Author: Martin, George

Memorable, rememberable music

Wednesday afternoon and we are still pondering if we can get down to Hollister for any part of the Good Old Fashioned Bluegrass Festival, my second favorite after Grass Valley.

We have to baby-sit until 5:30 p.m. on Friday, so we need to decide if it’s worth it to rush off down the freeway during commute hours, miss most of Friday night’s show, set up camp for Saturday night and maybe Sunday night, then make the long drive home.

But thinking about GOF these past few days has reminded me of all the great jams I’ve been in at Bolado Park, and even a few I just watched and/or just heard. And thinking of those jams reminds me of other great ones that have stuck in my head, some for decades. Sometimes I remember everyone who was in the “band,” sometimes just one or two persons I was (usually) singing harmony with.

One golden memory is just one chord, a single chord, that I will tell you about a bit later. Mostly I remember the joy of being “in” the harmony, the fun of splitting breaks, just as if we had rehearsed, and the aural pleasure of being surrounded by the pure acoustic sound that is better than any microphone or amplification system I have ever heard. (I will say the sound system at the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City is a close second.)

Many of my favorite remembrances have to do with singing. Often there is a better banjo player than I on the premises and I am not fond of multiple banjo jams. A friend of mine used to say that two banjos being played together sounds like someone throwing silverware off the back of a pickup truck.

Here are a few musical moments that have stuck in my head and heart, lo these many years:

Any jam that has Ken Reynolds in it is by definition special. One that comes to mind is a few years ago at Grass Valley, in the space between two RVs, when I was pulling out old Stanley Brothers songs and Jim & Jesse material from deep in the memory banks. I even asked someone to take my camera and shoot a few photos so I could remember it better. Of course I can’t locate the photos just now.

Other people, some of whom I didn’t know when we started making music together, who always make a jam special are Larry Kuhn, George Ireton, Mark Hogan and (though it has been some years) John Senior.

Two years ago at GOF I fell into a lovely jam with Bruce Campbell on guitar, Bruno Brandli on bass, AVB mandolin player Dan Large and some fellow who was pretty good on Dobro. That music was so sweet I didn’t leave until 3 a.m. when exhaustion overcame ecstasy.

Over recent years I have spent at lot of time as a music camp volunteer with Lisa Burns, a wonderful bass player with Sidesaddle & Co. and harmony singer. A couple of years ago she invited me to her camp, where I found myself in a bunch of seriously heavy hitters: most of the Sidesaddle crew plus Mary Gibbons. I got to sing a few duets with Mary (who I doubt could pick me out of a lineup, but what the hell), checking one more box off my bucket list.

Another of my favorite harmony singers is Suzanne Suwanda. We know a lot of the same stuff but it is songs I rarely sing and I often can’t remember which songs we both know. A few years ago at GOF we had this magical night where we both were calling songs the other knew (or the chorus at least). The experience was enhanced by having Jerry Barrish on banjo and the fiddler (blanking on his name, sorry) who played with the Black Crows until they broke up. Warm night, great old songs, hot picking -- it don’t hardly get better than that.

Then there’s the one, glorious chord that stays in my mind from probably 20 years ago. Grass Valley. A nice little jam that contained a very attractive young female musician. I had no particular designs on this lady, but one hates to screw up in front of someone you’d much rather be impressing.

The song: Wayfaring Stranger, which I sort of knew but hadn’t played in a long while. Can I kick it off? Sure, no sweat. Key of A-minor. “I am a poor...” going along nicely in A-minor... “...traveling through...” D-minor, no problemo. Back to the A-minor, than to E-major, all good.

Then comes, “I’m going THERE to meet my mother...” Oops, what is that chord? Could it be F? Might be. Ahoooga! DIVE! DIVE! No time to ponder. I grab the F and it is correct! Dignity saved. A memory for the ages.

But no story of my musical reminisces would be complete without at least one epic fail. Several years ago when Mac Martin first came out to play some dates with the “California Travelers” pickup band, I interviewed him for the Bluegrass Breakdown, along with Peter Thompson, who was recording his recollections for Bluegrass Signal on KALW-FM.

Peter kindly invited me to a welcome party at his house in Oakland. I probably wouldn’t have brought my banjo except that it was an afternoon party and I came directly from a farmers market gig.

All the Berkeley heavies wanted to play with Mac, as did I, but I didn’t want to push myself into a jam above my pay grade. As the afternoon wore on the kitchen jam got smaller and I thought, well, this is as good a chance as I’m going to get.

I had noticed that Mac seemed a little tired. He was, after all, about 80 years old. I remembered that one of the signature instrumentals his Dixie Travelers band liked to play was Limehouse Blues. I thought he might like a break from singing, so I walked into the kitchen with my instrument and said, “How about Limehouse Blues?”

Mac quickly approved, “Yeah, lets play that old Limehouse Blues” he said. And in a band that included Laurie Lewis, Tom Rozum, Kathy Kallick, and some others I have forgotten, I proceeded to play as bad a “Limehouse” as I have ever done.

I haven't forgotten that one, either.
Posted:  8/11/2011

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