Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Music in the Woods

A few weeks after moving into my apartment in Virginia, after my return to Germany, I was watching the local public TV station. They were having their annual fund drive, and it included an auction. When a pair of tennis shoes showed up on TV, something I needed, I called in and placed a bid. The end of the auction was a few days away, so I didn’t bother to remain tuned in. However, the next day I was flipping through channels and they were announcing the opening of an auction for tickets to a local bluegrass festival.

Bluegrass has always been figured into my music persona not only because I enjoyed storytelling in the music, but I used to play it on the guitar. I don’t believe it was a random choice, but a choice to impress my parents. Over the course of my lifetime, I learned to flat-pick several tunes and a few dozen standards. At one point, I considered myself good enough to audition for the bluegrass stage at Busch Gardens, Williamsburg. Over time, I learned how to play the banjo, mandolin, and fiddle to expand my repertoire.

As fate would have it, I won both of the auctions. The tickets covered my admission for three full days of the festival, plus a space to stay in the on-site campground. I guess I really hadn’t thought about the whole camping thing, but I owned a tent, so I had that part covered.

It rained as I took off for the festival on Friday afternoon, fortunately, the rain stopped as just as I arrived at the site. After checking in, I was pointed in the campground’s direction and wandered around for a bit before deciding on a spot. A lot of the people there were in groups of ten or more and had created little compounds for their group. Since I was alone, I just looked for a place that was fairly level, uphill from the way the rain might flow, and close enough to the latrines for convenience but not for smell.

The acts started at sunset on Friday night. I will admit, I had not heard of a lot of them, but that did not mean I wasn’t ready to become an instant fan. The performance area was a lakeside amphitheater, with the audience facing the lake, and the stage backed up against the water’s edge. Off to one side was an open area where people were invited to dance. 

The performers I had heard of included Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys (a legend), Riders in the Sky, (a quartet that played cowboy music you might’ve heard played by the Sons of the Pioneers), and Doc Watson (a legendary flat pick guitar player). Until the first band took the stage, I really didn’t get excited about being at this festival, but from that point on I was hooked.

The bands stopped performing at about nine, which might seem kind of early if you fail to consider that when most people went back to their campgrounds and individual performances started around every campfire. I had brought both my guitar and banjo with me but made a quick reconnoiter around the campground to see where I might best fit. After that walk, I decided my banjo was going to stay in the cab of my truck because I was not good enough at all to be playing with these folks. So, I strapped my guitar to my back, put a few picks in my pocket, and wandered off to find a jam session.

I remember playing with at least three different groups that night. Usually, I would quietly saunter into a group and listen to the folks playing in the shadows. It wasn’t long before someone would urge me to move closer and join them. Once someone noticed my guitar, I was invited to play along. This is where the collection of bluegrass standards I had learned earlier in life came into play. I played familiar tunes like Fox On the Run, Rocky Top, Orange Blossom Special, and Under the Double Eagle. Aside from a few family gatherings over my life, this was the first time I’d ever played with a fully orchestrated instrumental group, including things like mandolins, banjos, fiddles, upright bass, and drums. It was exceptional. The campground didn’t go quiet until about two in the morning. By then I was still full of excitement, but the libations I had enjoyed all evening allowed me to fall asleep when I got back to my tent.

The next day was great, with most bands playing at least two or three sets. So, if you missed a favorite, you could always go back later and catch the next show. There were also tutoring sessions for various instruments that were taking place around the festival area. The main stage area was lively until almost midnight, then everybody went back to the campground. 

After I had eaten a delicious dinner of C rations (picked up at the base commissary before departing), I got my guitar and other stuff together so I could wander around again. A man carrying a fiddle asked if I wanted to jam. Although I wasn’t intent on just playing a duet, it seemed like a good place to start for the evening, so I nodded.

We played half a dozen bluegrass songs, and he was tearing up that fiddle. I had never been in the presence of anyone who played so well. He asked me what other kinds of music I played, and I told him folk-rock and that I had also written a few ballads and other songs over the years. He asked me to play one. As I looked around while trying to decide which of my songs might be worth being heard beyond a group of friends, I was surprised to find that we had been joined by at least a dozen people standing around the two of us. I hadn’t planned on an audience. 

I played a few funny songs I’d written because funny was okay with most folks. They were songs about blind dates that went horribly, and the angst of being stationed on an airbase so far from home. Then I played a love song I’d written, and by love song, I mean a song about a really nasty breakup and resulting heartache. 

