From left to right: Marc, Gina, Joseph, Sue, John, Curtis.

Ithaca, N.Y. — Visit the Americana Winery on a Sunday evening and you might find patrons gathered near the counter and moving to the music of the Purple Valley, a six-member, Ithaca-based band that primarily plays easygoing, bluesy music.

From left to right: Marc, Gina, Joseph, Sue, John, Curtis.

Formed in 1995, the Purple Valley is one of many small local bands that primarily perform in bars, clubs, and restaurants around town.

We spent some time getting to know the Purple Valley and thought you might like to, too.

Select any of the questions below to learn more about the Purple Valley, its history, and its members.  

1. Who’s in the Purple Valley?
2. Is there a story behind the band’s name?
3. What does the Purple Valley play?
4. How did the band form? How did its members get into music?
5. Cool. What do band members do when not playing?
6. What artists does the Purple Valley cite as its influences?
7. What are the Purple Valley’s plans for the future?
8. What advice does the Purple Valley have for bands that are just getting started?
9. Where can I hear the Purple Valley?

(Did we miss a best player? If so, e-mail me at jstein@ithacavoice.com.)

1. Who’s in the Purple Valley?

The Purple Valley consists of vocalist Gina Smithson, guitarist John Saylor, drummer Curtis Kretz, bassist Joseph Rayle, keyboardist Sue Compton, and saxophonist Marc Devokaitis.

John, a founding member, leads the band and schedules its gigs. He also happens to be Sue’s husband and Gina’s stepfather.

“I often say to people that it’s a family band because the three of us are related,” says Gina, “but I feel like everybody else is also in the family.”

Back to the questions

2. Is there a story behind the band’s name?

Yes, and quite an interesting one.

John didn’t even have to leave his home to find a source of inspiration for the name of the band. He lives on Canaan Road, and “Canaan” refers to an ancient region in the Middle East; the word itself is believed to be synonymous with the word “purple” in that region’s language.

“I took a picture of our place one time and it came out purple,” recalls John. “So that was in my head.”

But that’s only part of the story behind the name.

“There’s this guy called Ry Cooder who’s a musician I really like a lot, and he had an album called Into the Purple Valley,” he says. John initially wanted to name the band after the album, but decided that a shorter version of the album name would be catchier.

And that’s not all: “The purple valley was also sort of like the promised land in California during the Depression,” John adds, “so the name is a combination of things.”

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3. What does the Purple Valley play?

The Purple Valley focuses on the dancing blues, swing, and rock-and-roll, with some elements of country rock and alternative country mixed in. John especially likes to play music with vocal harmonies.

At the moment, the Purple Valley exclusively performs covers of other artists’ songs. The group tries to select danceable, fun, and generally unheard of songs and then interpret them in a unique way. But songwriting remains one of John’s “biggest dreams and goals.”

“I’ve written a few songs with my wife Sue, but nothing we felt was good enough yet,” he says. “We will keep trying, though!”

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4. How did the band form? How did its members get into music?

John grew up in a family where music was prominent.

“My mother was a professional musician—taught piano—and my father played professional football for a couple years,” he remembers. “My mother always told me that I would be sorry someday that I chose football over piano lessons—and she was right.”

Gina didn’t meet John (her stepfather) until she was a teenager.

“My mom Sue played piano when we were growing up, but usually Scott Joplin and Bach—you know, something very different from what we do now,” she recalls, “so we didn’t really do a lot of music around the house. I just always liked singing to the radio.”

But Gina and John had no trouble relating when it came to music.

“She’s got an incredible memory for lyrics and a great voice,” John says of Gina, “and I just love singing harmonies, so it’s kind of a natural thing.” Gina agrees: “People often say, ‘You sound so good together because you’re related,’ but then I try to explain that we’re not actually related by blood!”

John met Curtis, the drummer, at another gig. The Purple Valley had been looking for a drummer, and Curtis agreed to join. Joseph, the bassist, joined the band in a similar fashion.

And Marc, the saxophonist, found the band via an advertisement John had published on Craigslist. In John’s words, “That’s the way it works—you ask people.”

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5. Cool. What do band members do when not playing?

Some members of the Purple Valley are not only related by family; they are also related through day jobs. Sue holds a doctorate degree in marriage and family therapy. Her daughter, Gina, is also a therapist and works at Cornell. John is an associate university librarian at Cornell, and helps manage the university library system’s resources.

Marc helps coordinate activities at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, while Curtis works at the vet school “doing something very technical that I would probably understand if he took a long time to explain it,” jokes Gina. Joseph teaches education—“educating educators” in Gina’s words—at SUNY Cortland.

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6. What artists does the Purple Valley cite as its influences? 

The Purple Valley cites various influences across many eras and genres. Band members view big-name oldies like the Beatles, Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones, and Mark Knopfler as tremendously influential, but also say they draw influence from local artists.

Sue, for instance, views fellow local keyboardist Molly MacMillan as a player who is “amazing and can play so many different styles.” John admires local musicians such as Pete Panek of Pete Panek and the Blue Cats and Roy Flacco of the Lost Sailors, among many others.

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7. What are the Purple Valley’s plans for the future?

The Purple Valley currently has modest plans for the future. John hopes that the band will be able to maintain its current lineup and perform as frequently as possible, ideally at some larger venues such as Taughannock Falls State Park. He also hopes to write songs and complete a half-finished album.

When asked whether they would rather be in a popular, big-name band, many of the members responded hesitantly.

“I enjoy more intimate venues and I am confident I would not like the dislocation and pressure of touring,” says Sue.

John agrees, but mentions that he might have pursued music as a career had he gotten involved in a bigger band at a younger age. “I was more interested in a secure job and was not willing to take the chance.”

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8. What advice does the Purple Valley have for bands that are just getting started?

Yes. Having performed for nearly two decades, the Purple Valley has acquired much experience.

“Play the music you love with people you really, really like, and have a great time,” says Sue. “Like so many things worth doing, playing music involves a lot of work to get to the truly fun parts.”

According to Gina and John, relationships among band members for the most part have been relatively smooth. But John recognizes that being in a local, non–full-time band has its occasional drawbacks.

“You gotta understand that people have priorities: their families and jobs come first,” he says. “Being in a band is a lot of work. You learn that you have to make a lot of compromises to keep it together.”

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9. Where can I hear the Purple Valley?

The Purple Valley performs at various local clubs and diners around Ithaca. Some of its most common venues include the Americana Winery in Interlaken and Corks and More in Ithaca. The group also performs at private gatherings and at various local music festivals and benefit events. A complete performance schedule can be found on the band’s web site. The group has also released an album named Built to Last and is in the process of producing a second album.