Author: Zuniga, Henry

Life is funny, or cruel, or wonderful, depending on whom you ask. When you ask is also something to take into consideration because life is in a perpetual state of change and we are merely players on this unfolding stage we call earth. When asked if I would do anything differently, I often tell people that I wouldn’t because I believe that when you consider the “big picture” of life as we know it, the fact that we are alive is truly a miracle and one change, one split second done differently, changes everything. Still, we all have regrets and wonder: what if?

A couple of years ago I shared a story with my CBA family about “ How I got Hooked on Bluegrass.” I enjoyed sharing that story particularly since my heart and life felt so full and the future seemed to hold endless promise. I still feel this happiness and at times even giddiness when thinking of and/or attending bluegrass related events, but, this is where my “what if,” comes in.

Without doubt, I am in the CBA because of my wife Nancy and I can’t thank her enough. The joy and friends that I’ve found are because of this great music and its people. Like many others, the first time I attended a bluegrass festival, I didn’t even know that this world existed. Having been born and raised in California, my musical world revolved around hits of the day and whatever was being played on the radio and television. In California, bluegrass was not on any radio playlists that I listened to. Occasionally I would hear a bluegrass song on a country station but those were few and far between. To be honest, I didn’t know the difference between country and bluegrass. My first true recollection of exposure to bluegrass was the song “Dueling Banjos” from the movie “Deliverance”. That movie brought bluegrass to the masses and sparked a fire that has continued to burn for millions of fans around the world. When I saw the movie I was transfixed and captivated by the porch scene and the music that those “hillbillies” were playing. I was just learning my first few chords on the guitar and like the rats behind the Pied Piper, I had to follow that wonderful sound. Everyone I knew was picking parts of that tune and I too gave it a shot. Sadly, the movie cast such a negative light on the people associated with bluegrass that it pretty much became a point of ridicule and the song came to represent a rather unsavory and crude way of life. Still, there it was! Sign number one! If only I had listened to my heart and sought out that beautiful sound! Where would I be today?

Jump forward another five or six years. It was the spring of 1978 and I was about to finish a four year hitch in the Marine Corps. While stationed in Okinawa I bought my first decent guitar, a Yamaha dreadnought, though I didn’t know a dreadnought from a doughnut, and I was learning a lot of easy listening rock and roll. I sold that guitar after fifteen faithful years of musical pleasure and bought a classical. I wish that I had kept it because I now know that it was solid Brazilian Rosewood. I was really captivated by the balladeers of the day and I got great responses from my covers of those kinds of songs and some of my own compositions. At the time, life was looking pretty good for me, (Youth can be deceiving!) It turned out that there were a couple of bluegrassers in my squadron and one day we got together and did a little picking. At the time, I was working on my finger picking and open chord tunings. One of the guys had just bought a Gibson banjo and I asked if I could give it a strum. He said sure and I found that I was able to immediately pick out a melody. Sign number two! Instead of pursuing my natural affinity for bluegrass, I said thanks and went on my way. Duhhhhh.

My head was full of dreams and I just knew that I was the next “King.” All I needed was for the “right” person to see me perform and I was sure to get that “guaranteed success, million dollar contract.” There was only one problem, where in the heck was I going to find a talent agent, or scout, or producer, or anyone of importance to listen to my stuff? Unlike these days, the television airways weren’t full of talent searching programs. There was one and even though it was rather cheesy and didn’t offer huge prizes, it was on national television and thus offered a chance to be seen and heard. That show was the infamous “Gong Show.” While watching one episode I was able to write down the phone number to make an appointment for an audition. Wow, here it was, my big break! Now picture this: a young Hispanic jarhead, playing Jim Croce tunes, trying out for a show that was generally produced as a comedy-based variety show. I laugh at the memory! If you’ve watched some of the shows that are on today, you see what goes on before and during the selection stages of the shows. They didn’t do that back then. Talk about shock! I was given the address for the audition but I wasn’t prepared for what I would see there. To begin with, the auditions were held in a closed-down restaurant that looked totally abandoned. I was told to get there in the evening but the place looked deserted. It wasn’t. Instead it was filled with every kind of weird act you could conceive. Even with my short military haircut, I felt like I was the only normal person there. I also thought that I was a “shoe in “ as one of the “serious” performers that occasionally made the show but, I soon found out differently. They hardly paid attention to my performance and soon I was back on the street and headed back to Camp Pendleton.

You’re probably wondering what this has to do with signs. The ultimate irony of the situation was that the two other Marines that I had jammed with back in the barracks also went to that audition and made it onto the show. Worse yet, they got the idea and the contact information from, you guessed it, “The King of Blind Fools”: me! Of course the producers really “hillbillied” them up, complete with the overalls, bare feet, and old hats, but hey, they made it! The music that I had dismissed gave them their fifteen minutes of fame and I was out in the cold! I don’t remember the names of those fellow soldiers. I’m pretty sure that one of them was from Kentucky but I don’t remember anything else. I was the barracks NCO and really didn’t interact with the members of my squadron very much. If this story sounds like you or someone you know please contact me. I’d like to shake and say howdy and pick a tune or two. For all I know, they’ve become big stars and are playing the bluegrass circuit today.

The long and short of this story is that life often shows us which direction we should take. It’s just a matter of recognizing the signs and heeding their message. I wasted many frustrating years because I wouldn’t follow the signs. I’m happier now than I’ve ever been and it’s because of bluegrass. I’m so grateful that I was finally able to open my eyes and see the signs that directed me to this new life. I’m pretty sure that the comedian Bill Engvall would finish this story with his now famous catch phrase: “Here’s your sign!”

Posted:  8/2/2007

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