Saturday, November 11, 2006

We're All Different

At FanFest this year I was taking in a mandolin masters workshop. At the helm sat five well heeled players, including Roland White (a player formerly of the Kentucky Colonels and the Nashville Bluegrass Band whose tabs have been helping me along quite a bit), and amazing 16-year-old Sierra Hull. We all got a chuckle out of the fact that all five players each held a Gibson--a great photo op missed by the revered mandomaker. To me, the most interesting part about that was that as members of this bunch illustrated a point with a tune in which each player took a turn, each instrument sounded distinctly different. Granted, each player took the melody in a slightly different direction or treated it more individually, but the actual tone evoked from each Gibson was unique among the five.

Within bluegrass and traditional music, there is room for different sounds -- different approaches, different opinions, different styles, different favorites. In the older tradition some tunes have distinguished themselves along state lines; the Gypsy Dandy of Kentucky is not the BLackjack Davey of Virginia. The Blackberry Blossom I was working on a little while ago is the one heard in the workshop, but not the same one played to me once by my friend Jawbone. Even within the scope of a single song there is variety almost to the point that to some ears it becomes a different tune altogether.

Over the last few months I've begun to take more seriously again music and its role in my life, and likewise, my role in its life. I recently tried to explain to someone that, while I enjoy performing and would be quite good at it again if I gave practicing all I should, my real strength is never going to be in being right out front. I'll always be a sidewoman, and that's ok with me. I belong behind the scenes because that's where I do my best work.

Part of that, to me, is generating enthusiasm for the kinds of music that although dear to me may not be widely familiar to many people. There are many ways to spread that kind of love, and one is playing, which I do some, and which I may do more, perhaps at times in the company of superior musicians and others in the company of friends who know little about the music other than what they've heard me talk about or play. Another way is encouraging others to explore, listen to, and play this music. Sometimes that requires making it available in places people least expect it, the way my friend takes trad to the Flats when it's warm enough so his fingers won't freeze. Sometimes it means leaving a door open for those individuals who show an interest to come inside and look around. Sometimes it means cultivating more interest where a little is shown in a song, an instrument, or a performer. At all times, it means being willing to listen, to open the circle, to try new ways of passing the torch, to help break down barriers.

That may sound a little like some kind of intervention. But even musicians training musicians for the next century are proclaiming the urgency of thinking outside the box -- or in our case, the circle -- when it comes to survival in the next 100 years plus.

Tonight after what felt like a relaxing birthday with my kids despite the many loads of laundry and other chores, I picked up my mandolin after a week of evenings out, and finally played through Blackberry Blossom about two dozen times without the tabs for the first time. I know that my friend Jawbone will play a single tune hundreds and hundreds of times until its "right" and then beyond that he plays it another few hundred times until he gets it the way he wants it. It's not much different from a young cellist working through a cello sonata or an organist hammering out a prelude and fugue. We're all musicians at heart.

The difference is I'm not really all musician. I haven't allowed myself to be, and frankly, I'm pretty lazy compared to most real musicians who spend hours every day at their craft, hours I'm usually sleeping or working (candidates are human beings who have questions and concerns evenings and weekends like the rest of us), or rarely anymore, reading to catch up. I might spend an hour a day, sometimes two on a Saturday and Sunday, but not like some.

But I do spend hours every day building and maintaining relationships with cultural institutions that could advance this music, learning about how healthy organizations operate, reading about developments and trends in music education and historic preservation, and doing all kinds of other things that eventually will crystallize into some kind of sensible path forward, some new collaborative (or so I imagine) strategy for bringing this music to the table as a critical voice in how we describe our nation's history and the history of music, and most importantly claiming it's place in our cultural future.

A lot of people are working really hard at doing that from their perspective of getting together and playing music. Other people are working really hard at doing that by making sure some of this music and culture is introduced in elementary school classrooms. Still others are doing this by bringing that traditional culture into the studio, or taking the studio to the culture, or combining the studio, the culture, and economic development with education such as with Appalshop or the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music, or the organizations combining tourism and education along Virginia's 250-mile Crooked Road, the Heritage Music Trail.

The ways we work are different. Could they be improved with more collaboration, more effort to reach out and intermingle? I don't really know. But while each of these are different, all have in mind the goal of bringing more of this kind of music to more people to try. Some will nod and move on. Others will stop and listen for a while. Some will pick up an instrument and play along. We're all different. I'm ok with that. I hope you are, too.

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