I developed an interest in bluegrass at the beginning of my freshman year of college. I spent that year at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., despite being an unreconstructed Southern California beach kid. I mean, at the time, my main interest was volleyball, and Georgetown didn’t even have a men’s team. But I wasn’t an in-demand recruit, and didn’t make the grade at the two volleyball schools that sort-of wanted me. So, I went to the best possible academic school regardless of geography.
My secondary interest at the time was The Grateful Dead. The Workingman’s Dead version Uncle John’s Band, which I heard on someone’s mix tape, and a bootleg of the 1987 New Year’s show were enough to hook me. I saw the Dead at very opportunity in 1987 and 1988: Irvine Meadows Amphitheater, Ventura County Fairgrounds, Anaheim Stadium (on the Dylan & the Dead tour, which was not good), Shoreline Amphitheater, Kaiser Auditorium, Irvine Meadows again, and Laguna Seca. I’ve never been one for pointless noodling in the drums/space vein, but I loved those Garcia/Hunter songs. Also, at the time, I was fascinated by the self-contained freedom of the parking lot scene, which was a revelation to this suburban youth.
One thing I had to look forward to upon relocating to the East Coast was three Dead shows at the Cap Center in Landover, MD (9/3-6, 1988). I bought advance tickets for all three, because I was that hardcore; I would have gone alone if necessary. But it didn’t come to that, because likeminded souls abounded, including on the second floor of St. Mary’s Hall. In fact, one guy introduced himself as a Deadhead during an icebreaker in the first dorm meeting. The intro may have been unnecessary given his physical appearance, but it opened the door: that long-haired, bearded individual became my partner in crime for those shows, including the one where they played Ripple for the first time in twenty years.
This same friend – let’s call him Nino, because that’s his name – decided he wanted to learn banjo, and I went along for the ride. Presumably, the banjo interest started with The Grateful Dead, since Jerry Garcia played banjo in the Old & in the Way project with David Grisman, Peter Rowan, Vassar Clements, and John Kahn. Be that as it may, Nino acquired an inexpensive banjo and identified a teacher, who operated out of a music shop in Northern Virginia. We shared the instrument and the teacher, scheduling contiguous lessons and shuttling out to the shop using various public and private modes of transportation.
Our teacher, whose name might have been Larry, recommended some of the happening bluegrass albums of the day – Untold Stories and Traditional Ties by Hot Rize and New Grass Revival’s eponymous 1986 release – and one with local flavor: Live at the Cellar Door by The Seldom Scene. I still love that album, which features an unbeatable combination of compelling songs (e.g. California Cottonfields, C&O Canal), exquisite singing (e.g. Georgia Rose), and hot picking (e.g. Pickaway, Colorado Turnaround). There were even some tunes I knew (e.g. It’s All Over Now Baby Blue, City of New Orleans, and I Know You Rider)! I have a vivid memory of blasting Live at the Cellar door on my cassette Walkman while skiing by myself at Arapahoe Basin on spring break.
Awesomely, The Seldom Scene was THE bluegrass band in Washington DC/Northern Virginia, where they performed regularly at the old, 300-capacity Birchmere in Alexandria. Nino and I dragged ourselves out there one night and took in a couple of sets while nursing a half-pitcher of beer. That’s right, half of a single pitcher of beer. Why, you might wonder, wouldn’t a pair of college freshmen default to a full pitcher, and then order a second and possibly a third? It’s especially perplexing when you consider that we weren’t driving and had fake IDs.* The first answer is that Nino wasn’t a beer drinker, though he eventually came around. The second answer is that we were on our own for the first time, and afraid of spending all our money.
ANYWAY, this was when Lou Reid – not to be confused with Lou Reed – was their singer. Lou was/is a great singer and player, but John Starling – the original singer, who quit the band to focus on his career as a doctor – sat in for a few songs that night, which was extra-special. In addition to those guys, there was John Duffey (mandolin), Ben Eldridge (banjo), and Mike Auldridge (dobro), all of whom are bluegrass legends. Not a bad first bluegrass experience, right? At that moment, it was easy to imagine a long journey down Bluegrass Road.
But I didn’t take that road. Instead, I left Georgetown after just one year, and lost the thread: no instrument, no teacher, no partner in crime, etc. I literally never played banjo again! I did, however, have a Dobro period in New York my late 20s, inspired by my good friend and teacher David Hamburger. The problem is, I’m a competent but not super-talented musician: I can pick instruments up OK but don’t progress without assiduous application, which doesn’t happen because what I really want to do with my musical time is write songs. The end result is, I can’t play banjo or Dobro.
Still, I’ve kept up with bluegrass as a listener, especially as a by-product of my participation in the Telluride Troubadour Contest at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Interestingly, Telluride regularly features members of Hot Rize and New Grass Revival including Tim O’Brien, Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, and John Cowan. At clubs and festivals, I’ve seen Alison Krauss, Ricky Skaggs, The Del McCoury Band (with and without Steve Earle), Peter Rowan, Jerry Douglas, Tony Rice, Tony Trischka, and others. I saw the Seldom Scene at the Great American Music Hall when they came through San Francisco one time and again at RockyGrass, although that was after John Duffey died. I also like some of the bands that incorporate bluegrass instrumentation – e.g. Old Crow Medicine Show – and LOVE old-time sibling harmony groups, including the Louvin Brothers and the Stanley Brothers. I mean, has there ever been a better piece of music than “Angel Band?”
*Our fake Tennessee IDs were created in a dorm room by an enterprising Chattanooga native, who has made the transition to the other side of the law, where he works as a corporate attorney. How ironic that he aspires to the bench! Anyway, the name on my card was Bob Weir, a member of The Grateful Dead, which was on brand but not subtle: it was confiscated in Oregon, where they don’t stand for that sort of B.S.