Hooked on Bluegrass

Julia Child

People are often surprised that I am an avid bluegrass fan, and particularly incredulous that it was actually my love for the music that ignited my cooking career. Born in Alabama’s Tallapoosa County, in a little town called Hackneyville, I was the daughter of a sharecropper and fully expected to live my life as a farmer’s wife, like my mama, grand-mama and great grand-mama did. But that was not to be. Growing up us kids listened to the Grand Ole Opry every night we could, and before too long we formed us a little family mountain music band. I played the banjo and sang the high tenor parts. We played for weddings and wakes and just any old get together that music could make happier.

As we children all grew up, one by one my brothers and sisters started their own lives and gradually faded out of the performing part of music. But not me; I had it in my blood and the first chance I got to sign on to a real, honest-to-God professional outfit, I jumped at it. Harold Ruffus and the Tuscaloosa Rough-Housers travelled from state to state throughout the south and sometimes even up into the northwest during the summer months. We traveled on a big retired old yellow school bus. Folks back in Hackneyville were scandalized by the fact that a young girl was traveling with four men ... and musician ‘dandies’ at that ... but I didn’t let it bother me. I loved the banjo and I loved playing for big crowds and big crowds is what we had, from Wisconsin to Florida.

I’d been with the Rough-Housers for a little over two years and, since I was the woman, besides banjo and tenor singer I was the band cook. We had a little kitchen set up on the bus and most nights I’d whip up a fine meal for the boys and me; I was especially known for my cordon bleu. If I say so myself I got to be a pretty fair cook—I especially like those fancy French dishes ... don’t ask me why. Well, we was on a tour up north and one night, just before a show at the Veteran’s Auditorium in Milwaukee, old Harold went out for a pack of smokes after the sound check and never came back. (We found out later that he’d ran into an old Army buddy who he’d gotten close to in occupied Tokyo and, well, their relationship went into full bloom right there in front of the tobacco shop at Meany and Seventh Street.

The Rough-Housers made it through the show that night and limped along through a couple more, but by the time we hit St. Paul we all knew it was over. The Tuscaloosa Rough-Housers without Harold Ruffus was like roast duck without l'orange sauce. We were glad for Harold who, up till then had been in a loveless marriage, (which made perfect sense in retrospect), and we’d all lived out our dream of being traveling bluegrass mountain music stars but it was time to go our separate ways. Didn’t take me but a day or two to see what my fall back was ... I landed a job as a sous chef at Daniel’s in St. Paul, got trained by Daniel himself and, well, the rest is history. But in all these years I’ve never stopped playing the five-string and I get out and jam whenever I can. Am I still hooked on bluegrass? You betchya!

(posted 6/3/2012)

[Note: This is one of several “hooked” stories from creative CBA’ers who have imagined how an historical figure might have become engaged with bluegrass, if they had had that opportunity.]

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