"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

Bluegrass’ Chuck Egner

By on July 26, 2021 in Arts with 0 Comments
If you like bluegrass music, you’ve probably seen this big smile from Leavenworth’s Chuck Egner, and you’ve appreciated the deep warm sound his bass violin strumming brings to any song. An eager latecomer to both the genre and the instrument, Chuck has used the last 20 years well.

‘It’s just … picking and grinning. We’re picking; (the audience is) grinning’

By Susan Lagsdin

The bluegrass music he’s best known for didn’t come naturally, or early, to Leavenworth’s Chuck Egner.

Both his parents were music professors, and he grew up in the South with deep family roots in Memphis, but he doesn’t trace his love of that sound to familial or geographical DNA.

Not at all, he explained.

He’d switched from music lessons to football by junior high and was a rock ’n’ roller at heart, but in the late ’70s he was making flight simulators for the Navy and, “In our shop the senior guy got to choose the tunes, and our guy liked bluegrass. In six months, I could tolerate it.” He added, “But in a year I was seeking out bars where they played it.”

Since he moved to Leavenworth, local folks who love the twang and croon of that distinctive mountain sound have been seeking out Chuck, whether they need a fill-in bass, a raucous jam session to lift their hearts, an evening’s immersion in an American tradition or a professional sound recording. (They may seek him out now to buy the last remaining press and bottling of ‘37 Cellars wine, but that’s another story.) 

That U.S. Navy experience at Whidbey Island gave Chuck a strong foothold on his next job in electronics, and after 20 years parlaying his skill and background and some serendipitous networking into a successful business in Redmond, he and his wife Candace sold the company in 1999 and moved to this area.

They’d spent most weekends at their vacation home in Plain and briefly moved in fulltime, but they became full-fledged Leavenworth locals when in 2003 they partnered with Chuck’s brother-in-law in a winery and purchased a house high above East Leavenworth Road.

By the time the Egners moved to Leavenworth, bluegrass was in his blood, and at 48 Chuck finally found his musical métier and started strumming in earnest.

He co-owned the Hi-Strung music store downtown and easily made connections with the Cashmere Coffee House and the Wenatchee River Bluegrass Festival and others, hobnobbing and plucking with some of his favorite visiting and hometown artists.

Originally a guitar aficionado, he said he immediately felt outgunned jamming with other guitarists and switched to the mid-sized bass violin that’s become his signature sound, a simple warm tone that Chuck feels adds depth to any piece of music.

However, he said, “I can play guitar well enough to switch off and give the others a break,” he said. “Besides, sometimes we need another vocalist, and I never did learn to sing and play bass at the same time.”

Chuck’s deep, resonant speaking voice transforms to a higher, plaintive Appalachian sound automatically when he sings traditional tunes; he could have drifted up to the porch from any Carolina holler.

“Bluegrass is country music without electricity or drums,” he explained with a grin, “And you generally sing from your heart and through your nose.”

He’s done both, in very good company. He played for 10 years with Dave Notter, Paul O’Donnell, Chris Rader, Jack Tiechner and Bruce McWhirter in the Saddle Rockers, then an overlapping five years in The Chelsea Craven Band with Chelsea Craven, John Meriweather, Justin Carvitto and Cliff Sittman.

Bluegrass music doesn’t always attract mass audiences, and it’s not a hot commercial artform, but the communal pleasure is palpable. Even for a small group, Chuck said, “It’s just more picking and grinning. We’re picking; they’re grinning.”

A turning point in his music life, equally significant to area musicians, was building in 2007 what friends call The Treehouse, a two-level hillside structure literally blasted from rock near the Egner’s home.

With three small rooms at the side that can house traveling musicians or serve as private sound studios, the top story is essentially a large open space adaptable to jam sessions, music recording, wine tastings and performance.

One particular stool and microphone set-up has stood untouched since the COVID shut down, three days before a much-anticipated session with a yodeling duo. Chuck says it’s ready when they are.

The Treehouse is walled with memorabilia: awards, framed photos, playbills, posters, a magazine cover autographed for Chuck by Johnny and June Carter Cash at a chance airport meeting.

Vintage guitars, like an 1885 Martin, two autographed by B.B. King and Bill Monroe, and those made with specialty woods still intrigue Chuck, and he’s displayed about a dozen of his favorites.

Close at hand and often in use are a full-size recording console, his handmade wine-barrel-stave furniture, a few chosen string instruments and a 107-year-old baby grand piano from Candace’s family.

Chuck figures that most of the bluegrass players in north central Washington have played up there at some time, but he’s open to other genre, recalling one cowboy, one classical, and one pop house performance among dozens. A planned August house concert is to feature the fiddler from Lyle Lovett’s band.

Chuck will keep making music, but this season he’s winding down his involvement in one major creative endeavor and stepping into another.

After 16 years, his and his brother-in-law Frank’s award-winning ’37 Cellars winery is gently closing up. Its press and barrels and packaging have filled the big cool basement level of the Treehouse building; now there are only much-sought-after boxes of the last bottling.

And this season he’s making a seamless segue into broadcasting as a charter board member of Leavenworth Community Radio, a new web-based station that already has a Facebook and GoFundMe page and 501c3 paperwork in progress.

“On the west side, we and everyone around us were focused on work and careers. Over here there’s a totally different vibe,” Chuck said. “Creative people surround themselves with creative people. It’s a happy circle.”

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