sure.. you’ve got to be funky, obviously that’s huge.. but you also have to  smash a salsa, jazz and/ or bow an upright for a classical for example. It’s that mentality in general that has led me to where I am now- writing, touring, recording with a deep roster of musicians/ bands and of course.. serve as lead musical director/ programmer at Great Family Reunion.

JH: I always find it fascinating how one passion or interest, will eventually open up so many different paths or possible directions if you really invest the time. 

CH: Totally.

JH: Let’s talk more in -depth about the position of “Musical Director” or “MD”. How would you describe what a musical director is? 

CH: Essentially, the MD is band leader both on-stage and at rehearsal. Larger bands, pop bands, arena bands, church bands and wedding bands often employ an MD to oversee the musical operations.

JH: What do you mean when you say “musical operations”? 

CH: “Musical operations” refers to, but not exclusively, scheduling rehearsals, write/ source charts or other materials to help the musicians get the tunes down and directs the band on-stage during the performance. In short we coordinate the performance from the first rehearsal, to the end of the night/ tour. For example, I played in a gospel church band for a little bit. This band had an enormous amount going on.. At all times.. 12 piece rhythm section, guest musicians in/out every other tune, and a 40 person choir! That particular band had both an MD and dedicated Choir Director on-stage simultaneously. One would manage the band, the other the choir. Live, they would communicate with each other  on- stage via hidden lapel mics in their suits, which transmitted to all the musicians via their IEMs (in-ear monitors)- it was a massive, crazy operation!

Vibe Is Key
JH: Wow man, that is pretty mind-blowing and makes sense at the same time. It seems like there’s no other way to coordinate that many people on a live performance.  How does the role of “Musical Director” work in the context of a programming/ planning a wedding and working with couples? 

CH: Honestly.. From the music side, it’s not that different at all. The band needs to be tight with the tunes, charts need to be made for horn players and rehearsals need to happen. Behind-the- scenes work, which the clients don’t see is how we deliver those epic performances. When it comes to working directly with the client, I try to approach each meeting with a fresh perspective. I realize most people don’t have a ton of experience working/ booking bands and can be a little unsure of the process. My plan is to connect with the clients and pick up their vibe, not necessarily musically, but like.. Their vibe.. Haha!

JH: Vibe is key! 

Above: Charlie Mertens on- tour w/ Thievery Corporation (Electric Forest Music Festival circa. 2016)
CH: No doubt Skipdog! After we break the ice, that’s when we can get to the music, the party, the flow of the night. By the end of the first call,  most couples are pretty stoked- they can finally hear/envision the day. They also see the bigger picture of how the music at the different stages of the event all tie together, to create an epic day. I take the blueprint back to the team and we make it happen. It’s all about the BAND! And the food.. But really, it’s all about that dance party!

JH: What about at the wedding or any live performance really? What are you doing up there?! I mean.. I know you’re playing bass, but what does directing the band on-stage look like?

CH: I’m lucky, we’ve got some of the most killer players around and we’ve all been on the scene together for years. So there’s a great chemistry that exists. It’s wild to say that you have this musical connection with so many talented players coast to coast, but it’s there! That said, we stole a little trick from the church band. We started up on the IEMs (wireless in-ear monitors) and we utilize the “GOD” mic.

JH: What’s the “GOD” mic?

CH: Haha! The “GOD” mic is the microphone that stands directly in front of me. The audience members usually think that I’m singing background vocals or something… but I’m actually calling tunes, tempos, time signatures, and from time to time pointing out the drunkest members of the wedding party (That’s when we both started cracking up. If this were a text message, this is where I’d add the “wink” emoji) directly to the band members on stage.

JH: What’s the most important component to throwing a killer live performance, especially at a wedding?

CH: Above all else, I believe it’s about positive energy. There’s no doubt that weddings are pretty emotionally charged days. Plus, there’s a ton of excitement and anticipation that leads up to the event. I think it’s important to stay in the moment, because time is finite. If you’ve hired the right vendors, have a killer band and follow the advice of the professionals, than it should be pretty smooth sailing. It’s easy to curate a killer playlist and musicians inherently want to have fun! Live music is all about the now and together with the audience, we create those magical, musical memories.

JH: What’s the most gratifying part about being Musical Director at Great Family Reunion? Any final words? 

CH: I know this sounds pretty stock.. But delivering epic performances to people on one of the most important milestones in their lives, is an awesome privilege and we take it seriously. But truthfully, what could be better than hanging out and making music with my friends?! Pretty tight!

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