Turpentiners take ‘Stage Center’

By Larissa Gula

When one musician headed to college and couldn’t take his piano along, he picked up the harmonica instead — and became obsessed with playing it. The Turpentiners

Calliope Center Stage

Pittsburgh Center for the Arts

6300 Fifth Ave.

Thursday, 7:30 p.m.

$12 ($10 for students)


When one musician headed to college and couldn’t take his piano along, he picked up the harmonica instead  — and became obsessed with playing it.

Today Stu Braun continues to play his harmonica with Pittsburgh band The Turpentiners. The band will perform a mix of original pieces and traditional American blues , country and swing music. It is the second band featured this year in the Calliope Center Stage Concert series.

This isn’t the first time The Turpentiners have performed for the Calliope Folk Music Society, according to the nonprofit’s executive director Patricia Tanner.

“Many musicians in The Turpentiners also perform in other projects and have performed for Calliope in those groups,” Tanner said in an e-mail. “The band leader, Ben Hartlage, has been involved in the Calliope community for many years and is a former board member of the organization.”

Formed in 2007, The Turpentiner’s features Hartlage (guitar/vocals), Adam Frew (upright bass/vocals), Megan Williams (violin/vocals), Ron Mesing (dobro) and Braun.

Co-founders Hartlage and Braun had known each other for 10 years prior to forming the band. Braun was born in Pittsburgh and studied in St. Louis, where he took up and mastered the harmonica in lieu of his piano.

He returned to Pittsburgh from a trip to Europe in 1997 and met Hartlage. Both were working with other bands at different times. In 2007, both men’s bands disbanded.

“Stu started talking casually to me about playing together as a guitar/harmonica duo,” Hartlage said in an e-mail. “I think it finally came together when he booked us for a neighborhood festival that he helped organize for the Propel Charter School, where he works. We both liked the sound as a duo and decided to give it a go.”

Soon the pair began receiving requests for weddings and private events. Feeling that a duo performing wouldn’t be a “full enough” sound for a wedding, Hartlage brought Mesing and Williams into the mix.

“Both of them fit right in with the sound and gave us the opportunity to expand the repertoire in new directions,” Hartlage said. “The sound continues to evolve as we work more together and play to each other’s strengths.”

Hartlage created the name for the band, taking inspiration from a New Lost City Ramblers recording of “On Our Turpentine Farm.” Three years later, the band continues to play.

“I don’t think we really thought much about getting our name known,” Hartlage said. “We’ve just sort of focused on playing music we enjoy and playing it as well as we can and having fun with it. Most of our gigs have come from word of mouth. People who see us somewhere and find a way to get in touch with us. We’ve been kind of on an extended streak of good fortune to this point.”

As for their music, the band covers half of its songs and plays original songs as well, Braun said.

“The band members … perform a wide variety of vintage American music,” Tanner said. “The Turpentiners are a young local group, and an important part of Calliope’s mission is to provide performing opportunities for local artists.”

“The show on Thursday will be half-and-half as well,” Braun said. “[Ben] is good. He writes songs that you’d think were 80 years old. The original songs pay tribute to the old-style songs as well. It’s not all stuff from the 1930s.”

“Sometimes we cook up an original, but the focus is mostly on some real fine old chestnuts from the vaults,” Hartlage said.

Performing live has been the band’s strong point for years. Though the topic of recording a CD has come up, it hasn’t happened yet, Hartlage said.

“We have a couple of songs/videos on YouTube and God knows where else from cellphone videos and such,” he said. “When you’re not the kind of band that will move CDs by the bushel, it’s just hard to justify the expense of a 1000-plus CD print run and design and packaging and studio time.”

But CD or not, the band cares about and loves performing, Braun said.

“Good times and bad, music’s always been there,” he said. “It’s been a driving force in my life. I’ve never wanted to not play. I couldn’t imagine not playing in some capacity.”