If these walls could talk. Many people are familiar with the history of famed Trumansburg music venue, the Rongovian Embassy, but the stories to be told could go on for days. Over the years, the Rongo has made a name for itself as a haven for artists, a home for the community, and a breeding ground for new and exciting young bands - Donna the Buffalo, The Horseflies, and the Highwoods String Band all cut their teeth on the wooden Rongo stage.

Founded by Alex "Brooksie" Brooks in 1973, sold to Eric and Mary Ott in 1987, and in the hands of Mike Barry since 2004, the Rongo has always maintained a sense of rural charm and artistic authenticity. And less than a month ago, Mike's younger brother Steve returned to Trumansburg to help him run the business. It's a big responsibility, and one high priority for the Barrys is to keep it both family-run and family-friendly.

In celebration of the 35th anniversary, the Rongo is hosting a number of shows. On Friday, April 25 at 9 p.m., the Rongo will present a "Next Generation" party with The Talktomes, Sim Redmond, Trevor MacDonald and others. Sunday, April 27, is the Rongo's official 35th anniversary party, with Larry Hoppen of Orleans and Joe Bouchard of Blue Oyster Cult. And finally, on Saturday, May 3, the famed Highwoods String Band will reunite for a special concert.

We recently spoke to musicians and music-lovers alike about their fondest memories and stories about the Rongo. We were amazed at the outpouring of love and laughter for the humble venue - fondness for the good times, good music, good food, and last but not least, the good people. Here's what they had to say.

Mike Barry [current owner of the Rongo, 2004-]: We're definitely in a new transition right now. Steve has moved back from Charleston and will take over the day-to-day operations, and I'll be taking a step back, and not work 80-90 hours a week. (Laughs) I can actually do a lot of the things that I've been putting off - focusing on booking, targeting different audiences, getting bands that haven't been here before, marketing strategies that I haven't had time for, focusing on a segment of students that we want to serve, focusing on how to incorporate the wine trail, and how to emphasize the history of the Rongo. Stuff that has really been on the backburner, that I didn't have a chance to focus on before. Our dad has definitely been involved before, but now that Steve is here, he's a godsend. Steve plays a big part, because he has a whole breadth of music knowledge that I don't have, so I'm really going to rely on him to help me with booking. He brings a different energy and enthusiasm to the place, and it's great.

And the Rongo doesn't have to be one kind of music. The great thing about the concept of an 'embassy' is that it's for everyone. And the fact that it's this fictional country, Rongovia, is that we can make it whatever we want. I think it's important that we work with the other venues in town, and also that we encourage a new generation of bands in order to keep the scene fresh and alive. It's definitely a community space, and stability is the one thing that I've tried to bring above all else.

Mac Benford [The Highwoods Stringband]: Many of us counter-culture types, who gravitated to T-burg in the early '70s, felt ourselves to be outsiders as far as the long established Trumansburg community was concerned. Alex Brooks established the Rongovian Embassy in 1973 as a place where we could all feel like insiders. It was that universally longed-for "place where everybody knows your name." It was our communal living room, our social club, our village square - not to mention our kitchen, dining-room, and entertainment center.

In those days, Brooksie was opposed to a cover charge for the music. He believed in "free music" - we believed just as fervently in "free music for free money." So we were happy to just be patrons there when we were not out on tour. The band, however, does hold one honored spot in Rongo lore. One year, Alex hired us to play the then-annual T-burg block party - Main St. blocked off and us on a flat-bed in the middle of Rte. 96. I've been told that this was the one and only time the Rongo went dry - every single drop of beer in the bar, bottle or draft, having been consumed.

Over the years, I played there with many other bands, and I remain convinced that the Rongo's policy of presenting old-time stringband music, right alongside blues, swing, rock, jazz and zydeco, as legitimate "nightclub entertainment" is greatly responsible for the Ithaca area having earned its international reputation as a hot bed of Appalachian music.

Trevor MacDonald [Sunny Weather, The Trevor MacDonald Band]: I grew up in Trumansburg when I was a kid. I have one memory of going to see Rusted Root in 1992 or 1993, when I was 12 or 13. Somehow, my friends and I got in - don't ask me how. (Laughs) Sunny Weather played our first show on a Thursday in the spring of '97, and I remember that one of the bartenders just let us do the show. We were a new band, and the Rongo eventually became one of our favorite places to play. So many fun memories, such a supportive place. With Billy Cote, who used to do the booking there, I remember as a teenager being like, "Hey Billy, can we do a show?" Eventually we proved ourselves.

