The joy of music

Retired couple launches concert series

More Joy. That's the name Ann Benson chose for her musical duo back in 1979 in Dallas, Texas. This weekend, More Joy will be resurrected when Benson and her wife Iris Harrell take the stage to perform together.

In the late 1970s, the name Benson chose had certain connotations. It was the era of second-wave feminism, a time when female-fronted rock band Joy of Cooking thumbed their noses at the ideal of domestic femininity represented by Julia Child, and women across America challenged the social and political constraints placed on their working lives, their legal rights and their sexuality.

Today, the name More Joy has different connotations. For Benson and Harrell, longtime Portola Valley residents, it now speaks to the post-retirement phase of their lives, when they're making the time to return to the shared passion that first drew them together.

Over the phone last week, Harrell spoke about the first time she saw Benson, when they were both on the line-up for a concert in Dallas.

"She was playing at the first all-lesbian coffeehouse in Dallas, which was hosted at the National Organization for Women's offices," Harrell remembered. "We were both singing and playing guitar. She did a Hank Williams tune where she yodeled, and it was like a mating call. I was like, 'That is the woman for me.' We've been together ever since."

Harrell had grown up singing country and gospel music and playing bass; Benson was a self-taught guitarist who enjoyed arranging and singing in a wide range of musical genres.

"I started playing ukelele when I was about 6, and one of my uncles gave me a guitar when I was 10," Benson explained during a recent interview. "It was a really crummy guitar. Five or six years later, my father heard me playing and decided to take me to the pawn shops in downtown Dallas, and we got the guitar I'm still playing now."

Like Benson, Harrell had little formal musical training, but her talent was such that she spent five years touring full-time with a top-40 and country band, Shiraz, before moving to Dallas in 1979.

Texas in the late 1970s wasn't exactly a hotbed of progressive culture, but Harrell described a small but determined group of female musicians who supported one another.

"Ann described the lesbian community at that time as wagons getting together in a circle to protect each other," Harrell said, remembering singing "a lot of women's rights songs, and singing at abortion rallies and women's concerts."

Harrell said she and Benson performed together intensively for the first five years of their relationship, but when Harrell decided to pursue a career as a contractor, "it kind of took over my life. It was my art, my business and my career."

Life was good in Dallas, but Benson, who had lived in San Francisco in the early 1970s, thought the Bay Area might be a better long-term home.

"She knew that in San Francisco, we wouldn't be anything to gawk at as a couple," Harrell explained. "When we'd walk into a restaurant in Texas for a steak, everybody would drop their forks, like, 'Oh my God, two dykes just walked in!' It's not that we had cigarettes rolled in our sleeves and had just stepped off our motorcycles; it's just that we clearly weren't part of the mainstream."

When Benson landed a job with the SRI in Menlo Park in 1985, the couple decided to take the leap. Harrell sold her construction business and their house in Dallas, and moved west to join Benson on the Peninsula. All was well in California -- but music had taken a back seat to careers.

When Harrell talks about her working life, it's clear she's proud and satisfied.

"I started my construction business out of our home," she said. "Now we have 42 employees at beautiful design company in Mountain View." Harrell Remodeling has grown to become a successful and respected firm, and Harrell is particularly proud of the way she planned for her retirement from the company, setting up an employee stock ownership plan and teaching her colleagues "to operate like entrepreneurs and business owners."

As gratifying as her career has been, Harrell admitted a close friend once referred to the construction company as "a wonderfully successful diversion" from music.

Benson, who retired a few years ago, credits Harrell with getting them both to pick up their guitars again and plan a concert after thirty years.

"She's just always the producer of something," Benson noted, "and she's good at it. So this is what she's producing these days."

The show will take place at the Ladera Community Church in Portola Valley. It's the same spot where Harrell and Benson married in 2008, shortly before California Proposition 8 passed, making same-sex marriage illegal in the state. Prop. 8 was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2013.

It's a testament to the continuing importance of Harrell's company to her life after retirement that a number of the other musicians on the roster for this Saturday are former clients. Even the company's new CEO, Ciro Giammona, will play a few tunes, including a humorous country song he wrote about the perils of online dating: "Why Can't I Do an Undo on You?" Also in the line-up are fiddler Paula Filseth (who plays "like smoke was coming out of the violin," according to Harrell), singer Janelle Roza and pianist Ginger Walmsley, who also played piano at the couple's wedding ceremony.

"They're just amazing people and talented in so many ways," Walmsley said of Benson and Harrell. "Ann is just so talented on the guitar, and Iris has a beautiful voice. They'll be doing a range of different kinds of numbers -- including one that has some yodeling." Among the covers Benson and Harrell will play are songs by Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, the Everly Brothers and Emmy Lou Harris.

The show is aimed at audience members of all ages -- free childcare will be provided -- and Benson and Harrell hope to evoke the same spirit as the old More Joy coffeehouse concerts back in Dallas, where people came together to listen to music, chat during refreshment breaks and share the pleasure of live performance. Their aim is to continue to hold the concerts quarterly, welcoming different musicians to take part in the coming months. "I want it to be an uplifting event," Harrell said. "Music should bring you joy."

Asked how it feels to be playing music together again after all these years, Benson said, "It's a lot of fun. When you're playing with really good musicians, everybody plays better." She thought for a moment, then added, "I've got calluses for the first time in decades."

What: More Joy coffeehouse concert

Where: Ladera Community Church, 3300 Alpine Road, Portola Valley

When: Saturday, April 11, 7:30 p.m.

Cost: $10 suggested donation. Childcare provided.

Info: Go to ladera.org or call 650-854-5481.

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