Neuse River had a gig Saturday night. I don’t write about all of our shows. In a way they are so similar I was afraid you might get bored. And yet to me each one was unique; some small variation of God’s creation was revealed every time we went out.
There is often barbeque, sometimes fried chicken, and almost always iced tea. Sometimes they’ll be pickled peaches and deviled eggs on long tables prepared by little silver-haired ladies with spindly legs who cook at Wednesday night church suppers. Every so often one will say they like our music okay but wished we knew something by Lawrence Welk.
The sound systems range from bad to professional. Well-scrubbed children sit in front of the stage and sometimes get up and clog. If you ask their parents how they learned to do that they say, “It just come natural to ’em.”
The combinations and permutations of musicians have varied over the decades. We started when I was a young doctor with jet black hair. (Now I’m salt and salt) I was a banjo man in those days. I heard about Moose Dooley and called him up to see if he wanted to trade a few licks. He turned to his girlfriend (now his wife) and said “Honey, some crazy doctor wants to play bluegrass music with me. I’m gonna check him out. If he’s okay you can go next time.” We’ve been friends ever since.
Moose was very young, but already a fine banjo player. I knew enough flat-pick guitar to get by, and he knew some kid who played mandolin and had just gotten a driver’s license. My cousin was a bass player. We had us a band.
It was fluid. Sometimes someone would get married (or divorced) and move, but we kept it going. The mandolin player ran away to Nashville and turned pro a while. We found an elderly gentleman to play guitar and I took up mandolin to fill in the gap. When he died a couple years ago we played the funeral. We barely got through it. Next to your family and your office staff your music people are the closest people a doc can have.
Over the years we played church socials, rescue squad fund-raisers, and Sunday School picnics. Every so often the first mandolin man would come in from Nashville and the boys would play a bar gig. I skipped those. It wasn’t that I was being judgmental; it really wasn’t. Somehow though, the notion of a fight to break out and my picture in the crowd on the front page of the Harvey Herald wasn’t something I wanted to explain to my patients, much less my mama.
We opened up gas stations, RV dealerships, and apartment complexes, and competed for a Harvey County Fair time slot with the pig races. I have notes in my files from young brides who thanked us for making their day even more special. The thought my music would be on anybody’s radar on such an important day in their life humbles me. Sometimes when I wonder if I made an impact I’ll re-read a note like that late at night and imagine that when I’m dead and gone someone might say to an elderly spouse at Harvey Nursing Home, “Honey, you remember when old Dr. B played out there at the farm for our wedding?”
We played so many shows for causes and kids with cancer I’ve lost count. People acted like it was noble, but I felt a little guilty when they’d say such a thing. We were having fun and some human being was struggling to survive; there warn’t nothing to it. I believe if God blesses us with something we ought to do a little good with it. I’m too lazy to work, so I had to play to do my part.
We played doctor parties and lawyer gigs, and shows at the college a couple counties over. We did a few funerals. One time we did one at a church for a pastor who had been called somewhere else. That one was one of those ugly transitions in life, but I thought it was a smart gig for everyone involved. How can you listen to bluegrass music, eat BBQ, and be hateful to a man of God all at the same time?
We played the charity events for some nominal fee or for free, and didn’t charge much for the paying gigs. Only one time did anyone consider stiffing us. Moose told the cat he was gonna break his neck. The man sized up the situation. When he glanced my way, I said, “Dude, he’ll do it, and I only made a ‘B’ in neurosurgery. I wouldn’t take a chance.”
He paid up. It was a bluff. Moose had two young children and no interest in time in the Pen, and I really made an ‘A’ but I didn’t want to encourage the man.
We shared the same stage with folks like III Tyme Out, Rhonda Vincent, Ralph Stanley, Larry Sparks, John Hartford, Doug Dillard, Blue Highway, and many more. I was a sixth man for the Darin and Brooke Aldridge Quintet, and played a few shows with them when someone was out sick. It was like batting practice with the Cubs for an old doc.
Darin is my number one mandolin influence for all time. My wife and I love him and Brooke like family. A couple years ago Darin recommended I seek out Wayne Benson to tighten up some loose ends in my style. (sort of like a second opinion in doctor gig I guess) Wayne and Kristin also became true bluegrass friends and we fell in love with them too. This here is a fact: If a man can’t learn some mandolin with Darin Aldridge on his right hand and Wayne Benson on his left, there ain’t no hope for him. How could one old doctor be so lucky?
I played so I could better understand singer songwriters or old-time fiddlers or girl singers in hopes I might be a better doc or least improve myself as a human being from the common bond of music we all share. I played music with my wife and children along the way and it bordered on spiritual.
Neuse River wound up on the big stage a few times. My guys are a lot younger than me and they are very fine musicians. They might even have one more run in them for the circuit. If they do I’m gonna be the first to tell you of it, ’cause at this point they are the best band you never heard of. But if they go they know I can’t hit the road with them. My role is to be old Doc and play at home. Except for a few short book store gig tours someday I am a homebody and that will never change.
I’ve always told them if they go I’ll have to put ’em on the bus and wave good-bye, ’cause Doc can’t leave. I don’t want to seem too dang sappy but if they ever pull off in that bus I’m sure I’ll have a few tears. We’ve had one more large time.
If the economy hadn’t turned bad I think they’d made a run at it a couple years ago. If things turn around they might yet. We’ve talked about it at length. Even if they go, we haven’t played our last gig together. I’ve had more bands than Mickey Rooney had wives, and the music has to go on. Every county needs one doctor mandolin picker and I’m the only one in Harvey County, so I have to continue on.
I have to play music just as sure as I have to doctor. If you are passionate about your art form, I’d love to hear about what drives you, and hope you’ll leave a comment.
It’s back to the doc gig. I’m recharged and ready to go do my best.