Author: Compton, Cliff

Playing the banjo

I have a confession to make. My head is bowed low. My reputation will suffer. Chef Mike will turn away in disgust, and refuse to give me coffee in the morning at festivalsÖ.

Itís true. At times late at night, Iíve been playing the banjo. Not at gunpoint. Not as penitence. Not to annoy my family (though that is a side benefit), but because I kind of enjoy it. And yes, this could be explained by the fact that as I get older, I lose more of my teeth, and as my hearing fades (the residue of my rock & roll past) perhaps I am unable to distinguish between what sounds good and what doesnít. Sometimes itís best to not think too deeply about certain things. You may discover something about yourself thatís best kept hidden back in that area of the psyche where we keep the three stooges and the old pictures of us in Nehru jackets.

My daddy used to play the banjo. He did a serviceable job on it. A simple little three finger roll that he taught me when I had the good sense to take up the guitar. And I remember the first time I heard Earl Scruggs play (think it was on the Nitty Gritty Dirt bandsí Will the Circle be Unbroken album) I had shivers running up and down my spine, and I didnít even have the flue.

So I always knew there was something about that instrument that could work itís way into a mans heart, even as it turned his brain to jello.

But I never for a moment considered that that could happen to me.

It kind of started like this: I called Lloyd Butler one day, and in the course of our conversation he said, ďCome on up here and see me. Iíve got something for youĒ. So that Saturday I drove up to Twain Harte to visit the old rascal. We picked a little, and visited a little, and when I was fixiní to leave, He went to the room in his house that was set up as a shrine to everything with strings, and came out with a banjo that some fine gentlemen had made for him, and he gave it to me.
Now, I love that old man, donít ask me why, I just do, and because it came from him, I was deeply moved. I thanked him profusely, played a few out of tune notes on it, and stuck it in my car. Then I stuck it in the corner of my bedroom, and continued to play my guitar. But as time has past, and my brain cells have continued to deteriorate, Iíve found myself strangely drawn to this snare drum with strings. And yes,ÖI began to play. Tentatively at first, closing the curtain to try to maintain my standing in the community, and then with guilty pleasure, feeling like an adulterer for leaving my Martin in itís case while I worked on the opening of foggy mountain breakdown on this noisy contraption.
And thenÖ I played it in church. There in front of God and all the congregation. Our little bluegrass group needed a banjo, and nobody else would volunteer. And we did ďI saw the light,Ē and I thought, hey, this sounds pretty good, and no one got up and left (though there were rumors that there was a petition circulating to close the church and start a new denomination.)

And I have continued playing it to this very day. I was playing it tonight at midnight, when my wife came to bed, and she made the kind of remark that most banjo players wives make when their husbands are playing the banjo in the bedroom at twelve oíclock at night.

So I stopped playing, and came in here and wrote this thing. And now I feel better. My secret shame is no longer hidden. I will brazenly play it in semi-public places, embarrassing my family, annoying the cats, and causing Chef Mike to move me ten places down his best friends list.

Well, so be it. I am sure gonna miss his coffee though.
Posted:  9/11/2009

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