Author: Kuster, Ted

Some Ways Bluegrass is Like Real Life

Iíve learned a lot in my few years as a bluegrass devotee. Some of what Iíve learned has even helped me outside bluegrass, in an area that somehow I still think of as ďreal life.Ē I thought Iíd assemble some of it in this short handy list, suitable for printing out and carrying around with you this summer.

Preparation is everything.

You would never call a tune that you donít know reasonably well, or jump into a jam without listening for a while to get the feel of it. Similarly, in real life you wouldnít show up for a job interview without knowing what business the employer is in, or without at least trying to anticipate some of the questions that might be asked. It also helps, in real life, to bring along an instrument to the job interview, in case the hiring manager feels like doing a little picking. Remember to warm up in the parking lot before entering the building.

Preparation is nothing.

When the tune you called gets rolling, I donít care how hard youíve practiced or how long you spent memorizing. Something is going to go awry, and youíre going to have to deal with it on the spot, whatever it is. This goes double for banjo players, of course. Learn all the fancy licks you want in your garage. When itís time to get together and play with others, kiss half of your fancy licks goodbye. They will not be joining you tonight. Your homework: figure out which half itís going to be. Good luck with that.

Itís all about other people.

Bluegrass instruments, except the guitar to some degree, are ensemble instruments. No one of them sounds all that great all by itself, unless you are really into that instrument and you live for its particular, peculiar sonority. Which Iíve seen plenty of in the case of mandolin or a fiddle, but is harder to imagine with regard to the banjo. Similarly, in real life you never get anything done without someoneís help. Procreation, for example, I found very very difficult to do alone. I would have happily kept on trying, and I might even have been successful. But then someone came along who wanted to collaborate on it, so I never did find out how that would have turned out.

Itís all about you.

Nobody can reach over and tune your instrument for you, or finger that chord that you canít find. Certainly nobody can practice for you. If you canít play through that tune reliably by yourself, many times in a row, best not to bring it out to the jam. Real life is similarly inflexible that way. Certain things you just have to do for yourself. Although I knew a guy in high school who was able to get somebody else to study for him. I never understood how he made that work.

You canít go home again.

Your life is never going to be as simple as it was before you went and got involved in bluegrass. Back then, if you could successfully juggle your job, your family and your ultimate Frisbee league, you were doing pretty good. Now you have to figure out how to do all that plus find the time and gas for a couple major festivals and half a dozen little ones, while somehow seeing your kids occasionally and perhaps also earning a living.

You canít leave home.

Who cares if you can go home or not: most of the time you canít get out of there in the first place. First you have to dry out your tent, sleeping bags, and favorite blanket, which you meant to do the day after you came back from the last festival but of course you didnít and now theyíre ranker than that raccoon nest youíve been meaning to clear out of the attic. Before that you have to find all those things, plus your coffee grinder, your headband flashlight, and your extra finger picks. Thatís the easy part; after that you have to get your kids mobilized. In real life, on the other hand, you can just leave the raccoon nest alone.

Posted:  5/28/2013

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