Author: Martin, George

No Business Like Show Business

Surely you’ve all heard the old joke about the fellow marching along in the
circus parade, carrying a broom and dustpan and rolling a wheeled garbage can
along behind the elephants. And an old friend sees him and says, “You need to
do something more worthwhile with your life -- get a job that pays more and
uses your education!

And the fellow replies, “What, and give up show business?!”

I’ve always wanted to play in a band that was called, “What, and give up show
business?” Bands I have played in have always clung to the very bottom rung of
the show business ladder, the low pay making up for the lack of fame.

My “career” started more than 50 years ago playing a Montgomery Wards guitar at
a Cub Scout “carnival” in Rodeo California. Every time I pass the old Bayo
Vista Community Center (Bayo Vista was a war housing development that survived
after the war for 25 years or so) I think of it. My high school buddies and I
were known as the Carquinez Valley Boys and played (infrequently) at community
events, for the Lions Club once, and our Major Gigs: playing dances for the Red
Cross at the Napa State Mental Hospital.

I went to a community college where I was in a Hawaiian band for a while,
Clarence Van Hook and the Sons of the Beaches. That band got together
specifically to play a luau put on by one of the campus sororities, and didn’t
last much longer. The folk boom was in high gear by then and I found myself
playing at Simple Simon the Pizza Pie Man in El Cerrito with a folk trio called
The Brothers Three. The name was a bit of a joke in that the bass player was a
girl and the guitar player was African-American.

We used to say, “Our parents had three children, one of each.”

That job was notable in that we got paid actual money AND free pizza.
Considering how I love pizza, that had a big motivational effect on me.

At San Jose State, I was in The Crestwoods, a sort of surf guitar band. Then
after college I reverted to folky stuff with my then brother-in-law, and began
to attempt to learn to play the banjo properly. Until I got to San Jose and met
a frailer I was playing my Sears Roebuck 5-string with a flat pick.

When my Scruggs picking got good enough I organized The Boomtown Lulus, about
which I have written, and after that band broke up and I licked my wounds for a
year, I got into Fresh Picked, another bluegrass group.

Not long after I left that band, feeling the pressure of needing to be a better
father, I got a night job at the old San Francisco Examiner, and playing in a
band just got to be too hard.

Since retirement, however, I’ve been in the Prairie Rose Band, once again
clinging to that bottom rung.

Sometimes, usually when we have just played three hours at a farmers market and
are just counting the meager tips, I wonder if I really should be persisting in
this strange hobby/career. I can no longer kid myself that I am “middle aged.”
Really, I am (hard to type this) o-l-d.

Why do I get up early on Sunday mornings, load my banjo and amp and microphones
into the car, bathe and shave, dress up in my fancy cowboy shirt and boots and
drive 25 miles just to play for three hours and come home with $30 or $40?

And I know I am not alone in this. I’m sure there are lots of bluegrass bands
that are in the same boat, playing for very little money.

Well, just like a person can play in a basketball game, and lose, and then not
dwell on the final score but instead remember that glorious nothing-but-net
three-pointer he made, there are wonderful moments on that bottom rung that
semi-make up for the sucky pay.

I love it when little children come walking by our band and suddenly stop and
stare at us with awe and wonder. And I think maybe this is the first time that
child has seen real live music, and hope it will have an effect on his future
appreciation of music.

And sometimes I’m singing an old song and I will spot an elderly person (maybe
even more elderly than I) singing along, remembering when they were young and
that song was current.

And when I am singing and my band mates join on the chorus and I find myself in
the middle of a beautiful three-part harmony that makes my heart swell.

I am blessed to have an excellent fiddle player and a superb Dobro player in
this band (Jeff Terflinger and Gene Tortora). Listening to them play their
breaks, especially the wonderful runs and rich chords Gene gets out of his
eight-string resophonic, is intensely pleasurable.

And everyone in our band likes each other, which is a huge deal. Having
personality conflicts would take all the pleasure out of it in a hurry.

So I guess it’s not really about the money (even though it is a little bit
about the money). It’s about the music and the people.

(And the occasional gig that pays really well!)
Posted:  4/14/2011

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