Up to this point, my new friend with the fiddle sat quietly and listened. Occasionally he’d join in to sing harmony on verses to songs he’d never heard before. This time was different. There was a bridge in the song between the verse and the chorus, and he pounced on that bridge. I regret to this day not having a tape recorder with me that night. Out of nowhere, he added a violin solo to the bridge that was just fantastic. (You notice I changed from fiddle to violin? What he played for that song was violin, not fiddle.) What he added was exactly what my heart felt while singing that song. It was as if the song came alive for the first time. I improved an extra verse for him to take a more lengthy solo, which he did. It was beautiful.

At the end, we got a loud round of applause. We played together for another hour, then as things broke up for the evening, I found out that he was a professional musician. He played for the Baltimore Philharmonic Orchestra. Ya never know.

I went to sleep that night with the notes he played still bouncing around inside my brain. A chance encounter became something magical I still recall.

Most of the bands played again on Sunday, but the heat was up as was the humidity with a rainstorm due that evening. It was so bad at one point. Too Slim (Fred LaBour) of Riders in the Sky ran from the stage and dove into the lake at the end of their last song. I still have the cassette they autographed that day. (I don’t have anything to play it on, but I have the cassette.) 

As I hit the road for home, I slid that cassette into the player in my truck, and about halfway home the rain caught up with me. It’d been a dynamite weekend. It’d been a weekend about music. Does it get any better than that?

395, 205

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Quiet No More


When I was in seventh or eighth grade, my dad gave me his old clock radio. By today's standards, it really didn't do much. It could play music, show the time, and wake me up via the most annoying buzzer I'd heard up to that point my life. But the absolute best feature was the play timer that would allow me to set the radio to play for up to sixty minutes on demand. I didn't think about it then, but that radio changed the way I dealt with silence for the rest of my life. 

From then until sometime in college, I fell asleep listening to music. The first couple of years, I listened to local top 40 station that featured a disc jockey named Lee Van Sickle. Lee turned me onto a lot of schmaltzy bubblegum rock, but also played the first songs I ever heard by Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, and a few others that became my favorites. Sunday nights were different, featuring a syndicated show by Dr. Demento playing funny songs instead of the regular music. To be honest, Dr. Demento kept me until the radio turned itself off because I wanted to listen to the songs rather than going to sleep.

I had entered a point in my life where I could control what silence I was forced to tolerate. Don't get me wrong, I like the sounds of nature when camping or hiking, but when I'm by myself driving or just hanging out at home, I prefer to fill that silence with music. Over the years I've gone through a variety of ways to carry my music with me from early cassette players, Walkman, DiscMan, a few flavors of iPods, and more. According to iTunes (my program of choice for managing my music collection having tried many others), I have over 25K plus individual selections of sound. I have to say sound because besides music; I have a selection of audiobooks and stand-up comedy that have made its way into my collection over the years. Many of those selections I've had in multiple formats.

From time to time, I examine my motivations behind filling my silences with sound. Is it really because I'm uncomfortable with my own thoughts? Not at all. Music brings more of my thoughts to the forefront especially while I'm doing something mind-numbing. I think that is the way it is for most people. Once, I worked in a factory shipping department; I lasted an entire week. Every day throughout the entire factory, they broadcast music for an hour, so in the morning, then for another hour after lunch. I was told when I asked that management did it to motivate the workers. Maybe if they played for over two hours a day, I might've stayed longer than a week.

As my ankle heals, I can start exercising again and my search for some appropriate music, which I'll listen to through earbuds. So here I am again, all these years later, once again filling silence with something different. Something to lift my soul and inspire me to ignore the discomfort and keep going.


Thursday, March 16, 2023

Old Enough to Accept a Collect Call from Mr. Floyd

The album Dark Side of the Moon was on Billboard Top LPs & Tape chart for over fourteen years during the 1970s and 1980s, but until the last few decades I was only aware of a few of the album’s songs. When Pink Floyd was becoming a music icon, I was busy listening to what would be what later be called Folk Rock. Singers like Linda Ronstadt  and the Eagles  were my primary choices for listening. 

The Folk Rock genre was where my head was at during those years. I could find meaning in the lyrics and I liked the storytelling in the ballads. There were exceptions, of course, but mostly, that music defined my teen years. But somewhere in the background, some songs by Pink Floyd made it into my playlists. Comfortably Numb, Time, and eventually The Wall.

When I was in college, I was a disc jockey at several radio stations. Most were AOR—Album Oriented Rock. That meant aside from the top 40 songs by a particular group, we would play other things on their albums. I’m not sure what the process is now, but we used to have to track what songs we were playing and how often. My assumption was it had to do with both royalties and tracking what songs were popular in our listening area Over the course of my DJ career, the programming directors for at least two of those stations required DJs to add a set of tunes to our documentation, even if we didn’t play them. They were songs off Dark Side of the Moon album.

