Author: Martin, George

The roar of the Stelling, the smell of the crowd
Some weeks ago there was a post on the CBA message board from the Contra Costa Civic Theater in El Cerrito seeking a banjo player, a fiddle player and a bass player to perform in a production of “Foxfire,” a play by Hume Cronyn and Susan Cooper.

That kind of piqued my curiosity because back in 1962 at San Jose State I had answered a similar request (except for a mandolin player) and had really enjoyed appearing in “Dark of the Moon,” a play about a “witch boy” in Appalachia.

The Drama Department at SJS was different from my usual haunts in the Journalism Department. Journalism students were interesting, fairly creative types, but the drama students were much more so. Everyone seemed so colorful. There were lots of quite beautiful women there, too, none of whom seemed remotely interested in a journalism student with a cheap mandolin.

Fast forward 46 years and a little voice inside me said, “Sounds like fun,” and I called the music director, one Alan Spector.

It turns out the play is about an old lady (Jessica Tandy on Broadway and in a 1992 movie version) who lives alone at the old homestead in Rabun County, Georgia, except the ghost of her husband (Cronyn) is around a lot, too. A developer wants to buy the place to build vacation homes for summer people. The conflict of the play is Will Granny Sell?

Granny, or Annie as she is called, has a son, Dillard, who is a country singer. He comes back to the home county to do a concert at the fairgrounds and that’s why they need a band.

The group, besides me, is Polly Frizzel on fiddle (with Tony Phillips taking over half-way through the one-month run), Chuck Ervin on bass, and Malcolm Rodgers, who plays Dillard, on guitar.

The “concert” is three songs and takes maybe seven minutes. The amusing thing is that the songs are supposed to be country-western, but the melodies were written by Jonathon Holtzman, obviously a Broadway musical sort of composer.

The first is just a three-chord slightly changed version of “I’m Troubled” (“if trouble don’t kill me I’ll live a long time...” ) Alas, the music specifies one quick verse in the key of D and then a quick modulation up to E. Argh. Not banjo-friendly.

Second song is called “Sweet Talker,” about Dillard’s dead daddy having been a trader, who could “swap a bent nail for a blue-eyed mule.” It’s a little complicated for a country song, with a G to F to C progression, but in the ballpark.

The third song is supposedly Dillard’s big hit single, “My Feet Took to Walking.” It starts off with a G to E-minor to C to D sort of thing, once again a little complicated but still countryish. Then the B part lurches into an E-minor, A-minor 7th, D-suspended 4th, D7th, G progression -- country music in somebody’s universe, but not mine.

It took me a while to figure out how to make a D-suspended 4th. And longer to figure out how to do Scruggs rolls around that progression.

So on Friday night while many CBA folk were heading for Turlock, I was doing the first costumed run-through of “Foxfire.” I’m sorry to have missed the campout, but the play is proving to be a bit of an adventure.

I’m impressed with the organization: the director, Mark Lariviere, the costume lady, the set builders, the light and sound people, the ticket sellers. It’s a small production, but a big production at the same time.

Everyone’s working so hard, I hope it comes off well.

Update: We’ve done one preview show and two “real performances.” Audiences seem to like it. One night they even clapped for my short banjo solo. I don’t get that much.
Posted:  4/15/2008

Copyright © 2002 California Bluegrass Association. All rights reserved.
Comments? Questions? Please email