In this column, readers write in to query the oldtime wisdom of Uncle John. You might not always like his answers, but he always gives it to you straight – or crooked, as the situation requires. Write in and read on!

Dear Uncle John, I really need help. My girlfriend has been playing oldtime for many years. She seems to really enjoy it, even if the music is not exactly my cup of tea. But the people she hangs out with are really nice and the community seems cool. Her hobby is not the problem. The problem is that about six months ago she switched from guitar to fiddle. I don’t really understand why, but now she actually practices at home…like two hours a day. Pardon my French, but learning to play the fiddle, at home, without a teacher, sounds fucking awful from start to finish. Is this going to get better? Do I just have to close my eyes and think of England? Will I ever get my girlfriend back?

Uncle John: You’re standing at the precipice, young feller, there’s just no other way to say it. The only choice is whether you step away slowly, turn and flee for your life, or take the plunge. This girlfriend of yours is far gone, and there’s no bringing her back. Yes, her fiddling will get better, assuming she’s in possession of a normal modicum of homo sapiens musical talent. But what then? She’ll be playing this music all the time, and when she’s not playing it, she’ll be thinking about playing it. A buddy of mine who’s into science tells me there’s no cure. No particular harm, either, at least as far as the organism is concerned, but still. Maybe the real question is: how serious are you about this young lady? None of my business, of course, but that’s the bottom line. If you’re serious, then better get used to not being the center of the world. If you’re really serious, better take up the banjo asap. If you’re maybe actually not that serious after all, get out while you can before someone gets hurt. 

Dear Uncle John, the lead fiddler at our jam session used to be so much fun. We’d play all kinds of tunes that everyone knew – Arkansas Traveller, Paddy, Turkey in the Straw, or my favorite, Cripple Creek! But over time he’s changed. Now all he wants to play are these weird tunes no one’s ever heard of. And they’re usually crooked and in keys no one wants to play in, like C. God I hate C! Who ever wants to play in C!?! Please help me. I don’t know what to do, but he’s ruining our nice little oldtime jam.

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Uncle John: Old-Time tunes are like people: they’re all beautiful, though some are more beautiful than others. It seems to me your fiddle player there is evolving in the typical way. Once you get the old chestnuts down your gullet, and you’ve played, say, “Arkansas Traveller” six or seven hundred times, then you naturally start foraging for more variety in your musical diet. I see nothing wrong with this, at least in principle. Of course the evolutionary goal here is to become an omnivore, such that you can feast on “Cumberland Gap” with no less relish than on Randy Johnston’s “Left My Licker Jug on the Running Board” in 7/8 time with a key-change in the C-part. But meanwhile, I do feel your pain. Maybe the thing to do is to gently suggest to your evolving fiddler that three-grain tempeh is great, but ever now and then we’d like a plain old hunk of fatback thrown in just to balance things out. 

Dear Uncle John, I’ve been playing oldtime for about seven years. I love the people. Get out to Clifftop every few years. It’s really a great part of my life. How did I live before oldtime?! That part of my life is fine. My problem is everyone else: my non-oldtime friends, my family, my colleagues. They just don’t get it. I can’t really even explain to them what oldtime is. And they just think I’m wasting my time on some hokey, bad sounding amateur country music. How can I make them understand how wonderful oldtime is and why I love it so much?

Uncle John: Why would you want to? Are you on some kind of evangelical mission here? Let the unbelievers wallow in their ignorance, that’s what I say. If they stumble into a jam one day and see the light or hear the angelic choir or what have you, fine. If not, leave ’em be. Let ’em think ever what they wanna think. Clifftop is big enough already, goddammit.

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John Crutchfield
John Crutchfield is a writer and theater artist who currently makes his home in Asheville, North Carolina, where he plays banjo and guitar and occasionally sings in the area's lively Old-Time music scene. He's also lived in Germany at various points in his life –– most recently Berlin –– and at present he teaches German at the local branch of the University of North Carolina.


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