Rybak thrills crowds with accordion polka
Rybak thrills crowds with accordion polka
The 1998 Kolache Festival was about to change Chris Rybak´s life forever.
Rybak, a Czech polka accordion player-singer and regular musician at the festival, had always thought of himself as a regional artist – meaning just one region Texas. He could only dream of a recording contract and a shot at statewide or larger acclaim. But his big break was about to happen.
Rybak´s unique dancing and singing style caught the attention of Gladene and Cabble Godby, whose son-in-law was steel guitarist Mike Daily of the George Strait band. Daily´s father, Don, and grandfather, Pappy Daily, owned D Records in Houston, also known as Glad –Music Co. The Godbys passed on their discovery to Mike Dailey, and Rybak was soon a Glad Music recording artist drawing a statewide following.
It all seemed to come together fast for Rybak, a modest guy from Hallettsville, who began playing at age 12 at weddings and picnics around his hometown. He had always played just for the fun, but now he was claiming a unique niche in the Texas music and Americana music scene. The Daileys had plenty of interesting new country artists but wanted to diversify. Polka, the ultimate Central Texas roots music, was beginning to break through in mainstream markets.
“It (being discovered at the festival) was just an overwhelming experience”, Rybak said. “I was used to just selling (tapes) at my own shows. This opened me up to regular stores like Wal-Mart. And I began to sell through the radio, polka stations and Texas music”.
Rybak still plays the festival and plans to perform again this year on Sept. 14. And he will likely play there forever – but not just because he was discovered there.
“I just love those kolaches. You can´t hardly beat them”, Rybak said. “And the people are special, like the Rychliks (Joe and Bernard). Quite a few times during the year we see them at my shows, and I did their reunion. Also, I like that the festival is outdoors and that it is about Czech music. Other than West Fest, I don´t know of any other thing that brings so many people in and exposes you to that music.
And Caldwell´s Czechs like Rybak´s down-to-earth-attitude. Though he has now recorded with members of the old Texas Tornadoes and has even experimented with Tex-Mex music, Rybak stays true to his roots. Listen to any current Rybak recording, and you still get a healthy dose of old-time Czech polka music.
His most recent CD “Accordion Time” in 2001 featured Augie Meyers of the Tornadoes and had plenty of familiar standards. He also has fond memories of recording with the late Doug Sahm of the Tornadoes, a major country-rock genre artist for decades. Rybak also has a self titled debut CD from 1999 and is planning a new CD in the future.
When he is not recording, he is frequently seen at German and Czech heritage festivals, dances and country and western music shows statewide. In addition to the Tornadoes, he cites as his other influences, Hank Williams, Garth Brooks, Myron Floren, Floyd Cramer and Strait.
Rybak, now 24, is a self-taught accordion player who grew up watching his father´s band, the Leroy Rybak Swinging Orchestra in Hallettsville. Though his father was a drummer, Rybak felt drawn to the accordion. He can still recall his first gigs.
“I remember my aunt had a wedding coming up in about a month or two, so I learned some familiar songs”, he recalled. “Just by ear I thought myself to play. Later I learned to read music”.
Soon, everyone in Hallettsville was asking him to play weddings, anniversaries and picnics, and he was averaging about three to four performances a month. By age 14, he taped his first recording at home, a collection of instrumental standards and sold 100 copies at his first show.
“I remember saying, ´Man, we may have something here´”, he said.
His second recording in 1992 “I love to Polka” and “Let´s Have a Party” from 1996 also caught on quickly. Rybak said he understands why some record labels, such as Glad Music, are latching onto the polka sound.
“They want to bring back the sound from those old records”, he said, although the accordion is now finding a newer, pop audience.
“It is similar to Tex-Mex and has an energy to it. I just want to keep it going”, he said.
Unlike some old-time performers, Rybak is optimistic about the future of Czech music. Though fewer and fewer young people speak the language, he does not think the music will die out.
“As long as you keep the young people interested. A lot of music videos now, like Shakira on VH-1, have the accordion. The Dixie Chicks and Celine Dion all used accordions last year”, he said. “When the accordion catches on, it helps the German and Czech music overall”.
Newcomers to the festival will experience Rybak´s singing and dancing style for the first time – blending old-time performing with modern technology (a Garth Brooks-style wireless headset).
“All of that is just part of the show now. I originally did my first few shows on stage, but it was not interesting the people enough”, Rybak said. “I like eye contact, and when I am moving toward people I can relate to them. So when I kneel in front of them, they relate to that and like it”.
Rybak encourages, everyone to attend this year´s festival and catch his show from 2-4 p.m. on main stage. Rybak will also perform from 8-11 p.m. on Friday at the pre-festival party at the Czech Museum in Caldwell.
“A life directed chiefly toward fulfillment of personal desires sooner or later always leads to bitter disappointment.” – Albert Einstein
Photo: Chris Rybak will entertain the crowd on Sept. 14 at the annual Kolache Festival in Downtown Caldwell.