About Michael

Increasingly, I see eras of my life becoming chapters in a book
to be read backwards from the present moment illuminating who I have come to be.

–Michael Ismerio

About Michael

Increasingly, I see eras of my life becoming chapters in a book
to be read backwards from the present moment illuminating who I have come to be.

–Michael Ismerio

Wild Leaders Nature Immersion Program

Although I was working consistently with youth and teens I knew I would feel incomplete if I did not offer the healing I had received from Nature Connection to adults as well.  After a particularly inspiring visit to the Weaving Earth school in California and a powerful and motivating conversation with my dear friend Luke Cannon here in NC, I woke up one morning with a surprisingly fleshed out vision for the adult immersion program that I wanted to create.  Our design team coalesced as  Luke Cannon, Clint Corley, NikiAnne Feinberg, Sara Callaway , and myself and we set to work putting our collective dreams together.

After a year and a half of planning and promotions the program successfully launched in September of 2017.  We were 24 adults that met every Tuesday from 9am to 9pm for nine months.  It was truly a powerful experience meant to build community based in relationship with the natural world and to support us in embracing our full humanity.  No phones, no computers, just relating to each other and the natural world in the ways we all know how once we allow ourselves to do so.  It was exactly what I needed.  It was life changing for many of us.  We are now hard at work designing the next round of Wild Leaders which is set to begin in Sept of 2020.

Forest Floor Wilderness Programs – Asheville, NC

Upon moving to Asheville, NC in 2012 I was quickly directed to Clint Corley, the founder of  Forest Floor Wilderness Programs.  Clint and I became quick friends with our shared language of Nature Connection Mentoring that few people spoke at the time. I began as an intern but soon came on staff and began working with the youngest kids. I did my best to create magical moments in the woods for the kids and allow their curiosity to rub off on me.  Over the years I became increasingly involved in running Forest Floor and as of June 2018 I am now the Co-Director.

Shoe Making

Michael Ismerio

In my early teens in small town California I saw a sign for a custom bootmaker for people with foot deformities.  Two thoughts crossed my mind in that moment:  1. I want custom made boots! and  2. my feet are not deformed.  Sad face.  I convinced my young mind that only people with foot deformities can have custom shoes and thus shelved the idea away.

In 2008 I met a shoemaker named Jason Hovatter in Portland, Oregon who was not only making shoes but teaching shoe making classes as well.  I said “when is your next class? Sign me up!”  I instantly knew I would go on to teach this skill to others. I showed up to that first class taking incredibly detailed notes on my first ever laptop in order to replicate the process. In a relatively short time I was off and running with Jason’s ever generous support and guidance.

I am still teaching shoe making classes, mostly around Asheville and the South Eastern US.

Over the years shoe making has become about more than just sewing leather together. It’s become a process of connecting with the thousands of years of humanity who had to make their own footwear out of necessity.  It’s allowed me to be a link in a chain of lineage.

Nature Connection, Mentoring, & Culture Building

In 2008 as I was preparing to move from Portland, I met a man named Jon Young who was speaking at an event. I didn’t know anything about him, but as he told his stories he tugged on deep strings in my soul that I didn’t even realize I was yearning for. He spoke of the importance of understanding our role in the natural world, and the role of elders in a healthy society, and rites of passage, and mentoring, and culture, and on, and on. I was transfixed, and I knew that he was speaking truth.

I have devoted most of the last ten years of my life to helping others connect to these same passions. Upon moving to Asheville, NC I joined forces with Forest Floor Wilderness Programs which has become my main platform for exploring my passions and manifesting my work in the world. As of June 2018 I am now the Co-Director of Forest Floor.

Traditional Southern Square Dance Calling

I called my first square dance in 2004.  It wasn’t anything I set out to do, it was foisted upon me.  I wanted to play fiddle for dances not call them.  But soon people began hiring me to call dances.  I began traveling to call dances. I began teaching others to call dances.  And I began seeing the community benefits of square dances.  That really motivated me!  I have since spent a lot of energy helping communities across the country build community while dancing.

Blinkin’ Freddy and the Lowbaggers

2003 was the best summer of my life.  I was part of a one time only hobo stringband called Blinkin’ Freddy and the Lowbaggers that toured from Portland, Oregon to Brattleboro, Vermont on freight trains.  Matty, Andrew, Scott, Tiger, and myself  spent the summer playing punk houses, community centers, cafes, and parks all over the country while challenging peoples ideas of what kind of person plays folk music.  We were not your average old time band.   

Community Organizing & Liberty Hall

One theme that runs through everything I do is community building. I am almost always thinking of ways to get people together. One of my loftier attempts was the Liberty Hall Collective. Liberty Hall was an old church in Portland that got turned into a radical community center by a disparate group of activists. Attrition brought the management down to one man who was on the verge of an anxiety attack from trying to work full time and manage an active community center.

