Author: Sargent, Geoff

Fred and Reneé and Us

As many of you know, my good friend and bass player-band mate Fred Cone recently passed away from pancreatic cancer. I hope many of you will be able to come celebrate Fred’s life at his celebration jam, potluck, and schmooze-fest….three things he enjoyed and performed with gusto and enthusiasm. If you aren’t there, then I hope you will be celebrating at Plymouth because Fred had plans to go and, who knows, he might have stopped by. Fred’s celebration jam is today, Sunday September 18 and the details are at the end of the column.
Fred was a big guy and lived big. When he was around, there was no escaping his good spirits, infectious humor, and bad jokes. I mean really bad jokes…the kind of joke where my first response would be a groan, followed by a shake of the head, and then I’d have to usually make some comment about just how silly and stupid his joke was. Fred of course would be hanging onto his bass, Reneé, taking it all in, and laughing at me…because that’s what it really was about…getting my goat.

I first met Fred at the CBA music camp in 2008 when we needed a bass player for the student concert. I really don’t remember how we latched onto Fred, but somehow this gangly guy, with a fedora glued to his head, became our bass player. Fred’s fedora was one of his signature looks, in addition to his more recent blue hair,… was there for almost every gig. That was the year Blue Highway was one of the headliners at the Father’s Day Festival. Rob Ickes and a few of the band members were teaching at music camp and we decided that we would call our student band “Grey Highway”. It seemed fitting since the average age of the band was well over 50. We were sure that, if nothing else, our band name would get a few giggles from the audience, but when Jack Tuttle announced us…..sheer silence, nothing, nada. It was a wee bit painful and then we students, shaking in our shoes, had to kick into our song, Bill Monroe’s Blue Night. Fred said that Rob seemed to smile a bit, but I think it was more of a grimace. Oh well.

I didn’t see too much of Fred for a year or so after that. Fred did the Take-The-Stage workshop a session or two before me and we’d run into each other at jams, or shows, or the FDF. But, when Tj Carskadon and I decided to start a band, Fred was the first bass player that came to mind…..he might have been the only available bass player I knew at the time, in the end that didn’t matter. When Tj, Curtis Young, Scott Peterson, and I played together with Fred, it just felt right. Felt good. Felt like it might be a long ride. I’ve heard it said that the first year together as a band, and a marriage, are the hardest, and yes we had some rough spots but Old Tunnel Road, and Fred, kept it together for 2 years…actually 2 years last month. Strange that.

Along the way we shared in the good sides and the painful sides of live performances. We played SFBOT a couple of times, got a regular winery gig, and one year we played the Freight and Salvage every open house, every Take-The-Stage event, and every time the stage was left unguarded for 20 minutes. I sometimes like to tell folks, that we played the Freight 4 or 5 times that year…..and just lost count after. But the cap to it all was playing Vern’s last summer.

Pancreatic cancer is one of the more lethal, nasty cancers because by the time it is detected it is usually too late for successful treatment and at that point, statistically speaking, patients only live about a year. In spite of this, the Docs will tell you that each patient is an individual that responds differently to treatment and not to get too hung up on the statistics. Fred was diagnosed with cancer the summer of 2010 and had his first round of chemo in September. Throughout, Fred embraced his individuality and continued to live big. A round of radiation in December and Fred never let up. Maybe he was a little tired at some of the band practices, occasionally a little moody, but even then he lived big, and in a flash of humor his malfunctioning digestive system was the butt of a joke that inspired us to give him the nickname “Jupiter”, the gaseous giant. And Fred, true to form, embraced his nickname….with a joyful, laughing, vengeance.

When Old Tunnel Road was selected to play Vern’s Stage, it was especially poignant because we knew it might be Fred’s only Vern’s gig with the band. If you are ever in the same situation, you will come to understand the focus, and drive, and loving care it brings to a group of friends where a clock is ticking for one. I want to believe the music helped carry Fred along. It sure helped the rest of us. I don’t know how our Vern’s set sounded to the audience, and a part of me doesn’t care, but we had the best performance as a band we ever had. There was an energy we had never experienced and a cohesion that had been missing. It felt good. That was in June.

Believe it or not, Fred had a life outside of bluegrass, festivals, music camp, and Old Tunnel Road. Fred retired from the Lawrence Livermore labs, working in environmental and health safety, and started a second career helping others. He completed a Master’s degree in Counseling and volunteered at a local crisis center on the suicide hot line. If you’ve met Fred at a festival, and Fred did love to schmooze his way through a festival, you might have noticed his silver Airstream trailer. This same trailer doubled as a home away from home for his wife, Sue, at dog agility trials. Sue and their two Shelties are serious competitors and have a bunch of big fancy ribbons hanging on their walls. And once a year or so, Fred would quietly sneak away in his tricked out Jeep for a week and do his best to get it stuck somewhere in the middle of the Mojave Desert or up above Lake Tahoe. Some of this we talked about, some I learned by chance. One of the perchance things that Fred and I shared was a more youthful passion for whitewater kayaking….except in Fred’s case it was whitewater slalom racing and in a canoe. We had paddled some of the same rivers back east and it sounded to me that Fred was somewhat crazier than I was. Among whitewater fanatics, c-r-a-z-y is another way of spelling respect.

Fred will be honoring us with a memento of his life and a reminder of his gracious spirit. I don’t know all the details, but I do know that since last spring, Fred and Dick Mason, and a few others, have been in Jim Nunally’s studio laying down some tracks for a cd, “Reneé & Freddie & Me". The last track Fred recorded was on Wednesday August 24th. By that Friday Fred was bedridden. Fred passed over on Wednesday August 31, 2011, in the early afternoon, surrounded by his loving wife and friends.

The jam celebrating Fred’s life will be held today, Sunday, September 18th, from 1:00 to 4:00 PM at The Cancer Support Center (previously called the Wellness Community) 3276 Mc Nutt Avenue, Walnut Creek, CA 94597 (near the border with Pleasant Hill).

Folks who play and want to bring an instrument and join in the jam to celebrate Fred’s love of Bluegrass and Old Time Music are encouraged to do so. Food will be Pot Luck. Drinks will be provided. Please bring a nosh and a nibble to share with friends. One last thing to leave with you is that Fred loved to cook desserts. Just a thought.
Posted:  9/18/2011

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