There are days when you wake up and realize you’ve got some age on you. I walked into the West Henderson High office and two young ladies at least a decade younger than my daughter led me to the auditorium.
English teacher Cliff Searcy and I played Indie’s theme song, “The Cherokee Shuffle,” and they all began to clap in time with the music.
I took the mic and looked out at the hundred or so kids. Would they have any interest in writing? I hoped so. I asked if they knew what they wanted to do with their life, and most of ’em raised their hand to indicate a “yes.” That shocked me. When I was that age I had no higher ambition than to get a date for the prom and know where to find the best milkshakes in town.
They asked great questions; everything from character development to page layout. Conflict, how to make the plot rise and fall, writing for personal growth; all superb insights.
One asked about how I outlined my novel and I almost laughed, because I recalled how infuriated my agent would get with my sketchy notes in the early days. I told the student what I’d read about how Grisham did his; he lays out his time-line on a long table and then writes an extensive outline before he ever starts to write the book.
I confessed my outlines were lousy, but my book came out good. I guess I did it the hard way. I also suggested they learn to type. I never got around to that either. (Lazy I reckon) I often skipped typing class to go play music; I don’t recommend that approach.
The questions were so insightful I sure was glad my agent and editor taught me all that as I wrote “The Mandolin Case.” Even as recently as 2007 I wouldn’t have been able to answer them. It takes a long time to make a writer.
After the talk, Mr. Searcy led me to the school Wednesday jam session. Tow headed and dark curly-haired teenagers played fiddle, bass, mandolin, and guitar with sophistication well beyond their years.
A photographer from the regional monthly magazine “Bold Life” was there. He was mesmerized. “I’ve heard bluegrass, but this has such a different feel.”
“Those kids have mountain soul, man.”
You can hear it in the way they play. Some of them are classically trained too, and that is good thing, but they’ve got their music heritage deep down in ’em.
Their orchestra instructor played the mandolin in the group as did a young man. Some of the music had a touch of old-time; the history teacher there is a clawhammer banjo man. I guess you’d say some of the passages were modal, but I’d just call it pure as a mountain trout stream. Very cool.
Years ago some kinda university professor visiting artist came around to study me and the guys I pick with and said part of our sound was of the mixolydian mode. I looked that up in a music theory book, and thought it was about right, but it didn’t change my playing much. Mine’s got a bit more Foothills, Piedmont, and Sandhills influence but it’s still mountain music.
It tickled me that these young ‘uns would let me sit in and soak it up. It thrills me to see the torch passed on. I backed up the fiddlers on “Cluck Old Hen,” a public domain tune Alison Krauss recorded a few years back. When I ran a harmony passage to their melody line one flashed a big smile. Where else but in bluegrass can a kid and an old Doc share the same music? I raised my young’uns in it, and the day brought back many fond memories.
The photographer said he wasn’t a musician, but you could tell he was an artistic kinda cat. He said, “If you spend your time being creative, you don’t have time to think about being mean.”
“Amen brother,” I replied.
Kids, thanks again for showing me the circle will forever be unbroken. There’s enough mean people in the world to go around already, so y’all keep on being cool. God bless you and protect you. May you remain of a child’s spirit even after you have to deal with the harsh realities of the adult world. Doc has seen a lot, but in spite of it all I’m still a kid like y’all, just an old one. Between Jesus, family, and music I somehow was saved by grace from most of the impact hard times can have on you.
Y’all keep on playing. I loved your style. You’re true bluegrass, and I won’t forget you.