Brian Johnson of ACDC said it best: “It’s a long way to the top, if you want to rock and roll.”
For Mel and Mark Guarino of Hartford, performing in front of crowds of all shapes and sizes for the better part of 30 years as a duo and with their band, The Bluebillies, has reinforced their love for each other, the music business and storytelling.
“Whatever I have, I have something to give, and that works for me!” Mel Guarino said. “Working with my wife is a total joy,” Mark Guarino said.
Playing mostly old country, folk, bluegrass, gospel, story songs and rock and roll if it fits, the Guarinos have been performing together since 1985 and have recorded three albums, with a fourth in the works.
Upon moving to Washington County from Connecticut in 1990, the Bluebillies typically perform in small theaters, at outdoor concerts during the summertime, American Legion and VFW posts and senior centers.
Some highlights in their career involve performing during a Woody Guthrie 100th anniversary show at the Caffe Lena in Saratoga where Butch Hancock also sang, and opening up for Mel’s favorite band on another occasion in what was a “fan-girl moment.”
“We got to open up for the Gibson brothers once,” Mel Guarino said. “Eric Gibson said, ‘I love that song that you did.’”
Performing gut-wrenching, emotionally filled and passionately written songs derives from both Mel and Mark’s upbringings, as they both grew up in musical families.
Mel is a Midwest girl who is the daughter of Bonnie Bradley, a former mainstay in the Chicago nightlife scene performing in lounges during the 1950s and a World War II veteran father who passed away when Mel was two years old. After her self-described “monster” of a stepfather severed ties and forced Mel to end up in an orphanage in Mishawaka, Indiana at the age of five.
The strong reliance on herself to cause change was instilled at an early age and has powered her in her slow transition to become a full-time musician after being a writer, reporter and working in bars and restaurants.
“I know if I want something to happen, I know I’m going to have to make it happen,” Mel Guarino said. “I felt like I wanted to get more serious… all my life I just wanted to play music, but responsibilities of life were always calling.”
Mark Guarino grew up with a talented pianist for a father and admitted that as a young boy, he was not outgoing and had to give himself “self-therapy” as motivation to step outside his comfort zone.
“I was surrounded by music, but I was a really shy kid,” Mark Guarino said. “You gotta get over this… make yourself get through this.”
He said the best way to do so was performing music on stage in front of crowds.
In a punk rock band!
“We were presenting what they wanted, which was energy,” Mark Guarino said. “There are moments when you’re on stage where I literally felt jolts of electricity.”
As established musicians in the game, the Guarinos have accepted their adopted role as mentors to younger or newer to the scene musicians. They love to give advice and share experiences to see others achieve their goals and perform with each other.
However, COVID-19 has thrown a wrench in future goals of continuing to perform and release music. The Bluebillies perform on average 100 shows a year.
That number was cut down to two live performances in 2020.
“It’s bad for momentum,” Mel Guarino said. “With everything canceled, it feels like we’re starting all over.”
Although Mel and Mark have been experimenting with recordings on Facebook and their “Kitchen Pickin’s” series of performing in their home, nothing beats rehearsing and performing live with their band. They both have a sense of optimism in “looking forward” to that day.
“The worst part is not knowing when you’re gonna go out,” Mel said. “As far as what we can do right now is record.”