Story by Aaron Siegel and Photography by Ed Mann
Local musician Benjamin Connelly arrived for the interview at Solomons Pier on a wet, fog-shrouded afternoon, but inside the popular restaurant, the warmth of friendship overpowered the gloom outside.
The bar was packed with friends sipping drinks, munching on appetizers and preparing for the Baltimore Ravens game. Throughout the afternoon people of all ages came over to our table to chat, share an anecdote, laugh and bask in the spirit of camaraderie. During almost 30 years of performing music in Solomons and the surrounding areas, St. Mary's County resident Connelly has built a network of close relationships.
"To interview me, you have to interview these people. We are one and the same. That's my brother, that's my brother," he said, pointing to his friends at the bar. "They're all my family."
One of his friends calls Solomons Pier "our 'Cheers' bar." And indeed, everyone here knows Ben's name, from waitress Trista Cook, who took our drink orders, to a co-owner of the Inner Equinox store across the street, who stopped by to say hello.
Connelly, 50, started playing guitar at the age of six after being given an acoustic guitar by a family member. "A guy got me started with three or four chords," he recalled, but he is mostly self-taught. Along with playing six- and 12-string guitars, Connelly also taught himself the art of songwriting.
"You take rock 'n' roll and country, squish it together, and that's me," he said. Connelly has attracted a large and enthusiastic fan-following with this hybrid style of music, and his live performances have become a full-time gig. He regularly performs at CD Café, DiGiovanni's, Cheese-burger in Paradise, and Leonardtown Grille. Connelly credits his audience, emphasizing that "they're as much a part of this gig as me with my guitar."
Connelly's first CD, "Ben Connelly Unplugged," captures a live performance at DiGiovanni's, complete with between-song banter and audience participation. It includes the lively, Jimmy Buffett-flavored "Tiki Bar Blues"; "Coming Home to You," described by Connelly as "the very first song that I ever wrote in my lifetime"; and the heartfelt ballad "Tammera's Song." The 12-track set is complemented by two bonus tracks, recorded at KMH Recording Studio in Lusby. The CD is available for $15 at various stores around Solomons, such as Inner Equinox, and also through Connelly's popular Facebook page. "The CD was recorded with a pub environment in mind," he said. "You're going to hear bottles clinking and people talking."
Behind the bar at Solomons Pier, a photograph has been hung on the wall. The story behind the photo is one of Connelly's favorites to tell.
On his 50th birthday, Connelly's friends presented him with a surprise gift that has become one of his most treasured possessions: a Martin D-1E guitar, made by the Martin Guitar Company. The man who spearheaded the gift, Doug Aulson, runs Pearlworks, the company that Connelly says creates the inlay for Martin Guitars. "Its cost and the many responsible for the instrument will never be made known to me," said Connelly, but he thanked his "truest friends" - the people of Solomons Island - for the beautiful instrument and their decades of unwavering friendship and support.
Ben Connelly performs on:
Tuesdays at The CD Café, 14350 Solomons Island Rd., Solomons. 410-326-3877; www.cdcafe.info
Fridays at Leonardtown Grille, 25470 Point Lookout Rd., Leonardtown. 301-690-2113; www.l-towngrille.com
Saturdays again at DiGiovanni's Dock of the Bay.
Note: Performance times and dates could change unexpectedly. Please call ahead to verify.