Clippings: Bluegrass concert spurs despair
If you didn’t attend the Abigail Washburn concert at the college’s Center for the Arts last week, well, you missed out.
Unfortunately, my imagination didn’t miss out — the concert sent me spiraling into new waves of depression about my non-musicality.
It was worth it, though. I’ve been a fan of Abigail Washburn and her exploits on the clawhammer banjo for a while now, ever since I first heard the song “Rockabye Dixie.” And even though she didn’t play too many old favorites last week, it was a chance to hear a whole new sound. A beautiful new sound. She was touring with musical jack-of-all-trades Kai Welch (also of the indie band Heypenny) and the three other members of the Sparrow Quartet in advance of their as-yet-unreleased album, “City of Refuge.” The next day I discovered the three songs from the new album available on abigailwashburn.com, and I listened to them over and over. And over.
What’s more, the concert was free.
During the breaks between songs, Washburn told the story of her last road trip before heading off to enroll in law school in China. She had just bought a banjo, she said, and traveled from Montpelier to Tennessee, plucking all the way.
Then, sitting in the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in Kentucky, she was offered a record deal.
Don’t we all wish it was that easy.
After the show, I told Washburn that it was my secret dream to be a bluegrass fiddler. Judging by the other conversations with her I overheard, I assume she gets that a lot. But I was star struck, and the confession slipped out. She gave me a big smile and told me that there was no time like the present, and that I should learn.
It was a done deal. The next day, I emailed my father in a fit of excitement. I was going to get a fiddle! Take lessons! Or, short of that, teach myself! And it was all going to be accomplished nearly overnight, so that I would wake up the next morning, or perhaps in a couple of weeks, to find myself the proud member of a bluegrass band. I’d have a pair of cute cowboy boots, and maybe wear a handkerchief around my neck. And I’d smell of wood smoke all the time.
Dad mildly suggested that I should look into rentals before I committed to anything.
A bit of background: My dad is a composer who plays guitar and piano and basically any other instrument you hand him. To instill in me the love of and proficiency at music that any musician’s child should have, my parents enrolled me in piano lessons in third grade. I was terrible. Or rather, I refused to practice, to the disappointment of all involved — including me, now.
In ninth grade, I convinced my parents that between swim practice and schoolwork, I had enough things going on in my life, thank you very much, and there was no time for piano.
In 11th grade I began to teach myself guitar because it was the cool instrument to play.
In 12th grade, my parents bought me my own guitar for Christmas. I promptly stopped practicing.
And folks, that’s the extent of my musical history. Today, my guitar playing skills are about where they were six years ago, although now my repertoire has widened from purely punk rock and indie and a smattering of Beatles songs to include selections by Old Crow Medicine Show and Nickel Creek and some Alison Krauss. Maybe that counts as progress.
Which brings me back to my obsession with the bluegrass fiddle. The thing is, if I know me, it’s less about the actual playing of the instrument than it is about my desire to be a musician, of any kind. As Washburn sings:
I’m goin’ around this world, I’m a banjo-pickin’ girl.
I’m goin’ around this world, baby mine.
Oh, I’m sorry. Is that not something you dream of, with every fiber of your being? Banjo-playing around the world? Fingers flying across the strings in warm wood barns or around crackling bonfires, fellow old-time band members plucking and strumming by your side?
But, you know, there’s a big difference between the ideal and the reality.
I love singing along to the music — even harmonizing, sometimes. I can tap my feet right along with the band, and if I’m lucky I can figure out what chord they’re playing. But pressing “play” on my iPod or listening to Snake Mountain Bluegrass at Two Brothers or dancing to Run Mountain with friends is all much easier than actually making the music. When it comes to actually sitting down and practicing, picking out tunes on my guitar, listening to a track and figuring out what’s going on, melding my hands to the correct shape to master those bluegrass riffs, well, it’s hard to put in the required hours.
One day, though, I swear I will. Maybe today.
After all, Abigail Washburn told me I could.
If you can help reporter Andrea Suozzo with fiddling lessons, email her at [email protected]