The Bluegrass Band That Doesn’t Play Bluegrass

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The message board now and then erupts with the classic “What is Bluegrass?” question. Everyone can pretty much agree on what Traditional Bluegrass is, but as the music gets more modern, or from non-Southern Mountain sources, opinions

And then time passes. The Country Gentlemen took a lot of heat for their repertoire, which borrowed from lots of different styles, back when they started. Today, compared to some of the jam bands in the bluegrass world, the Gentlemen seem almost Ralph Stanleyish by comparison.I love the old stuff myself: Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanleys, Jim and Jessie, Mac Martin, Mac Wiseman, and folks like that. In my Best of All Possible Worlds I would be a better picker and singer than I am and there would be venues where I could play that kind of music to appreciative audiences and make a some actual money doing it.

But in the real world I have had to tailor my music to find an audience, and thus here I am in the Bluegrass Band That Doesn’t Play Bluegrass.

It started about eight years ago when I retired and my longtime friend and singing partner, Pauline Scholten, suggested we go busk at a few farmers markets as a duo. We did that for a summer, and it was fun, and one of my former colleagues at the San Francisco Examiner, Mark Hedin, was a bass player, so we invited him to join the group. Pauline and I thought we’d make less money, splitting three ways, but the tips got better, along with what was now sort of a band.

I believe next on board was Pauline’s friend, fiddler Jeff Terflinger. Jeff had been a young mandolin phenom with the Katy Laur Band back in Ohio 30 years ago, traveling the festival circuit and making a living at bluegrass. He’d backed Mac Wiseman, jammed with Kenny Baker, and generally knew everyone around the Ohio bluegrass scene. But then he moved to San Francisco and took up the fiddle. Besides being a good fiddler, Jeff is a terrific part singer and
Pauline’s and my duet suddenly became a much better sounding trio.

And the frosting on the cake, some months later, was Dobro player Gene Tortora, with his totally cool eight-string resophonic. Gene gets such wonderful notes out of that thing sometimes I get to grinning during his breaks and almost don’t get back to the mike in time to sing.

The art or science of playing farmers markets is a special one. In most cases people are just strolling by looking for apricots, but if you are playing a song they know, often they will stop a while and before leaving drop the all-important $1 in the bucket. So combing through old vinyl records for semi-forgotten Stanley Brothers songs is a nonstarter. You need “Tennessee Waltz” or “Folsom Prison Blues” or “You Are My Sunshine.”

Then there are the little kids who show up. Rule No. 1 about children: If you make the kids happy, parents usually will give you a tip.

Ergo, you need a nice version of “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” for the youngest ones and some nursery rhymes for the slightly older ones, and “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” for the bigger ones.

Some years ago I was watching the TV comedy “Two and a Half Men” and the story line was about how the Charlie Sheen character’s career as a jingle writer was coming to an end, as jingles were going out of style. So he morphed into a children’s entertainer and wrote a bunch of very funny kids’ songs. I wish I could see that episode again, because only one of them stuck in my head: “I Drink from a Sippy Cup (’cause I’m a Big Kid Now).” The chorus is, “Bye bye bottle…” and other verses have the kid sitting in a booster seat (“bye, bye high chair…”) and using a potty chair (“bye bye diapers…”).

Kids just love that song and it always gets a few dollars into the bucket. One recent day, maybe ten minutes after we had sung it, a lady came by, dropped a dollar and said, “That was for the sippy cup song.”

Farmers markets are lots of music for pretty short pay, but one passes out business cards and sells CDs, and other jobs arrive. We started getting hired for senior independent living and assisted living centers, also for not a lot of money but the shows are only an hour and the audiences are very responsive, attentive and fun to play for. And that song list of old American classics goes over big time with the seniors.

One senior place had us back twice and we are booked again for later in the summer. We’re almost the house band.

Then we developed a children’s show and took it to libraries around the Bay Area and even as far as Merced. I really like those shows, particularly the silly comedy routines we made up that have the seven-year-olds in stitches. A few days ago we did a family picnic night in the park in Santa Clara with lots of little kids and we did one of our routines. Kids loved it and rather to my surprise, so did the parents.

So my dream of being an extremely talented banjo picker in a hard-core bluegrass band looks like it isn’t going to happen, in this life anyway.

But I am still in a good mood from the sound of the applause and laughter from the families on Monday in Santa Clara and I’m looking forward to Sunday at the Walnut Creek Farmers Market.

You can’t always get what you want, but you can get something resembling it.

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