FREMONT -- If there were a face of Fremont's modern-day Niles district, Michael McNevin would be it.
Whether he is performing or promoting musicians on summer Sundays in the town plaza, holding concerts and jam sessions at his small Mudpuddle Shop or coordinating bus shuttles down Niles Boulevard for train rides through the canyon, McNevin seems to be everywhere in the town known for Charlie Chaplin, Bronco Billy and an array of antique shops.
McNevin even played in the City Council chamber in tribute to former Mayor Bob Wasserman, who died late last year.
"He is a big part of everything that we do," said Doug Avery, president of the Niles Main Street Association.
But there is so much more to the man who grew up in Niles and, in some eyes, never left.
McNevin, 50, did leave Niles, for a couple of decades, and to hear him tell about his time away is like listening to one of the folk songs that he loves.
The kid who loved to play baseball once opened for Johnny Cash and the Carter family. He crisscrossed the country in his Toyota Four Runner, singing and playing his guitar at small gigs as a solo act, and received a prestigious award at a songwriter festival in Texas that Lyle Lovett and Shawn Colvin once won.
The song that put him in the Kerrville (Texas) New Folk competition -- "Jersey Jail" -- was about a night in the mid-1980s that McNevin spent in a Jersey City, N.J., jail after he attempted to sneak onto a subway
"I was always seeing people jump over (the turnstile), and they were never getting caught," remembered McNevin, who was living in Jersey City at the time. "I was a broke musician, so finally I decided I was going to jump over.
"I hear the train coming, and I'm in a hurry. Well, they were collecting people that day. Having a California license, they held me longer than anybody else. So I got a song out of it."
The camera saw me, and a
In another anecdote befitting of a song, McNevin returned to Niles in 1999 after his truck was stolen.
"He's such an incredible storyteller," said Patrick McClellan, who has played upright bass alongside McNevin for more than three years. "He's really right up there in the crème of the crop in the Americana, folk music community."
McNevin, who studied classical guitar, theater and fiction at Cal State-Hayward, as it was then known, has written some 150 songs over the years about his life on the road and childhood in Niles.
He lived in Nashville, in the Sierra and even in his Toyota Four Runner, performing and meeting fellow songwriters along the way.
"I was self-produced," said McNevin. "All my records were done on a shoestring. I lived out of the car. I booked my own gigs. I did all my own publicity."
But he never forgot his childhood home.
McNevin -- who keeps a youthful appearance as he strolls through town in a straw cowboy hat, glasses and jeans -- remembers playing baseball for the Niles-Centerville Little League and engaging in water fights and hide-and-seek games with the kids who roamed near his house on Washburn Drive.
"I have three older brothers. We're all about a year a part," McNevin said. "The McNevin boys had an imprint on that street."
Even today -- as he introduces musicians at the concerts in Niles plaza, many of whom friends of his he met while touring -- McNevin sounds like an enthusiastic teacher giving a history lesson about the town he adores.
"I love that it's got some Mayberry feel to it," said McNevin, who is rarely seen without his dog, Clancy. "It's quirky. A lot of artists live here. It feels like you are in the country, even though you are not."
On a wall at the Mudpuddle is some of McNevin's Etch A Sketch art, including a drawing of the Niles-Centerville Little League that he said was once on display as Baseball Folk Art at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. As McNevin tells it, a Hall of Fame official attended one of McNevin's concerts in Cooperstown, spotted the drawing and heard the accompanying song, "The Pride of Niles-Centerville Little League."
The song describes an early 1970s district final when McNevin, a shortstop, allowed a ball to go between his legs at a crucial moment.
One out to go, the game is sure. If you can catch the ball and throw to first, the glory will be yours. But then the Pride of Niles-Centerville goes bouncing through your legs and the next guy hits a homer to the moon.
Game is over.
"I call him a troubadour sometimes," Avery said, "because he writes into his songs some of the folklore of the community, and he really does capture that."
Follow Darren Sabedra at twitter.com/darrensabedra.