|Author: Cornish, Rick
Good morning from Whiskey Creek, where most of the snow has gone to snow heaven, (our aquifer, sixty feet directly below our windmill…I guess that would be the direction of hell), the dogs have stopped scratching their heads about the edible white stuff that steals every tennis ball that’s thrown to them and Lynn and I are nearly, but not quite, thawed out. A cold few days up here. But a lovely few days.
Most if not all of my friends know that the fall before last I had published a collection of short fiction and titled it Why I Never Lie and Nineteen Other Mostly True Stories. (I say short fiction because that’s what they are; I say “mostly true” because they are that, too.) In any event, I collected these stories over about seven years of writing the Welcome column. The truth is, I ran out of strictly bluegrass material and ventured way, way out. When the paperback began selling a single question began popping up. For a guy whose life is so totally entwined in bluegrass music, why do only a few of the twenty pieces even mention it? Quite simply, the answer is that I began writing this stuff after squeezing every last ounce of bluegrass content out of my brain for seven years of Welcomes…with me being the ONLY welcomer. Well, I’m about a third of the way to completing a second collection of stories and, precisely because my life IS utterly intertwined with Bill’s music, I’m telling more stories about the music I love. Here’s part of one of those stories…
I love to share with friends the story of how my oldest son got “hooked” on bluegrass. It’s an unlikely story and, really, it’s beginning had nothing at all to do with music. When Phil went away to college, his mother, Claudia, and I had every reason to believe it would be a simple transition for him. Our son had always been very mature for his age, always up for adventure and never one to shy away from change; he was a confident kid who made friends as easily as some people nod and smile hello to a stranger in the check out line; and, after all, he’d be close by…the drive from San Jose to Berkeley was not much over an hour. For all of these reasons, then, Claudia and I were surprised when he came home for Christmas break and, without really admitting it, was showing clear signs of having been very, very home sick.
It was after pizza and a movie, (the notoriously bad Batman and Robin) the night before I was to drive him back up to his dorm in Berkeley that Phil came into my study and made a strange…really, you could almost say bizarre…request.
“Hey, you got any of those Grass Menagerie thingies left,” he asked with forced nonchalance.
“You mean the band’s cassette? Are you kidding, I’ve got boxes of them. Why, you wanna buy one? I can give you a good deal, buddy,” I laughed.
“Well, as a matter of fact, ah, I would like to have one. Of course I don’t want to pay for it if I don't have to.”
I turned away from my Mac and looked at him square on.
“Wait a second, you want a Grass Menagerie tape? A tape of MY band? A BLUEGRASS tape?”
“Sure,” he said, “why not? What’s so strange about that?”
“Hmm, let’s see. Where to begin? Ah, you don’t like bluegrass music and never have. Your opinion of my band is, well, we won’t even go into that. You wouldn’t be caught dead listening to hillbilly music by your dorm friends. Shall I go on?”
“That is not true,” Phil said, “I like some bluegrass music and I don’t think your band sucks that bad. Just…are you gonna give me one or not?”
I studied my boy’s face, looking for signs of an impending punch line, but there was none to be seen. He’d learned to be a big kidder from his dad and, like his dad, favored edgy humor. But there was nothing.
“Sure, I’ll give you a Grass Menagerie cassette. I’d love to give you one, son. I gotta admit, though, I’m a little curious about why you would want it.”
“I don’t see what the big deal is. I like lots of different kinds of…” Phil stopped mid-sentence and his eyes teared.
“Okay, so I miss you guys. That’s all, I just miss you living so far away and that’s the reason I want the stupid tape.”
“Sonny boy, there’s nothing wrong about missing someone,” I said quietly.
“I know there’s not, so just hand it over, would you?”
The next time Phil came home from school there was no mention of being homesick, he was upbeat and talked in quick bursts about his classes, new friends, dorm life and especially living in Berkeley. He loved Berkeley, he said, and he couldn’t think of any reason he would ever leave it. It was his new permanent home. And neither of us mentioned the Grass Menagerie tape called ‘Buffalo Bluegrass’.
In fact, I’d forgotten all about the incident by the time June rolled around and it was time to head up to Grass Valley for what was, and still is, the biggest bluegrass event of the year—the California Bluegrass Association’s Fathers Day Festival. I hadn’t missed a single Fathers Day Festival since I began going back in 1976…in fact, Phil never missed from age three until he was in high school. I remember particularly well the festival in 1998, and especially the second day of the festival. It was a balmy, early evening and a half dozen of us were standing around two huge bbq grills watching our dinner of chicken and sausage and baked potatoes cook. When my turn came around I banged out, without announcing the song, the first two slow, droning chords of High on a Mountain…D…Cmin7th…and instantly the entire circle fell deftly into the slow, wistful cadence of Olla Belle Reed’s beautiful ballad.
