Hooked on Bluegrass

Bert Daniel

This is really scary. I've tried to avoid this day for the longest time. But now I have to do something I'd really rather not ever do. I have to rat somebody out. And I truly fear for my life. It's my own fault. For years now, I've had this deep dark secret that very few people know about, even some of my closest friends.

I wish I could just show up at some anonymous meeting and be done with it. "Hello. My name is Bert and I'm addicted to Bluegrass music." Maybe I'd get some support from my peers and some free therapy. I could finally get this terrible monkey off my back and be more like a normal person. Hard core addicts like me need some anonymity and some hope. We try to cruise under the radar, but addicts like me are sometimes rooted out and forced into desperate action.

Like when I got the following e mail from The Man: "You nine people share two things in common: you're Welcome columnists and you have not contributed a 'hooked' story. Soon I'll be starting a new feature on the web site...profiles of each of our columnists with photo, where you live, what do you post and who knows what else. The profile will also have a link to the individual 'hooked' stories for those who've submitted one. Hence, I'm writing to ask that you consider writing your hooked on bluegrass story. If you do so, you can either send it to me for use in the profile and HOB feature or, if you like, you can use it for one of your columns."

I broke into a cold sweat as I read that over and over. (Well, the part about using the story for my regular column actually wasn't so bad. We hack Welcome column writers are always looking for some easy bread just to stay alive and get our next fix).

I read The Man's words one more time. Maybe if I read it just one more time it wouldn't read the same and I wouldn't have to face up to the consequences of my addiction. But it's no use. They're onto me and now I have to fess up. Maybe I can cop a plea! You can bet that the powers at be really want to nail MY supplier. I'm absolutely sure this dude has hooked a lot of other unsuspecting folks just like me. It's so sad. You barely see it coming. One minute you're a semi-normal person and then WHAM you're a Bluegrass addict and you'll never be the same again.

So now I'm going to spill the beans. I'm going to sing like a canary! (Lord knows I've tried to sing like a canary many times while under the influence of my drug of choice). So here it is. My pushers go by the call letters: WAMU. They hang out near our nation's capital, Washington,D.C. The AMU part stands for American University, I think. These guys lull you into a sense of legitimacy by flashing that "university" card, but they're still pushers. It's as simple as that.

I fell into their trap in 1987, when I moved from Connecticut to the DC/Northern Virginia area. I had been living a normal life listening to rock and roll like everybody else. When nobody was looking I could sneak in a little classical or jazz, which I liked even better.

Those musics were socially acceptable. But Bluegrass music, as we know, is something very different. Educated people (and I aspired to be one of those at the time) simply didn't listen to it. Period. Sure, maybe Bluegrass was cool for a few years when people laughed at the Beverly Hillbillies but that didn't last very long.

I knew very well about Bluegrass, Old Time and Gospel music. I had been born and raised in the heartland of hillbilly culture, the piedmont region of the Carolinas. I listened to the Grand Old Opry on TV, Porter Wagoner, Flatt and Scruggs. And I loved it. Little did I know that those innocent moments were setting the stage for a devastating addiction.

I had a good job when I got addicted. I didn't have a wife and family like I do now (but fortunately my wife and kids still love me even though they, thank God, are not addicted). I was working in Maryland for the National Cancer Institute as a molecular biologist. My labs were in Frederick and Bethesda, and I lived about halfway between in a town called Germantown. Each drive took around thirty minutes so I'd scan the radio occasionally for some music.

For some reason, maybe the mythical song of the siren is to blame, the radio dial would often come to rest on FM 88.5, WAMU in Washington, D.C. The music I heard there took me back to my childhood and I felt the "rush" almost immediately. I had recently lost my father and I would soon lose my mother. And I needed to reconnect with a brother and sister who still lived in the heart of the South where I grew up. This music was just what I needed at the time and I jumped in with both feet.

The disc jockeys kept the music coming and they really knew their stuff. WAMU played Bluegrass just about all the time. Every now and then you'd hear some crackpot phone in and complain about how WAMU had too much "banjo music" and not enough NPR but the music kept coming anyway. One of the DJ's was a guy named Ray Davis. Ray had actually jammed with many of the stars of bluegrass like Carter and Ralph. He had a trove of tapes made in his basement which he played on the air, all previously unreleased. I hear Ray is still on the air via streaming internet after 60 years in the business.

Oh My Lord, the bluegrass DJ's on WAMU had some powerful smack. Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Jim & Jesse, the Osborne Brothers. Of course those bands were there. But these guys featured a lot of other groups less familiar to me. Groups that played at a local club called the Birchmere. I got a taste for some really addictive stuff: the Country Gentlemen, the Seldom Scene, Bill Harrel, Don Reno, Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper. To feel that rush! You just have to keep coming back over and over no matter what the consequences.

On the weekends when I didn't have to go to the lab, I'd drive up to Frederick and ride my bike with members of the Frederick Pedalers Bicycle Club. If it was a Sunday, I'd tune in the radio and listen to a program called Stained Glass Bluegrass. The host Red Shipley, was as fine a DJ as you could possibly imagine. You could listen to the stuff he played and never feel guilty about missing church to drive up to Frederick for a bike ride with your friends. Shipley passed away in 2007, so It doesn't matter if I rat him out for addicting me. Red's crime has passed the statute of limitations. I will be proud to meet him up in the city built four-square one day and shake his hand for hooking me on Bluegrass Gospel. Same for Ray Davis and all the others (watch out Ray, and sorry for ratting on you The Man can be pretty rough. Try to cop a plea like me if you can).

I hope my frankness gets me a milder punishment. I could be a dead man if I get put in a cell with a bunch of banjo players. O well, I guess it could be worse. At least it's Bluegrass.

(posted 7/12/2012)

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