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Friends gather to remember Philly musician who died on Appalachian Trail

Chestnut Hill resident Jason Parish, 36, was killed Sunday morning when a fallen tree struck him on the Appalachian Trail in Maryland.

THERE WAS nothing more Michael Sparks and Kelly Quain could do, so they grabbed their gear and hiked down a trail without their friend, the weight of what just happened too unreal to weigh them down yet.

It was Sunday morning, and they were heading out from the Washington County, Md., shelter where Philadelphia folk singer Jason Parish, 36, had just been killed by a fallen tree, and the two men stumbled upon something strange, stuck in the mud. It was a vinyl record, a compilation of Dixieland jazz pressed in 1957, and Sparks grabbed it and continued on toward the car, holding it under his arm.

On Wednesday afternoon, the record was playing in The Mermaid Inn in Chestnut Hill, and the bar was mostly empty except for Sparks and his wife and Quain and his daughter. The tunes - "Muskrat Ramble," "When the Saints Go Marching In," "At the Jazz Band Ball" and others - were upbeat, with wild flourishes from the trumpeters, music that rouses people out of their seats, or whatever else is holding them down.

Quain had tears in his eyes and Sparks had sunglasses on, but they were both smiling, staring down in disbelief at the record spinning around by The Mermaid's front window. They figured they'd hang the record on a wall.

"We cleaned it up and it's like . . . perfect," Sparks said. "Then, we found out that Jason had studied classical and jazz when he first got into music and I'm like . . . this is crazy."

The two men had come to The Mermaid Inn a few hours before friends, co-workers and fellow musicians gathered there to remember Parish, who'd had his release party for his CD, "A Mountain and a Hill," at the bar in January. Quain and Sparks knew they would retell a sad story all night, crying with friends and strangers for the next few hours and again today at Parish's services in Dover, Del., where he grew up.

"I just wanted to tell you about the record before everyone got here," Sparks said.

Parish worked as an engineer at Ewing Cole, near Independence Mall. Quain, 47, of Merion, and Sparks, 41, of East Falls, are also engineers, and they all met when the three of them worked together at Brooks Bruce & Associates, on Chestnut Street near 23rd. The three made a vow to get at least one weekend away a year, even if it was in winter. Last year, they took a frigid trip to Ricketts Glen State Park about 140 miles northwest of Philadelphia.

Parish's obituary said he played guitar, piano and saxophone and was a Philadelphia Eagles fan. He attended the University of Delaware and had two beloved mutts, Trixie and Vega, that are now with his parents.

Last Friday afternoon, the trio left Philly and planned to hike a portion of the Appalachian Trail, starting near Harper's Ferry, W. Va., north about 14 miles into Maryland. They ate vegetarian stew, touched a lot of poison ivy, and visited lookouts where the slate was stacked into thrones. They slept in the Ed Garvey Shelter, one of the best on the whole trail, where they swapped stories with other hikers around the campfire they managed to build despite the deluge.

On Saturday, a random goat came to visit them while they ate dinner.

"We called it the 'Western Maryland Mountain Goat,' " Sparks said, laughing.

They both recalled Parish mentioning how wonderful the smell of a campfire was, how it always stayed with him after the trip was over.

On Sunday morning, Quain and Sparks got up first and had coffee. Parish, the "rock star," was still in his sleeping bag, they said. Quain said he and Sparks were talking about the wind, about being mindful of the trees on the hike out. They didn't hear the tree fall.

"If it snaps you hear them. This one came from the root ball," Quain said.

Parish had no time to react, Sparks said, and he stopped himself from describing more details.

The tree that hit Parish was rotted, Sparks said, and tagged for removal, most likely by the volunteers he said maintain the trail. No one knew what kind of tree it was.

By 8 p.m., The Mermaid Inn was filled with dozens of people, and some made a line straight to Sparks and Quain when they learned they were the ones hiking with Parish. They often started crying before they got to them.

"I'm so, so sorry," musician Sarah Napolitan, 32, of Mount Airy, said to Sparks as they embraced.

Musicians who knew Parish through the Mermaid's open-mic night collaborated on "Circle be Unbroken" and "The Lonesome Valley" and many more sang the songs with them.

"He was a great songwriter, great guitarist, the whole deal," said musician Mike McNichol, 58, of Glenside. "You could hear it in his voice."

The Dixieland Jazz album spun for most of the night, although no one could really hear it amid the chatter and the acoustic guitars. Whenever it stopped, though, Sparks would make his way over to the record player and reset the needle.