“As I looked at the valleys down below,” I began, “they were green just as far as I could see. As my memory returned, oh how my heart did yearn, for you and the day that used to be. “
And then, as I sang the first line of the chorus, “High on a mountain oh, wind blowin' free” an amazing thing happened. From behind me, a clear, strong tenor voice came in above my lead, pitch perfect and phrasing the lyrics in exactly the same way I was. Without missing a word, I continued on the chorus…”wonderin’ where the years of my life have gone…” I spun around and there, to my absolute amazement…shock even…was Phil. Aside from humming along with his brother to the theme music of their favorite video games, I’d never heard my son sing a word…not a single note, and there he was, dead on the not-uncomplicated high tenor part of a relatively obscure Appalachian Mountains song. We sang the last two lines and ended the song.
“What in the hell are you doing here,” I asked, wrapping my arms around him, fiddle in one hand, bow in the other, in a tight bear hug. “You haven’t been to a festival in three years.”
“Well, looks like I’m back, eh?”
“But why? What the…”
“Where else am I gonna find somebody to sing High on a Mountain with,” he said with a broad grin, “these two guys suck at it.” He gestured toward the two dorm buddies who flanked him.
Over dinner the three told me the story behind the surprise appearance at the Fathers Day Festival. When Phil had returned to Berkeley after the Christmas holiday he played the Grass Menagerie cassette tape continually. Most nights the dorm residents…boys and girls, Channing Hall was co-ed…would come down to the unit Phil shared with his roommate, Kenny, (since pre-school my oldest son had always been pretty much smack in the middle of things) and share the music each had brought along to school. Phil’s contribution was Buffalo Bluegrass. At first the hillbilly-sounding music with its twangy banjo and down-home lyrics about mountaintops and rivers flooding and barefoot Nellies was a joke, a novelty.
“But after a while,” Kenny said, “I don’t know, the shit…” he stopped…”ah, you know, the songs on the tape, just sort of grew on people, probably because Phil played it so much. Kids would come down and ask to hear this song or that song on the ‘buffalo tape’.”
“Yeah, dude, it became ‘the Cult of the Buffalo’,” laughed Daemon, gulping down his third chicken leg, “that’s what it was called, and Phil was its Jim Jones. People would memorize whole songs and then sing ‘em together in the shower.”
“Yep,” said Phil, “that’s pretty much what happened alright. It was weird…but cool, too. And, no, dad, the showers ARE NOT co-ed”
Phil and Kenny and Daemon stayed through Sunday. Mostly they just hung out, checking out the girls, sneaking beers when they got the chance, but my boy and I did sing a bit more together. He really had memorized the lyrics to each and every song on the cassette, but, even more…and this is what amazed me…he’d picked up the tenor parts on each song and had the phrasing down…my phrasing. “So I could sing along with you, pop,” he explained. (In retrospect, of course, it wasn’t all that amazing. Bluegrass music, a fair amount of it sung by me, had been seeping into the poor kid’s head since just after he started walking. It’d been there all along and, almost coincidentally, it’d been awakened.)
When Phillip returned to U.C in September he asked if he could take along my old baritone ukulele, essentially a miniature four-stringed guitar, and a handful of bluegrass tapes. I said sure, wrote out a simple chord chart for him and pulled all five of the ‘Bluegrass Band Albums’, (a series of records done by the top five singers and instrumentalists in the business at the time that included pretty much all the traditional standards you’d need to get started.) And that, as they say, was that. The kid who’d never shown a lick of interest in music, except the kind that blared on underground f.m. radio, had all along carried around somewhere deep in his frontal lobe a remarkable gift. It seemed that each visit home from school Phil had some new discovery to report…a new band, a new cd, a new sub-genre within bluegrass music, a different way to split harmonies. By Christmas the boy had devoured the chord chart I’d given him and had begun working the uke’s fret board, and by spring he spoke longingly of a Kentucky mandolin he’d seen. “Where I’d get five hundred bucks to buy it,” he said glumly, “I just don’t know.” He knew.
Copyright © 2002 California
Bluegrass Association. All rights reserved.
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