Hooked on Bluegrass

Geoff Sargent

Maybe the relevant thing to talk about is just what the devil am I doing by getting into playing Bluegrass at this rather “mature” stage of my life. And I should clarify that “mature” only refers to my physical age and has nothing to do with my behavioral and mental age….at least according to my wife.

Actually, I think it’s pretty ironic that this good ol’ boy from Georgia didn’t really dig into playing Bluegrass until after moving to California, 20+ years after leaving the South. It’s not like Bluegrass wasn’t around when I grew up but, as with most kids, for me it was all about rock and roll, and jazz. Now, growing up in the South meant a lot of that rock and roll was the southern fried variety, which is really a mishmash of blues, country, and rock. My FM radio was pretty much filled with music from the Allman Brothers, Charlie Daniels, Marshall Tucker, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Atlanta Rhythm Section, and the Dixie Dregs in addition to all the Brit bands. One of the Dregs had a house that I drove by everyday on my way to Georgia Tech where they parked their band truck. I always wanted to stop and ask if I could listen to a practice but never got up the moxie.

Most of the other music was on “Country” stations, which weren’t cool to admit listening to. I do remember hearing some Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson and a few others, but they were played alongside the standard country artists and I don’t remember anything on the airwaves really devoted to Bluegrass at the time. Having said all that, we did listen to a fair amount of Bluegrass…though almost exclusively from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and almost exclusively the Circle album. We listened to the Circle Album.......a lot. I went to several Dirt Band shows in Atlanta and even saw The Earl Scruggs Review in the 70’s at an Atlanta landmark club called “The Great Southeast Music Hall” where the beer was sold in buckets, which might be a contributing factor to my hazy memory. Apart from those two bands I wasn’t aware of any of the big name Bluegrass groups that surely must have played Atlanta in the 70’s.

It is more surprising that Bluegrass didn’t stick with me back then because I spent an awful lot of time in the hills of north Georgia and North Carolina fishing, hiking, climbing, and white water kayaking…..gotta a whole bunch of good stories there. If you’ve ever seen the movie Deliverance then you’ve seen a slice of north Georgia that was a home away from home for me…..the real life Chattooga River was the “river double” for the fictional Cahulawassee River and the closing supper at the end of the film was in the Dillard Hotel in Clayton, GA….and I can tell you first hand that the food, the scenery, the music, and the people you see in Deliverance aren’t movie fiction. There’s nothing like coming across a couple of good ol’ boys hunting out in the middle of the woods who say “ya’ll ain’t from around here are ye”. And, there might have been a few guitars around in the evenings at camp, but the music played was generally folk, inevitably someone wanted to play Stairway to Heaven or Freebird, and after a mason jar of product from the local distillery it really didn’t matter much what we tried to play.

The other reason I am a latecomer to playing Bluegrass is probably because back then I was heavily involved with playing jazz and classical...in fact I still have my horn. Been dragging that thing around for over 30 years.

So how did I end up playing Bluegrass? Well after not playing for 30 years I was missing music too much…..practicing, playing, and performing. Some folks shoot hoops, play baseball, do woodworking, dance or yoga……I guess I do music. Sure I took a 30+ year hiatus with the bizarre delusion that I was too busy with my career to play…….and I wish some of my friends would have had the insight to do a musical intervention and bring me back into the fold, but it didn’t happen that way. What did happen is that I just couldn’t stand not playing anymore…so I went to the 5th String in Berkeley and after some consideration purchased not a guitar like I intended…but instead bought a resophonic guitar, known as a dobro to most of the world. Best damn thing I’ve done in a long time. Some folks say you don’t choose the dobro….it chooses you. I do endorse that wisdom. The other thing that happened was discovering the CBA…the music camp and the Father’s Day Festival. There is a reason why many of the classes at the CBA camp fill on the first day of enrollment…..the instructors and experience is unsurpassed. But then again most of you already know that. So one thing led to another, I rekindled my obsession with playing music, and renewed my acquaintance with Bluegrass.

Now life is almost back to the way it should be. I get to practice my dobro at home for hours at a time, I get to play with friends and interesting strangers at jams, and I even occasionally get to have the thrill and embarrassment of performing. It’s all strangely comfortable.

When you get down to it though, Bluegrass is a music that speaks to me in a profoundly personal way. Bluegrass has deep roots in the South and describes life in a language, panorama, and rhythm that is my home and heritage. And when I go home, and most of the folks that I know that grew up in the South still refer to it as home, now I look at the landscape and people through the lyrics and hear the language and rhythms in the melodies. Ain’t it glorious.

"In the South, perhaps more than any other region, we go back to our home in dreams and memories, hoping it remains what it was on a lazy, still summer's day twenty years ago." Willie Morris

(posted 12/28/2009)

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