Deb Cavanaugh, a ‘Road Scholar’

Local musician, songwriter and educator Deb Cavanaugh is a “road scholar.”

“After hitchhiking across the U.S. in 1975, landing in an artist commune in San Francisco, then moving on to Santa Cruz and traveling back and forth from coast to coast, having and raising children while busking for extra cash before finally settling in the Capital Region in 1981, I consider myself a ‘road’ scholar,” she explained. “I learned more from those years on the road than I ever learned in school.”

Cavanaugh is releasing her new song “Come On Over” this Friday. You can hear all those years of life experience in the song’s bluesy, Motown sound as well as her seasoned, worldly use of voice. Joined by her band, Dandelion Wine, Cavanaugh expresses the joyfulness of connection through her lyrics and sexy vocalization.

“I often find my song ideas when driving around listening to music. An idea will come, then I turn it off and let my own song come through,” she said. 

“Come On Over” reminded me so much of a retro vibe, and when I read that Cavanaugh’s early inspirations were big band and jazz, that made a lot of sense to me.

She admits she sang before she even spoke, and her father was a huge influence on her early experiences with music. While the new song has echoes of Duke Ellington’s energy, Cavanaugh is playing a mountain dulcimer on the song—not exactly an instrument associated with big band music.

“It’s a traditional American instrument and has become my favorite,” she admits. “It was the first one that felt intuitive to me.”

Cavanaugh’s use of traditional instruments and drawing to old-time sounds took an unusual journey, marrying genres that often are considered exclusive of one another. During the 1990s, she explored more Americana and roots sounds. She now plays rock, blues, folk, psychedelic rock, country and even has some classical influences mixed in. When asked how she came to her specific sound, Cavanaugh noted she has always been a musician and collected different influences as she moved through life.

“I studied classical piano from age 9 through high school and voice for five years, then taught myself guitar when I was 40,” she reflected. She now plays mandolin and her beloved dulcimer, too. She’s drawn to new sounds, experimenting with how to expand the sound of American music.

The band recorded the most recent song at a local studio, The Jive Hive, with backup vocals recorded at Mountaintop Studios at Cavanaugh’s home. She has two stages there, a main stage and a family stage by a playground area for children. 

“Jive Hive and our home stages are my favorite places to play,” she explained. “One of my songs, ‘Let the Rain Come,’ was written on our stage during a rainstorm.”

Cavanaugh’s property offers a pastoral retreat for songwriting and music education, an idyllic respite for musicians to visit and share ideas. Cavanaugh is a huge supporter of local music and admits she loves going out to see local musicians – especially other songwriters.

“That’s how I met my current partner. I love what’s happening at SongCity in Troy and other places that focus on original music,” Cavanaugh said.

She has played the famed Caffe Lena listening room, as well as our Nipperfest stage under the pines. She’s also a beloved children’s musician, a significant influencer on future musicians by encouraging children to love the process of making and being with music.

“I love playing for and with kids. They are so spontaneous, energetic and honest,” she beamed.

Her children’s videos on YouTube have a large following and draw fans out to attend her live family concerts as well. Cavanaugh has an upcoming family concert at the Delmar Reformed Church on Delaware Avenue on December 9th. Her advice to younger musicians? “Develop a thick skin, and don’t give up.”

Cavanaugh invites us all over to listen to her new single “Come on Over” this Friday, with a fun video a week later on November 17th. Check out her Bandcamp page at debcavanaugh.bandcamp.com.

3 Comments
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  2. shows leary says

    Laura, thanks for the excellent interview with Deb Cavanaugh. Deb is certainly one of the highlights of the local music scene and calling her a “road scholar” is more than a simple euphemism. I have enjoyed the many conversations I have had with Deb as well as reading all of her blog posts. She is certainly a one-of-a-kind personality and I am happy to know her.

  3. Jody says

    Great article! Deb is an inspiring human and a gift tonthe community 😊

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