Back from the big time: Nashville and touring musicians King, Kirsner to jam at Moon & River Cafe

Dan Kirsner, left, and Tony King at the Moon & River Cafe in Schenectady. (Photos by Bill Buell)

Dan Kirsner, left, and Tony King at the Moon & River Cafe in Schenectady. (Photos by Bill Buell)

Dan Kirsner and Tony King both left their upstate New York homes long ago as young men and headed to Nashville, seeking their fame and fortune in the world of country music.

Each had a long and robust career as a professional musician — they traveled around the country with some of the biggest names in the business — but they met for the first time a little over a month ago in Schenectady. How they happened to hook up, they say, can only be explained in one way.

“God brought us together,” said King, a Glenville native who will team up with Kirsner and vocalist Debbie Fish of Schenectady to perform at the Moon and River Cafe in Schenectady Friday night from 6-9 p.m. “It’s amazing how we hit it off. It was like we were twins.”

“We brought our guitars down to the Moon and River, started playing and it was just great,” said Kirnser. “We had that Nashville experience. We just clicked. Tony’s right when he says God brought us together.”

Kirsner, who turns 66 in May, grew up in Ticonderoga near the northern edge of Lake George and graduated from Ticonderoga High School in 1974. King, who grew up on Washout Road in Glenville, was a 1984 graduate of Scotia-Glenville High. While Kirsner immediately headed to Nashville as an 18-year-old, King played in bands around the Capital Region for a few years before he too headed to the county music capital of the world in central Tennessee. Kirsner had his own band that toured with and opened for the likes of Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, Conway Twitty and Del Reeves, while King served as lead guitarist for such acts like Merle Haggard, Alan Jackson, Reba McEntire, George Strait and Travis Tritt.

Most of the memories they collected traveling around the country playing music are wonderful ones, and they each take great joy in sharing those stories. But there were also the hard times. Kirsner stopped performing when seven members of his band were killed in a car accident back in 1991, while King was so burned out after nearly two decades of living on the road that he threw all 17 of his guitars into a bonfire and retired.

There is plenty of partying and drug use in their past, and the two men also share a deep religious faith. Kirsner actually enrolled at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University and eventually earned a seminary degree there. King, meanwhile, took an online course to become a certified pastor and for a time worked in that capacity at the Valley Mission in Staunton, Virginia.

The two men finally met in person last month after King watched Kirsner do a live Facebook event.

“This guy popped up on Facebook and said, ‘hey Dan, this is Tony King, I’d sure like to play guitar with you,’ ” said Kirsner. “So I said, ‘the only Tony King I know played in Nashville,’ and he said, ‘yeah, that’s me.’ ”

Both men have great stories about how their careers took off in Nashville. For Kirsner, country music legend Roger Miller saw him playing at a small club and liked him.

“I found a regular gig and figured I had already hit it big when one day I’m playing and Roger Miller comes walking into the place,” remembered Kirsner. “He told me I had a good stage personality and wanted to set me up with these other guys and I said, ‘but I can’t play as good as you.’ He said, ‘you’re 18, give it some time.’ ”

Miller helped Kirsner get set up with a new band and within six months he was opening for some of the biggest names in country music, a steady string of success that lasted for 15 years.

“They also had me change my name to Cody Randall Blake,” said Kirsner. “Danny Kirsner was not gonna get it done. So I had a stage name for 15 years, and I had a lot of fun opening for these huge country stars.”

King who was well into his 20s by the time he left the Capital Region, was playing at a popular Nashville joint, Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, when his life changed.

“They have these mascots, these people who are out there scouting talent, and one of them came up to me and said he wanted to talk to me,” remembered King. “There’s a lot of BS in Nashville. But he asked me where I was staying and ends up picking me up at my motel and taking me to a recording studio. I walked in and there was Mr. Merle Haggard. The guy said, ‘do you know who that is?’ I just started playing his song, ‘Working Man’s Blues,’ and he walked over, looked at me and said, ‘you gotta job if you want it.’ ”

King worked for nearly six years as the lead guitarist in Haggard’s band, and also enjoyed long gigs with McEntire, Strait, Tritt and Jackson.

Kirsner’s success was followed by some hard times, all precipitated by the van accident that killed his friends and band members in 1991. He no longer had the inclination to get out on stage, and after working in the radio industry in Ithaca, New York, and then Missouri, he returned home to Ticonderoga in 2016 before ending up in Schenectady at the City Mission where he spent six months as a resident.

“What I saw there was the most generous group of people I’ve ever seen,” said Kirsner, who can also be found playing music occasionally at Bud’s on Jay in downtown Schenectady. “I walked in and saw above the door, ‘This is God’s Place.’ Three weeks later I wrote a song about the place.”

City Mission director Mike Saccocio remembers Kirsner fondly.

“He’s certainly done a lot musically,” said Saccocio, who included Kirsner’s recording of his new song, “This is God’s Place,” on a video that was played at the group’s annual banquet. “He is a genuine talent, and he’s also got a very good heart. He was a blessing for us here at the mission. He was always pitching in to help, always asking what he could do.”

The song may soon become well known around the country. Soon after meeting Kirsner, King listened to “This is God’s Place” and shared it with Jackson.

“I got a phone call from Tony and he says, ‘That song you wrote, Alan Jackson wants to record it,’ ” said Kirsner. “Unbelievable. I’ve been writing songs since 1974 and nobody cared. But Alan Jackson told Tony he has to put this on his new album. He said he listened to it with his wife and they were both crying.”

That is supposed to happen after Jackson returns to the studio next month following a current tour. Until that happens, Kirsner and King are just happy to have found each other and a place to play.

“In Nashville, you walk down the street and there’s always these little places where you can go in and listen to live music,” said King. “There aren’t too many places like that around here, and that’s why we’re so happy we found the Moon and River Cafe.”

Moon and River Cafe owner Rich Genest is happy they did.

“I am honored to have two guys with the talent of Dan and Tony,” said Genest, who often performs as a vocalist with the SUNY Schenectady Players at the Taj Mahal on Eastern Avenue. “We are thrilled they’re going to be playing here.”

Admission to Friday’s event is free although donations are requested.

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