To casual customers, Bruce Emery and David McKnight are perhaps just the odd couple playing familiar tunes in the back of Raleigh's Global Village coffeehouse: The men are in their fifties or sixties and tall. They both wear glasses. Emery is mostly bald, and McKnight's speckled gray hair falls in loose curls just between his ears and his shoulders. Emery, a music teacher by trade, plays precisely arranged classical guitar. McKnight, best known for playing violin along busy thoroughfares in the Triangle, dances around Emery's structures with free-wheeling violin, viola and mandolin. They joke between songs and compliment one another. At this coffee shop, where they look so comfortable and so close, they seem to be more than just another folk duo.
After all, they met here. "I noticed this guy with a fiddle, but I didn't think anything of it," Emery remembers of one of his solo gigs at Global Village several years ago. "He came up and said, 'That's [Erroll Garner jazz standard] 'Misty,' right? I said, 'Yeah.' Then he disappeared again. Then he came back with his violin."
Emery was skeptical: His songs, some of which he arranges for a book series on guitar theory, were self-contained by design. But McKnight picked up his instrument and convinced Emery that what he thought was a complete picture could use an extra piece—him: "His job is just the opposite of mine," explains Emery. "He's trying to find space around what I'm doing, and I'm just trying to go right down the line every time. He would come in with these riffs, and I'd go, 'Oh yeah, that can go there.'"
Sitting in Mitch's Tavern, above Global Village, after a lunchtime set, Emery turns to McKnight and adds, "Like today, when we were doing 'Blackbird,' towards the end, there were things you were doing, with C and C Minor—oh, that was good."
Playing music, explains McKnight, is a lifelong experience. He's been playing since elementary school, but he says working with Emery is yet another chance to learn something new. In his Charlotte elementary school orchestra, McKnight was, as he puts it, a "utility infielder," switching between violin and viola as needed. He identifies most with the "interior coloration" of the second violin or viola parts in a string quartet. That is, the solid, but largely unseen, woodwork beneath the lead violin and cello's veneer.
Still, in high school, McKnight began playing with folk bands. As a history student at Duke, he picked up jazz, bluegrass and country. He played regularly with piano legend Yusuf Salim at the Salaam Cultural Center in Durham in the 1970s, and with groups in New Orleans and Boston, before settling again in North Carolina. He now plays in three groups, counting the McKnight-Emery duo. He gigs along Hillsborough, Franklin and 9th streets several days a week, his instrument case open and accepting tips. A former North Carolina newspaper editor, he occasionally does freelance writing.
"I haven't tried to be a commercially viable musician. I'd rather go for the most pleasing music, and then find something to go with it," McKnight says. But he thinks his playing has benefited from all the experience. "That was one thing that I hoped for, that the Lord would give me when I was young—good musical ability. It's really been delivered. It's on me to see where I can fit it in."
Like McKnight, Emery has spent decades figuring out where music would fit in his life. He began playing ukulele at age 9 and guitar at 11. At 15, he convinced his father to pay for private classical guitar lessons after he completed his own arrangement of "Misty," the jazz tune McKnight first heard him play. True to his lifelong approach, Emery says he still alters the arrangement of the song today: "I arranged 'Misty' when I was 15, and I'm still coming up with interesting things to try. I think really it's a forever process."
Emery followed a conventional career path at first, earning degrees in forestry and forestry genetics at the University of Maine and N.C. State, respectively. But 20 years ago, he decided to leave it all and teach guitar.
"The minute I decided to go into teaching guitar, I didn't look back at all," Emery says. "The people in forestry, where most of my friends were, couldn't understand it. They thought, 'You're crazy. You're going to die. You're not going to make it.'"
But he has. A decade later, Emery began publishing "The Skeptical Guitarist," a series on guitar theory that has become his main source of income. Unlike McKnight, Emery rarely writes original tunes. Instead, he prefers the process of translation.
"When you start with a blank piece of paper to write, you can write anything you want, but when you're starting with an arrangement of a song that already exists, you've got that melody," he explains. "And I like having that kind of restriction. Just give me a melody and some chord progressions, and let me see how I can tinker with it."
That's the idea behind the duo's first set of recordings, All is Calm, All is Bright. Emery had written a book of Christmas carol arrangements, so he and McKnight headed into the studio to record them last year. They enjoyed it so much they began recording 60 of Emery's arrangements of other standards in February. They managed to get 45 guitar parts finished, as well as all of McKnight's string parts for the 15-track Windy and Warm, the first of four planned albums of those arrangements. Cuts include "Misty," "Carolina on My Mind" and a suite from Brokeback Mountain. They'll return to the studio by March to finish making the next three albums.
For now, though, they're just trying to get through the holidays, playing Wednesdays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. They've added a selection of Christmas tunes to their usual mix of jazz, blues, folk and classical songs. Mike Ritchey, who owns Global Village, couldn't be happier. He calls the duo part of the "emotional core" of his coffee shop. Customers greet them before and after the show and request songs. During the set just before the lunch break at Mitch's, one customer simply closed her eyes and listened. Another left a tip and told the pair, "It's great that you're doing this, independently."
After N.C. State's graduation this summer, a couple that first met at Global Village years ago came back to the shop. They used to play backgammon in the coffeehouse's back alcove and listen to Emery and McKnight.
"They came in, before they got married, with their families," remembers Ritchey, "to show their families where they met, and sit in the shop and listen to Bruce and David."
Indeed, not your average coffee-shop moonlighters at all.
CORRECTION: The age of Bruce Emery in this story in print was incorrect; Emery is 50.