For all his life, Joe Phillips has been a lover of the outdoors, music and science. Growing up in Chicopee, Massachusetts with a dad who worked in the aerospace industry and moonlighted as a saxophone player on weekends, he got plenty of all three.
“As a young guy, I always thought of myself as somebody who couldn’t get enough out of these experiences in life,” Phillips said. “Since I was little, if I could’ve worked in being a fisherman, I would have.”
Indeed, his initial inclinations would have led Phillips to a career as a fish biologist, but after discovering the statistics-heavy nature of the job, he transitioned into nuclear medicine. He still kept up with his passions, however.
“I’m from a Polish background: hard-working, blue-collar people,” Phillips said. “My parents pushed hard for me to have a better life than they did, and along the way, the culture of fishing and music was important to me.”
Fishing holds special significance for Phillips because, even as a hobby, it’s “very technical and very artful,” he said. He enjoys fly fishing, a pursuit that requires hours of dedication, making tiny lures out of feathers and thread. Each is designed to appear and behave like an insect species native to the waterways he fishes, and to approximate the real thing, Phillips will study the bugs he’s approximating “at the Latin level,” he said.
Tying flies for the upcoming season is one of Phillips’ favorite ways to pass the wintry hours. He’ll take them to Lake Ontario to fish for salmon and steelhead in the fall, or up to the Battenkill River in Vermont, studying the river and the fish to see what they’ll bite and what they won’t. Put the wrong fly over a fish, and it’ll stop eating and scatter.
“I can tell what that fish is doing based on how it’s feeding at the surface of the river,” he said. “There are seasonal patterns of the fish themselves. Water temperature affects what they do; every stream has its own insect life that’s slightly variable depending upon that. It’s very scientific.”
As much as fly fishing is scientific, it also requires an artistic streak that Phillips also expresses through music. He started off as a drummer, and by 13 was filling in on weekend gigs with his dad’s cover act, The Inner Lite Band. It wasn’t quite the same as Phillips’ dream of ripping solos with Aerosmith, but the bookings kept everyone busy.
“They’d play Friday night, twice on Saturday and twice on Sunday,” he said. “That was how my dad put food on the table.”
Later, Phillips picked up the guitar “just because it’s not so loud” as percussion. He passed those talents on to his son, 19, and the two eventually formed an original act called The Woodstock Rail Line, named for their town of residence and love of train culture. They got enough momentum to land a local gig opening for country rock act Uncle Kracker, a highlight of their time onstage. However, Phillips considers the height of that band’s powers to have been a lesson to his son in what it takes to organize a group of musicians.
“I basically built this band so he could understand how hard it is to get four guys in the same room and pointed in the same direction; having the same agreeable music direction,” he said. “If nothing else, that big [gig] was something to reflect on.”
Today, Phillips is working to put together a blues and soul band that he said is almost ready to debut. In his 50th year, he’s got the experience behind him to know what the group will need to be; now it’s a matter of cultivating the musicians involved and finding the right vibe.
“We’re all adults, we’re all comfortable in our skins, we all have day jobs, but we all want to have fun,” he said. “We’re really picky and want to get the right personalities that will blend with us, and then see what happens.”
“People want a show,” Phillips said. “Anybody can play music, but if you give them a show, they’ll come back.”
Phillips describes himself as a local musician first. He’s never toured, and has no aspirations of making a second career from his experiences. But the opportunity to participate in making art with friends and family—in addition to his son’s talents, his wife, Sandy, can more than carry a tune—is the entire point of music, and to him, that’s more than enough.
“Everybody needs some form of art in their life, and everybody has it in them,” Phillips said. “They just don’t explore it, or know that they do as much as they do.”
“I think we all make our mark in the world,” he said. “Music is a different way to find peace in what you do. We can all be influential in our employees and families; there’s something about the creative experience of art.”
Beyond the creative process of performing, playing with a group also emphasizes the ability to listen to the other players involved. Sometimes that extends beyond the members of the group internally to touring artists who come through town. Along the way, Phillips has formed “some great, intimate connections with musicians we look up to,” including bands like Drive-By Truckers, from which Jason Isbell emerged as a solo artist.
“[Isbell] was playing a show in New Haven, and at the end of the show, Amanda Shires, his wife, the fiddle player in his band, sees Sandy and I in the front row with all our kids,” Phillips said. “She points at us, folds up the set list into a tiny square, grabs Sandy’s hand, and puts that set list in her palm.”
That set list is now on the wall in the music room in their home, joining photographs and memorabilia from other shows. It’s part of the moments of a lifetime spent appreciating and creating art; even hosting touring musicians when they come through town.
“Music is part of everything we do,” Phillips said. “We’ve got this house and it’s open to everybody.”