Look, Topher, I’m sorry I threw a bottle at your NewGrass band. It was uncalled for and impolite, and I would understand why you’re a little confused and angry, right now. I do sincerely apologize, but I also feel the need to maybe clarify what I was thinking right before I slung Dierdra’s half-empty bottle of Sweetwater 420 at you.
There are a lot of names for this music y’all are stabbing at: Old Timey, String Band, Bluegrass, Mountain Music, etc. I’m a little older than you- we grew up calling it “pickin’”, and it got played by a lot of my family members at weddings, funerals, holiday gatherings, what have you. Bluegrass wasn’t big with the whole family, of course. Certain older ladies felt that songs about murder and whisky had no place in a house with children and church folks in it, so sometimes the players had to go the basement or the garage.
To clarify: I didn’t hurl that bottle at you because I think you’re terrible at playing music. You’re not GREAT, but you seem to know which end of a banjo gets picked and which end gets mashed on. Y’all do seem about 15 to 20 years early to start calling yourself “pickers,” though. I reckon if you take a lesson from tonight and you don’t hang it up and go to law school or get an MBA, you might get to the point where you can show up at the barbershop and hold your own. Eventually.
And I do appreciate you sprinkling in some classic old tunes like “Man of Constant Sorrow” and “Frankie and Johnnie” in between your own songs about weed and flying saucers “landin’ in the holler,” I guess. But maybe don’t smile like a jack’o’lantern when you’re singing the last verse of “Pretty Polly.” Polly was begging for her life before the narrator drove a knife into her. It’s not like he was swiping left.
And about all this talk about “hollers” and “moonshine stills.” Number one, you couldn’t find a holler with three flashlights and a map. You’re from Marietta. I’d say “Write what you know,” but nobody wants to hear string band music about Panera. Also, “still” is just short for “distiller.” Nobody says “moonshine still.” You don’t make anything else in a still. That’s like saying “eating spoon,” or “chopping axe.” It’s just “still,” Topher. Just say “still.”
I could’ve probably hung in there and let it all go, and had a pleasant enough evening listening to Dierdra talk about massage therapy school, until your fiddle player started his “mountain preacher tent revival” schtick. Look, I know you boys think hillbilly culture is Quaint, and Charming, if a little, heh heh, BACKWARDS. I know Simon and his “fiddle” dropped out of Julliard, and that one strap button on his overalls has never, ever been buttoned. I know it all seems like a distant picture postcard of The Simple Life, of A Better Time, et fucking cetera.
I have a little different take on my own people, though, and they’re not cartoon characters. My grandparents clawed their way up out of the Depression, eating what they could grow and hunt, fishing for survival, and breaking their bodies in mills and garages. They held themselves with dignity, even when their hands throbbed from working in the cold, and their backs ached from being bent in labor. They trusted in God, lifted each other up, and never borrowed a dime from the bank. They sometimes had little, often did without. They left their homes in the hills and in the Piedmont to cross the ocean in enormous grey ships and hit the beach at Normandy. They held the beach, marched to Berlin, saw all of the attendant horrors of war, then made the journey home and never spoke of again.
So, while I was mostly able to ignore Jeremy’s arhythmic clawhammer picking, and the song about “Wacky Weed,” and your hyuck-hyucking and DRAWLing between songs, when Simon started bucking, and stomping his goddamn foot, and hollering about “JEEE-zus,” and “Resisting the DEBBIL,” I must admit that I allowed myself to come a little unmoored.
I’m not a religious man, which caused my grandmother no little suffering, but I am not without some pride. My first thought was to say goodnight to Deirdra, wish her the best in acupuncture class, or whatever she was talking about, and roll out, but then Simon started in on “HOMMASEXSHULS” and “FORNICATION” and I thought “Ok, enough of this shit.”
The pickers in my family worked jobs. They played for the sheer joy of playing. They did not sing perfect harmonies, they did not always remember all of the words, and they were imperfect men, but they struggled to accept the modern world, and they tried to meet everyone with love and kindness.
Simon’s mawkish, almost colonial, impression of those men is born of a deep contempt, and frankly, I have enjoyed about all of that garbage I can stand. I would invite you to watch the documentary “Harlan County, USA,” particularly the scene where the film crew visits the widows of the men killed in a recent mine cave-in. They’re just girls, really, barely into their 20s, and they are dressed in taffeta and bows, probably in the prettiest dresses available in whatever dime store downtown sprang up to tempt the dreams of miners’ wives and daughters. Even poor women want to feel beautiful, sometimes.
I suspect that they dressed up for the film crew because they thought that maybe there was a tiny chance that this time in front of the camera had something to do with Hollywood. When there’s only one movie screen in a company town, one doesn’t see a lot of documentaries. The whole concept might not have dawned on them.
But they are friendly, and gracious, and although I can’t remember their exact words, I remember how searing it was to hear them talk about the terrible day they heard the sirens wail. The sirens were to alert the community that a tunnel had collapsed, meaning that someone’s husband, or father, or son wouldn’t be coming home. And yet, they laugh and smile, a little giddy to meet an actual film crew.
And when they laugh, they daintily cover their mouths. And if you’re from where I’m from, you know why. It is to hide their teeth, because they know that people who don’t live in coal towns, mill towns, and hollers, don’t have teeth like theirs. They know that movie stars don’t have teeth that ache at night, and twist in odd directions, and are so much trouble that eventually you go to the dentist two towns over and have the bent, throbbing survivors pulled out. Old timers would tell you that teeth are so much trouble, “You’re better off shut of them.”
I’m sorry that I let my anger get the best of me, but there was just so much of it at that moment. Oceans of anger.
bottle missed Simon, but it did silence him as he felt the wind of its
passing on his face. I’m sorry that I threw it. I’m sorry that your bass
player, Thomas, took it full on the mouth. I regret the whole affair.
Perhaps, though, going forward, Thomas won’t have to use a Sharpie to blacken out that tooth. He’s better off shut of it, anyway.