It was the week before the California Bluegrass Association Father’s Day Festival in June, and I experienced a cosmic nudge. It was a nudge telling me that things just might not go as smoothly as I had planned.
I had been bucking some logs at the old home place, and while utilizing my incredible talent and well-known woodsman skills, a log attacked me. And totally without provocation, too. One moment I was calmly going about my work, and the next a wood club leapt up (or leapt down, or leapt sideways, I don’t recall, but that sucker was in motion, fellers!) and smashed my fingers. And I knew it was a bad hit the moment it happened since I had an out-of-body sort of experience. Suddenly I was watching some guy right next to me yowl bloody murder while I was sitting nearby, watching the entire scene like it was a National Geographic special. Honestly, the nerve of some logs. Even amid the yowling, there were thoughts though. Before the “Why am I yowling?” and “Oh #%&@#” sorts of thoughts, my first thought was not of pain or anguish, but of how could I enjoy the festival if I was unable to play my guitar or mandolin? My usual festival schedule consists of nonstop jamming with a side of volunteering, and just a dash of the more frivolous activities known as eating and sleeping. How could I possibly survive the festival if jamming was out of the picture?
As it turns out, there was a silver lining to my perilous circumstance. The number of people that actually play music and jam at bluegrass festivals only makes up one slice of the proverbial bluegrass festival pie. Hard to believe, right? Of course, I have non-musician pals who love festivals for the fun, the food, and the friends (and some sneaky harmonizing). And some who love festivals just so they can eat Deb Livermore’s grilled cheese sammies at all hours of the day and night. But I had never personally experienced the not-even-bringing-an-instrument-to-the-festival phenomenon up close before.
During the festival, I made friends with more people than I normally would, or even could, simply because I was willing to try out being a bluegrass civilian for a change. I got to swap stories with the Safety and Hospitality crew, hang out with the Cleaning crew at their off-the-beaten-path camp, and drive to distant corners of the fairgrounds and wrangle stray chairs with the Utilities crew. I sat and listened to music with folks I had never met before, but who had been coming to the festival even longer than I had. I enjoyed chatting with some of the hired security personnel while things were more or less calm, and I helped a few festival newbies get settled in and involved in some slow jams. And that was just on the first day!
I was able to participate in the festival in ways that I had never given time to before, and found myself enjoying the whole experience from a fresh perspective. For the first time since I was a little kid learning how to play guitar, I enjoyed each jam from an audience perspective, instead of jumping in and playing along with everybody else in the circle. Of course, I was itching to do just that, especially under the moth-infused lamp light at the late night hot dog stand jam frenzy, but it was deeply refreshing to have a 360 degree take on jamming in a way that’s not altogether possible when you’re in the middle of them.
So, what can be taken home from all this? Well, first of all, don’t smash your fingers, no matter how enticing it may seem. Nobody needs to have an out-of-body yowling session out in Tahoe National Forest in order to appreciate an expanded perception of a festival, or even of a single jam. All that’s needed is to leave room in the day to wander around the festival without a goal. Instead of being completely focused on certain parts of bluegrass festival life, I learned to be a bit more inclusive and give my time to people that don’t have anything to do with jamming, but are just as important as the next person. Does this mean I’m not going to jam much at future festivals? Heck no! But I WILL set aside a couple extra hours a day to enjoy some extra slices of that “Bluegrass Festival Pie”.
(Cameron Little has survived being attacked by a chain saw in the wild. Fortunately, he can still happily play his beloved bluegrass music. He is thinking of starting a bluegrass chainsaw reality show but he doesn’t want to put any more body parts at risk.)