Author: Karsemeyer, John

Small Worlds

The Healdsburg Guitar Festival is not in Healdsburg; Healdsburg, California that is. That doesn’t seem to make sense, like much of what is going on in the world today.

This guitar festival, that is held only once every two years, did actually start in Healdsburg, which is a relatively small town north of Santa Rosa, California. But the festival got too big. Too big that is regarding the number of the independent guitar makers who wanted to come to the festival, and the number of folks who wanted to attend the festival without feeling like they were on the sidewalks of New York City during the morning rush hour. This whole “ball of wax” is living proof that evolution is not just a theory to be questioned, at least pertaining to this musical event.

So now the resulting gigantic Healdsburg Guitar Festival is held in Santa Rosa, California, quartered in a large hotel. In that hotel is a big convention room that spills into a smaller convention room. And then an outside concert area and a not quite so big lecture room in which guitars are more than just strummed by master players for the listening pleasure of the attendees.

To be clear and up front, this is not a guitar festival that draws many guitar players who are of the bluegrass persuasion. The biggest draw is for “finger pickers,” as they are known. And the flat pick police are in full force at this event, looking to nab some unsuspecting John or Jane Doe who attempts to play “Black Mountain Rag” with a plectrum. Okay, it’s not quite that bad.

The festival this year (2013) was held August 9th, 10th, and 11th. These guitars are wonderful works of art (in addition to being mere guitars) created by individual guitar luthiers. Yes, “luthiers,” not to be confused with Lutherans. Who invented the word “luthier?” It’s not in spell-check or in Webster’s massive word collection. Anyhow, this world of wood and wire is total “Eye Candy” at its pinnacle (check out the pics on the website, “Healdsburg Guitar Festival 2013” if you want to get two eyes full).

Now me, myself, and I, and probably most of you readers are more drawn to the guitar worlds of Doc Watson, Clarence White, Tony Rice, David Grier, and the young “hot rods” of today playing with bands like Ricky Skaggs, Rhonda Vincent, the String Dusters, the Punch Brothers, and the CBA’s own Tuttles. So every year before I go to the Healdsburg Guitar Festivals (the last 14 years or so) I usually ask myself, “Why do you want to go?” The answer is the never ending, compelling, daily existentialism that reminds me that it’s my own responsibility to, “Have a nice day.” Besides that, the day would be too weak and ordinary if I didn’t go. And, these guitars are wonderful to behold, even if I can’t play them well enough to lovingly clutch them to my body and produce the sounds that they deserve. Yes, the sounds that are so wonderful to be heard, even if it’s not bluegrass (celebrate diversity). To be heard?

How can you hear a lone guitar being played in a large convention room that holds what seems to be 1,000 other guitars, and 1,000 people trying to emulate a massive over flowing mutant bee hive with human chatter? And even if you could hear, would your own individual playing be up to the task of making the guitar sound good? Not mine, not me, no way.

The escape route from this quagmire is that there is a small room in this large hotel complex, just down the hall from the main showroom, where a different guitar from the main showroom is being played for twenty minutes, every twenty minutes, by a different six string wizard, in a room where EVERYBODY listens without gabbing.

This, for the listener, even if it’s not bluegrass, is arriving and entering the state of six-string bliss. No waiting at Heaven’s Gate on this one.

So let’s get back to the main showroom; filled and filled some more with zillions (almost) of six stringed, curvaceous, beautiful inanimate creatures, known to us as guitars. You can get lost in there for six to eight hours; might even have to call for delivery pizza. Wander, wander some more, realize your feet hurt more than under daily requirements, and then out of the corner of your eye you see it; the sign, couldn’t believe it at a finger-pickers-fest, “Nashville Guitar Company.”

Wait a minute, “Nashville Guitars?” These are guitars that people like Pat Enright from the Nashville Bluegrass Band, and David Grier play; bluegrass stuff. What’s going on here?

So I walk over and ogle two Nashville Guitars, and a lady at the display says, “Hello, would you like to try this guitar?” “Better not, too much temptation for the likes of me,” I respond. “I’m in a twelve-step program for Guitar Acquisition Syndrome.” “Okay,” she says, “I’m Charmaine Lanham, Marty’s wife.”

Well I know who Marty Lanham is. He lived in California until 1972, and then went to Nashville, Tennessee to build guitars, and repair guitars for the Nashville Cats who play clean as country water and wild as mountain dew. He also was one of the founders of the Station Inn there, where the best of the best bluegrass players can be found today. Many of you already know this.

After chatting with Charmaine, who after three minutes makes me feel like I’ve know her all my life, she says, “Here,” and hands me a compact disc. “Take this along with you.” She knows about the CBA, and tells me, “Oh our band has always wanted to play at the Fathers Day Festival, but it never happened.”

The front cover of the CD holder has a photo of Marty Lanham playing his 5-string banjo, and shows the name of the band, “Marty Lanham & the Dixie Café Band.” The title of the CD is, “Name Our Daughter TENNESSEE.” “Never heard of this band,” I think to myself.

It takes a couple of days after I get home to finally break my daily routine so I can give a listen to the new CD. It’s a good album; straight ahead, driving, traditional bluegrass with good vocals, harmonies, and the musicians know what they’re doing with the required bluegrass instruments that are definitely all-parts-of-somethin’. Most of the tunes are traditional offerings, nicely done, and some with an unexpected twist or two. A sample few songs are My Little Girl in Tennessee, Old Joe Clark, It’s Mighty Dark To Travel, and Shuckin’ The Corn (twelve songs total). “Five Pounds Of Possum” breaks the what-you-might-expect mold, and it’s a fun one. But there is one song that really grabbed me.

“Name Our Daughter Tennessee,” is captured in time, in spite of its origin that goes way back to the past. According to liner notes on the CD, “William Ervin Bertram was one of over 3,000 Confederate soldiers who died in the Union prison at Elmyra, New York. His headstone bears no name, just the number 351.” Bertram’s letters to his wife at home had an auspicious destiny, and eventually made their way through time to songwriter Bob Cheevers, who penned this song. The song’s chorus unleashes pathos that has been lying dormant since the Civil War.

“Say goodbye to those who love me,
Put some flowers on my grave.
Don’t forget our times together,
Make sure the stars of ours still wave.
This war divided my country,
It claimed the lives of men like me.
Help preserve our Southern memories;
Name our daughter ‘Tennessee’…”

Family members Sam, Martha, and Tennessee Bertram look directly at us with dignity and determination, from the past to the present, as we make our way to the middle photo of this compact disc holder. And if you look closely, when the sunlight comes through your window just right, you might catch a glimpse of the fallen warrior William E. Bertram, who is with his family in spirit. This is a good time to believe in ghosts.

Sometimes when our own personal small worlds collide with each other we are the better for it. It really doesn’t matter if those worlds are in real time, just visually, just come into our minds through the written word, or invade us through song. And the probability of those positive collisions escalates in the Family of Bluegrass Music; usually when we least expect it.

Posted:  9/14/2013

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