Back about, oh almost 6 years ago, I needed something to break up a very dark emotional time in my life. I was going through a divorce, something I never wanted to do, and I was quickly becoming a hermit to my despair. I was busy with young children, and that and barely keeping a house around them, that was the extent of my life. My gardens were unplanted, my friends were unsure of just what to do with me and I just was not very happy in life.
I had bought a beautiful Stelling banjo about a year before… he bought THE sportscar, the dreaded midlife convertible that signals something is not right in Denmark, and I bought a banjo… which a nice suburban homeschooling housewife rarely does… and had been picking on it some, trying to recall the days when I was a youth and was very heavily into bluegrass music. But when the dark time came, I really wasn’t playing it much. I just didn’t have the heart to do much of anything, really.
Thankfully, my wonderful neighbor Jill, was watching out for me. She kept me sane, and I suppose that she never really knew the full extent of her wonderful help… just having a neighbor over the fence to chat with and keep up on, it was a lifesaver. Well one morning, she strode right over and had a newspaper clipping in hand. It was an article about bluegrass and folk music jams in the area and one was on a Thursday night, which was like a day away. She basically told me, I should go. And she would watch my kids.
A jam? I hadn’t been to a jam in like 20 years. 25 years! Of course, at that point of my life, I was filled with excuses. No, not me, the kids would be worried or whatever and Jill just shook her head and said, no, you’re going. (haha…) Her two children and my two children were the same ages pretty much and played together, so of course they would have a good time, and probably a much better time then sitting around with gloomy old me… so I thought about it for the day and finally agreed. I would go over, but probably just for a half hour or so. She smiled. She knew better.
Well, I got dressed up a bit, which at that point was anything more than sweats and a t-shirt and slippers… and got out the banjo, made sure I knew a few chords and all that. I was SO rusty, I hadn’t really played the thing for years and years, not like the old days. Even in the last year, only a fraction of it was coming back to me. I was pretty sure that I might not even take it out of the case.
I got to the post, of course, an American Legion Hall where the place was full of more elderly patrons, a nice layer of smoke and the smell of beer and laughter. Folks playing cards, talking and most of all, living. It felt comfortable right from the start. The boys at the bar turned and looked at me oddly at first, lady banjo players are a rare sight, but then they smiled and were friendly. I cautiously made my way in and found about 15 or so musicians in a little lopsided circle in the back of the room picking away at some slow standard song. The listeners in the tables looked at me, curious again, but still, warm and smiling. I’ve come to learn that they are that way because they just never know the type of musician that might walk in on any night… sometimes they are beginners and new to the scene and a warm smile is a welcome bit of encouragement, but they could just as easily be a traveling musician that is darn good and will liven up the place considerably. They are friendly and hopeful just for that reason. You just never know.
I sat at an empty table for about 3 seconds. It was that long before someone approached and asked if I was going to play. I was very quick to say that I was just learning and wasn’t sure and before I could get my whole litany of excuses out, they were asking about my banjo and where was I from and just friendly questions. When I cracked open the case, there were a few oohs and ahhs from those in the know… A Stelling banjo is not a beginners instrument really… they are usually at least $1500 or like mine, closer to $3 grand! (I figured if he was getting a Truimph Spitfire, I was definately going to get the best good deal on a banjo I could!)
Of course, my skill at that point hardly warranted a musician’s instrument, but well, there I was. A few chords and a fancy banjo and a room full of watching, hopeful and curious musicians. I knew pretty quickly their curiosity would be dashed and they would go back to their circle and snicker and ignore me. I was that rough.
For whatever reason… I remember the very first song they started up. Thank goodness it was in the key of G because I didn’t have a capo and it was something I remembered…. the Wabash Canonball. And it was nice and slow! Well, I clunked along and listened to the song, got a little plan in my head how to play it and then in horrors of all horrors, one of the gentlemen nodded to me to take the next break. Oh my gosh, I froze, I shoke my head no, I considered just fleeing in terror and panic… and they refused and the place when a little quieter as they waited and I just had to clunk out a little improv break to it and it was dreadful and they all acted like I was Earl Scruggs! I got the ‘good job buddy’ announcements ! And a lot of smiles and nods and they moved on to the next victim in the line of breaks and I could finally breathe.
Well, I didn’t take too many breaks that night, and my fingers ACHED from playing for almost 2 hours. I had to pass on a lot of the songs because I didn’t have a capo, but that didn’t seem to bother anyone. I quickly began to remember some bar chords and a few up the neck chords that got me through. But the thing I remembered the most was how friendly everyone was. Little old ladies were patting my arm, the menfolk were just a little flirty and full of smiles and encouragement and there were even a few fellows my own age. They all wanted me to come back the next week. I’m not sure why, but perhaps it was something they extended to everyone, but to me, that was just the golden key to unlocking the door of misery I was self-confined to at the time. Here was a group of nice warm folk that wanted ME to come back and join them and pick the banjo! Me!
Well, fast forward a year or so… and as you can imagine, that Thursday night jam was so important to me that I remember once or twice being in tears when I couldn’t find a sitter and had to miss it. It was my lifeline to adults and fun and music and a little time away from my misery. That year was tough. I had to reinvent myself, learn to survive. I was loosing my house through foreclosure. I was trying to keep my sanity together. Yet every Thursday evening I was in a safe comfortable place where I could laugh and pick and folks would smile and call my name when I walked in. I even got the nerve to sing once a night! And once I even got a phone number on a napkin! HAHA! Really! It was the boost I needed to get through the times and it’s so important to me. And it reawakened the music in me and I think now, how different my life would be if Jill hadn’t seen that newspaper article and MADE me go!
I play in a band, I am a partner in a national venue for bluegrass, I have run a bluegrass print newspaper that is now in web form, I run 12 different national and local bluegrass sites and I’m officially a songwriter with BMI in Nashville. I am bluegrass from head to toe! I have top musicians’ phone numbers in my cell! I’ve made food for them! It’s quite an amazing journey from that first night at the jam.
Now, these days, I don’t always make every Thursday night… schedules and things seem to get in the way. And I’ll go for a month or three and miss jams, but then all the sudden, I can’t do that, they call to me and I have to go. I miss the friendship and comradeship. I miss hearing from all the elders about this jam or that festival and learning about so and so and their medical issues or deaths or family crisis. And I love to see photos of grandbabies and great grand babies and of course, pictures of them when they were wild and crazy young men musicians… And I love all the hugs and friendly twinkling eyes of my boys… it’s just a wonderful family to be a part of and then, of course… there’s the music. It’s the icing on the cake.
So when you realize just how important these gatherings are to me, you can see how I forget to take photos of the jam as it’s going on. I’m too busy saying hello and talking about instruments or the Opry or visiting and of course playing! I forget! But at least I remembered as I was putting away the fiddle… and I took a few snaps and a little video… so you could see the end of the evening, the last song of the jam.
If you can, go visit a jam somewhere. Just go and listen, enjoy the evening of free music and laughter. If you need a jam in your area… check out one of my many websites…
I’m sure you’ll have a good time. And you might even pick up a banjo and come play along.