Despite the obvious potential outcomes, I stepped in and took over the day-to-day operations of the hall and formed a new all-volunteer collective to oversee the whole project. For the next year, I lived and breathed Liberty Hall. I even lived in the hall for brief, unpleasant periods. Unpleasant due both to the size of the rats who also occupied the building, as well as the horrible feeling that comes with waking up at your work place. I was intent on convincing Portland that the hall was a valuable resource and needed to be supported, so I organized a myriad of music shows, puppet shows, square dances, sewing circles, classes, cabarets, potlucks and dinner shows, and worked my ass off to make the building available to others to do the same. I spent three years involved with project until finally handing the building off to the Portland IWW. Liberty Hall served our community for eight long years.

Government Issue Orchestra – an old time string band

In 2001 I was thoroughly immersed in the fiddle and needing an outlet for that obsession. Along with banjo player Ben Masterson, I started the Government Issue Orchestra, a twin fiddle string band. The first incarnation was Ben, Jason Noice, Bill “Bubba” Martin, Chris “Donnie Evil” Donahue, and myself. We set up a weekly gig at the Red and Black Cafe that became home base for our first year while we jumped on board the train that was Portland’s growing love for old time music and square dancing.

The original line up

The second and more well known version of the band

The GIO at Pickathon

One by one, members left and were replaced until the GIO solidified into it’s main line up of Sophie Vitells, Maggie Brunjes, Patrick Lind, Caroline Oakley and myself.

We recorded one self-titled, self-released CD before disbanding in fall of 2006.

Bubbaville & the Portland Old Time Music Gathering

Shortly after joining the Dickel Brothers, Brian Bagdonas and I both made our way out to Weiser, Idaho for the national old time fiddle contest. We landed in a dusty campground called Stickerville. It was my first fiddle festival. It was heaven; a community of people I didn’t know existed playing droning repetitive music in little groups for the sheer pleasure of it; with no audience whatsoever. Those people became my family.

At the end of the week, I was loaded down with hugs and a universal “see you next year.” Next year? I just found heaven and I’m expected to wait a year to return? Unacceptable. So I ran the idea by Brian of throwing a party in Portland in January; a “Halfway to Weiser” Party that would support and promote our growing community of Portland musicians. That January the party happened with a Friday night bar concert and a party at my house all day that Saturday. We peaked out at five simultaneous jam sessions, which was a huge success for Portland at the time.

Ten years later, it’s still a party to celebrate our Portland community, only now it’s five days long and draws over a thousand people from around the country. We fill a three story hall so full with musicians that even the broom closets and bathrooms become fair game for jam sessions while the main rooms are filled with concerts, clogging workshops, singing workshops, and family dances. The party peaks out Saturday night with two floors of square dancing, seven bands, seven callers, and every age range and social sphere represented. But now the gathering has grown so far past it’s humble roots that people ask “what’s a Wesier?”

Event Organizing

In the fifteen years I lived in Portland, Oregon and a few years in Bloomington, Indiana, I biked around and hung up literally thousands of posters for events I was involved with. Fortunately most of the posters were incredibly beautiful. Most of the Portland posters were created and printed by my friends and cohorts at Stumptown Printers

After a while, events like the Old Time Gathering did not even need the added publicity from the posters but the poster as an historical document became my main concern.

I now see these posters on friends’ walls all over the country.

Click on the images below to view the slideshow.

My Journey with the Fiddle

In 1999 someone came into my record store to post a flyer selling a fiddle for $50.  I bought it immediately.  It was bright red and made in China, what many people would call a “wall hanger”.  Luckily I didn’t know what a fiddle was supposed to sound like.  I took one lesson from a local bluegrass fiddler and went home and played for 8 hours straight.  I was obsessed.  I feel sorry for my housemates during those early years.  Eventually I figured out that I couldn’t share walls with anyone and still be a fiddler.  It took about five years of playing fiddle before someone first asked me to teach them.  It was another five years before I truly felt like I had something to teach.  But then it settled in and teaching fiddle has been my longest standing passion at 20 years and counting!

The Dickel Brothers – an old time stringband

In 1997, I met a musical duo called The Dickel Brothers, which at the time was Matt (guitar) and Clancy (fiddle) who dressed up in suits and played old time songs they had learned off of old 78 rpm records. I had never heard of old time music and had no idea what I was stepping into but I played a little bit of washboard so I jumped at the chance when they invited me to join their band.

Within a year, I was also playing the mandolin and The Dickels had solidified into a five piece old time string band adding Marcus on banjo and Brian on bass.

Something both drunken and magical happened when we put on our suits and stepped on stage. We quickly realized how hard it was to keep people’s attention playing acoustic music in noisy bars. We were background music. So we took drastic measures. Suddenly, all five of us would saunter though the crowd, mid song, and climb up onto the bar hovering over the crowd while the bartender stands there trying to decide whether to yell at us or not. By now the crowd has noticed us and is clapping along and cheering us on. Brian and his bass would lower themselves back to the ground and Clancy would climb onto his shoulders and continue fiddling while Brian walked around the bar with the end pin of his bass resting on his foot as the whole band moved through the crowd. I remember one night in the Shanghai Tunnel bar in Portland after the audience had bought us our fifth round of whiskey shots. Clancy spied the flimsy water pipes that were hanging just above our heads in the basement bar. He handed his fiddle to someone, flipped himself upside down, hooked his knees on the pipes, grabbed his fiddle back, and lead the band through a tune while he played upside down. Shows would always end with us hopping off stage and playing right in the middle of the audience. And if the energy was right we would lead the audience, pied piper style, right out of the bar into the street for a late night impromptu dance party.

