Bluegrass First Class
BluegrassFirst Class. (BGFC) It’s 5:30 am Saturday and the music has almost died down for the first day. This is my first chance to sit and write. Some guy by the fireplace waits with me for the coffee shop to open and renders a fine version of “Whisky Before Breakfast.” The event is less than twenty-four hours old and we’ve taken in a half dozen acts, and been in a bunch of jam sessions.
The pros Saturday ranged from straight bluegrass of Dry Branch Fire Squad to the 50’s country influenced lead singing of Ricky Wasson with J.D.Crowe. The new fiddle man for J.D. ripped through “Wild Fiddler’s Rag,” a most difficult tune. (My favorite rendition is my Pecan Grove cousin’s mandolin version.)
Some of the ladies complain Rhonda Vincent has too much sex appeal for bluegrass, but you gotta hand it to her. In spite of the glamour of a road weary schedule, she works hard to put on an energetic show, and stays after to speak to every fan wanting to meet her.
A little nine-year old angel of the Snyder family and her “older” brother (twelve) on the guitar stole the Saturday show, though. How such young children sing and play at such a professional level is beyond me. When you ask how she does if she shrugs her shoulders and has the shy reply of “I just love to play.” It’s the bluegrass way.
The backstage jam sessions are almost as good as the main acts. I played several hours with Al Wood, a mainstay Piedmont banjo man out of Statesville. (Al has been around long enough to recall listening to the Grand Ole Opry in the early days of rural N.C. radio.) I’ve got a bunch of his old records, and he can still pick with the best of ‘em. His boy, Woody, can flatpick play and sing any style, but my favorites were the hillbilly jazz tunes and old Stanley Brother numbers. The late night sessions are an education, and not only in playing music. The conversation ranged from Les Paul’s development of the amplifier and multi-track recorder to Mozart’s girl friend ragging him to get a day job. Be not fooled. These folks are country, but far from unsophisticated.
The best times are back in our room headquarters. My entourage is my family. Tommy Jr. is coming along on the mandolin, and there ain’t no harmony like the family kind. Marie is just a young’un who has barely seen a quarter century here on earth, and yet speaks eloquently of access to medical care for the underprivileged and mission work. Dang if Marfar and I didn’t raise them right, but I am not sure exactly what it was other than to hold ‘em close, take them everywhere we went, and go to the church house to pray for guidance.
Saturday rocked. As a mandolin player, you can’t help but be mesmerized by a guy like Jessie Brock. Fluid right hand, no tension, great tone.
Balsam Range was a surprise to some new bluegrass fans, but all of us old hands were glad to see Grammy winner Marc Pruett organize such a fine band. Fiddling Buddy Melton’s high tenor wowed the crowd. Brother, if his lead vocal on “Blue Mountain” don’t make you want to grab your best girl and hold her tight, ole Dr. B would recommend marriage counseling. Tim Surrett is a master emcee- someone forgot to tell him you had to quit having fun if you turned pro.
III Tyme Out never has a bad line-up, but the current configuration is as tight as I’ve heard in years. Russell Moore has long been one of the best lead singers in bluegrass, and the band is at its best with the return of mandolinist Wayne Benson. The guy is on a constant quest to express his artistry via the mandolin; the type who is still eager to explore new passages with his morning coffee. He closed out the night set with a mandola medley that had the house stomping and clapping like an old time tent revival.
If by chance you aren’t into bluegrass, go see III Tyme Out and ask ‘em to get the bus driver to sing the bass part with the band on an old Platters number. They can do it as well as a fine Ocean Boulevard beach band.
Sunday morning. 5:30 am. The morning gospel sessions are still a few hours off. I write and sing harmony with a fine mando man named Merl and a lady Cajun fiddler whose name escapes me. They have played all night. My thoughts turn to Doc Watson’s set. Doc personifies the best in traditional music. Humble, unpretentious, yet a genuine world class virtuoso, he is kind enough to let us sit in on his front porch jam session with Jack Lawrence and Tony Rice. And he sings with such honesty and emotion. Maybe my friend Wayne Benson said it best- “When Doc sings, I believe every word.”
Me too, Wayne. Doc’s the best.
I appreciate y’all hearing all about this. It was my first paying writer assignment. (The preview article is in the Laurel of Asheville, February, 2008 issue.) Come Wednesday I’m gonna tell you how I got the job. Just like picking music, it almost seems wrong to get paid for having so much fun, but I ain’t gonna turn down the gigs when they come along.
Well, gotta trade in the mandolin for the stethoscope. My soul is recharged, and I can go back to doctoring and take care of some sick folks till the next gig. Neuse River has our first spring outing next weekend. Will keep you posted.