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?

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