People of a certain age, or committed TV Land watchers, will recognize that line from Richard Boone's business card in the 50's Western, Have Gun, Will Travel. It was all about a man named Paladin, who hired himself out to take care of, ahem, distasteful business (now, they call it wet work) throughout the West.
Well, as I began my journey to Carrboro, NC from Bloomfield, NJ, I felt like a combination hired gun/carpetbagger. I had some, what I felt was, legitimate trepidation. After all, I didn't know any of these people. What would they be like? Would it be as much fun as I imagined? After driving almost 600 miles, would I be sorry I was so blinded by the romantic, adventurous notions of the idea? Well friends, if you ever have an opportunity to do something like this, do it!
You'll never forget it; I know I never will.
It all started innocently enough. It was May 18, 1999. Surfing the net. Checking out the various jug band sites. And there it was, on the message board in The Jug Band Rag:
|Comments: Hey fellow jugger's!!! It is great to find this site. I'm a member of The Mother Vineyards Jug Band and we have been together for over 30 years. We are still playing and we are looking for an experienced jug player (it would help if you also played tuba) to record with us at Lloyd Street Studios, July 2,3,and 4 of 1999 in Carrboro, NC . Please contact me if you are the one. You know what I mean ?
"If you are the one" Sounded ominous. Was I the one? I didn't play the tuba, but I've been playing the jug since 1965. Why not me? Well, I decided to respond to the posting, and see what was up.
This started a series of emails between me and Don Johnson, guitar player for The Mother Vinyards Jug Band, and producer of this seminal weekend. DJ explained that his band had formed in the 60's, played together for sometime, then split up, some members moving away, some forming other bands. The key was that they were all still friends. This was the beginning of the encouraging signs…this history sounded just like the history of The Dirdy Birdies!
As May became June, Don's plans began to gel. The other members of Mother Vinyard, and about 12 to 15 others, were starting to commit to attending the event. The others were members of other bands in the Carrboro/Chapel Hill area, and friends who had played with the guys through the years. Also set to attend was Ralph Speas, a documentarian and jug band archivist from the Piedmont Blues and Folk Society.
We exchanged set lists…the tunes that DJ was planning to record and what was required in terms of instrumentation. His plan was not only to record some jug band chestnuts, but also to record some tunes written by Rob McCall, one of the original members of the band. I sent a Birdie song list to DJ for comparison. There was some overlap, which made me more confident that this crazy idea just might work…Jug Band Music, Blues in The Bottle, The Ballad of Amelia Earhardt, and a few other standards that I knew. There was also a long list of stuff I didn't know, but..what the hell.
The schedule was also at issue: they planned to start recording on Friday afternoon July 2, and finish on Sunday, July 4. Of course, there were plenty of breaks scheduled, and as it turned out, plenty of eating, drinking and fireworks as well! In order to make this, I'd have to drive all 575 miles on Thursday, and then return on Monday the 6th. (I do have a regular job, after all!).
An additional element that helped to make the decision easier was the fact that some long time friends, John and Jackie Lina live in NC, not too far from Carrboro. I hadn't seen them in a few years, so here was an opportunity to mix pleasure with pleasure.
So, at 8:45am on the morning of July 1, I pulled out of my driveway in Bloomfield, armed with my jug, a kazoo, and a bagful of clean underwear. One of my plans was to document the journey as much as possible, so I also took a digital still camera and a video camera. I set up the video camera on a tripod in the passenger seat, so I could interview myself on the trip. This turned out to be a great, but very time-consuming idea, and by the time I hit Delaware, I had decided to skip this process. I did, however, manage to get some interesting toll collector interviews before that time:
Good thing I brought my GPS system, or I never woulda found it!
|Me: Hi. Are there any jugbands in Delaware?
Her: No, I don't think so.
Me: I'm trying to find North Carolina. Is this the right way?
Her: Yes it is.
Me: About how far is it?
Her: Oh, about a thousand miles.
At about 5pm, I hit Richmond, VA. I decided to stop at the visitor center off I-95, assuming that there would be a sign announcing Richmond as The Capital of The Confederacy or something similar, but all I got for my trouble was this sign. Margaret Mitchell's rolling over in her grave! Anyway, I took this shot and later that night emailed it back home to let everyone know I hadn't been conscripted.
Soon after leaving Richmond, I saw my first South of The Border sign. Finally, I was officially in the South! And then, fireworks stands. Nirvana!
About an hour and a half later, I hit Roanoke Rapids, NC. This was the home stretch, even though it was still about 150 miles to where I was going to sleep that night.
I got to John and Jackie's home at about 8:30; their son Jared was home from school, and we spent the next several hours catching up. It was strange, but after having driven for about 11 hours, I didn't feel tired…I guess I was looking forward to the next day.
I arrived at Lloyd Street Studios in Carrboro at about noon on Friday. Jesse, the owner/engineer was setting up the studio, Betsy Clarke was tuning her fiddle, and drummer David Haynes was getting settled in. I soon met Don, and as the rest of the folks straggled in, I was introduced as "Jack, the jug player who came all the way from New Jersey". (I think it was code for "The Nut from New Jersey")
I've never been the new kid in school, and I've never had to deal with that kind of thing. But as adults, we all find ourselves in potentially uncomfortable situations where we don't know anyone else in the room. That was the case with here in North Carolina, but you know what? That music, that simple, basic music. It'll do it every time. Within the first few minutes of being surrounded by and playing with some really talented musicians, people who had known each other for as long as I've known The Birdies, I felt like one of 'em.
I guess I should have been paying closer attention to exactly what and when we were recording; we had a schedule, and we somehow managed to stick to it. I guess we recorded about 30 tracks over the three days. But it wasn't like we were working real hard….barbeque (Q), cole slaw and beer at Don and Kim's house. (More barbeque at the 4th of July celebration in Pinehurst…a bluegrass band playing on the back of a flatbed truck…it was like being in Mayberry! Check out the chef here…) Hot dogs, burgers and ice cream at Dave and Rebecca's. Our own personal fireworks display, courtesy of Scollay Whitney. Of course, John and Jackie were also invited to all these festivities, making the weekend that much more enjoyable.
On Sunday night, I really wasn't looking forward to the long drive back home on Monday, especially on the last day of a big holiday weekend. But we had to get moving, so out came the instruments, one last time. A couple of warmup tunes, and finally, Blues in the Bottle, which as it turned out, had some different lyrics, depending on whether you learned it in North Carolina, or in New Jersey! No matter…
Less than 24 hours later, I was back home, hugging my wife and daughter, and getting ready to re-enter the real world on Tuesday morning. This was the first time in five days I had thought about the mind-numbing work project I had left behind, so the trip was a home run in many respects.
If you haven't played music, especially in a band, it's hard to imagine what it's like. One of the best parts of being on stage is the eternal search for the perfect moment. The part where the real synchronicity kicks in. Where all the rehearsals and all the mistakes and all the job worries and all the disparate personalities suddenly vaporize, and what you're left with is that moment where everyone is cooking, and everyone sounds great, and all the solos are perfect and everyone in the audience is really tuned in, and everyone is smiling, and you're just so damn happy. That's what it's like, and I guess that's why they call it playing music.
If you've read this far, thanks. And thanks to all the folks in North Carolina.
(If you have't already seen them, there's more pictures from the trip here.)