Author: Karsemeyer, John

Some Folks In Oregon

It’s the end of June, a couple of weeks after the annual California Bluegrass Association’s Fathers Day Festival 2009, and I find myself behind the wheel of my trusty pick-up truck heading north on Hwy 101 from Santa Rosa (California). The goal is to get to Oregon for my annual week long visit with my 72 year old cowboy, bluegrass singing buddy, Dale.

Dale is one of those California-transplants who now considers himself a righteous inhabitant of Oregon, and frowns on any more Californians moving to Oregon. He says, “The cutoff happened just after I moved here.” Oregon’s gain was California’s loss, in that Dale performs his brand of bluegrass singing and guitar playing for many folks in the area where he now lives. At the tender age of 72, he performs an average of six times a month.

His playing in the town’s establishments, homes, parks, and churches summons the ghosts of Jimmy Rogers and Hank Williams, as well as bluegrass stalwarts like Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt. His music draws applause, and rekindles the light in the eyes, that was thought to be gone long ago, of folks who now find themselves confined to residential care facilities.

This year there was some road-work being done in Crescent City, California, the last town before the first turn off into Oregon going east. The work extended into Oregon a little, and I got confused about how to get to where I was going. As I crossed the state line into Oregon, breaking the time honored rule of men not asking for directions, I stopped and asked about the most direct route to Cave Junction (my destination in Oregon).

“What’s the fastest way to Cave Junction?” I queried. The target of this question was a fifty-something, visually wholesome and healthy appearing woman with a chain saw in one hand and a guitar in the other, who said, “Are you driving or walking?” “I’m driving,” I responded. She said, “That’s the fastest way.” As I drove off, taking my chances of finding my own way, I noticed she was wearing a name tag that read, “Ima Kidding.” Strange name, I thought.

The drive east up the canyon and along the Jedediah Smith River is, by itself, worth the seven hour trek from Santa Rosa. Peering below to the river hundreds of feet below the highway, the water worshipers were intermittently self baptizing themselves back to life after near death encounters with the intense summer heat. An hour later I turned into Dale’s driveway onto five acres of wooded heaven. The noise of my truck’s engine interrupted the music of the wind playing through the extended family of sugar pines and all their flora relatives and neighbors.

The first words out of Dale’s mouth are, “Get out your instrument, and lets play!” An hour later I’m sitting with a bunch of people playing bluegrass music in an Oregon “jam.” The folks are strangers to me, until after about thirty minutes, when I feel like I’ve know them all my life. You know, like the CBA events.

Tom Atoe plays the banjo. He knows all the standards, and some “newgrass” stuff. Right in the middle of the tune, “Soggy Mountain Breakup,” he suddenly stops and asks me, “Did you get to see much of the ocean on your trip?” “Well, not as much as I wanted, because I had to keep my eyes on the road most of the time,” says I. He then says, “Save the whales. Collect the whole set,” and starts playing again, bringing the tune to its finish.

Angie O’gram is the fiddle player, and a darn good one too. She can play “Gold rush” holding her fiddle upside down. During small talk I find out that she is a lawyer. After enough liquid refreshment I get up enough courage to ask her a question that I’ve always wanted to ask a lawyer. “Angie,” I say, “There are a lot of jokes that shed a negative light on lawyers. What are most lawyers really like?” Angie responds, “It’s 99% of the lawyers who give the rest a bad name!”

The guitar player, Bill Kollecter, not only plays guitar, but makes guitars. He is playing one that he made, and from a distance it looks like a high-end, quality guitar made by a well know maker from Nazareth, Pennsylvania. But a closer look at the vertical mother of pearl inlay in the headstock reveals “MARVIN.” Bill plays some amazing licks during the jam, and I comment on how good they are. He responds, “Always try to be modest, and be proud of it.”

A psychiatrist is playing resophonic guitar (often called a “Dobro”) in this jam. Her name is Ella Vater, and she is a therapist who specializes in treating people with clinical depression. Ella says, “I play the dobro and bluegrass music to avoid getting depressed myself.” Depression means different things to different people, and I’ve always wondered about its real definition. Seizing this opportunity, I ask Ella for her professional opinion as a psychiatrist. “Oh,” she says, “Depression is just anger without enthusiasm.”

What would a bluegrass jam be without a bass player? We’re lucky enough to have one here at this musical “round table” under this bluest of skies in Oregon. Carrie Onn has the honors, and between songs she usually repeats, with more and more gusto each time, “No one misses the bass player until there isn’t one.” And each time this band-in-the-woods nods in agreement. I don’t think it’s just because Carrie brought all the beer. After about ten songs, with her, “Nobody misses the bass player….” between each song, I go into the danger zone and ask if she’d like to say something else. She politely responds, “Sure. What is the speed of dark?” I don’t ask her again.

The two mandolin players, Sarah Bellum and Bob Katt, are married, but Sarah likes to use her maiden name. Whatever one of them plays on the mandolin, the other plays harmony. They offer, “We like to do that in our relationship too, keep the harmony going.” It turns out that Sarah is a fire-eater and somewhat of an acrobat, performing at private parties, civic events, and other get togethers. She juggles things that are on fire, while performing gymnastic type bodily movements at the same time. At one point, she says, “I swallow fire during my act.” She doesn’t perform today, too much danger of staring a forest fire. Bob is not part of her act. I notice a decal on each of their mandolin cases, “If you think nobody cares, try missing a couple of payments.” I don’t ask them about that.

At the end of a week with some folks in Oregon, this well spent time of “music therapy” and sanctuary is over. Heading west down the canyon, leaving this almost-sacred place, taking last moment mental snapshots of winding river, never ending Cathedral of trees, and bountiful sky, I cross over the Oregon/California state line. Suddenly my eyes are magnetically drawn to a car with a license plate from New York City. On the rear bumper is a sticker that reads, “Honk if you love peace and quiet!”
Posted:  2/13/2010

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