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Life Stories: Musician Pete Sutherland Was a 'Unifying Force’


Published December 14, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 20, 2022 at 5:50 p.m.

Pete Sutherland and Emmett Stowell - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Pete Sutherland and Emmett Stowell

In a small house on a dirt road in Shelburne, Pete Sutherland (May 13, 1951-November 30, 2022) and his brother Michael played imaginative games when they were young. The boys were "quick and sharp," Michael said, and the bond they formed in early childhood felt magical.

"We created a world of bright color and sound and vision in a very black-and-white decade and time," Michael, 69, said. "Anything was fair game with words and sounds."

Word and sounds would prove central to Pete's life. A stellar and versatile musician, he died on November 30. Sick with cancer, he ended his life using Vermont's Death With Dignity Law, his family said. Pete was 71.

"When we were saying our goodbyes, he gave me a real big smile," Pete's 32-year-old son, Calum, said.

Pete was a traditional and folk musician who played fiddle, guitar, banjo and keyboards, and sang. He wrote and arranged songs, incorporated modern influences and sounds into traditional tunes, produced records, and led a contra dance band for kids. He performed at venues including the Capital City Grange, the Vergennes Opera House, the Flynn and the Calais Town Hall, where he played a gig in early October.

Musicians who played with Pete describe a heartfelt and inventive experience similar to the one Michael remembers from the brothers' game-playing 65 years ago.

Pete was a "unifying force" in Vermont's music scene, said producer and guitarist Colin McCaffrey of East Montpelier. "He was also a role model for many people, myself included."

Playing in a band or recording an album, it was "always a blast" to make music with Pete, McCaffrey said. "There was always going to be some really cool mashup, and he always did it with such love."

Pete was similarly open, interested and generous in activities he undertook at home. The family lived in a "pretty funky" house in Monkton that was a former general store and post office, Calum said. Pete kept a big garden and loved eating from it. "He seldom took care to wash the dirt off his lettuce," Calum said. Pete foraged for fiddlehead ferns and hen of the woods mushrooms and sautéed them in butter. He made mushroom-barley soup that tasted so good, Calum said, it's tough to re-create. He valued "simple pleasures," Calum said. "Simple, do-it-yourself pleasures."

Though Pete wasn't athletically inclined, he chased countless balls during his son's baseball phase, Calum said. He once wrote a poem about sitting in the bleachers watching Calum pitch. When Calum's interests changed, Pete learned about each new focus, including American history and filmmaking.

In Calum's younger years, Pete sang him to sleep with lullabies.

"He liked harmony," Calum said. He paused before adding, "Among people."

Pete Sutherland - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Pete Sutherland

Pete was the oldest of four sons of Bob and Mary Lou Sutherland, who met when they were students at the University of Vermont. Bob worked at General Electric in Burlington; Mary Lou was an excellent classical pianist who could have been a concert performer, according to Michael. She opted to get married and raise a family instead. Three sons came along in quick succession. Michael was followed by Christopher, who predeceased Pete. The youngest brother, Davis, was born about a decade after Pete.

Mary Lou played "scratchy 78s of opera and classical music only," Michael said. Their father listened to "cocktail jazz." When the boys took piano lessons, Pete's talent was evident. His musicianship had already revealed itself. "Peter could hum a recognizable tune before he could talk," his mother told this reporter 22 years ago.

When they were kids, Pete and Michael — only 20 months apart — created a neighborhood newspaper they called the Shelburne Scandal Sheet. The brothers made up gossip, which Pete edited and Michael illustrated. As they got older, a neighbor's kitchen table became a gathering place for preteens and teens who sang songs while Pete played guitar.

He graduated from Champlain Valley Union High School and attended Castleton State College, where he taught himself to play banjo and fiddle. After two years, Pete transferred to UVM, where he studied English and education. But his interests had already been established. "I decided to go in the path of old-time music," Pete told this reporter in 2000. "That stirred me."

Pete was playing a hammer dulcimer he had made himself when he met his future spouse, musician Karen Billings, at UVM's student center in the early 1970s. Pete and Karen, who now goes by Rose Diamond, married a few years later. The marriage ended in divorce about six years ago, Calum said.

In the 1980s, the couple lived in Bloomington, Ind., where Pete played in a trio called Metamora. The band included Grey Larsen on Irish flute and tin whistle and Malcolm Dalglish on hammer dulcimer. Metamora released three records and performed in every state but Hawaii. The trio's recording of the traditional Basque melody "This Rush of Wings," which Pete arranged, is on a 1988 Windham Hill Records compilation that went gold, A Winter's Solstice II. Playing music with Pete was a treat, Larsen said.

