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The Long Path To The Devil's Instrument - Part 5

Posted by Phoeniceus on Tuesday, November 4, 2008

1998 - Old Time Music

The fiddle player in my band decided she had had enough. She wanted to play Old Time music, the real thing, not the watered-down, cross-over tunes, and she wanted me to play guitar for her. For a year or two, she had been feeding me homemade tapes of bands with grungy names like "The Skillet Lickers" and "Critton Hollow." I played them, and was puzzled. They played some tunes I had never heard of, and I had heard a lot of tunes. They also played tunes whose names I was intimately familiar with, but whose authentic, scratchy, 1930's recordings sounded nothing like the versions I knew. But most puzzling of all, was that I could not stop tapping my toe.

She decided I was ready.

She found a Bluegrass mandolinist, a fellow who was learning fiddle remarkably quickly and who really wanted to play authentic Old Time. She arranged a meeting for the three of us.

It's an intimidating thing to be thrown into a band with a person you've never met, especially when you are not a professional musician and have no ambition or talent to become one. He was somewhat younger than me, a little taller, a lot broader, with a dark, stubby goatee that stood out like a tail on a Schnauzer. He was also a damn good musician with a clear sense of his own worth and the worse case of overflow (also known as fiddle face) I'd ever encountered. He could not play the mandolin without looking as though he were chewing tacks. He had talent and ambition and discipline and lots of opinions, at least as far as music went. And though he knew how to be gracious and gentle with his criticism, he did not always bother. In a way, he became, not a teacher, but a guru in the origin sense of the word - someone who represented a goal to which I might aspire. I cannot say I ever grew to love him, or even like him much, but I will always respect him as a musician.

He was the one who finally taught me how to play the guitar.

I had been playing guitar for over twenty years, most of it as rhythm backup for fiddlers in dozens of dances and hundreds of jam sessions. But apparently, I had been doing it wrong.

"What you need to play Old Time backup is a solid, incessant, driving boom-Chuck, boom-Chuck. With the emphasis on Chuck. Forget that swing chord sh-t and those pretty suspended tinkly notes. You're a rhythm section now."

Well, I may not be able to figure something out for myself, but when someone I respect gives me the straight dope, and bashes it over my head with a 2x4, I get it. He was asking me to do less, stop flitting around, and get serious about my music - to know my chords and to stick with them and not to upstage the fiddler. I went home, practiced, and came back a week later.

"Is this what you mean?" I asked, and we played a tune.

"Uh, yeah," he answered, with something of the wind taken out of his sails. I noticed with some satisfaction a tone of surprise in his voice. Apparently I was quicker study than he expected. My fiddler friend beamed with a satisfaction that told me she had expected it all along, and that this was some conversation they had been having. Apparently I had foretalled the dissolution of our new band, at least for the time being.

We practiced for weeks, and I soaked up the tunes we played and listened to recordings. I realized that not all those Old Time guitar players played just boom-chuck. Sometimes it was boom-boom-chuck, or even boom-boom-boom-b'b'boom-boom chuck. They were slipping in bass note runs that added color and suspence to the music, and yet it remained in the background, tasteful, and musical. I wanted to play like that. I wore out my tapes rewinding phrases of music and listening over again and copying. Slowly I began to fit them into my playing.

I was still playing with the same fiddler in two different bands - the original contra dance band and the new Old Time band - and rather than feel stressed or pulled apart, I found myself enjoying both sessions more and more. The fiddler, having a new outlet for her Old Time ambitions, stopped sulking in the contra dance band, which made everyone relax and have a good time, except for me. I was so intent on learning and practicing and experimenting with bass runs, that I was off in my own world of the music, oblivious to the people of our little quartet. I didn't think anyone noticed, until the banjo player shouted out in the middle of the tune, "Go Riley!"

"What?" I said, looking up and noticing other people in the room for the first time.

"I said, Go Riley!"

"Who's Riley?" I said to the fiddle player, but she just smiled. Four measure before the next A part, she stopped playing and yelled, "Riley Piuckett!" and then picked up her bow and kept going. It wasn't until the tune was over that I learned that the man whose style I had been studying and imitating was Riley Puckett from the Skillet Lickers. We all laughed.

On the other hand, in the Old Time band, things were a little more serious. My initial success did not cheer up our mandolin player, whoe seemed more and more to be going through the motions. We had a gig lined up already, a contra dance, in fact the premier contra dance in Seattle that regularly draws over a hundred people. And yet I had the sense that once the gig was over, he was going to split. I finally confronted him.

"Look, if there's something wrong with my playing, just tell me. You want me to lay off on the base runs? Is that it?"

"Naw, your playing's fine," he said, and was stunned by what I realized was the first compliment he'd given me, but not as stunned at what came next. "I just don't really like your guitar."

Once again, he hit me where I was vulnerable. The guitar in question was a round body Ovation guitar, bought more for its weight and looks and the transducer jack than for its sound quality. I could hardly fault his opinion.

So, the next week I showed up with a 1955 acoustic Gibson.

For the first time, he greeted me with a smile.

"Where'd you get that?"

"Trading Musician. I swapped my Ovation and paid extra for the difference."

"Well, let's hear it."

Suddenly the band took off. It wasn't just that everyone was all smiles. The music sounded so much better. I had not realized how much I had been holding everyone back. The next week, the mandolin player brought out his fiddle, and we were scorching. We sounded good, and we sounded Old Time.

The night of the dance, the fiddle player pulled me aside.

"You don't look so good," I said to her.

"I'm getting a migraine."

"I didn't know you got migraines."

"I don't get 'em often, but they're bad when I do."

"Can I do anything for you?"

"Pray, I don't throw up."

Since I was sitting between her and the mandolin player, I did just that.  Not hard enough, because in the middle of the second tune, she went dashing off stage and did not reappear for the rest of the night. The mandolin player switched to fiddle, and so my first Old Time gig was just me on guitar and a fiddle. And the crowd, a crowd of Seattle dancers no less, yipped and stomped and cheered as if Old Time music was the best thing since sliced bread. I only wished that my friend from Madison, the fiddler who would not play tunes with me, would walk through the door so I could tell him how right he was.

Of course, I also felt really bad for my friend with the migraine who had made this all happen and then missed most of the gig, but everything works out in the end. She kept going, and as far as I know, she is the only person I ever knew personally to play fiddle on Prairie Home Companion.

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