WESTBROOK, Maine — A year ago this week, Jay Peterson, 66, was in a pandemic pickle.
Peterson had given up his digs in Blue Hill and headed to Portland for a cushy, six-month house sitting gig, complete with gorgeous views of Casco Bay. An old-fashioned freehand sign painter by trade, he was looking forward to resting for a bit, in comfort.
Then, the coronavirus hit hard.
The house owners called from New Orleans. They were freaked out, on their way back and didn’t need his services after all.
Suddenly, Peterson was homeless and without any work. That’s when an old friend, Bill Umbel, who didn’t know about his predicament, called with an offer of a job and a place to stay. A full 12 months later, Peterson has done more than just survive the pandemic. He has helped preserve a piece of nationally recognized roadside Americana and is finishing an enormous mural project memorializing Maine’s pioneering country music recording artists.
“When Bill called, I was over here in a couple hours,” Peterson said, standing in Lenny’s Pub on Route 302.
Umbel owns the pub, which used to be the home of the Event Records recording studio, as well as Hawkes Television Repair. Al Hawkes, who died in 2018, owned both. In the studio, Hawkes made records with Maine country music giants like Dick Curless, whose ” Tombstone Every Mile” song went to number five on the charts in 1965.
An iconic 13-foot, wooden television repairman, complete with a swinging, mechanical arm, still stands outside, marking Hawkes Plaza. In 2019, it was designated a National Historic Landmark as the first mechanically moving sign in the state.
Umbel asked Peterson if he could help restore the 1962 sign. To sweeten the deal, he’d throw in a place to live.
“I live right above Lenny’s,” Peterson said. “So, it was a quick commute to the project.”
He spent last summer painting and restoring the old sign. Peterson even repainted the repairman’s tool box to look like a guitar amplifier. It was a nod to Umbel’s commitment to hosting live music at the venue.
Umbel closed the pub last March but reopened for the summer, offering live music many nights a week in two outdoor tents. When the weather turned cold, he closed again to wait out the winter. Umbel decided to use the downtime for needed renovations, including a patch of siding on the end of the building facing westbound traffic on busy Route 302.
“I was looking up there one day and thought: Just putting siding back up would be pretty boring,” Umbel said.
Instead, he asked Peterson to paint a mural. They batted a few ideas around and soon settled on depicting musicians who’d made records with Hawkes inside the very same building.
“All of a sudden, there he was, sketching stuff out,” Umbel said.
Peterson has been working on the mural all winter, in pieces, inside the shuttered restaurant. One 8-foot panel is dedicated to Dick Curless, a Fort Fairfield native whose biggest hit — written by Dan Fulkerson — described the dangers potato truckers faced on the icy Haynesville Woods road in Aroostook County. Behind Curless’s recognizable, eye-patched face are green road signs pointing to both Haynesville and Boston.
“They’re all people involved with Event Records — including Al Hawkes, himself,” Peterson said.
Another panel is dedicated to Maine guitar hero Lenny Breau, who began his recording career at Event Records while still in his teens. Breau grew up to be one of the most influential and innovative jazz guitarists in the history of the genre. His career was cut short when he died at age 43 in 1984.
Breau’s daughter, Emily Hughes, has seen pictures of the mural in progress. Hughes lives in Calgary.
“The mural is so wonderful. The rich history there makes it all the more moving,” she said. “It warms my heart seeing my dad so honored in various ways these days. He’s always been somewhat of an unsung hero — outside of the passionate circle of his peers and fans who ‘get it’ — he’s had godlike status with them, of course.”
Hawkes is remembered on two separate panels. One shows him as a young man, circa 1951, with his then-partner Alton Myers. The two met while perusing records at a local shop and went on to be local radio stars. Today, they are remembered as perhaps the first interracial partnership in the history of Bluegrass music.
Peterson is old school in both his painting and musical tastes.
“I don’t use a computer. I’m full speed ahead into the 1940s,” he said. “Judging by what I like, I should be 106.”
Peterson’s pictures and lettering are all done by hand in an age where computer-generated, printed vinyl graphics are the norm in sign making.
“I’m pretty much a dinosaur,” he said. “And I’m OK with that.”
Umbel plans to reopen Lenny’s Pub sometime in late April or early May. His musical booking agent, Bucky Mitchell, said he has a whole summer of musical acts lined up and ready to play outside, under the tents. Mitchell is just waiting for an exact date to pull the trigger.
Before that happens, the mural will be hung outside, where both passing motorists and patrons will be able to see it — and be reminded of the musical legacy attached to the building. When assembled, the finished piece will measure about 30 feet across and half as tall.
Peterson is looking forward to the tunes and he’s already got some work lined up for the summer. He also plans to stay on, in his quarters above the pub.
“I got my first boat-lettering call of the season this morning,” he said.