Author: Daniel, Bert

Playing at Highway Speed

When I go to work, my commute takes almost an hour. Thatís a lot of down time, in the car all by myself, with nothing else to do. Empty hours and larger fuel bills are two of the sacrifices my wife and I, commuting in opposite directions, have to make in order to stay a two income family.

So one day, driving along with only my thoughts to keep me company, I get the idea: why not make better use of my time and practice my instrument while commuting? I popped a CD into the player for accompaniment, and ever since that day, my commute has never been quite the same. Now, I know there are laws against talking on your cell phone without a headset while driving. And recently, thereís been a lot of concern about the dangers of texting while driving. There probably is, or should be, a law against doing anything but driving while youíre driving, but I donít care. Iíve had friends who have even admitted to reading a book while driving. They're still alive. So why shouldnít I be able to practice my instrument in the car? Iím not especially good at multitasking, but I know I can do this safely.

More than a few years back, Arlo Guthrie wrote what is probably still the definitive song about the dangers of making music while driving.

I donít want a pickle; I just want to ride on my motor-sickle
And I don't want a tickle; I just want to ride on my motor-sickle
And I donít want to die; I just want to ride on my motor-cye Ö cle.

In the narration of the song, Arlo describes the motorcycle ride which inspired it. He was biking along on a beautiful road playing his guitar one day. Mountains were on one side and a cliff edge was on the other. Unfortunately for Arlo, he broke a guitar string, the string wrapped itself around a yield sign, and he did what he described as a ďquick right turnĒ. Still, Arlo feels fortunate because he doesnít go into the mountain. ďI went over the cliff.Ē And fortunately for all of us, Arlo had the time to write down this great song during that free fall, (despite having to first change the cartridge on his pen).

Thatís all Iím asking for when I practice while driving, simply the opportunity to be more time-efficient. I know Iíll never accomplish as much in this way musically as a Woody or an Arlo, but at least Iíll be ahead on my own scale. The road I drive to work is not unlike the road Arlo described in his song. Highway 101 through northern Sonoma county and into Mendocino county includes the beautiful Russian River Gorge between Cloverdale and Hopland. Itís a very scenic byway and the traffic is not too bad, heading north in the morning and south in the evening, as I do.

But donít go notifying the highway patrol on that road about your columnistís crazy behavior. I can assure you theyíve got better things to do than pull me over. Iím never going to break a string while driving and meet Arloís fate. And itís not because I have my windows rolled up. Itís because Iím not playing one of the ďbig sixĒ Bluegrass instruments. Yes, the instrument I love to play on these trips is my voice.

A beautiful drive through our great country should make anyone want to sing! What could be more natural and appropriate? Itís too bad so many of us suppress our yearning to make song and only feel comfortable in the shower or other private place where we donít think we can be heard. If we can be overheard, many of us are comfortable singing only if we can be drowned out by others, like we are at church. The car is a wonderful place to sing, whether weíre alone or on a long road trip with our friends or family.

My voice isnít the greatest, but I still love to sing. On some mornings, I wake up with extra phlegm in my throat or something, and Iím surprised at how good I sound! On such mornings, I love to sing along with a gospel CD and put in the low harmony part. Harmonizing with a group known for their tight harmony gives you the illusion sometimes that you really ARE a great singer! Sometimes I feel ready for anything and Iíll put the player on shuffle. Bring it on! And when my voice gets tired, rather than skipping to a song, I just let the CD play right through an instrumental tune until Iím ready for more singing.

So hereís my advice to you. Get yourself an arm full of CDs. Pick CDs with especially good singing. Doyle Lawson, IIIrd Tyme Out, Hazel Dickens with Alice Foster, Carter and Ralph. Whatever you like. Take the CDs to your car for your next drive. Donít be shy about filling some musical spaces with the best singers in Bluegrass. Youíll feel good about proving to yourself once again that singing really is the soul of Bluegrass music. And another great thing is: wherever you go, youíll never forget to bring an instrument along.

Posted:  9/13/2009

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