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 just turned 21, trying to find my way in this life. Some railroad punks back in my hometown got me into old time in high school and I’ve never looked back. Ever since you can barely find me without my fiddle in my hands. Now I’m thinking about trying to go professional. You know, make my living off playing old time music. But whenever I mention that to other people, they just laugh and say it’s impossible. What should I do? I love this music and can’t imagine anything better than doing it for the rest of my life. Am I crazy?
Uncle John: Well, it may be a little easier to imagine once you get dropped from your parents’ health insurance and have to start paying off your college loans. Looky here: if you can make an actual living doing nothing but playing Old Time, good for you. You’ll be one in about a thousand. I just wonder what right-minded person would want to subject his chief pleasure in life to the stress of having to pay the bills. Isn’t that how bluegrass happened? Why not just learn a respectable trade, like for instance plumbing, and keep your music free to be what the Good Lord intended to be: something you can do half-drunk without risking ruination?
Dear Uncle John, I’ve been playing old time guitar for a long time and fiddle for a few years. Just a couple weeks back this fiddler from out of town came to visit. Man, she could play great! She knew all kinds of Round Peak tunes and could really nail ’em! But then something weird happened. I called something else – a Kentucky tune or an Ozark tune – I can’t remember, and she just put her fiddle down and got up to leave the jam. I asked her if she wanted to play with us and she said, “No, I don’t play that stuff. I just play Round Peak.” Well, I didn’t know what to say. It seemed really weird. Now, this is a free country and all, but that’s not really old time etiquette is it?
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Uncle John: Yeah, I got no patience for that type a’ comportment, and I doubt Tommy did either. But that’s the way some folks are, I reckon. They got a mean-streak a mile wide and a narrow little comfort zone in the middle of it and Heaven forbid you ruffle their feathers by stirring the air with your bow-tip. Shucks. For a gal who plays Round Peak, that one sure had some rocky outcroppings. Gettin’ up after she’s done playin’ her tunes! Good thing I wasn’t there. I would a’ told that young lady to set her little fanny back down and help fiddle us to Kentucky and back, or else she can saddle up that high horse of hers and skedaddle.
Dear Uncle John, We’ve got a fine little old-time scene in my town, with the emphasis on little. There’s this one fellow, great fiddle player. He can saw like no one’s business. Problem is, that’s ALL he can do. Even after years of playing old-time he refuses to learn some basic guitar or banjo, so when we get together other fiddle players are forced to switch to their second instruments. Some how it doesn’t seem fair. When I learned old-time, I was taught that everyone should passably play at least two instruments so we could switch up when needs be. He won’t. What should I do?
Uncle John: You tell ‘at sumbitch he’d better get with the program, or he can go play fiddle henceforth by hisself. If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a high-falutin fiddle player who’s afraid to get his pretty little fingers dirty on a guitar. And let’s just say something was to happen to that precious fiddle of his? What would he do then? Worth considering.
Dear Uncle John, I need some advice. My husband has been playing at guitar for most of his life – a little bluegrass, a little folk, some Leonard Cohen. That kinda thing. And all he does is sit at home in the den and play by himself. It’s always seemed a little sad to me. But when I was at the farmer’s market this week I saw some young folk playing music on fiddle, guitar, and banjo. It sure looked like they were having a good time! So I talked to them and they told me they play “old time music”. I’d never heard of it before. They even asked me if I played anything, because they have a jam every week I’d be invited to join. I didn’t say anything about my husband, but now I’m not sure what to do. Should I tell him about these old time musicians? See if I can get him out of the den for once?
Uncle John: The word “husband” causes me some trepidation here. Are you lookin’ to pick a fight? Seems to me you oughta let the man play couch-guitar if that’s what floats his dinghy. Nothing wrong with couch-guitar: it doesn’t hurt nobody, and it staves off dementia better than binging on Friends reruns. Plus, the fact that it “seems a little sad” to youhas no bearing whatsoever on his subjective experience of the thing. I suspect he’s happy as a hog working on his G-runs and such. Maybe take him with you to the Farmer’s Market next time, and if he has the ears to hear, he’ll come to his own conclusion. I’ve been married four and a half times, so I think I know what I’m talking about.