dusty and lyle
The old white utility van with 250 thousand miles on it putt-putted the Buffalo Death Rattle band up the road toward the highway to wherever they're headed. I was able to see them for a few minutes as they were packing the pod for the road. First thing I noticed, Ashley was more beautiful today than yesterday. I've come to see that her feminine is the total of who she is, not just her looks, not makeup and heels, nor generally the expected. I came away from this experience with a very real respect for her as a human being, as a woman, as herself. I can say the same of the others, them being people who, individually, expanded as I came to know them a little bit better, talking, such as, "Where you from?" John came from a small community of a town in NW Maine, rural and remote, the Appalachian mountains where they leave the country at the northernmost extremity of the east coast. He has a stillness about him of people familiar with very long winters, cutting lots of firewood. And he evidently spent some of those winters perfecting his guitar picking. He plays a Martin and deserves it.
Their destination is northward toward Clifftop fiddlers convention in West Virginia. They've never been to anything like that. They were apprehensive, anxious, concerned that nobody might connect with their music, them being new together and relatively new on their instruments, having no idea what to expect there. Their first night of the jam on the porch knocked my sox off. I've said before, I expected pretty good, but not what I heard. What I heard was a group of people from random dots on the map of the eastern US. They'd found their way to post-Katrina New Orleans, each in his/her own way, and for their own reasons or motivations. Each with an interest in old-time music and making their own music in the old-time way. They learned from cds, now mp3s, from hearing old-time bands and fiddlers, Ed Haley, Emmett Lundy. When I mentioned Eddie Bond as a fiddler from this area, Lyle and Dusty lit up. Cds and YouTube. Dusty especially has seen quite a lot of old-time bands from around here. They were familiar with a lot of names.
It tickled me to hear these young twenty-somethings who went through the waist of the hour glass in New Orleans and came out a band, talking about the musicians of our region of the mountains as the legends that they are. I just don't hear it from the outside much. It's understood around here that it don't get much better'n Kyle Creed on a banjer and a fiddle, or Benton Flippen on a banjer and a fiddle, too. And the list goes on. The people in the band knew of Galax as legend. I was loving it, hearing the people I live among appreciated afar as they're appreciated at home in their own communities. I was hearing these musicians whose ears directed them to old-time, they each one figured it out on their own, got together and are now figuring it out as a band, together. It's a communal teaching and learning, practicing and performing together. They have a firm command of the music, and they play it like people born in these mountains play it. This is what motivates my awe in response to what I hear of their musicianship.
Tuesday night they jammed for a couple hours as I sat in the ring of the semi-circle getting pictures. I like to wait awhile after a band starts to get the feel for their sound, their rhythms, their physical gestures, their eyes, their expressions. In a sense, to get the feel for their flow. When I start seeing images I want to catch, I take the camera out of the case, crank it up and frame a certain composition and click. I had fun with the sun setting in the background, putting fiddle, bass and accordion with strong back light. I'd focus the camera lower out of the light to get the aperture I wanted on this fantastic automatic camera, pushing the button half way and holding it, then frame it like I want it and click. It white outs the sky and puts a nice white line around the edge of the person. I sat in one spot taking the pictures to avoid being a distraction. I figure a good picture can be found from any perspective. If not, oh well. I'm happy with the perspective of sitting on the deck looking up at them. I felt like it was an appropriate perspective as I looked up to them in respect, every one of them individually.
Yesterday I heard them practicing the same tune for several hours. A couple of them working on noting and timing, like Dusty's banjo and Lyle's fiddle finding the groove together on the deck. Ashley running through parts of it on her accordion in the shade of the white pine. John sitting on a turned-up milk crate they use for carrying things in the van, and for sitting on outside the van, practicing his fiddle playing. Multi-use furniture. Same tune all the way along, parts of it going here, parts of it going there. The music became three-dimensional in space. It was a more relaxed version of what I'd heard the evening before when they were jamming, though this time pieces in the air from three directions in no relation to each other except the same tune. It was beautiful. I was thinking of John Cage's ear hearing this and being enchanted enough with it to make a composition recreating it for balafon. The arrangements happened as they happened. The hills were full of the sound of music. I wondered how long it had been since the mountains at Air Bellows heard live music in the air.
Though I appreciated the musicianship and the becoming of each one of them, people at the beginning of doing what they really want to do so bad they have to do it without money. Tough it. I felt good for them in their journey. Their mountain sound holds on in my mind. I have to figure that it's because each one of them figured out their instruments on their own, picked up old-time music on their own and figured it out. The mountain sound is in them like it's in their blood. It's that they play from the heart. They pick up a tune, work it out the way it sounds good to them, then hit it with real old-time drive and let it roll. They catch the groove quite a lot when they play and they start laughing, fall into the groove and play it on and on. When they played Breaking up Christmas, they did it right. They played the fire out of it. Fiddler Lyle told me the band's name came from a time he was playing someplace and hit a sour screeching note. Afterward a man told him he heard the buffalo death rattle. Lyle asked what that was. It was the screech of the way-off wrong note on the fiddle. He liked the 3 words together and the meaning equally, liked them a lot. Eventually, it became the name of his band.
Saying good-bye at the van in the road and seeing it go up the road out of sight gave my heart a warm feeling that I'd spent the last couple of days in the company of some truly wonderful human beings. The only thing I can hope for for their sakes is that they go wherever they want to go in their music. They're not eat up with ambition. If it works out, if it doesn't, whatever--they went for it, gave it a go. They have a spirit as a group that is like their music, composed of all five of them, seemingly separate from them, though dependent on them. It's a comfortable spirit of people doing what they want to do, 5 people who met in post-Katrina New Orleans playing old-time music the mountain way. I watched the van roll up the road and felt like grandpa watching his grandbabies go out into the world together to see what they can find. I can't honestly advise them. But I can honestly encourage them. They were due encouragement. I didn't want to lay it on too thick, though couldn't help but emphasize more than once, "Y'all are better than you know." I didn't want my younguns going out into the world with low self-esteem. They've got what it takes to make a band with a good-sized fan base. They're in overdrive learning as a band and as individuals. All they have to do from here on is do it. They've got all the ingredients. Throw them in the bowl and stir. Play Indian Ate a Groundhog.