It's 1989, and Hugo has just devastated Charleston. Bobby McDuffie, on tour with fellow violinist Yehudi Menuhin, finds himself at the College of Charleston gym performing beneath a basketball hoop to a packed crowd dressed to the nines. "We were the first cultural event that was able to be put on and attended [following Hugo]," says McDuffie, who was relieved that the Holy City, for the most part, dodged a bullet with Hurricane Matthew. "Everybody came out in their best. They were in tuxes and long gowns sitting in these pullout bleachers, just so happy to get out and grateful for music, and that is an experience that's in my top five of my career. I'll never forget that."
McDuffie, along with R.E.M. drummer Mike Mills, grew up not too far from the Lowcountry in Macon, Ga. "We sang in the church handbell choir together," McDuffie says. Their families were close. McDuffie's mother was the choir director at the First Presbyterian Church, while Mills' parents participated in the choir as well — which meant 12 year-old Mills and McDuffie hung out every Sunday night for four years.
Over 40 years later, McDuffie and Mills' friendship endures. That's why McDuffie felt so comfortable approaching his old friend about doing a collaboration. "I took a deep breath and went to him about three years ago with the idea of writing a concerto for violin and rock band," the violinist says. "I knew R.E.M. had disbanded, in a very friendly way, and that he was playing music. But I thought this might be a challenge for both of us, and I wanted to play a different genre of music instead of just constantly playing the music of dead, white European males."
After only a few minutes of discussing the possibilities, Mills already had a tune in his head. That same melody is the second movement, "On the Okeefenokee," out of six movements on the duo's new album, Concerto for Violin, Rock Band, and Strings, which came out a couple of weeks ago.
The fifth movement from the record is "Nightswimming," off R.E.M.'s 1993 record Automatic for the People. "Back when he was with the band, he came to Macon, where I had started a school — a conservatory for strings as part of Mercer University," says McDuffie. "And he played a version of 'Nightswimming' just to surprise everybody. I enjoyed it so much that I asked him to include 'Nightswimming' in the concerto."
McDuffie left Athens for Manhattan at the age of 16, where he attended the Juilliard School, and he's now been a New Yorker for 43 years. He vividly remembers getting a phone call from Mills one night as a senior. "I hadn't talked to Mike in four years or so, and he told me, very enthusiastically — I mean, he was a young kid; he was 21 — and he said, 'I'm in this band, and I'm so excited, and we're playing in New York for the first time. The band's called R.E.M. It'd be so great if you could come.'"
Though McDuffie wasn't dismissive, he did decline, saying he had class. "I said, 'That's really nice,' and I was courteous and it was great to hear from him," McDuffie recalls. "But it was like, you know, 'Hope your little band continues to grow.'"
One day in 1987, McDuffie passed a newsstand in LaGuardia Airport when he beheld a Rolling Stone with R.E.M. on the cover declaring that "little" act from Athens to be America's best rock 'n' roll band. "I just had this amazing sense of pride for him, " he says. "I was so happy for and proud of him."
Over the years, the two would catch each other's shows in Kansas City, New York City, Atlanta. Then they reconnected in the late '90s to form a limited partnership to purchase for McDuffie a violin circa 1795, one of only 100 of its kind in the world. Mills was one of the first investors.
"So Mike is one of the owners of the violin that I'm going to be playing in Charleston," says McDuffie, who has also played with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra in the past. "And now he's written this stunningly beautiful concerto for us — it's joyful, it rocks, and it's beautiful. So it's been a really good, faithful friendship over the years."