Talented Ulster resident found music while acting

July 04, 2008

by John W. Barry, Poughkeepsie Journal

Kelleigh McKenzie's foray into the world of stringed instruments began in an unlikely way.  And her career along the way has taken one major left turn that could be described as heartbreaking. But in the end, it didn't break her.

McKenzie lives in Rosendale and next Thursday will stage a CD release party at the Bearsville Theater in Woodstock for "Chances," her new album.

This record is a hit. This collection of 12 songs offers up songwriting that comes from a genuine, humble and reflective place; with vocals that conjure Allison Krauss and Rickie Lee Jones and rival those of Suzanne Vega and Shawn Colvin.

McKenzie's road to the performing stage began at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, where she was enrolled years ago in the drama department. The native of rural Oregon was cast in a play, "Marathon 33," which detailed the story of June Havoc, the sister of Gypsy Rose Lee, who danced in those crazy dance marathons of the 1930s.

At a certain point in the marathon, each character would perform. The script called for McKenzie's character to "play a string instrument very poorly."

"A friend of mine had an old banjo," McKenzie said. So she learned that instrument for the play and stuck with it, partly because, "I love Steve Martin" and "I love Pete Seeger."

"Pete Seeger - for me, he is the master of the story," she said of the folk legend and Fishkill resident, "of using the banjo as a tool to tell the story."

McKenzie after college moved to New York City to pursue acting. But according to her Web site, "after graduating and subsequently eking out a living as an actor in New York City, McKenzie's first songs began to emerge as she taught herself to play banjo and acoustic guitar. The exuberance and thrill she felt while making music ultimately trumped the drudgery of the actor's life; she quit the theater and joined downtown alt-country band Little Green."

Moderate success followed, as did a debilitating, mysterious illness.  "It took over my entire upper body," she said of the pain.  Holistic medicine helped with her recovery. And then she and her husband - also a musician - left the fast pace of New York City for the small-town feel of Ulster County.

A friend had moved to Saugerties and told them about a place they had grown fond of called Rosendale. More recently, McKenzie discovered the Bearsville Theater while watching The Wood Brothers perform.   "I remember thinking it was a magical night," she said. "I thought, 'This is where I want to release my record.' "

Kelleigh McKenzie will play the Bearsville Theater lounge Thursday. Doors open at 7 p.m. Show time is 8 p.m. Admission is $10.  Visit and for information.

updated: 12 years ago