Pete Sutherland and Patti Casey - COURTESY OF CRISTINA ALICEA
  • Courtesy Of Cristina Alicea
  • Pete Sutherland and Patti Casey

"He played fiddle like he was singing through the fiddle, fiery and tender," Larsen recalled. "As a guitarist and pianist, he had an incredibly rich imagination when it came to chords, to harmonies and counterpoints. And as a songwriter, Pete [had] so much humanity and wisdom in his writing."

By 1990, the Sutherlands were back in Vermont, where Pete pursued every aspect of music: writing, performing, producing, arranging and teaching. Music was a constant in their house, Calum said, whether practices or lessons. He often accompanied his parents to gigs because "it was cheaper than a babysitter."

His father didn't seek the spotlight, Calum said, but he "bore it gracefully and willingly ... and he appreciated it. He was just an exceedingly humble guy."

Over the years, Pete played in numerous bands, including the Clayfoot Strutters and Pete's Posse. His teaching included being an artist leader for the touring group of Young Tradition Vermont, a music and dance program for young people that's now a Vermont Folklife program.

"Pete had a gift," Young Tradition's executive director Mark Sustic said. "A gift of being able to see things and hear things that other people didn't hear in the cacophony of everything that's going on in life and in a music ensemble."

Fiddle player Oliver Scanlon, for example, doesn't know how Pete recognized his interest in music when he was a boy. Now 27, Scanlon was in fourth grade when he joined Pete's contra dance group at Lake Champlain Waldorf School as a viola player. He started playing fiddle in the fifth grade.

Informal childhood lessons with Pete, who showed Scanlon fiddle tunes, led to playing together in Pete's Posse. When Scanlon graduated from high school, Pete had the "brilliant idea" to hit the road, Scanlon said. In fall 2014, with bandmate Tristan Henderson, Pete's Posse piled into a 2002 Buick LeSabre for a 12,000-mile, two-and-a-half-month tour. "It's kind of where our career as a band took off," Scanlon said, adding that Pete's influence extended beyond music.

"As a younger person hanging out with an older person who's been through some shit," Scanlon said, "you kind of glean some of the things they've learned along the way."

Pete's Posse, from left: Pete Sutherland, Oliver Scanlon and Tristan Henderson - COURTESY OF ARTHUR HYNE
  • Courtesy Of Arthur Hyne
  • Pete's Posse, from left: Pete Sutherland, Oliver Scanlon and Tristan Henderson

Zachary Mills, 23, is another fiddler who credits Pete for guiding him on his musical path. He was a middle schooler in Burlington and losing interest in classical violin when he met Pete at Trad Camp, a program of Young Tradition Vermont.

"Pete really showed me a whole other side to traditional music that didn't involve sheet music, but possibilities to learn from the oral tradition," said Mills, who now lives in Washington, D.C.

"I think he had an innate sense of finding people that could have a creative spirit that was easily nurtured," he said.

In high school, Mills sometimes split wood, painted and worked in the garden at Pete's house in exchange for his musical mentorship.

In the last few years of his life, after he sold the house in Monkton, Pete lived with friends in Chittenden County and central Vermont.

Some Vermonters might know him from "Winter Tales," the annual holiday show of songs and stories presented by Vermont Stage. For about 15 years, Pete was a central performer, playing music with singer and guitarist Patti Casey of Montpelier.

This year's five-date show opens on Wednesday, December 14, in the Black Box Theater at the Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center in Burlington. Casey plans to begin the performance with a waltz called "Sunday River" that Pete wrote for his grandmother. The piece will feature Casey on guitar and Susannah Blachly on fiddle. The duo will also play his tune "Ribbon Candy" and a song that Casey wrote for Pete after he died, "Everywhere."

She recalled a "Winter Tales" performance when she and Pete performed "Green Solstice," her parody of the Irving Berlin classic "White Christmas." Pete's accompaniment was "perfect," she said. "He really figured out what a song needed."

Mark Nash, the former artistic director of Vermont Stage who conceived of "Winter Tales," said Pete's performances possessed the two qualities essential to the show: heart and humor.

Nash and his wife, Kathryn Blume, were among the friends who were able to visit Pete not long before he died. "He modeled in his death everything that he modeled in his life," Nash said, "which was curiosity and creativity and acceptance of the bounty of the world."

"Stories for a Winter's Eve," on Thursday, December 22, 7 p.m., at the Old Meeting House of East Montpelier Center, with Patti Casey, Kathryn Blume and Mark Nash, will be dedicated to Pete Sutherland. Young Tradition Vermont will dedicate its May 7 festival concert at Burlington City Hall to Sutherland.

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