The Fiddle and Plow show at Woodlawn VA tonight featured guest bluegrass banjo picker Jimmy Zeh, who played banjo with Willard's bluegrass band, The Highlanders. Scott Freeman and Willard Gayheart accompanied Jimmy with Mike Gayheart on bass. Good picking like usual from these guys. Scott also plays fiddle. Tonight was Scott's night to my ear. He's evolved into a new place. This evening hearing what he was doing, it struck me right away much of what he was doing was new, approaches he'd not done before, subtle ways of addressing the notes, sometimes playing around the notes in ways that enhance the sound of what he's doing with new approaches to chording around in such a way I'd stare in awe at his hands working the mandolin. Once, Jimmy Zeh stopped picking and just listened, watched what Scott was doing in an awe that he was hearing something from a zone he'd never been in. On Scott's break he set out chording around the melody and picking really fast. Zeh said, "Hey, this is my song!" He was kidding, pointing a finger at what Scott was doing with humor. Like always at Woodlawn on Friday nights, the music was really music. It was music you feel. The humor tonight came when they set out to play St Anne's Reel and Jimmy took off on Whiskey Before Breakfast. The band fell in line with him before he realized what he'd done. When he caught on to what he'd done, he stopped, but it was a shame, because it made a really good beginning to Whiskey Before Breakfast. The band was fine with going on and playing it, but they backed up and did St Anne's Reel.
It's been a month or so since I was there. Three weeks were out due to holidays. I skipped last week out of weariness, unable to drive for two hours, and tonight it was good to be back. Seeing my friends there is important. People I know in Sparta want me to do things in Sparta on Friday nights, because they're my friends. The people in Woodlawn are my friends too. Just because they're not in my zip code doesn't mean they can't be my friends. It's become a comedy for me when I tell people in Sparta about how to get there. I tell about the show. Whoever I'm talking to wants to know how to get there. I say, "Do you know where Galax Walmart is?" Eyes light up, "Yeah." I say, "It's exactly 5 miles past the Walmart stoplight. Every time, I mean every time I say that, faces fall, every time, the light in the eyes goes out, and they say, "Oh," in resignation. Like Walmart is the edge of the known universe and anything beyond there is in the uncharted Unknown. It's a look that says, I didn't know there was anything past Walmart. I've got so used to it, since that is always the response, I've quit telling anybody about the show at Woodlawn. I'm neither a missionary nor a commercial. It's not important to me what other people do. It's only important to me what I do. Other people's business is not my own. Other people's business, like a sleeping dog, is best left be.
I get awfully tired of people who are commercials for their own tastes. I don't mean I haven't been there, done that. I got tired of it in myself first. The day I realized I sounded like a commercial talking about something I especially liked, I told myself it's ok that I like it. I don't need to affirm it by pushing it onto others; you gotta, you needta, you oughta, you should. I consciously never start a sentence thus. I've finally come to realize that my own taste is my own. The next person down the road listens to entirely different music from what I listen to. The next person in the other direction has very different taste from mine in movies. No need to convert them to my tastes. They have their own. Talking with Dana Ross in the car driving to Woodlawn and back, we spoke of how odd it is now that Americans have collectively become intolerant of others with opinions differing from their own. Like if you think Rod Stewart is great and I think Rod Stewart sucks (which I don't), where's the problem? It's personal taste. By now the hate merchants have divided we the American people into opposing camps. Conservative and liberal was the initial division, but it has divided on down to simply opinions. Reagan officially sanctioned liberal a bad word. The L word. Unspoken reference to the N word. Not to be mentioned. It shut liberals down by intimidation for several years. Finally liberals are standing up as a sharp stick in the conservative eye. The Revenge of the L Word starring Rachel Maddow and Jon Stewart. The conservatives have used deception as a strategy to such extremes that they completed the circle, now are fooling themselves and no one else. They don't get it yet. Two things I know Bill O'Reilly was not hired for are looks and intelligence. The liberals elected an African American for president. Those same pesky liberals that halted the genocide of the Indians, the Native Americans.
