By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
May 20, 2009 - 10:15 am
Bill Graham is a freelance outdoor writer, photographer, bluegrass musician and singer-songwriter.
Campfires and mandolins are a wonderful combo, as long as the instrument is a reasonable distance from the flames and friends are present to hear it played.
Mandolins sound lovely in the night air and the tones blend nicely with cicadas and tree frogs chirping about their love life.
A fiddle is strident and seems to say "listen to me and me alone." The guitar can be a bit moody and urbane outdoors unless it's played just right. A bass isn't too out of place because the notes resemble a bullfrog rumbling on a warm June evening. The banjo either sounds like a mining operation or a mountain stream after a big rain, depending on the player.
But with a mandolin, there's no doubt, it fits just right in the great outdoors.
They're also a bit easier to pack in the trunk, fit in the tent or carry to campfire than the guitar and bass, too. Fiddles are easy to pack and carry. But they're ever so temperamental about staying in tune amidst humidity or lack thereof as the sun falls and then rises again in morning.
I suspect those who played the ancestors of our modern mandolins, the traveling minstrels who played lutes, embraced their instrument's portability as they walked the dirt roads to a fair in yonder village. I can hear the conversation now after a couple of them stopped for the night beneath a spreading oak a bit off the road.
"Ye lute does soundth angelic tonight my friend," spaketh the harpist.
"Yey it does," said the lutist, "and my thanks to the maker, for it is light upon my shoulders."
A mandolin just looks like a camp instrument, too. Musicians are always warbling about their "ax," but the mandolin resembles a big hatchet far more than other instruments. You can strap a mandolin case onto a backpack frame without too much trouble, too.
Last winter I sold a mandolin to a professional Nashville fiddler who also dabbles in the eight-stringed fly swatter.
"I'd kind of like to have one that I can take out in a tent camping and so forth," he said, "and not have to worry about it like I do my Gilchrists, and yet still like the way it sounds."
I agree with his line of thinking, even though his camp mandolin equaled my front-line mandolin, the best that I could afford.
My camp mandolin for tough conditions is a 1983 Flatiron pancake, which in my opinion has qualities that make it a unique and fine instrument in its own right.
However, when my music buddies are going to be in camp, I tend to be bold and take the good F5 and hope the weather holds. Because I like music in camp about as much as music played anywhere, maybe more, and I want it to sound as fine as possible.
Just a few weeks ago I was at an annual spring wild turkey hunting camp in the Missouri Ozarks. Camp music is more important than shooting meat at this gathering. Because we're kindred spirits who don't get to see one another very often, and we don't get to play music together nearly as much as we crave.
So there's always an edge on the music, a little extra emotion and feeling. And music seems so real outdoors with wind blowing clouds over trees and bugs crawling around in the grass beneath your feet. Instruments have such an honest voice outdoors, too, with no walls echoing the sound.
Rain moved us under a shelter for the night picking this time. But when the weather is nice during our spring and fall turkey camps, we play on a hillside around a big fire, night stars blinking overhead and whippoorwills singing in the woods beyond.
When you factor in bluegrass festivals, mandolins are among the stringed instruments that have likely been played in a camp setting more than any other. I figure a little wood smoke on the finish helps the tone.
But it's in a true camp setting, in woods or by streams away from big crowds, that I like them best.
Sometimes the people and place can make camp mandolin pure magic.
Years ago, I went to a conference in Portland, Ore., and afterward I made a solo car trip to the ocean, back inland across the mountains to the high plains, back again toward Astoria and the Columbia River and the Pacific, then back into the mountains.
On my final night, I stopped at a little state park, got my little backpack tent set up and ate a bite of supper by myself. This trip followed some personal tragedy in my life, so there was some grief work going on. But I was tired of that work and lonely.
Then late in the day a car pulled in a few campsites away, the only other people staying that night in this remote park. Three young people in their early 20s piled out, put up a tent and built a roaring fire.
I ambled over in the dark with my F5 and made acquaintances. "Would they mind some music," I asked, because I wanted to play, and it was something I had to offer in return for the sharing of the fire.
So I played. That little extra sharpness you get sometimes, when things are right somehow and you play the best music of your life, that kicked in for me on this night. They were excellent company, too.
The mandolin made the campfire perfect, said the three.
Yes it did, and it often does.
One piece of wood is burning, the other vibrating, both with a shimmering brilliance in the moment.