The Dickel Brothers didn’t care so much if people liked us or not, we just didn’t want people to ignore us. We didn’t want to be background music.

The Dickel Brothers were my highly influential entry point into the world of Old Time music and even music in general. I haven’t been able to sustain that energy but I will always have it to look back upon.

Son Jarocho – The music of Southern Veracruz, Mexico

In the winter of 1996, I made my first trip into Mexico. With no maps or guidebooks, I stumbled my way around the country until arriving in the southern state of Veracruz. I fell in love with the southern region and their traditional music, Son Jarocho, an incredibly rhythmic mix of Spanish, Afro-Caribbean, and native American musics played on traditional string and percussion instruments. I returned to Veracruz every winter for the next ten years to study their music and dance, visit rural musicians, make field recordings, travel, and of course, to escape Portland winters. Sadly, upon returning home I had no one to play this music with. Son Jarocho is an extremely social musical form and the pockets of musicians in the US are few and far from me.

Witnessing the vibrant traditional music communities of Southern Veracruz had a huge impact on me and would provided me with endless ideas and inspiration to inject into my own music community back home.

Q is for Choir  (“no, we don’t sell choir music, we are a record store!”)

At 18 years old growing up in Chico, CA, I dreamed of owning a record store. It couldn’t be in Chico though. Don’t get me wrong, I loved growing up there but I wasn’t going to STAY there. It was the early 90s, so I decided Seattle was the place. But then I went to Seattle. Nope, too big. So I went to Portland. Nobody I knew seemed to work there. They just hung around drinking coffee and playing music. Perfect.

I spent a year searching for a store front before opening as Q is for Choir at 2510 SE Clinton St. I had no clue what I was doing. I eventually learned a lot. Mainly, that an anti-capitalist businessman whose record store is a friendly neighborhood hangout will spend the next ten years in poverty. Lesson learned.

After 6 years, I was burning out and decided both that I needed help and, that I wanted to do something inspiring with the shop, so I decided to go Co-op. Within a year we were up and running as a worker-owned and operated record store and I was spending less and less time there. The Co-op lasted three years until reaching three person simultaneous burn-out. We sold the shop. It’s still there after 22 years. You can go say hello.

In Spring of 1995 I rode my first freight train with my friend Jessie Mills and a train tramp named Smiley who took pity on our cluelessness.  Jessie had ridden one train and I none.  With Smiley in the lead we made it onto a moving train heading north out of Vancouver, WA.  It was exhilarating and I felt a profound sense of freedom I had never felt before.  Our train rode north for about 30 minutes before it stopped next to a grain silo, the engines unhooked, and then left us stranded next to the train tracks.  We eventually made it onto a train headed back south to Vancouver where we spent the whole night trying to find a north bound train.  Before dawn we finally managed to get on a moving train that took us safely to Olympia.  As I would soon find out, that would be a pretty standard experience on the rails.

Over the next 15 years I rode trains all over the USA and Canada including on tour with a band of musicians. My last train ride was nearly 10 years ago from Knoxville to Chattanooga, TN.  Or, I guess I should say most recent rather than last.  Because of the danger and illegality involved I don’t often talk about my train riding days with many people but let me know if you want to sit around and hear a story or two.

Grundig Fanzine

Grundig Fanzine #1 – In the winter of ’95 my friend Jessie lived in my basement in Portland. He got me excited about two things; freight trains and zines. I had no experience with trains or writing but I really liked Jessie’s writings and was trying to encourage him to put them out so the zine idea was born. We spent the winter compiling travel stories into the now classic fanzine format. It was a co-production, meaning we kept each other company during the all night copy shop stints. When spring came we both quit our jobs at the movie theater and headed out on the rails.

Grundig Fanzine #2 – In the following two years I spent a lot of time riding trains and hitchhiking around the US and Canada. Eventually the stories wanted out so I tracked down Jessie and we set to work on Grundig #2. Issue #1 had me excited about writing so I spent a lot more time working on this issue. In fact I spent several months working on it somewhat obsessively. It was almost as if it gave me a reason to travel.

Grundig Fanzine #3 – By the time Issue #3 came out Jessie had moved on and Grundig largely became my project with contributions by a handful of other friends. This last issue was one long story about riding passenger trains in Mexico back when they still existed. Besides the usual travel insights I seemed to be particularly obsessed with food at that time.

I went on to print out thousands of copies of the zines, not including however many Jessie might have copied. For years I would find copies in bathrooms all across America; the greatest success a zine can have.