Author: Alvira, Marco

Ask and Ye Shall ReceiveDogma and my iPod

I can’t believe that my face is red. I wore a big shade hat and the skies were mostly overcast all day—perfect weather for spring clean up around the ol’ garden. For over six hours I labored and my body is now reminding me of each second—hamstrings strung to their fullest; back stiff and frozen in place; forearms and hands with barely enough strength to lift a 12 oz. beverage. But I feel alive.

The nice thing about gardening is that one gets to be alone with one’s thoughts. It’s amazing where thoughts can lead once untethered from phone, computer, television and iPod. One neuro-synaptic trail led me to reminiscing about my last four years in the bluegrass community. Spring is sort of like a bluegrass birthday for me. I had begun to get the bluegrass bug on my own, but got hooked when a couple of local fellows, Wayne Wright and Vince Jenssens invited me to jam with them. I am indebted to them for opening the portal to the world of bluegrass. I was then invited to a large, private jam—that’s where I first met Wayne and Betty Nolan, Bill and Joanie Hunter, Bill Wilhelm, Corey Welch, among many other folks known to all of you reading this. The hook was set. The funny thing about my odyssey is that I think I was not so much enthralled with bluegrass music as a whole as I was about bluegrass guitar. Every song I downloaded was an instrumental and had to feature--yup, you guessed it—the guitar. To my mind, the guitar was the ultimate bluegrass instrument. I thought how wonderful Flint Hill Special would be if they simply replaced the banjo with a guitar, I mean why not?! The twenty songs I downloaded of just Clarence White playing guitar were a piece of musical bluegrass heaven. Perfection had been achieved. Why would anyone even want to step into a recording studio unless, of course, they were trying to do something on a Martin flattop. I even wrote a column once that ended with the bold declaration that I hate singing.

Well, a funny thing has happened since. For one, I realized that one couldn’t survive at most jams by always calling out fiddle tunes. At almost every jam, if one is holding a guitar, there is the expectation that you will sing…period. Bassists, banjo and dobro players seem impervious to this dogma, but to a guitarist it is an inescapable truth (in almost any genre of music, no less!) This has always been a problem for multiple reasons: My singing voice is scratchy—like the hiss behind the music on a well-worn record. My tonal quality is somewhere between that of Dylan and Lily Tomlin when she would wrinkle her face and say through her nose, “One ringy-dingy.” I cannot hear lyrics when they are sung, so I never learn them. (I just discovered last week that I have a hearing loss that makes it hard for me to discern lyrics in music. The doc said that I must have been exposed to a very loud explosion once. My sister wondered how many firecrackers exploded near my ear when I was twelve. Those Black Cats had quick fuses).

Through all my guitar chauvinism and bravado, I secretly envied the song birds and note smiths. I marveled at guys like Cliff Compton and Henry Zuniga who could bang out the volume and tone of a good bass drum all the while making you tear up with their vocal interpretations. Gals like Jeanie Ramos, Rainy Escobar and Lynn Quinones draw instant attention when they sing. What would it be like to have my turn come round in a jam and not have half the group meander off to ostensibly get a cold one and return five minutes later?

This last six months, I’ve begun to look for the silver bullet. I began listening to the guys whose voices and styles I really admire: James King, Larry Sparks, Ricky Skaggs, Tony Rice among the many. I latched onto Hazel Dickens and Rhonda Vincent (two dissimilar voices, yet equally great singers). As I began to bypass the instrumentals on my iPod, and forward to vocal pieces that caught my fancy, I noticed small details…details so natural and second nature to real singers, yet arcane to my ear. How these singers would linger on one note, yet abruptly abandon another, was a mystery. Equally puzzling was how a vocalist floats few syllables into a particular two bars, yet later crams enough notes into the same two bars to choke a billy goat. I began to think about picking songs that I not only liked, but which might fit better within my range and stylistic limitations.

Tony R. can no longer hangout on my iPod and jam to Cheyenne. He has to sing for his spot on my playlist. If Bryon Sutton is looking for airtime in my truck cab, he had better bring Ricky along. I have spent countless hours watching YouTube videos of guys like Peter Rowan—carefully examining how they open their mouths on vowels; where they breathe during a verse; how they place their tongue; along with many more minutias.

Truthfully, I don’t know if I’m any better at singing now than I was a year ago. In fact, I really don’t want to know the answer. My choice of songs is limited, so I cringe when someone chooses one that’s on my list. One thing is for sure, however: I sing a lot louder than I used to. That means that at Turlock, when my turn comes up to pick sing a tunes, you’re going to have to walk a lot further to get that drink.

Today's column from Slim Stuart
Saturday, April 2, 2011

My column for last month never saw print, presumably because of a computer glitch (?). Since I hate to let it go to waste, I’ll include it this month.

I was reminded of this last Tuesday. Bob and Cindy Thomas stopped in and overnighted here. As they said they’d been touring, I asked if they’d been home since Havasu. The reply was “We haven’t been home since JANUARY ! Too bad, isn’t it?

They’ve got a nice rig, but I’m thinking if I had a rock star’s outfit (posh bus and two semis), we still couldn’t haul all the stuff Mrs. Slim would need for three months on the road ! We got our rig with festivals in mind, and eleven days is the longest we’ve been out (two fests in one trip – a milestone !).

Anyway, the invite is still open – if you get around Boron, stop and see us, even if you’re not on your way to or from a festival.

Here’s my retread….

The Road to Havasu

Just got the 5th-wheel out of the shop so it’s supposed to be ready to go. Still, this is only our second year of RVing, and I’m a little nervous. The shop found a problem we didn’t know we had, so I’m “waiting for the other shoe to drop”. This is our first dry camp and we’ve got brand new generators, so an “adventure” of some sort is a possibility, though not a welcome one. Keep your fingers crossed for me!

We had a great week here. Tuesday evening Erv and Sammie Kroner, Bill Fleming and their friend, Lee, stopped for dinner on their way to Havasu. We met Erv, Sammie and Bill at Susanville last year. Then on Thursday George and Pat Calhoun stopped and met us for breakfast. Friday, Montie Elston and Deb Livermore stopped in, but we could only keep them here for a few minutes, as they wanted to get down the road before the snowstorm caught them. This turned out to be a real good idea, because they just had time to get to the river while there was a break in the weather.

Saturday evening I hit the jackpot in the Boron Tour Guide Derby. Gene Bach stopped for the night. Now, somewhere on the way down, Gene realized that he couldn’t get in the festival grounds ‘til Monday, so he decided to stay Sunday night, too. So I had all day Sunday to drag him around town and show him the “sights”. We went to the visitors center at the mine, The Twenty Mule Team Museum and the aerospace museum and Gene wasn’t even out of breath! Monday morning the weather was good and he hit the road.

Tomorrow (I’m writing this on Mar. 1st) we’ll leave for Bluegrass on the Beach. See you there!
Oh, and if you’re around Bakersfield Monday evening about 6, stop for the jam at Rusty’s Pizza, just west of Hwy. 99 on Olive Dr.
Posted:  4/3/2011

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