ELKINS, WEST VIRGINIA – I really would like to say that it wasn't my fault – but I can't. I really can't. Four years ago on the weekend of the Fourth of July, I made one of those fateful decisions that changes the course of a life – or two. I bought my wife a banjo.
I was careful to buy her the cheapest banjo money could buy. (What you buy your 10-year-old child for Christmas so you won't be out of too much cash when it gets played for two days before it starts gathering dust – as I figured this one would.) It was the Yugo of banjos. And I got an instructional book "With CD!" thrown in "for free" on the deal – the aptly named "Banjo for the Complete Ignoramus."
As usual, my wife did not stay an ignoramus for long. My lovely and talented wife, you see, is addicted to learning stuff. Math, computer science, law, and now, the banjo. She buys banjo books and reads them. She orders CDs and listens to them. She has me order instructional DVDs and studies them. She has Sirius radio in her car permanently attuned to the bluegrass channel. Further, she goes to banjo lessons, banjo seminars, banjo lectures, banjo camps – and she has figured out that if she is willing to drive for one hour one way, she can go to twenty-some bluegrass jams each month. (Which she hasn't done all in one month – yet.)
I quickly figured out that if I ever wanted to see her again, I needed to play a bluegrass instrument. I tried harmonica. Then, under duress from our Up Cane Creek band mates, I bought an acoustic bass guitar. (Not an upright on which there are no frets and cannot be played by someone with a tin ear – but one that looks like a pregnant guitar, like the bass they use in a mariachi band.)
Which is how the two of us ended up in Elkins, West Virginia, attending two consecutive weeks at the Augusta Heritage Center studying bluegrass and old time music. My wife came to study melodic, three-finger banjo pickin' and clawhammer frailin'. I thought I was going to study bass.
For Bluegrass Week we lived in an un-air-conditioned college dorm. And, as for the sonic booms emitting from every door closing – at all hours of day and night, I can't say they didn't tell us to bring ear plugs. We figured out the solution to that – stay up late enough jamming and you can sleep through anything.
And it was reunion week for us as there were 10, count'em 10, MerleFest JamCamp veterans at Bluegrass Week, including Dave. Dave, who wore a nametag that said Dave-Bob – to avoid confusion with the other JamCamp Daves – also wore a bright red-and-white bowling shirt that had "Frank" embroidered above the pocket. (Dave is a single dad and his 11-year-old son proudly gave it to him for his birthday.) Dave, or Dave-Bob, said he doesn't mind being called Frank.
Other notable attendees included Dr. Jon, who drove from Colorado Springs – in Colorado – to attend all five Augusta sessions, who says he is a doctor who works one week a month, and does things like going to Augusta for the other three. He made a respectable showing in the flat-foot dancing contest.
Before the two weeks were over, I had not only studied bass, but also songwriting, harmonica, harmony vocals, whistling – and yodeling from the Maudlin Brothers. And I fell in love, the most in-love I have been (with a teacher, that is) since my fourth-grade teacher, Miss Yates, announced her engagement. Miss Yates was deposed by Ms. Emily Eagen, the world whistling champion who taught harmony singing. She is, as I described her to her father – in a slight understatement – "the best teacher in the universe."
Sandra also took "Fiddle from Scratch" – which was affectionately known as "Fiddle from Screech" – by those fortunate not to be too close to the class when in session.
I have a favor to ask of my readers, will somebody please tell me not to buy her a fiddle?
Gary D. Gaddy will perform with Up Cane Creek this Saturday morning at the Summer Celebration at Reno Sharpe's Store. Lots of good music, so y'all come. (Go to sharpestoremusic.org to see festival schedule.)
A version of this story was published in the Chapel Hill Herald on Friday August 20, 2010.
Copyright 2010 Gary D. Gaddy