A Toast to Frustrated Mando Maniacs
By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
January 10, 2008 - 8:30 pm
Bill Graham is a freelance outdoor writer, photographer, bluegrass musician and singer-songwriter.
Come hither, my fellow mandolin and acoustic music devotees who take inventory as the old year fades and a new begins.
It's easy to become sullen in early January.
There's so many songs we meant to learn last year but didn't. On the music stand are chord and scale study books that went untouched.
And the worst, usually hidden deep within us but always present in our psyche, is the belief that we could play great (or at least pretty good) if we could just unlock a few inner mind blocks.
But from the CD player flows the constant reminders of the still-gigantic gap between us and the guys and gals who play in a musical realm that seems far yonder.
Look out for the January blues.
I figure I'm not alone, so consider this a symbolic gathering at the crossroads.
There's a way out.
Let us celebrate ourselves—the amateur and semi-pro players who make today's bluegrass, folk and jazzgrass scenes financially viable for the stars and accessible to newcomers.
Acoustic music's quality and quantity would not be the same without us.
The pros are talented. But they also reach musical heights because they're able to earn enough money from recording, touring and special projects to focus mostly on their music.
Pickers pay a big part of the tab.
When Chris Thile and Mike Marshall played a concert at a small hall in my area a few years back, I knew half the people attending because they're fellow musicians. Some of those who I didn't know personally perhaps are, too.
I've seen that same scenario at concerts over and over.
When a bluegrass or newgrass artist comes out with a new CD, it's a good bet that a high percentage of the people who buy it play and sing. Besides our admiration and enjoyment, it's the best way to get new licks and tunes.
Bluegrass festivals are packed camper to stage with musicians. They pay for a ticket in order to jam, but they also line up at the CD tables.
Virtuosos also pay the bills by selling songbooks, instructional tapes or DVDs. And they charge for workshops.
Some performers at one of our local venues give two or three workshops on how to play better in the afternoon before the evening concert, which has a separate ticket charge. Pickers pay to attend both.
Instrument quality is another way we help.
Some say this is the second (and by far the best) golden era of mandolin, guitar, banjo and fiddle building—when you combine all the small shop makers with the best large manufacturers.
Gifted musicians can choose from many wonderful instruments.
But most of the makers wouldn't be in business if the amateurs and semi-pros didn't keep buying the best instruments we can afford in our own passionate pursuit of tone that makes the soul tingle.
We also showcase the music to new listeners.
"What is that thing?"
Many a mandolin player has been asked that question when playing at a town celebration, a friend's party, at church, for their kid's grade school class or at a senior citizen's home.
Bluegrass fans are minted in these settings.
The sensible pro players know we're out here, too.
Rock, pop, classical and jazz stars play on fancy stages and soak up the applause from a crowd of primarily pure listeners.
But the bluegrass players know most of the people listening to them play at least a little, if not just about as good. I bet it makes them bear down for an extra crisp chop or an on-the-money G-run.
They know when they autograph somebody's CD after the show, they're likely to get asked about picks, strings and alternate tunings.
The stars on stage and their recordings are what the outside world sees when they peek inside our musical community.
But it's the dedicated hobby and semi-pro players who nurture and grow the stars.
So gather in a circle everyone. Raise your right arm pat the back of the person to your right.
Now, back to work folks.
We've got tunes to learn and a music scene to keep lively.