(Five years ago in August I was preparing to turn seventeen. How can it already feel so long ago? This is a rerun of a column from those younger years…)
And Nothing Else
Originally published on 8/18/2012
“You know, for most of its life, bluegrass has had this stigma of being all straw hats and hay bales, and not necessarily the most sophisticated form of music. Yet you can’t help responding to its honesty. It’s music that finds its way deep into your soul because it’s strings vibrating against wood and nothing else.” – Alison Krauss
Our personal relationship to music is, well, very personal, isn’t it? There’s a primal pull and a passion in particular about bluegrass, old time, and Americana music that just gets to folks. And if you’re not a believer yet, just come to a festival or jam, and trust me, it’ll get you. This music we love, and listen to, and play, and share, draws us and connects us like nothing else. Talk to lots of people at a festival and you’ll find that this musical life we live runs deep, like religion and loyalty.
We all have a vested interest in this music because it has the ability to bring us together and to transport us to where we’ve never been. It transcends age, gender, political viewpoints, and spiritual perspective. It creates community, and we all know how desperately we need that. Our participation insures the future of this music because it deepens in the heart of the experienced and is ignited in the beginner. And sure, we may be fortunate to witness the transcendence of musical virtuosos, gifted musicians in the bands we watch, and in some of our friends, but the real living breathing genius of this music is that it resides inside the individual, and each one of us has a birthright to bring that music out and celebrate it.
Just how we bring it out and celebrate it is the trick, though, and it can be a natural crossover, or a wild washboard road ride. Some folks dust off their high school band experience and step right over to a bluegrass instrument. Others played in a “Rocky Horror Picture Show” cover band that got them kegger money in college, so hey, that’s pretty close to bluegrass anyway, right? Many more folks have internal and eternal demons to slay: that nasty piano teacher who pronounced you without talent, or the shame you carry from botching your pre-school Nativity play with the teacher screaming, “It’s WISEMEN not WIDE MEN!”. Or you may have gotten side-swipped by the wrong instructor who insisted you play scales for weeks instead of learning three simple chords so you could learn to play “Bile Them Cabbage Down” in your first lesson.
“…I don’t want you to play me a riff that’s going to impress Joe Satriani; give me a riff that makes a kid want to go out and buy a guitar and learn to play.” – Ozzy Osbourne
Some of us listen to the music, and when the creativity sparks, we sketch a silly cartoon and remember we haven’t done something like that since grade school. Maybe we chance a watercolor, and have renewed astonishment in watching the colors flow and mingle on the paper. Sometimes the music inspires the dancer inside, and connects us to the flickering past of paper lanterns, and boots on a wood floor at an old time barn dance. And we might just realize that our favorite place is sitting in a comfy chair, listening to others play, and allowing the floodgate of inspiration to saturate our being. Or we could just pretty much enjoy a good tune and a good beer with our feet up. Either way works.
The step into playing and sharing music is not easy for most people, and often not even the least bit comfortable. For most of us we face the stark fear of rejection and failure, where we will do anything, and I mean anything, to avoid looking like we made a mistake.
“Use the talents you possess, for the woods would be very silent if no birds sang except the best.” – Henry Van Dyke
This is the fourth year my mom and I have “played deep” in the bluegrass community, and by that I mean, we attended festivals, came early, stayed late, volunteered, figured out music at home, argued, learned, experienced music camps, partied, made mistakes, felt like fools, tamed a few inner dragons, started a jam group for adults, wrote songs, played with professionals, danced, laughed, started a jam group for kids, started a music theory class, felt like real musicians, jammed a ton, were embraced and supported, and throughout have been amazed and humbled by it all. This music is, at its best, solid and simple, and like Alison said, “… it’s strings vibrating against wood and nothing else.”