The thing about the Rongo that made it special - and as a touring musician I can say this with extreme confidence - was that we wanted to be there and people really liked going there. It was such a good place to see bands and your friends, and the food was good and the beer was good, and it wasn't just another smoky, dank bar - it was a community center, and you always wanted to go there. It was safe and good - like the way life is supposed to be. (Laughs) It has a strong place in people's hearts, and the history of the Rongo has had an amazing effect on the music of the area, and on my life and on every person's life that I know from this area.

Sim Redmond [The Sim Redmond Band, the Ducktape Band]: Wow, the ol' Rongo. I've had some of the most fun nights of music in my life there. I remember one of the Ducktape Band's first shows ever at the Rongo - we were rookies, a bit nervous, but the place filled up with family and friends and it turned out to be a super fun-filled night. The Sim Redmond Band had a bunch of really fun nights there as well. I've seen some great show there too: Donna the Buffalo, Sunny Weather, Running with Scissors, Horseflies... There is some magic within those walls and even if the Rongo goes through some slumps over the years, I believe it will return to its full glory eventually.

Mary Lorson [Madder Rose, Saint Low, The Piano Creeps]: I worked there from 1995-2001, when the Ott family owned and ran it. It was like a community arts center then - Mary is a sculptor, Eric a musician, and they opened their doors to any friendly, creative person who came in. It was a great stroke of luck that I got a job there right after moving to Ovid from NYC, not knowing a soul - in three months I had met so many people I hold near and dear to this day. The way the Otts ran it expressed the Trumansburg community's ethos in a really productive way.

Jeff Claus and Judy Hyman [The Horseflies, Boy with a Fish]: Judy: It was the best place in the country to play! It had this reputation where if you were an out-of-towner, you knew you had to go to the Rongo. The Otts set a tone where it was fun and a family place - you ran into people you knew, you brought your family.

Jeff: Strictly from a musician's perspective, it was a unique place. And as we toured the country, it was always great to run into a club that had its own character and vibe... There's nothing like it when it's packed. We used to play there and get a good draw and be over the fire code - nothing like having 400 people in the place! (Laughs)

Judy: It was the kind of place where everyone stops by for a beer on their way home. It was our second living room. And the Highwoods were a very big deal here at one point, and also nationally, within that type of music.

Jeff: To put them in contemporary perspective, they were like our Avett Brothers of the local area, times a thousand. This whole back-of-the-land vibe happening, and they were at the center of what was happening on the ground level. And they had this youthful, wild way, and were a national phenomenon - and the Rongo is related to all of that. The vibe is partly representative of what T-burg represented for a while, this alternative, wild and happening thing - but also local and rural.

Jenny Cleland [The Highwoods Stringband]: We first played at Cosmo's Restaurant, which was a vegetarian natural foods restaurant just two stores down from the Rongo. And then when Brooksie opened the Rongo, we played over there. And people would dance so much that they had to go down in the basement and brace it up because the floors were bouncing up and down. (Laughs)

It was always a real focus point for the community, and a place for people to get together - and not just musicians, but all artists. Back in the old days, T-burg was an arts community, and for a lot of people, the Rongo was like their living room, so it's traumatic when it changes hands. But it seems like it's in good, family hands now. My experience playing there verged on the ecstatic, you know? The Rongo itself is an institution, and it supported the people. And now, Mike [Barry] asked us to play the anniversary show. The last time I played with the band was about five years ago, so this is a rare treat for me. But for seven or eight years, it was constant, how much we played. Now, it's like, "Can I sing the old songs? Can I hit that note anymore?" (Laughs) It's been 30 years, I suppose.

Mary and Eric Ott [Former owners, 1987-2002] Mary: The people with whom we were able to work with made our time there so special, and in many cases, the customers that we worked for, too. Those are the things that we take with us and hold in our heart now. The place is brick and mortar but it's the people who made it what it was.

Eric: It was definitely the first time we ran that kind of business. We drove through T-Burg in Mary's old pickup truck, and we noticed that it was for sale. My gut reaction was, "They can't do that!" So we decided to take a look at it, and Mary said, "Oh, it can't hurt to see what they're asking for," and we did, and made an offer - and the rest is history! (Laughs)

Mary: We definitely made a huge effort to make everybody feel welcome. I miss the scene and I miss the people, but I don't miss the late nights and building problems! (Laughs) There was a lot of stress, but we were a really good team together, weren't we? It was such a labor of love.

Diane Cohen [Significant Elements]: I started working there in 1990, and I stayed there for about 11 years. I started as a bartender, and I did a little bit of cooking, too, in the early years, and Eric [Ott] ended up asking me to book bands - and I loved that. I eventually became the bar manager and the whole front of the house manager. Eric knew I had a passion for music, and it was a great opportunity for me. I vowed to listen to every demo tape that came in! (Laughs) And I brought Plastic Nebraska to play for the first time.

