I didn’t shoot any deer this year. But I did get a fair amount of scribbling in….from HAtteras: A Novel.
That Fred, he sure did learn how to tell a tale, damn his hide. And just like that, I was addicted to “the bluegrass” as fans called it.
Right from the start, the band had a hard time holding onto personnel. I tried to be the peace-maker when the inevitable squabbles broke out during practices. It wasn’t being noble, really. I had enough of conflict and bullying growing up with Paul, and I would do almost anything to avoid the pushing and shoving Earl and Lester seemed to love so much. We paid too much to hire an old guy from West Virginia named Jimmy to play the first few festivals of the season with us, fiddle and mandolin, and played local jobs as a trio, which was more work than I liked. Earl was a pretty decent old-timey, claw-hammer player, but his bluegrass banjo sounded like a car wreck. He was fond of Don Reno’s style of playing and spurned the standard Scruggs style finger-picking, he never got that right, and then he put too many damn notes in everywhere, and sang too loud on top of all that. And the louder he got, the softer Lester would sing and play, until he blew up and started swearing, taking off his guitar and storming off the stage. Hell, we were playing cheap gin joints for ten bucks a man, and I guess people thought it was part of the act, or at least were amused by it all.
It was a little preview of all the reality shows on TV, I guess. But long about July, we picked up another player whose band in Colorado had just broken up, coincidentally also named Earl. He was a malcontented fiddler who was fresh off the breakup of a fairly successful country/western band called Crosscut Saw or something woodsy like that, and he brought with him a “following”, a commodity much in demand by bar owners. To be honest, I suppose every musician gets into it for the applause, the adoration, I guess is not too strong a term. But in the way of all show biz, the more money and the more fame, the bigger the egos and the greater the greed.
Lester at least didn’t seem to be affected by that much. Both Earls now fought over every detail, from set-lists to “costuming” and right down to the brand of cheap liquor or beer we happened to be swilling at the time. “Stage-presence” was a big deal for Second Earl, a name he immediately hated, which of course made us love it all the more. Turns out that all his previous bands, a train-wreck of them, had names of items our fore-fathers and mothers couldn’t get rid of, pot-belly stoves, drafty mountain cabins and desolate “hollars” with no running water or electric, just like Fred and I had suffered with back in the day, so Second Earl was fond of cowboy hats and fringe coats. Banjer Earl (we couldn’t call him “first” anything, because it would just go right to his head) was a button-down guy at his work, and on his off hours he liked to ape the hippie style, going for the edgy and avante-guard. Lester and I agreed on one thing: for all their efforts to get outside that famous box, they were utterly predictable. We discovered that as long as they fought with each other, we could basically drink as much beer as we wanted with impunity.
Of course we did. That was the back-bone of the bluegrass, all part of the suffering and the pain the songs all talked about. It was a toss-up, far as songs went, whether the booze was the only thing saving us all from unremitting pain or whether the still-house was the reason we were all poor and miserable. Metaphorically speaking, I thought at the time. As I suppose is the case with all humans, with nobody to ride herd on us, we would drive that train to perdition, but it didn’t happen all at once, because we were still young and bullet-proof.
That spring Fred scored me an apartment next door to his on Washington Street, right down the block from Rudy’s Tavern and an easy walk to the Acme and the PO. Rent was 60 dollars a month to a sweet old couple from Vermont who believed in helping youngsters out, paying it forward decades before that became “a thing.” I worked my shifts at the hotel, even meeting Paris Hilton was she was a bratty tween and the family stopped one weekend, clearly unimpressed at the hick town and the rubes that waited on them.
Not everyone could see my shining intellect, I guess.
On weekends, we played fairs, weddings, and anything that had the word “fest” on the end of it. I’ll admit that I’ve always been easily led, and the more we played the bad-boy part, the bluegrass outlaws, the more it appealed to the rebel in me, wild Catholic boy kicking over the traces like a boss. Lester was all too happy to have company while pickin’ Earl and fiddlin’ Earl, our polite names for them, argued and dickered like an old married couple. There were stress fractures, I guess you could call them, even early on, but nothing a couple six-packs wouldn’t cure.
At one festival. Pickin’ Earl’s wife put her foot down, tired of being tied down to caring for their three-year-old daughter all the time. Earl drug her with him. We had traveled some distance to the southern tier of New York for a “band contest” held at an old summer camp, and were lucky enough to score a cabin so we had no need to pitch the tents and rig the tarps. Turn-out was light, and half the people at the festival were from the bands, so the picking was off the hook. The two Earls could not resist, and, long about midnight, Earl left his still-awake daughter at the cabin and disappeared. Lester and I couldn’t believe it, but there it was, we were stuck at the cabin with a screaming kid who grew more and more upset the longer she wailed.
Finally around two in the morning she fell asleep, exhausted, still whimpering in her sleep and tossing around fitfully. That was almost the end of the band right there. Earl was contrite the next day, and his daughter discovered a near-by brook with minnows and crayfish, and in the shimmery summer sunlight, the previous night didn’t seem so heinous. But if the band had any kind of moral compass, it was bust, and I have to admit I wasn’t any angel either. Still, the other lads set the “outrageous” bar pretty high.
A few months later, we played a wedding at the Kunkletown fire hall for a bunch of PA Dutch locals. Kunkletown was the home of Greensweig’s, the world’s most wonderful general store, with gas-pumps, a lunch counter, a bar and every item known to man and manufactured before 1970, from Atlas Combs and hose clamps to guns and ammo, with Dippity-Do in between.
The crowd of 200 or so were revved up when we got there, and by the first break they had kicked five or six kegs and several cases of booze. I filled a mug and had a couple shots of blackberry brandy, lit up a Camel and watched the white trash roll. When our fifteen minutes were up and it was time for the bridal dance, both Earls belted back a couple more shots and started looking for Lester, who was nowhere to be seen.
The groom was hollering to his “wedding party”, who all had on white shirts with pilled collers and ties from the fifties. The “wedding dance” was a tradition in those parts, where the men lined up to dance with the bride, who put on an apron they would jam dollar bills into, sometimes leaving their hands in there for longer than it was reasonable to expect. But the bride also turned up missing.
Maybe she went outside for some, um, air, one of them suggested.
Just then the bride came rushing back inside with a glow that had not been apparent when she left, hiking up her dress, and fixing her veil. Lester slide in the side door a second later.
No way one of the Earls said, and Way the other responded. Lester just smiled and grabbed his guitar and we kicked off the wedding dance, and you could see the groom darken as the pretty young bride was mauled by her dance partners, his mates gathered around him to keep him from flying off the handle.
Honest to God, Lester! The bride???? I asked.
Call it a wedding present, he shrugged.
Little things like that should have been a warning, but I was just having too much fun. About that time, MTV started the whole “unplugged” thing, and the next thing you know, playing music without any fancy wires started paying pretty daggum good.