During my tours in Germany, Pink Floyd’s music spoke to me. I listened to not only Dark Side of the Moon but also The Wall, and a Momentary Lapse of Reason. I was more mature, and I was finding different meanings in the songs I had noticed before. Even though the band’s intent was for albums to be listened to start to finish, I found certain individual titles blended better together and created my own playlists. Aside from the lyrics, I found the music itself to be almost hypnotic. Yes, it was rock ‘n’ roll and had many wailing guitar solos, but overall the music was calming and of a medium tempo rather than something feverish. Maybe that’s why I had to wait until I was older to appreciate it.

Through the years, the band has changed the members, produced a movie of The Wall album, and allowed their music to be matched together with laser light shows. I will admit that I’ve never been to one of the laser light shows, although I’ve heard they are cosmic. I’ve also never watch the movie of The Wall, but I saw the props from the movie on display at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. I’m not sure why I bypassed those things, but I understand parts of the band might be on tour this summer and if they are performing at a venue nearby, I might just have to go see them.

Last night, I went to sleep listening to my Pandora mix of Pink Floyd songs. As the music relaxed and eventually allowed me to drift off to sleep, it momentarily occurred to me how far I had come with Pink Floyd and their music. I’m glad that I didn’t discover them earlier in life as I don’t think I would’ve appreciated each of the songs and albums as I do now.

Vincent van Gogh once said that “Perhaps I am a painter for people who have not been born yet.” Maybe Pink Floyd’s music was out there waiting on me to get to a point where I could properly listen to it. If you’ve never listened to Pink Floyd, I invite you to audition their Dark Side of the Moon album. As you look over the titles list, you may recognize a few songs, and be tempted to focus on those. Don’t. Instead, listen to the album the way the band intended. Each song in its entirety in order start to finish. Then listen to it again. The first listen will let you enjoy the songs, but the second will allow you to become immersed in the music’s complexity with the lyrics. I promise you, will find something there.

I haven’t done this yet, but supposedly Dark Side of the Moon and the The Wizard of Oz can be combined into a single visual/audio experience. I guess I'm waiting on the right frame of mind before I sit down and try it. Here are the instructions:

1. Set your MP3/CD player play the first track of Dark Side of the Moon. 

2. Set your MP3/CD player for album repeat.

3. Start The Wizard of Oz.  

4. Wait for the MGM lion to appear. Once he roars for the third time, hit play on the MP3/CD player. Press mute on your TV.

5. To confirm the music and movie are in sync, when you see the credit “Produced by Mervyn LeRoy,” the credit should fade amid the transition from Speak to Me to Breathe.


Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Words Written, but Not Shared

It might look like I haven’t written any entries for the entire month of February, but that is not correct. I wrote lots of words – I just didn’t share them here.

Right at the end of January I suffered one of the potential side effects of my ankle surgery: a pulmonary embolism. I spent a few days in the hospital and had radiological intervention surgery which fixed things. So, I wrote about that; I wrote about my time in the emergency room; and I wrote about the team of doctors, nurses, mechanics, vampires, and pit crew that took care of me. I wrote about the food in the hospital (overall, not bad). Plus, I wrote about pain and the pharmacological cures for pain which didn’t really work for me.

I wrote four entries, two of which were over a thousand words, but when it came time to publish each one of them, I demurred. It wasn’t that I really cared who knew that my ambulance driver’s name was Astrid, or that I had one vampire so good she could draw blood at 2 AM and not wake me up. I guess overall; I was revealing things that were too mundane. Sure, I guess if you were about to undergo the procedure yourself you might enjoy hearing what somebody else went through, but aside from that does anybody really need to read such things? Actually, the perfect place for such things would’ve been in a journal.

Several times during my life I attempted to keep a journal and would usually get through the first month or two before I gave it up. Those attempts have left me with brief glimpses into periods of my life during middle school, my first year of college, and my first overseas assignment in the Air Force. None of which connect anywhere else. This blog is the closest I’ve gotten to documenting of my life for long period. Even this doesn’t cover everything that is going on, just the high-points that I feel like sharing. When I read back over the entries I wrote for February, I didn’t see much difference between them and scribbles in one of several blank notebooks I picked up the Waldenbooks. Not something I would want to inflict on anyone.

The short version is that I survived the embolism with no permanent damage. The procedure being used at the hospital was pioneered during COVID and the team that performed it gained massive amounts of experience during that time. It led to the procedure being smooth for me and effective. Fortunately, I had a doctor who understood that pain need to be managed and kept trying different medications until he found one that was effective. Considering I was at an eight on the scale of ten for most of the first two days, I’m glad he kept trying. 

Now you know the reason for the blank that was February 2023, and I’ll now return to writing something of interest on a weekly basis. Well, at least interesting to me. As for all those words I wrote and didn’t publish here, I will print them out and stick them into one of those notebooks from my younger days. Who knows, maybe someday the wind up in a museum.