Author: Martin, George

This is your banjo on drugs.

Forty-plus years ago when I was (as Ron Thomason is fond of saying) ďjust a little redneckĒ and just beginning to play my banjo in establishments where adult beverages were served, I was occasionally offered a free libation by a friendly barperson.

I always asked for a Coke, not wanting to in any way mess up my fingers, or my voice or my memory by getting tipsy. However I cannot deny that I have participated in some wonderful jam sessions where a bottle of Scotch, or Irish whiskey, or Jack Daniels has been passed around from time to time. The trick, I think, is to drink enough just to barely feel it; that way you donít get (real) sloppy in your playing and of course you avoid the dread hangover. But you do get that little extra warmth and friendly feeling that makes the music even more special.

A tip: If you get into the ďI love you, Man,Ē zone, youíve gone too far.

A couple of years ago at the Good Old Fashioned Festival in Hollister I got in just such a jam. Even though as I age I have been crawling into the old sleeping bag at more reasonable times, this blend of strong vocals, good pickers, songs that hadnít been beat to death by oversinging, and a tall bottle of excellent Scotch kept me up until after 3 a.m. (A little shout-out here to Bruce Campbell, Dan Large, Bruno Brandli, and a Dobro player I never saw before or since.) I dozed through several bands on stage the next day, but it was worth it, for sure.

One thing that has changed about the annual Fathers Day festival is that alcohol consumption appears to have dropped considerably. I can recall in the early days there were several large camps where there were long tables covered with bottles, frequently very big bottles, early in the week, and those bottles were for the most part empty by Sunday.

Obviously many late-night jams still feature alcohol, but not in such a public manner.

I occasionally catch a whiff of the Devil Weed at bluegrass events but I have almost no experience of making music whilst high. I remember an excellent fiddle player I have known for years who always told me he played better high, until eventually he stopped toking and then he seemed to believe he played better straight. The Grateful Dead made a career out of dope-induced musical flights of fancy, I think. I would assume there are similar folk in the bluegrass world but I have no personal knowledge of same.

I have sniffed cocaine only twice in my life, both times when I was playing music. The first time, many years ago, I was about to walk into a country-bluegrass jam at a private home when I was offered a sniff and told it would help me play better. I sucked up the powder but all I noticed was kind of a buzz like I had drunk too many cups of coffee. I for sure didnít notice any better picking or singing going on.

The next time was when I was playing lead guitar in a country/rock Ďní roll band I had put together to play a co-workerís wedding. We had played a country music set and were due to come back an hour or so later and top off the evening with a set of old rock íní roll. The same fellow who had offered me the coke some years before when he was playing bass at the jam was now the bandís excellent keyboard player. By then my curiosity had returned so I did the powder, plugged in and started rocking.

My recollection (possibly distorted) is that we played a pretty hot set; the wedding party was up and dancing and the bride, when she returned from her honeymoon, said that her friends had loved the band. Did the drug make me play better? Beats heck out of me.

Nowadays I donít even drink Coca-Cola when playing; Iím so caffeine sensitive I canít sleep.

I guess my wild and crazy days are behind me.

Posted:  7/14/2012

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