edwin lacy and willard gayheart
Butch Robins played bluegrass banjo Friday night at the Fiddle and Plow show in Woodlawn. Edwin Lacy was there with his open-back banjo playing it clawhammer style. Willard Gayheart played rhythm guitar and Marvin Cockerham, of the Highlanders, played bass. A couple hours of music that reached the ideal of music from the start. Robins is perhaps best known as a banjo picker with Bill Monroe, who lasted probably longer than anybody with Monroe who was ever in his band. Monroe was known as about the most difficult man on earth, confirmed by Robins in his tales of Bill Monroe, evidenced by the continuous turnover of band members. This turned out to be a good thing, however. For Robins' generation of bluegrass pickers, having been a Bluegrass Boy was the best credentials a bluegrass musician could have. Monroe served bluegrass of the future with his ill nature.
Robins talked between songs about Monroe, experiences in the band. He could imitate Monroe's talking so well it was like listening to Monroe himself. He called Monroe, "the old man." And he was when Robins knew him. I felt like it was with respect Robins called him the old man. A parental respect and respect for his experience. I had the impression that it was not a matter of whether or not you liked Bill Monroe. Few were able. But respect overrode feelings. When it comes to a banjo, Butch Robins can pick. Edwin Lacy accompanying him clawhammer made some interesting sound not heard very much, bluegrass and old-time banjos playing together, something like two guitars would play together. They took requests from the audience, which turned out to be all Bill Monroe songs. He played mostly instrumentals. Willard sang a few. First request was for Uncle Pen and nobody knew all the words. All knew some of the words, so they played it through putting in the words they could remember. It was a casual show, the relaxed showmanship working best with a small audience of twenty. I can't say I could pick one or two of the tunes they played for my favorite. Like a good album that you like from start to finish, their music was totally satisfactory to my ears, such that no one tune stood out from the others, because it was all so good it couldn't get better.
The pictures above are not from last night's show. My computer is so full of pictures it won't take any more. My job now is to start putting them on dvd disks and get them out of the computer to make more room. Cheaper than buying a new computer. That would be like trading in your car for a new one because the ash tray was full. The picture of Robins came from his show October 1, 2010. The picture of Lacy was from his show the 29th of January, 2011. I continually feel awe that I have this privilege of knowing about the Front Porch Gallery, Willard, The Fiddle and Plow, Scott Freeman, Edwin, all the people connected with this weekly series of some of the best music in SW Virginia and NW North Carolina, musicians who live inside a couple hours driving time. In these later years in my life, I'm finding myself discovering the world I live in almost like the first time. Perhaps first time with new realization. The new realization may be putting away my mind of everyday familiarity unto boring where I pay less attention. Now, I can be driving down the highway, day or night, looking at my familiar world and say to myself, This is my world. Meaning: Thank God I'm not in some city. And Thank God, literally, for this particular spot on the earth to be my world, the place I call home.
Hearing musicians, who, like Robins, have picked for 50 years, or any number of advanced years, the music is truly from musicians, people who make music and make music only. In the old-time way, music lovers watched young musicians come along, have their favorites they hope to one day see winning fiddlers conventions, paying close attention to see who is coming into the fold next. One thing they know is not to get emotionally invested in one's success, when the kid might go to prison at age 16 for doing something stupid. From a lifetime of experience, the old people knew that anything can happen to anybody along the way. Somebody who was a great fiddler at 20 might be dead before 30, or quit playing, or lost interest in it. One banjo picker here in high school picked with a friend who played mandolin. They were coming along good. The mandolin player died in a car crash. The banjo picker has not been able to play a banjo since then. His family and friends try to encourage him to pick again, but he can't do it. He's tried a few times to see if it might take, but it didn't. This is a fluid world, not a gear-grinding world.
In the old culture where people paid attention to the world they lived in, instead of the television and other tech distractions, they knew that the future is uncertain for everyone, young fiddlers included. The musicians on the stage last night are like salmon that made it upstream, past bears catching them, fish hooks catching them. Like Mamie White said, of Boone County, West Virginia, Only the strong survive. Lots of white in the hair on stage told that these guys are the survivors, musicians who have not died young or quit or become disabled in any of many possibilities. All are musicians serious enough about their art form to master one instrument or more. Everybody on the stage I'd call a master of his instrument without hesitation. I closed my eyes several times during the music to hear it without visual distraction, like on the ideal sound system. That was when I really marvelled hearing their music. I could see in my mind's eye who was making what sounds, hearing it raw, fresh from the source, banjo picking, guitar picking, bass picking that wove together into foot-tapping good vibrations. Like Zen art, the complexities in their picking sounded effortless. I like to watch them play, to see what they are doing to make the sounds they make, the music.
Earlier, after writing the second paragraph I went to YouTube and watched Rage Against The Machine do Testify live in LA. Tom Morello's guitar I respect for musicianship to the same degree as the musicians last night. It puts me out there in orbit by myself as not many people are able to make the conceptual leap from pile-driving rock to masterful bluegrass picking. I don't see it a leap. It's the same to me. From old-time to the Carter Family and Jimmy Rodgers came country music. From country music came bluegrass. From bluegrass and country came rock and roll mixed with blues. The blues came from old-time, took it's own route to "cross-over" in the likeness of Chuck Berry. I see amazing progression in the evolution of pop music that parallels our evolving way of life. Old-time music changed over time. It was a pop music of the time before electricity. It changed as life in the mountains changed. It started with a fiddle. Then the banjo came in from black musicians. The guitar came in later. And the bass after the guitar. First time I heard old-time was in 1977, after I'd been listening to punk a couple years. There it was: acoustic punk. Where rock is now has evolved from fiddle and banjo tunes. In present day pop culture, it's like the Rolling Stones say, "It's the singer, not the song." In the old-time way, it was the song, not the singer. Both are valid in their own times. I love both in a way that they are not both, but the same. I can groove to the Jim Carroll Band the same as to Bill Monroe. That's something else I'm grateful for, to be able to appreciate the whole spectrum of music as music.
Butch Robins website: www.butchrobins.com