By Michael Lester
New Jersey-based folk-jazz rock quintet From Good Homes, perhaps best known as the band that gave Railroad Earth songwriter-vocalist Todd Sheaffer his start, was gathering steam in the mid-1990s, scoring a record deal with RCA Records and touring arenas nationally with Dave Matthews Band and Bob Weir’s Ratdog.
Once described by a critic as “hick-pop,” From Good Homes appeared as an opening act for a Bob Dylan show. Two of its songs — “Fruitful Acre” and “Wide Open Wide” — were included on the soundtrack of the 1997 film “Picture Perfect,” starring Jennifer Aniston.
Riding that momentum into the late ’90s, the band got to work on a new album during the winter of 1998.
While in the recording studio, the band abruptly decided to call it quits before finishing the album.
The sudden breakup was not an acrimonious one, FGH drummer Patrick Fitzsimmons said. Instead, family commitments steered band members in different directions.
In Fitzsimmons; case, it was a move to Vermont. He and his wife had split. She moved to the New England state, and Fitzsimmons followed to remain close to his daughter, now 23.
“It was just time to take a break and to take off in personal directions, be it family or music, or both,” said Fitzsimmons, 52. “We’re brothers. Always will be.”
The band, formed in the late 1970s by Jersey high school buddies Fitzsimmons, Sheaffer and bassist Brady Rymer, reunites — again — Friday at the Peach Music Festival on Montage Mountain. From Good Homes performs in the 2 p.m. slot on the festival’s canopy-covered main stage.
“We have been doing about a half dozen shows a year since our initial ‘reunion shows’ back in 2009,” Fitzsimmons said. “No reason to stop now. We’re having a blast.”
FGH’s founding trio — saxman Dan Myers and string player Jamie Coan were later additions — have all enjoyed varying degrees of success since parting ways.
Guitarist Sheaffer went on to become the frontman and chief songwriter for Railroad Earth, the New Jersey-based national touring act whose popularity has earned them headlining gigs at venues as large as Colorado’s legendary Red Rocks.
Rymer, himself a father, is a Grammy-nominated writer of children’s music. He and his backing band, The Little Band that Could, have released several family-oriented CDs.
While perhaps gaining less acclaim than his co-founding bandmates, the story of Fitzsimmons’ solo career is arguably the most compelling.
A drummer by trade, Fitzsimmons is a recent cancer survivor who didn’t take up guitar until his departure from FGH, whose primary songwriter was Sheaffer.
“It did not come as easy as the drums,” Fitzsimmons admitted. “I had a guitar back in high school but never really played it much or worked at it. Drumming just came so much easier for me. So I took the musical path of least resistance and became a drummer. I love playing the drums. I think I am a very natural drummer. Nothing too fancy, but it’s in my DNA for sure. It wasn’t until I started writing songs that I really started working on my guitar playing.”
A late-blooming yet ambitious singer-songwriter, Fitzsimmons didn’t start penning his own material until he reached age 30.
“I contributed musically, rhythmically to FGH’s music but not lyrically,” Fitzsimmons said. “I came into the whole songwriter thing rather late. I had always wanted to write. Some of my major musical influences were the great singer-songwriters of the ’70s, like Cat Stevens, Neil Young and Paul Simon.
“But I really didn’t feel I had much to say until I entered my 30s. Once I did start, though, it was really all I wanted to do.”
Fitzsimmons has released six solo albums since 2001, including 2012’s “Hope Is,” inspired by his bout with Mantle Cell Lymphoma.
His songs have been described in album reviews as “haunting and beautiful,” ranging from “pop-folk anthems to a number of masterful love ballads.”
First diagnosed with cancer in 2007, Fitzsimmons said his treatment involved high-dose chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant.
His cancer has been in remission five years.
“It was such a personal journey for me. I don’t know what to say to anyone else,” Fitzsimmons said. “I certainly know that when you are faced with a situation where you don’t know whether you’re going to live or die — and you end up living — you cherish life a lot more.
“You take a lot less for granted and you feel very fortunate. Even on the bad days.”
Fitzsimmons, who has performed as an opener for a couple Railroad Earth shows, is clearly excited to return to the stage with From Good Homes.
He spoke fondly of their days touring with the likes of Dave Matthews, Ratdog and Joan Osborne, who’s appearing at Peach as a member of Trigger Hippy this weekend.
“My overall impression of those tours was, ‘Shit, time to show them what we got,’” Fitzsimmons recalled. “There we were, just doing our own thing, and then we are asked to be a part of something much bigger and broader in the world of music and the music business.
“It was an honor and a very exciting time. I personally loved being on the road with other bands. I found it fascinating to see how other bands did it. Both on stage and off.”
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