August 19, 2008
Bluegrass and the Grammys
Originally PUBLISHED February 28, 2002
I didn't watch the Grammy Awards last night. One reason is the fact that I have a Dish Network system and out here in the boonies where I live, they don't offer the Big Four commercial channels. I've never bothered trying to hook up my antenna and seek out the local stations, but even if I had, I would not have watched last night. I was certain that a bunch of manufactured, shuck and jive pseudo-musicians would win the awards.
I was stunned when I saw the winners today.
For my party two weekends ago, my sister-in-law brought a cake that had a picture of me, about twelve-years old, sitting on my back porch playing a Sears & Roebuck Silvertone guitar with heavy-gauge Black Diamond strings. I remember it well, because the damned thing had a neck like a pine log and those heavy strings would kill a cornshucker's fingers after thirty minutes of playing. But that is the instrument I utilized to teach myself to play guitar. When I saw the cake, I said, "Y'all can eat the cake, but I want that picture."
"Rob, uh... I mean Acidman, you can't have the picture because it's not a picture. It's icing."
"Bullshit," I responded. "I want that picture of me when I was fucking young and fucking innocent and playing a fucking Silvertone guitar." Acidman had been celebrating his birthday with several dozen other musicians for about six hours by then. I was going to peel that picture off the cake and save it whether they wanted me to or not. I went to grab it. And my finger slid under the edge and came up with nothing but icing on it.
They weren't lying. Computers can scan a picture right into the icing on a cake now. I'm still amazed by that fact, which shows just how pathetically unsophisticated I am when it comes to computers. Hell, just look at this blog site for further evidence.
But I remember being that twelve-year old boy, armed with that hand-killing Silvertone and a Mel Bay chord book. I was bound and determined to learn the guitar, and I did. I managed it the old fashioned way: practice, practice, practice. By the time I was seventeen, I was a fair finger-picker, thanks to Paul Simon. I put Simon & Garfunkle albums on my turntable and played them at a slower speed so I could listen to the finger licks done slowly. (you could do that a long time ago) The technique worked, and I became a legend in a small circle of friends when Mason Williams released "Classical Gas," because I slowed that rascal down and learned to play it when even the GOOD musicians wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole.
People often ask me, "Can you teach ME to play?" I always say yes, because anybody can learn to play guitar. But I also say, "I'll show you what you need to know to get started, but the rest is up to you. Practice what I show you, then come back and see me in six months." Not many people have the want-to to do what it takes. They want to play guitar the same way they want buns of steel and killer abs-- as long as there is some electronic device you plug in to a wall socket that does the work for you and in one week, you've got it. It just doesn't work that way.
I KNOW that anyone bound and determined to play guitar can do it, because my college roommate did. When he started out, he couldn't even tune the piece of crap Yamaha he had, but he shopped up quickly to a fine Epiphone that he still owns to this day. He couldn't tune that one either, at first, but it sounded a lot better out of tune than the Yamaha did. He knew basic chords and if I showed him a lick or a run, he would retire to his room and do it over and over and over again until he had it. On many occasions, I listened to his diligent practice as long as I could stand it, then kicked open his door, snatched the guitar from his hands, tuned it, and gave it back. "Yeah, that's better now," he said, picking and grinning.
Of course, one night I listened to him playing the same thing over and over and over again out of tune and I snapped. I kicked open his door, snatched the guitar from his hands, and beat the living shit out of him with it until he lay dead in a bloody pulp on the floor. Then, I hauled the corpse off threw it in the woods outside Noble, Georgia, where it has not been found to this day, but may be found tomorrow if they dig deep enough around the creamtorium.
Okay, I didn't ACTUALLY do that, but I thought about it more than once. Today, my old roommate is an accomplished musician who has electronic devices with which to tune an instrument. He does well.