People call that time the 'Golden Era,' and I learned so much about community while I was at the Rongo. I fell in love with T-burg. The Otts ran such a welcoming and open place, and everybody felt comfortable going in there. It was a fantastic place to be. It was less a 'bar' than a meeting place. Every night that I worked was such a joy - being around Old Time music, generations of Rongovians, down to tiny little kids. The waitstaff really got used to not tripping on the little toddlers. (Laughs)

Richie Stearns [The Horseflies, Evil City String Band, Donna the Buffalo]: The Rongo was one of the first places I've ever played, and we used to go see the bands that influenced us from around here and there, when we were kids. When the Horseflies were playing a lot, we would play at the Rongo 3-4 times a year, and it would always be completely packed, like 500 people dancing! It was amazing. The floors literally shook. (Laughs)

Another good story was that it was almost exactly 14 years ago to the day that my son, Cole, was born in Florida. He was born prematurely, about 10 weeks early, and we actually had to live out there for two months while he was recovering. And over the years we had done other benefits for each other... it was like an insurance policy. (Laughs) So all of our friends up here had this benefit at the Rongo to help us pay for everything, and raised $10,000. That's part of what made it such a family place; everybody would go there for all the right reasons. When we got back, I wanted to think of a way that would benefit the Rongo, because they had been so good to us. And so I thought of an Old Time session for local and touring musicians on Wednesday nights.

Bill Chaisson [Finger Lakes Community Newspapers Managing Editor]: December 1997 or 1998. Donna the Buffalo holiday party in the Rongo. The Otts still own the place and I still live in Rochester. During dinner the place starts to fill up. People come straight from work. Hands dirty and thirsty. There is perhaps one degree of separation among all members of the crowd. Greetings are by name. A din of familiarity; the tribe gathers. Musicians begin wander in and makes their way to the stage. A surge from the bar room to the stage room. Jeb says, "Hey" into the mike. Kick drum, start. A warm blanket of sound, pressing together every body. Guest performers dragged on stage. "Where's Mary?" When the waitress puts down her tray and takes the stage it is Mary Lorson. Like a secret identity. In the Rongo everyone is more than they seem to be. A myth, slightly more than true.

Park Doing [The Atomic Forces]:The history of the Rongo is deep and rich, and over the past 35 years it's certainly played a formative role for what would be considered an 'Ithaca/T-burg sound.' It's that artistic strand of music that blossomed into The Horseflies, Donna the Buffalo, Johnny Dowd. People like Richie Stearns and Jeb Puryear grew up with the Rongo. I was aware of the club's role for psychedelic rock, experimental music, and traditional music, and it meant a lot for me to play there. You upped your game, you wanted to do something interesting, because interesting things were done there in the past, so it was expected. It was like a muse in that regard, and the vibe was in the air - it was palpable. You could feel it.

They used to do this show on Bob Dylan's birthday, and it became this tradition in the early '90s. They'd invite musicians around town, and people really wanted to be on their game, and play a Dylan song with the Colorblind James Experience, this band from Rochester. It was a real thrill for everybody. Johnny Dowd would play "The Ballad of Hollis Brown," and just kill it. It was unbelievable.

Tracey Craig [host, Nonesuch: Music in the Folk Tradition, WVBR-FM and founder, Rootabaga Boogie Productions]: I remember going to the Rongo in the '70s; it was that place where you'd meet somebody who might be studying Nietzsche and digging Thoreau, listening to Paul Winter and Shawn Phillips, and learning to fix his own motorcycle. (Ah, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, anybody remember that one? Stranger in a Strange Land?) Back then, they never proofed you if you were underage - I was, for the first half of the '70s, even so, back then the legal age was 18. Things were different then.

Before I had a drivers' license, I remember begging dad to drive me out there to Trumansburg to go check out the vegetarian restaurant that was the other half of what we know as the Rongo and I remember hearing a lot of good music out there, including the Peabody Band, with Harry and Eric Aceto... Back then, I was especially keen on Peggy Haine and the Lowdown Alligator Jazz band, too, and they played everywhere, including the Rongo. Those were the days of the Zobo Funn band, too.

Armin Heurich [The El Caminos]: Here's a story about one of my most memorable Rongo experiences from years ago. In 1991, early on in my relationship with my wife Gail, while we still lived in Buffalo, we spent a memorable weekend in Ithaca, including catching a Horseflies show at the Rongo. It was such a warm, fun and inviting atmosphere and the place really lived up to its reputation as more than just a fun place to drink a beer and hear some great music. In fact, the Rongo is one of the many reasons that we chose to move to the area. So many great bands have played there over the years, and it remains one of the best venues around.

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