(EDITOR’S NOTE–We currently find that we have a couple of Welcome writer slots open. If you think you might like to consider joining our little team of columnists, please drop me a line at [email protected] and I can tell you all about the job. In the meantime, meet Cameron’s uncle Ray.)
My Uncle Ray, just fifty seven, died two days ago, early on Thursday morning. At the end of a grueling battle with cancer, he unexpectedly sat up in bed that Thursday morning and embraced his wife and son in a hug of grace. He died in their arms.
When mom told me the news, she switched on a recording of “Attics of My Life” by the Grateful Dead. With eyes closed we let the music pull us along, letting it say things we weren’t ready to say ourselves. Emotions swelled and cut loose to Ricky Scaggs and Tony Rice playing their duet of “The Soul of Man Never Dies”. Tears and smiles and comfort came with Jim and Jesse and Ralph Stanley and the Osborne Brothers and John Prine and Iris DeWent and Tom Waits and Tim O’Brien and Chet Atkins and Doc Watson and Leo Kottke and Emmylou…
Whether he was wrestling a big fish over the bow in Mexico or manning the barbecue at a family reunion, my Uncle Ray lived his life heart first. He was an uncomplicated renegade with a gregarious and loving nature, full of play and gentle teasing. And he has left us an undeniable legacy of love. When I visited him just before he passed, Ray recalled hearing me and my mom sing “Rough and Rocky” for my grandpa. “I like that,” he said. “You guys sing with your heart. You keep doing that.”
Ray, I’m already in. This music has an undertow that compels us with relentless insistence. This is the music we turn to for every day living, and it also enfolds our despair and elation. These are the songs we sing when all is right with the world, the songs we sing for grieving and heartache, songs for when the ashes fall around us, and songs for when it’s time to celebrate. This music teases the emotions from our souls and washes us clean. We talk about the music needing us to keep it alive, but I suspect it might be the other way around.
Bluegrass calls up my participation and challenges me to engage in life more deeply. It forces me to be present to the jagged edges I’d prefer to avoid. And somehow, always, the sorrow punches through to new joy and opportunity and experience.
As our family heals this time around there will be music, as always. A lot of it we’re lucky enough to play ourselves. My mom insists that self-medicating through bluegrass is waaay better than valium and I believe her. Bluegrass is the elixir of a life worth living.
So remember to play that bluegrass music and let it pull you in, all of you, heart and soul. Do not wait to hug or sing or dance. Do it now. Go ahead and jump in, heart first.
(Cameron Little is a back porch bluegrass musician and this column is dedicated to his Uncle Ray.)
(Here’s a beautiful home recording cover of “Attics of My Life” by Larry Campbell, Amy Helm, and Theresa Williams at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KXkMPZiyBvQ)