I started playing semi-professionally in 1974 on River Street in Savannah. My brother and I formed a folk duo and sang exquisite harmonies together. We weren't half-bad and took our act to Athens when we attended the University of Georgia together for two years. Making music beat flipping hamburgers, and we actually supported ourselves fairly well playing the motel bars during that time. I left journalism school in 1976 and became an advertising copywriter. My brother stayed, went to law school, and became a maggot.
I was starving to death writing, so I went back to River Street, auditioned for a job as a solo entertainer and launched a five-year career as a one-man barroom band. I didn't intend it initially, but I had more fun, made more money and met a much better variety of people in the bars than I did writing copy, so I quit my REAL job and pursued music full-time. It was one hell of a ride. Looking back now, through the filter of time and my current miserable condition, I believe those were the best days of my life. I know I must have been unhappy a time or two, but I can't recall a single instance now. I remember keeping vampire hours, running through women the way Sherman went through Georgia and generally not giving a damn if the sun came up in the morning. It was a time of irresponsible, glorious bliss and I wish I could go back and live it all over again. Of course, I would require my young body back again to make it worthwhile.
Two things happened to drive me out of the bars and into the chemical industry. First was the "Band in a Can" phenomenon that erupted around 1979. I knew a musician on River Street who played in the same place for years and he filled the room with music all by himself by picking a "guitorgan," which put organ chords on top of whatever he played on his guitar, pressing a set of bass pedals with his bare foot and using a beat box to provide drum beats and various percussion behind his songs. He could sound like a six-piece marachi band all by himself. I was impressed. So were others.
The "Bands in a Can" came next. These were guys who RECORDED all their background music, including harmony vocals, then plugged some giant boom-box into the PA and basically lip-synched their entire show. It was loud, it was fancy, and the crowds loved it, drunken swine that they were. A goddam stage-hogging Karioke Show was all it amounted to, and the bovine public thought it was great.
I remained a purist, playing an unbugged Martin D-28 through a microphone, writing my own songs, telling jokes, juggling tennis balls and generally doing what worked well five years earlier. But my time was running out. The last job I played was at one of the prestige places in Savannah at the time, and I worked there for three months. During the last two weeks, Margie, the bartender, began receiving threatening phone calls from her ex-husband. On one of my breaks, I listened to her tell him to leave her alone before she took out a warrant on his ass, and I asked her what was going on.
"That man is crazy," she explained. "He's already killed two people and got sent to Milledgeville (the biggest mental hospital in Georgia) instead of Reidsville (the Big House) where he belongs. He's out now, and he's scaring me to death. He's crazy!" I didn't think much about it at the time. But I rethought a lot when I read the newspaper the week after I left the place.
A woman who played piano and sang like a bird took over as entertainment when I left. She started on Monday and lasted until Friday, when the ex-Milledgeville nut-ball walked into the bar at 1:00 in the morning (last set!) with a shotgun and a pistol. Using the shotgun, he shot the piano player, shot her husband and shot two people at the bar. He aimed at Margie, but his pump shotgun jammed. She ran out the back door of the bar, which led to the swimming pool area of the motel. He followed and shot her six times on the cool deck. The piano player's husband lived. Everyone else was killed. The nut-ball was arrested and SENT BACK TO MILLEDGEVILLE! He may still be a free man again one of these days.
If you think I'm making up this story, think again. It happened.
I still hate "Bands in a Can," which is why I despise the Backstreet Boys and N-Sync and all the other twitching, spastic, non-musical hockwads who don't play instruments, don't write songs and don't do anything except look good, dance frenetically, spew crap that was spoon-fed to them by some asshole promoter, and make teenyboppers cream their jeans. As a former semi-professional musician, I can say: That Aint Workin'. (with apology to Dire Straits)
That's why I LOVE IT when bluegrass rules at the Grammys. I know I am a former hillbilly who evolved into a genuine Georgia cracker, and I may be prejudiced. But "Bands in a Can" took a backseat boys, un-sync drubbing in this event. And I love it.
Almost as much as I love my Martin D-28.
All content © Rob Smith