It’s been a huge week for Raleigh.
For the out-of-towners, the International Bluegrass Music Association has been here for the annual World of Bluegrass week. It’s a convention, and an awards ceremony, and a giant festival, to the tune of 60,000 people downtown. It’s been great fun to watch. There have been concerts every evening, and from my desk I could see people coming and going all week at the convention center, taking pictures in front of Sir Walter Raleigh holding a banjo. Every afternoon I took a pile of editing work down to the plaza in front of my office so I could sit in the fall sunshine and people watch and listen to bluegrass music while I worked.
I didn’t make it to nearly as much of the music as I would have liked, but Friday was my bluegrass day. I collected Dawg and we walked downtown right after lunch, and I bluegrassed until well after midnight. The streets were packed, and there were three downtown stages, so my people and I wandered between them all and soaked it all in.
My only hard and fast commitment was to hear the Honeycutters, because I bought both their albums at Merlefest and listened to them endlessly up and down Route 66 this spring. My crowd was gathered in front of the Hargett Street stage, and the Honeycutters tore it up. They didn’t do all of my favorites, which was just fine, because I knew I’d be seeing them again in a couple of hours. Julia and I had a volunteer gig making coffee backstage at one of the evening venues, and I picked the night with the people I most wanted to see out of the whole week: the Honeycutters, and the Kruger Brothers. As it happened, the Kruger brothers had flown up to tape for David Letterman Thursday night. The show aired while I was making coffee for them backstage on Friday. I thought that was pretty great.
We figured out the coffee thing, and actually Julia made all the coffee and my most significant contribution was finding the cream. And then we sat and listened, and the Honeycutters tore it up all over again, and this time they played all of my songs. Julia tapped me on the shoulder at one point to ask a question, and of course I was all dissolved into a fragile assemblage of emotions because they were playing the one I’m sure they wrote for me. Unravels me every time. I pulled it together for the Kruger Brothers, who are just marvelous on every level. One minute they’re doing their own version of something that sounds like Bach, then it’s a piece that’s pure Appalachia, and then suddenly it’s Sting, but it’s all beautiful. I loved every second.
We didn’t hang out backstage and chat much, although we would have been welcome. At the end, we were gathering our things, and there was a lot of hustle and bustle, but suddenly I found myself standing in the foyer alone with the lead singer of the Honeycutters. What I wanted to say is, I think your songwriting is brilliant, and I don’t know how you capture the characters you do, but it’s pure poetry, and you have a gift, and sometimes I suspect you can actually see what I’m thinking and you’re singing about it, and it’s uncanny, and the song Somewhere In Between is the one I played a thousand times this summer as I was actually driving somewhere between Michigan and Texas, and that line ‘most of all I’m tired of ridin’ shotgun in my dreams’ has absolutely haunted me for months, in a good way, and it’s your fault that I’m trying to change the way I think about what I can and can’t do, in a good way, and doing more than I thought I could, and I just thought you should know how powerful your music is, and that you are the Real Deal. And thank you, for all of that. What I actually said was, “Hi,” and she said “Hi,” because I was not going to get all fangirl past midnight in a church lobby after she’d done her third set of the day. But I thought it all, anyway.
This next part should be a whole separate post. But it’s really not, not in that context. Tonight was Country Western Fire Pit Music Night. We’ve been talking about it since January. Some of us dragged our heels, hard, because it was scary. I actually had “Sing in a honky tonk band” on my life list way before this whole thing came up, and thought it was the least likely item on my list ever to be checked off. Some of us said, “Sure thing, let’s practice next week” for six months straight. Some of us were kind enough to give some others of us a push to get us started. And once we did, it wasn’t AS scary.
Jason and I practiced first. And that was fun. And then we dragged in Willow, and JJ, and Gregg, and we drank a lot of beer and did some bad singing, and then some of it was kind of good singing. It was all fun singing. I’d forgotten how satisfying it is to work on a piece of music. Not just car singing, but actually working on it, with music and instruments and other people.
This whole thing has also tweaked all of my Crazy. Ask anyone. I’ve had nightmares, I’ve gotten wild-eyed and dramatic while talking about how terrifying it is to try and do something that scares me when I can’t control all the variables, and mentioned a time or two that we could never, ever practice enough that it would feel like we were ready to sing in front of anyone else. I haven’t sung a solo since I was thirteen. But then, have I mentioned I sang in Carnegie Hall once? I am quick to point out that having sung in Carnegie Hall does not actually mean I’m any good. It means I went to the kind of high school with a Glee Club that gets invited to Carnegie Hall. There were 300 people onstage. My qualification for the performance was that I could hit the right note, and hold it for the right amount of time. Know what that takes? No inherent talent. Just practice. We sang John Rutter’s Requiem, under the direction of John Rutter, and we worked on that piece of music twice a week for eight months before going up there to sing it. Which means my comfort level for performing anything is something like twice a week of rehearsals for eight months.
That wasn’t what Country Western Fire Pit Music Night needed. We just needed a drunk audience, and for it to be really dark. Our friends love us. We had both.
In the end, it was much easier than I thought. After my nightmare about bombing Seven Bridges Road, we nailed it twice in practice, then bombed it at the show. And it was no big deal. We didn’t bomb anything else, except nobody actually knows the words to The Weight. We threw that in at the last minute, along with Wagon Wheel, as singalongs for the crowd. (Make fun of Wagon Wheel all you want, people, but yelling AND IF I DIE IN RALEIGH AT LEAST I WILL DIE FREE will always, always be fun.)
It went by pretty fast, and for better or worse, our audience of nine or ten people listened attentively the whole time except for some minor heckling. We figured they’d get bored and wander off for beer after a few songs, but they stayed put. We mostly played the right chords, and stayed mostly in tune, and got most of the words right, and everyone playing felt pretty good about it in the end. JJ had never sung before, ever, and straight-up channeled Johnny Cash tonight. Gregg had never met two thirds of the people involved, but is a great sport and willingly showed up with his guitar and four or five of our best songs and jumped right in. Jason held us together on instrumentals, and have I already mentioned he learned mandolin in the last six weeks so he could do that on a couple of songs, just for fun? And Willow, who works insane hours and absolutely did not need another time commitment to juggle, committed anyway, which is great because she sings like an angel. Not tonight, mind you, because she had laryngitis, which is totally unfair. But she bangs a mean tambourine and was also nice enough to told the flashlight so we could read the music.
And, you know, lots of our favorite people were there to make a fire pit dinner, throw open the backyard, sit quietly and cheer us on while we did something insane and scary and ridiculous. You know, like invent a honky tonk band and practice for six weeks and drag everyone into a performance.
When we closed the show, we thanked all our opening acts this week. You know, everyone who warmed up the crowd for us during the last five days of World of Bluegrass. Those hundreds of bands did a great job. We were honored to close the weekend down.
It was, thankfully, way too dark to see anyone’s faces. But they were there. I always know they’re there.
My people are solid.