Green Mountain Boys
Great big day today. Bluegrass fiddler Johnny Miller dropped by with a birthday card for Jr and a bag of cookies. It's been awhile since Johnny was here last, a year or so. It was around 10:15am; I was up reading and saw Johnny drive up. I told Jr, who was still in the bed, though awake. I shook hands with Johnny at the door and we talked a little bit while Jr came pushing his 2-wheeler through the bedroom doorway.
It was good to see them together as they think a great deal of each other. Jr talks of Johnny in only the highest praise, and I know that's how Johnny talks about Jr. Johnny was fiddler with Jr's band The Green Mountain Boys for some years. He played in Nashville when he was younger with Loretta Lynn's band, and is recorded at Brandywine playing with Ola Belle Reed, who was from Ashe County and lived up in Pennsylvania near where Brandywine happens. The Ola Belle Reed cd from Field Recorder's Collective http://www.traditional-music.com has Johnny playing fiddle on 6 tracks.
Johnny is 79 now, his hands have arthritis pretty bad, so he's not playing fiddle much these days. For work, he puts up dry wall and house paints. He said he's been putting up the walls in a church. 300 sheets and running through the tape. Now the fingers of his right hand, his bowing hand, are numb, cold as ice. His wife died several years ago. Jr has a picture of Johnny and his wife in a little frame sitting on a shelf, from before Johnny's beard turned white.
For me, it was enjoyment to see two old friends with as much history as Jr and Johnny have and from so many years back, human beings who genuinely care about each other, who made a lot of good music together and never had a cross thought with one another. Around 1990, just before the band fell apart when Bob Caudill, guitar and lead vocals, died of heart attack, Vilas Hamm, who lived here in Whitehead brought a movie camera to the house, set it on one of the steps going to the basement and filmed the band playing in the basement with wives sitting over to the side as audience.
When Jr's last wife arrived in Detroit or wherever it is she went, she found she'd packed the video of that session and didn't want it. She mailed it back to Jean to give it to Jr. I've made at least 30 copies of the tape for his friends and relatives, and eventually had a dvd made of it. I sent a copy to the NC Folklife Center's archive in Chapel Hill, as well as a cd made from a cassette tape they'd made practicing some time around 1990 in Bob Caudill's living room. The cd has Ernest Johnson playing fiddle. It made a good cd. One of the tunes from it I use for the theme song on the radio show, Jr's banjo improvising on Billy In The Lowground, with Ernest filling in behind the banjo with his fiddle. The Green Mountain Boys never wanted to record and never did. It's a shame, because the band was too good to leave no traces. But that is the mountain spirit, indifference to everything but playing the music. Playing was what they were about. At least we have the cd and the video. Much better than nothing.
With digital camera I took a picture off the tv of the band playing to make a painting from it and made a pretty fair picture. Painted it on a chestnut board a couple feet long and a foot or so wide. It was an end cut off a longer board and had a couple of holes in it. Jr had used it on his cement slab porch several years for scooping a trail in the snow. I offered to trade him a snow shovel for it. He told me to take it and forget the shovel. I got him a shovel anyway.
While Johnny was here I remembered something bluegrass banjo and guitar picker Steve Lewis told me about Johnny. I said to Johnny, "I heard something good on you," and proceeded to tell him that Steve told me about a time in Randy Pasley's music store in W Jefferson, Bluemoon, Steve and Randy were talking when Johnny walked in. The three of them were talking when a woman from the Arts Council walked in the door delighted to see Johnny. She wanted to talk to him about playing for something or other for free. On "for free," Johnny said, "Not just no, but Hell No!" He remembered the moment and that got him started. A new set of fiddle strings costs a man thirty dollars, and people want you to play all day for nothing.
Jr and Johnny talked at length about what they've been through since they saw each other last. Johnny is another one of those people like Jr who loves to work and will work to the day he either dies or is unable. These are the kinds of men I'm in awe of for their ability to become a master at a bluegrass instrument while working full time at a hard labor job supporting wife, kids, self, house, car, pickup, insurance and everything else that takes all your money, like gas and grocery stores. Johnny is 79 and working like horse.
A master fiddler and a master banjo picker have both watched the love of their lives, making music, fade away due to fingers that don't work anymore. To hear them talk about making music here and making music there, the time this happened, the time that happened, it was a joy for me to be in the company of two what I consider great musicians, both of them with an integrity in their musicianship that made it art, and they were particular about it. Johnny is an artist. Artists have their ways.
When somebody asked Jr to teach them to play banjo, he tells them if you can't figure it out on your own, you don't want to know it bad enough to play. That's how he did it, figured it out. In the tradition, that's how it was done. These men are artists of the mountain tradition who have fiddlers convention trophies and ribbons galore. I felt honored in their company. One of those what-am-I-doing-here? moments, a mouse among titans who happen to be authentic human beings I can only feel privileged to know.