Author: Daniel, Bert

The Pretender

Oh yes, I'm the great pretender
Pretending that I'm doing well
My need is such I pretend too much
I'm lonely but no one can tell

(The Platters)

Musicians, and would be musicians, are just like everybody else. We just want to be loved. That means different things to different people, but fortunately for us bluegrass fans, there's a lot of love to go around. Just go to any festival and the atmosphere will encourage you to make strangers into friends and make old friends into family.

Part of the fun is jamming. If you're not a picker yet, you're missing out on a lot of the wonderful musical socializing that is a big part of every bluegrass festival. Pick up your favorite instrument (or the one you've always known how to play, your voice) and learn how to play it with bluegrass style! You'll be rewarded amply for your efforts.

But it's hard to just walk into a hot jam full of strangers when you're brand new to your instrument. I know. I've been there. And I'm still there with the same old trepidation whenever I approach a group of jammers that sound all too much like the bands I've just heard on the big stage. When you're out there cruising for good jams, you just have to learn how to chill out, be patient, and take what comes along.

I'll never forget my first opportunity to play on a real stage with good musicians. The CBA music campers were making frantic preparations to play in the student concert that traditionally wraps up each issue of the CBA music camp. I was finishing up my second music camp at Grass Valley and I was envious of all the good students who'd gotten a band together and who had the nerve to pick and sing their hearts out for all the other campers. I had been watching from the sidelines the previous year, but this year I really wanted to get over my inhibitions and take the plunge to get up on stage.

I knew I could play a set with my mandolin class. I was an average student and I really enjoyed playing every day with my class. For sure I would do that at least. But I yearned for something more, a real bluegrass combo with at least four of the traditional six instruments. I took my instrument over to the practice area and just stood there with it, dreaming my bluegrass dreams.

A few minutes later, much to my amazement, I was approached by a guy with a banjo. He needed a mandolin player to back up his daughter, who wanted to sing "Darling Think of What You've Done" at the student concert. I figured what the heck, I'll give it my best shot. OK, I'll meet you and your friends at the agreed upon spot in fifteen minutes and we'll practice.

I was so psyched! This guy had almost certainly never heard me play. He must have been really desperate for a mandolin player and just grabbed the first guy he saw with the appropriate instrument. My road to bluegrass stardom had been paved by happenstance. I spent the next fifteen minutes boning up on the assigned song. I'd never played it before, but by the end of my cramming, I actually thought I might be able to play a break on it, if needed. This is really happening! I can't wait to meet my new bandmates. They're probably just as laid back as me and the banjo picker I just met. No pressure.

Twenty minutes later and we're all assembled. Every instrument in the pantheon except Dobro, if I recall correctly. But the bass player looks very familiar. I've seen this guy before. He casually introduces himself as "Bob", but I know his last name is Schwartz. He plays in a band or two, at least I think so. What am I getting myself into? How good are these guys?

Turns out a lot than their mandolin player, but it didn't take me long to relax and just have fun playing with strangers. Our leader Peter Lude, played some cool banjo licks. His daughter, Helen sang like an angel. I was set! Even if I totally screwed up nobody would blink an eye. My bandmates would cover me.

Bob had to duck out and go rehearse with another band that he was playing with. We really needed to keep rehearsing and we really needed a bass player. What to do?

Just then a voice came out of the shadows. "You guys need somebody to play bass for a little bit?" I couldn't believe my ears that we could be so fortunate. This is really magical, I told myself. But when I took a look at the would be bass fill in, I couldn't believe my eyes either. I'd seen this guy up on the main stage playing some incredible Dobro for the Infamous Stringdusters. Yes, our volunteer bass practice buddy was none other than Andy Hall!

I'd bet my bottom dollar that Andy Hall plays bass better than Bob Schwartz plays Dobro. (Or maybe anything). To make a long story short, we got the band together again and arrived on stage in fine form. Little Helen (who's not so little anymore) just nailed it. What a thrill! My first time ever on a stage and a moment to cherish forever.

Go to enough bluegrass festivals and moments like this are bound to happen. Like the time I texted my teen aged daughter at eleven o'clock because I was worried she hadn't made it back to my camp at Grass Valley. Turns out she was in line to take her turn at jamming with Rhonda Vincent! I ask you: where else in the music world do stars make more of an effort to actually mingle with their fans? Is there any form of music that even comes close to bluegrass in this regard? Go hang out as close as you can get to Mick Jagger's dressing room after a concert and see if he wants to pick a few tunes with you. What do you think would be the result? I'm sorry but, much as I'd like to pick with Mick Jagger, I'm not going to wait there with you. But I'll gladly wait around to party with a bluegrass star. They might actually show up.

If you're truly passionate about any activity, be it music or sports or science or knitting or billiards or whatever, you naturally crave the opportunity to hang out with the people you really admire and who share those same passions. Baseball fans pay big bucks to play fantasy league baseball games with their major league idols. But impromptu jams with the luminaries of acoustic music happen all the time at bluegrass festivals. You just have to stay up late and be in the right place at the right time. Late night jams are an honored tradition ever since the very first bluegrass festivals. The stars of bluegrass and old time music cut their teeth on the same tradition, so why wouldn't they have a good time going to the well spring every chance they get? Bluegrass fans are truly fortunate to have opportunities to mingle with stars and superstars. Maybe it's a good thing our music isn't "mainstream". We still have a good thing that feels like a real community

Make strangers into friends. Make friends into family.
Posted:  8/12/2012

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