It’s throwback March – this column first appeared in 2006
I have always enjoyed reading the sage wisdom of B. Judd on the CBA Website, and I went in search of even more wisdom. Figuring the nexus of Bluegrass wisdom would emanate from the Bluegrass state, I went there. Also, knowing that sages and soothsayers and gurus and hermits like to hole up in the mountains, I went to Kentucky’s highest mountain: Black Mountain, which towers a breathtaking 4,145 above sea level.
Sure enough, hidden in an old coal mine up in those precipitous slopes was just such a personage, and I spent some time with him (or her, it was hard to tell), shared some pork rinds, and asked the burning questions that have troubled me so. What follows is an account of that historical interview.
Me: O, Wise Sage of Black Mountain, I have weighty questions to ask you.
Sage: Git on with it, then.
Me: Why is it, then when you come to a jam session, all set to dazzle the circle with your rendition of a particular tune, the person whose turn immediate precedes yours will call that tune, and lead it poorly?
Sage: What’s ren-dishun? What’s pre-seed?
Me: Somebody always calls the song I wanted to call.
Sage: You idgit! Don’t come with just one song in mind! If you only know one song, you got no business in that jam a-tall!
Me: OK. Why is it, whenever I change the strings on my guitar, banjo or mandolin, the thinnest string always pokes my finger, right down to the bone, no matter how careful I am?
Sage: Bluegrass demands a sacrifice, son. A few drops of blood every few weeks is a small price to pay to play such wonderful music.
Me; But it HURTS!
Sage: Cowboy UP, city boy!
Me: How is it that all the Kids on Bluegrass seem to play better than me?
Sage: (cackles and grins a toothless grin) Oh, that’s easy, boy! They all got a LOT more talent than you!
Me: That’s NOT the answer I was looking for. Are you sure Frank Sullivon isn’t some sort of wizard?
Sage: Oh, he’s a wizard all right. But that don’t change the fact that them kids are talented. More than YOU anyways….
Me: Can we talk about something else?
Sage: It’s yer dime, son.
Me: OK (I take a big breath – this is The Big Question) Will there ever be Bluegrass musicians as good as, or better than, Bill Monroe, or Ralph Stanley, or Earl Scruggs or Lester Flatt or Jimmy Martin, or..
Sage: Now hold ‘er right there. I wish I had a nickel fer every time someone came up this mountain to ask me that question. What make you think yer WORTHY of getting this answer?
Me: But I’ve traveled so far..
Sage: You think yer Columbus or something? I know for a fact that you drove up this little mountain in a shiny rental car. This dang hill ain’t even a mile high! Look, sonny – them fellers you mentioned – they were the best and sometimes the first to do what they did. Talent like them fellers had only comes along once in a while. But it DOES come along. Will anybody be better’n them? Nope. They was of their time and place, and that’ll never happen again. Will someone come along who is as good? Sonny, they’re always out there somewhere. You may have seen ‘em already, or jammed with ‘em, or maybe, one of ‘em is already waiting for their time, playin’ with the Kids on Bluegrass….Only time will tell. Sometimes, you cain’t spot that kind of talent, until after it’s come and gone.
Me; Thank you O Sage. How did you come to be so wise?
Sage: If you live long enough so that you’re older than everyone around you, they will just figger yer wise. It’s the final benefit of growin old. You, too will be wise, before you know it!
And with that, he retreated, cackling, into the mine, and I heard faint sounds of “Matlock” drifting up from the inky depths. I feel lucky to have met such a man….or woman, I really couldn’t tell (is that ANOTHER benefit of growing old?). I also felt lucky that I had time to drive back down the mountain in time to return my rental car before they dinged me for another day.