Author: Martin, George

My year without music

Being in a band can be like being in a family -- or not so much. I read
somewhere that the Rolling Stones dislike each other so much they go months
without even talking, until it’s time to go make a few million dollars, at which
time they meet, rehearse, go on the road for a few months and then split up

Then there are real family groups like the currently disbanding Cherryholmes, or
our own Oak Grove Bluegrass Band (the Schwartz family) or the Del McCoury Band.
I once chatted for a few minutes with Del, some years ago at Grass Valley (and
name me one other genre of music where that would be possible), and I remember
saying, “It must be an immense pleasure to be on the road, playing music with
your sons.”

I can’t recall the exact words Del said, but the gist of it was, “Yes, it is a
wonderful thing to experience.”

Somewhere in the middle are bands where everyone is friendly, where coming to practice is enjoyable, not just because of the music you are about to make, but
because you are going to be hanging out with folks you genuinely like. I am
reluctant to reveal this chink in the wall of my work ethic, but in the interest
of honesty I have to admit that when my band meets for practice, the evening
starts off with a glass of Irish whiskey and 20 minutes of chatting and gossip
before we tune up and go to work.

But just as being in a band can bring one great pleasure, leaving one can be
heartbreaking -- especially if it isn’t your idea to go. And that is what this
story is about.

It was 1969 when I managed to buy a Gibson Mastertone to replace the unsuitable
banjo I was then attempting to learn on. And just about that time I learned
that an old friend of mine was managing High Country. I started getting invited
to bluegrass parties, where I stood and stared for hours at Bruce Nemerov’s
fingers (he was High Country’s banjo player at the time).

I can’t say I ever got as good as Bruce, but my playing got faster and better
and when I felt confident enough to play in public I began to think about making
a band.

At first it was a living room band, but as it got more serious, some of my
friends who were playing with me said they didn’t really want to play out, and I
began to meet other pickers who did want to do that, and the band evolved.

I worked at the Oakland Tribune at the time, and the paper had an annual Music
in the Home magazine that was a vehicle for selling ads to piano stores and
music shops. I wrote a story about the fun of playing bluegrass in one’s living
room and got a call from a fellow who wanted to come and join us.

His name was John, and we knew a lot of the same songs and liked the same bands
and learned to sing harmony together. We both played banjo and guitar, so we
swapped instruments after each set. One night we were sitting in the old
original Freight and Salvage on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley talking about the
band, and a fellow at the next table overheard us, and asked if we needed a
mandolin player. So Tom was in. I forget how we met our fiddle player, but he
was very good, and several bass players came and went.

There was something of a bluegrass upwelling in the Bay Area at that time.
Paul’s Saloon in San Francisco was going every night with bands like High
Country, Styx River Ferry, the Homestead Act and the Phantoms of the Opry. Done
Gone was at the Red Vest in El Cerrito, Cousin Al Knoth was on the air at KFAT
and Ray Edlund had just started his Pig in a Pen show on KPFA.

The Boomtown Lulus, for that was our name, began playing at a Pizza parlor in
the Broadway Shopping Center in Oakland, and one in Pleasant Hill, and did a
summer at the Warehouse Cafe in Port Costa, and picked up weddings and special
events. I produced three concerts called “Bluegrass Under the Stars” at
Woodminster Amphitheater in the Oakland hills and booked the Lulus at one of
them. Once we opened for Tanya Tucker at a package show at the Rowell Ranch
near Castro Valley.

That last was a wonderful gig because the crowd was mainstream country fans who
mostly were from back east but weren’t clued into the Bay Area bluegrass scene,
which had evolved from the folk music world. I hit a few notes on an opening
banjo instrumental and the crowd went nuts -- they knew the music from when they
were young but weren’t hearing it in California.

So we cruised along for a couple of years and then we got a chance at a “road
trip,” playing the Merced County Fair for a week. We all accepted the job, but
then I started having an attack of conscience. I had two children and limited
vacation. Did I really want to go off by myself for a week and leave my wife
alone, and burn a week of vacation? The more I thought about it the less I
wanted to go, but I also felt an obligation to the band.

But where could I find a substitute? Well, by chance our bass player was an
comely young woman who was dating the best banjo player in the Bay Area, if not
the state of California. This guy was/is an amazing talent on the banjo.
Although he is not actively performing now, believe me, this guy can play with
anybody. He was way out of the Boomtown Lulus’ league -- but he was dating our
bass player. So I called him.

Yes, Rick (for that was his name) said, he’d be happy to go to Merced. And so
the deal was done. I took my family on vacation, and the Lulus went on tour.

It must have been great fun to have a banjo genius in the band, because when we
all got back there was a band meeting at which everyone except Rick’s lady
friend said they had decided that my banjo playing wasn’t “bluegrassy enough,”
and they needed a better banjo player.

I argued that I had actually started the band, that I sang about half the songs,
that I got a lot of the gigs, but it was to no avail. I was being invited out.
Then I came up with a Hail Mary pass: how about if I just played guitar and
John, whose banjo playing was very bluegrassy, did all the banjo parts? That
was discussed a while and the deal was done. My banjo career was over. Hello

Then it was John’s turn to worry. His banjo playing was very bluegrassy because
he learned his stuff note-for-note from tablature. He wasn’t very good at
winging it by ear. Suddenly there were 40-plus songs he’d have to learn breaks
to in a very short time. After a few days, he announced he was quitting the
band to devote more time to his family, or fixing his house, I forget what it
was exactly. And the band was no more.

I was devastated. We had been practicing once a week and playing one or two
nights on weekends pretty regularly. That band was a huge part of my life. I
put my banjo case under the bed and totally quit playing. It was a long,
miserable year. My year with no music.

Then one day the following spring, some neighbors phoned to invite me to a
party to play some songs. These were nice people, not the best musicians, but
friendly and they lived just a few doors away. I took my guitar to the party,
sang a lot of old country songs and some rock ’n’ roll, drank a few beers, and
had a wonderful time. (We may have smoked a doobie or two; my memory is faint on
that subject.)

I have always been grateful to those people for drawing me out of my funk. The
pain of losing the band was still there, but not right at the front of my mind
anymore. And I was ready for the phone call I would receive a few months later
that put me back in the music world.

But that’s a column for another day.
Posted:  2/10/2011

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