Friday, April 6, 2012

If you play it, he will come …

My banjo never looked so good or held such promise.
My high school friend Wayne Singleton, who went on to be
a photographer and graphic designer carefully arranged the
still life in late light, and I went ahead and ruined it with a
poor copy and a bad scan. I still have the picks and the hat.
The cardboard case, shiny black in the pattern of alligator skin beneath the dust, would be hard to pry from the corner of my closet. It contains a Hohner banjo, badly out of tune I'm sure, and it would be a pathetic tribute to extricate and try to play it in memory of Earl Scruggs, one of those who got me playing the thing to begin with.

Earl Scruggs, who may have done more than anyone to usher in the three-finger picking style most people associate with bluegrass banjo music, died last week.

But the banjo is really like Field of Dreams. I played it not because of Earl Scruggs, but for my dad.

Steve Martin, the comedian, might have got me interested in the banjo at first. He's an excellent banjo player and writer.

Martin's playing took me on a backward journey where I discovered Scruggs and Lester Flatt, then Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys. So I wanted to play.

My parents and I bought the Hohner, and a how-to book endorsed by Scruggs.

I never sought approval from my dad. We didn't have that kind of relationship. Short of not doing my share around the household, I think I was doing OK by my dad; I always felt he supported me. But his own childhood was a checkered mystery to me, and I guess I wanted to make connections. Country music was a big clue — he lived for it — and bluegrass was at its core. So I practiced and practiced, mostly to have something to talk about.

One Sunday a month we'd pack a chicken lunch and drive south to Santa Barbara where bluegrass pickers congregated in a park. I still remember the comfort a distant sound of players tuning would bring, their guitars and mandolins and banjos and basses mewling in the still spring air. Though I always expected to go home knowing a new song or a lick, I usually ended up showing someone else what little I knew.

It was a bit like learning a second language and having no place to apply it. Maybe my hometown had bluegrass players, but I didn't find them. When I finally did find players in college, I couldn't keep up and/or became interested in other things. Bless him, one of my college roommates, David Middlecamp, still jams with friends. My boxed banjo sits in the closet as a tangible regret.

Or maybe it had served its purpose, establishing that connection between my dad and me.

One night in high school my dad and I listened to the Cache Valley Drifters play at the Arlington Theater in Santa Barbara. A third of the way into the concert, the band announced a surprise guest, and from behind the curtain stepped Don Reno.

For the folks in the theater, this was akin to Bruce Springsteen showing up unannounced at a nameless roadside tavern to play a set.

The story goes that Earl Scruggs' star rose as Don Reno joined the Army, and that if not for that people would associate the three-finger style with Reno rather than Scruggs. Somehow I knew that story when Reno stepped on stage.

The instrument demonstrated why Hohner is better known for harmonicas — sorry Hohner! Toward the end of my playing days, my dad introduced me to an Air Force airman who was transferring out. He had a Gibson Mastertone, the gold standard in banjos. The thing thunked in my lap, and I realized the big resonator on the back of the banjo is supposed to be solid wood, not laminated plywood. The strings on the Gibson also lay mere millimeters off the head, the strings soft to the touch of the metal picks clamped to my fingers; on the Hohner, my fingers had to climb high above the strings, to attempt finger rolls in the air.

Which reminds me that I must make a lot of excuses in life for why this thing or that turned out the way it did. I can't blame the instrument for why I didn't keep playing.

Maybe the box wouldn't be so hard to pull out of the closet after all.

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