One of my goals for 2015 is to involve myself in more music, both playing and attending local musicians’ shows. I was able to do both of those last Sunday, January 4, 2015.
I have been aware of the local California State Old Time Fiddler’s Association’s events for a few years. Lloyd Raeg, a local Manton bluegrass player active with the Manton school bluegrass program, encouraged me for years to come out and play my guitar with them. The CSOTF hosts a workshop and jam session on the first Sunday of every month at the St. James Lutheran Church in Redding from 1:00-4:00. I was always interested in attending, but I had never been able to make the time. The first Sunday of every month is also when we did communion at the Manton Community Church, and those were longer services than normal. We would be lucky to get out of church by 12:45 or 1:00, and then I’d have to take the family home. I’d be pretty hungry by then, so I’d have to grab something to eat and there was no way I was ever going to leave for town before 2:00. That would get me to St. James around 2:45-3:00…if I hustled!
Well, we don’t go to Manton Community Church any more, and are looking at a church in Palo Cedro, so that makes getting to these workshop/jams more realistic for me.
When I had asked Lloyd exactly what they do at these, the answer always sounded kind of vague. He said they jam a little. They have a short concert. They have an open mike. He said something about some people playing downstairs. I wasn’t really sure what to expect as I toted my guitar down to Redding. I do know that I had a heightened case of the nerves. I haven’t played with other musicians very much and was very self-conscious that I would not be able to keep up with them.
I arrived at 1:00. The church congregation was just finishing their after church function in the hall and were on their way out. I saw Lloyd and George Fredson setting up the sound system on the stage. Some guys had their guitars out and were tuning up. I was surprised to hear one guy fingering though some blues on his acoustic. I don’t know why I should have been surprised, but I had always mentally associated the CSOTFA strictly with bluegrass music.
A gent introduced himself as Lee Brushett and we started talking guitars. He started playing the ‘Tennessee Waltz’ and I tried to follow. He called out the chord changes as they occurred and encouraged me that I was doing fine…but I think he was just being gracious. Lee said he didn’t start playing guitar until he was 41…back in 1971. He said that he switched to medium gauge strings after a long time of playing heavy gauge. I told him I was thinking about switching from medium gauge to heavy to get more volume. He said “Don’t do it. Mediums play so much better.” As we talked before we started playing, I noticed that Lee’s guitar had a groove worn into the soundhole rim. As he played, one of his picking hand fingers laid down smoothly into the groove. I cannot wait until my hands and guitar get that intimately familiar with one another. Time and diligence are the only route to that familiarity.
I got a chance to ask George Fredson about the day’s format. He said the structure of the day was basically jamming from 1:00 until about 2:00. Then there would be a concert for about forty-five minutes, but people would probably be coming and going from the concert down to jam in the basement. From 3:00 until 4:00 or so was the open mic time. George encouraged me to go ahead and sign up to play three songs for the open mic! I respectfully declined…this time.
More and more people arrived. Instruments were tuned. There were mostly guitars, with several fiddles and mandolins. There was one each of banjo and upright bass. Everybody playing an instrument (except me!) eventually wound up in one big circle in the middle of the room playing a bluegrass version of Glenn Miller’s ‘In the Mood’. Every face had a grin or smile. Heads nodded and toes tapped out the time.
At about 2:00, George assumed his MC role and gathered everybody into the hall. The main concert was introduced, performed by a local ensemble called the Down Home String Band. There were seven players in the band and eighteen people in the audience. Lee Brushett mainly played a mandolin, but he also picked up his guitar for a few songs. The lead fiddle was played by Nicki Carlisle, who had been the Manton grade school bluegrass program instructor a few years ago. Lee’s fifteen-year-old grandson Bryon Brushett also played fiddle. Lloyd and George played guitars. Don Nichols, introduced as ‘The Voice’, played guitar and had an impressive bass voice that he used to great effect on several solos as well as harmonizing on ‘I’ll Fly Away’ and ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’. Alan Wright, who introduced himself as ‘The Guy on the End’, played guitar and filled out the Down Home String Band. The band played bluegrass and gospel standards for almost an hour. There was a family of first time visitors in the audience with me who enjoyed the relaxed easy rhythms of the string band’s presentation.
After the first couple of songs, I noticed the crowd thinning out. People would disappear in twos and threes until there were only about eleven of us still enjoying the concert. After a few minutes, between songs by the Down Home String Band, I could hear other bluegrass music drifting up from somewhere else in the church. I eventually left the hall and tracked down the other music. I found them not downstairs, but in a room just off the hall, chairs circled up and jamming with the upright bass, banjo, a couple of mandolins, and guitars. They didn’t seem to be following any particular rehearsal agenda. They just played free and easy to any song somebody called out. Between songs they were just a bunch of musicians enjoying each others company. There was quite the discussion about Rich’s left-handed guitar playing. Then somebody would call out a song and off they would go. A name would be called out to take the next break, or solo, and then all would join back in. At one point, Rich made a call I had not heard before. He called “Pick it if ya got it!” and then several players broke into simultaneous melodies, leaving the bass and a couple of guitars to continue the rhythm.
The key to the workshop so far was just a free and easy laid back enjoyment of playing music and the company of other musicians also making music.
The most touching part was yet to come.
After the concert came the open mic time. While people were getting settled into wherever they needed to be, I noticed George and Lloyd with their guitars around an elderly lady. She sat on a folding chair in the front row and had a walker for getting around. George and Lloyd talked with her and strummed through some chord progressions. George leaned down and gave her a hug and then went to the front of the hall to continue his MC duties.
First up for the open mic was a wonderful lady named Chris. She wanted to play up on the stage. She pulled out an autoharp as she explained that injuries to her hands have left her unable to play the guitar any longer. She had played the autoharp for events at Redding’s Cascade Theater. George and Lloyd joined Chris up on the stage with their guitars. Chris’ first song was ‘Swiss Love Song’. Neither George nor Lloyd were familiar with the song, but after asking the key they accompanied her softly through the first verse and chorus, then came on more boldly for the next verses. To the delight of the crowd, Chris was a yodeler! Chris finished her set with ‘Mansion on a Hilltop’ and ‘Cowboy’s Sweetheart’.
Next up was the lady George and Lloyd had been talking to in the front row! Ladema didn’t climb the stairs to the stage. She stayed on the ground where most of the open mic is played. She went to the front of the hall with her walker and sat on a chair that was placed there for her. Ladema wanted to open with a tune she sang as a little girl, ‘Mockingbird Hymn’. This was another tune that neither Lloyd nor George knew, but again they were able to improv to accompany Ladema when she told them the key. I am still new enough to playing that I am amazed and impressed whenever a musician can improv to accompany songs they had never heard. Ladema followed ‘Mockingbird Hymn’ with a song that the audience knew and could sing along on the chorus, ‘I Walk in the Garden Alone’. She finished with a song that Lloyd, George, and the audience know well, ‘I’ll Fly Away’.
After Lavena finished, there was a long break while waiting for somebody else to get up for the open mic. It was time for me to go by now, so I gathered up my guitar and guitar stand to leave. As I walked out to the car, I was filled with the warm glow of having been with people who love music, love to play music, and love to pass their music around to others.
I’ll be back.