Scott's mandolin playing tonight took me to a new place in relation to his music. I've listened closely to Scott's mandolin for the last decade, hearing his mastery grow, hearing him reach into new zones, like when he and Steve Lewis play Eat My Dust. Check it out on youtube. They git-er done. Scott has been looking, with Steve, for ways "to think outside the box." One day I was at lunch with both of them at Mis Arados in Sparta while they were talking about thinking outside the traditional music box they saw themselves in. Scott said to me, "How do you think outside the box?" It came to me as I spoke it, "Don't have a box." It was all I could think of. I don't know how either one of them took it. It was followed by a pause I couldn't read. This to say that Scott is looking for new ideas on making music, open to whatever comes his way that is challenging. To my ear, he is a master mandolin picker. Period. Then tonight I heard him reaching into places I'd never heard him go. At the end of the show, I spoke with him, initially to ask about Bobby Patterson who is on dialysis now. The conversation went from there. I mentioned he's doing things I've not heard him do before, he's reaching into new approaches to chord progressions, dancing around the melody, revealing the melody in a new way. He said he's been listening closely to musicians like Mark O'Connor, attempting to do what he did, finding it humbling, very humbling. Meaning it's a learning trip for him. He spoke of it with a relief similar to when I pick up a new book and find in the beginning that I love it, it's a page-turner that pulls me through it, like a couple days ago when I started Gavin Menzies' 1421: the year China discovered the world. On the first pages I saw this is my next read! Scott was inspired by his new discoveries tonight, fired up about exploring his new dimension of playing a mandolin
I am able to hear Willard Gayheart's guitar very well since some months ago when somebody Scott knows came and adjusted the mics and the amp with the speakers in relation to the space it's in. Willard's gallery is a place where the walls are covered with rectangles of glass. Harsh reflectors of sound vibrations. But it works very well. When they played a show after the tune-up of the sound system, I heard Willard's guitar the first time. Before, his rhythm guitar was lost in the rhythm. Now I can hear his picking. He picks a bass string, then one or two of the lower strings per chord. He doesn't always strike the same strings. He never looks down at the strings, but his fingers hold the pick and dance on the strings knowing exactly where they are from 70 years of picking rhythm. I watch his ease with his guitar; it's like my ease with the keyboard. I learned to type in high school, the most valuable class I had in school, along with drivers ed. Now I can almost keep up with my thoughts writing, like now. I type slowly because I follow the thoughts, pause to listen to them, weigh their tone of voice with what I think I'm saying. Like I really don't want to lose it like Alex Jones in the video with Piers Morgan about guns. The interview wasn't with Morgan as much as at him. Jones embarrassed himself. The humor is that he will never see it like that. He probably thinks he got Morgan told. I like some of his documentaries. He has become so carried away with rant by now that, like I said, he embarrasses himself. It's good comedy, the reason the video went viral.
Willard's guitar comes through the speakers and I can distinguish his notes now. He does not strum. He picks. One string at a time. Per down stroke he will hit 2, 3 or 4 strings, one at a time, in the same amount of time it takes to strum it. The fingers of his left hand move into awkward chords with the ease of a bird taking a drink of water. As I appreciate Scott's musicianship in a continuing and growing way, I also appreciate Willard's musicianship the same. In Willard I see subtleties come to the surface over time. This evening I was noting how he extends the last syllable of a phrase mountain-style that comes out of Primitive Baptist singing, those long slow last words to the lines, often one syllable sung as two. Ralph Stanley sings like that, though in his own way and Willard in his own way. I described Willard's singing to Cheri Choate at the coffee shop today, saying his bluegrass is not Bill Monroe's bluegrass, but Willard Gayheart's. This is why I love Willard's bluegrass so much. It's not the bluegrass you hear over and over with the banjo that sounds like the same picker from band to band. Willard's singing at 80 is the best, to my ear, it's ever been and he's always been an extra good singer. These weekly shows keep his fingers nimble and his wits about him, keep his approach to the music fresh, keep him in such good practice that Willard appears to me to be flowering in his later years. A chrysanthemum. It does my heart good to hear Willard and Scott's music. That's where it feels good, in the heart.