Six-gun and a Freight Train on Grand River

carolthompson-fileHe wore an old plaid shirt, brown leather shoes and a pair of faded Levi’s with Marlboro Reds in the back pocket. Sweat dripped off his beard in the hot September sun, past the harmonica on his lips and Martin guitar at his waist to the sidewalk below.

He’s like something Woodie Guthrie would have written about. A boy graduates from high school at 17, leaves home to ride the rails. He spends two years on his own, going from city to city and playing his guitar and harmonica for spare change.

He’s a vagabond. A drifter, of sorts.

But when Jack Grendel left, he wasn’t looking for any sort of title. He was looking to live. He wanted to see the world, be on his own and learn about himself. It’s when you don’t have the pennies to call home, that’s when you discover who you really are. That’s when you stop just being your parents’ son.

Now, as a sophomore at MSU, Grendel’s still interested in the experience. He’s studying History, but without a particular career in mind. In East Lansing, the real education doesn’t happen in the classroom. It happens in places like the sidewalk outside The Peanut Barrel on Grand River.

That’s where Grendel spent a lot of time this fall: on the sidewalk playing his guitar and harmonica with an open guitar case in front of him and a sign that read “Scramblin to pay my rent.” People pass by, some look up and smile, some toss a few coins. But everybody notices when Grendel growls a tune and pounds his guitar.

Playing on the sidewalk, Grendel makes about $10 an hour, and all of it goes to his rent.

Grendel describes his style of music as six-gun and a freight train. It’s influenced by some of the greats – Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Muddy Waters – and some recent musicians – Conor Oberst and Old Crow Medicine Show.

Grendel plays some songs he’s written, some he hasn’t. But he makes every song his own and writes extra verses to the covers he plays. Folk is passed down through generations, he says. It’s meant to be changed.

Outside of the sidewalk, Grendel plays at small local venues in East Lansing and his home in Traverse City. He’ll be playing at the Small Planet in East Lansing on Dec. 17. You can listen to his music on his Myspace page.

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