Monday, June 02, 2014

greetings from kerrville

in the small town of ballinger, texas, where state route 83 turns, downtown, it was raining, but i was hungry, so i parked at the corner there and went into a restaurant that had a sombrero painted on the outside of the window. It advertised american and mexican food both, and a buffet, and sure enough, it had pork chops and a kind of mexican mix with rice and beans that you could put into a tortilla. i sat in the front corner, but after a while i realized that the open sign, on the outside of the building, which was neon and flashed red and blue, combined with the oncoming traffic, so that every time i turned around toward the north, i would see oncoming cars coupled with flashing red and blue and get momentarily confused; i'd get that little rush of adrenaline you get when you think you might be pulled over. it was actually a sleepy town; i don't believe i ever saw police, or anything that would merit them. and it was raining, a gentle steady rain that would turn into torrents up toward abilene.

the road to kerrville for me goes through what one of my friends called the dry half of texas, then to sweetwater and abilene, then down this north-south corridor, 83, through winters and ballinger, then from junction to kerrville, it's the hill country, and it's green, very rocky and beautiful, and also steamy, definitely warmer than the high plains. the whole state was very wet; it rained that entire week, and rained more in lubbock than it had in the entire year previous. the sweetwater-abilene corridor in particular was very crowded with traffic, and it made me wonder: where were the people coming from? probably from the oil boom in midland-odessa, where there is absolutely no water but where oil is flying, and money with it, armani dealers and cadillacs, and maybe those guys are going to dallas for the weekend. i got lost in kerrville, but eventually i found the folk festival, saw my old band partner, played a few songs, and wandered off to see who i could find out in the campground jams that make the place what it is. i literally wandered into the first one i saw. it had an accordion player, and a concertina player, and a keyboard player who sounded a lot like randy newman. they seemed to know each other; they were all from austin. soon i couldn't resist and pulled out my fiddle, and i was sawing away with some really fine musicians; all this was at about two or three in the morning and going on. we delicately and carefully traded leads and played like master pros.

in ballinger i ate my pork chop and beans and rice and listened as various people came to the cash register; the owner, or the wife anyway, seemed to know everyone, and move easily between english and spanish as appropriate. i had driven north in silence, music still in my head from what i'd heard. kerrville had been a break for me; my life is busy with four kids these days, and i almost passed up the trip, but my wife had encouraged me, saying i needed to have a fresh mind and not be mad about being unable to do the things i love. fiddling with those austin musicians definitely qualifies as something i love. it was a wet weekend; i'd been rained out of my little camp spot; i'd even got sick, maybe from lack of sleep; i missed part of the concert itself. but that night, that one jam, that and seeing my old bandmate, had made it all worthwhile.

some of the musicians were a little tipsy, as it had been the keyboard player's birthday. nevertheless, they played better, drunk, than most anyone can play sober, and the music got even better as the night progressed. the keyboard player, after playing a rousing version of louisiana, came and went, kind of unbelieving that such music would happen on his birthday, or that people would want him to play; it could have been a dilemma for him, as if he had to work on a holiday. i didn't dare call a song. for one thing, the songs were in an entirely different class from the ones i'm used to; in lubbock i generally know bluegrass, country, or slightly aged pop, but here we had songs with many chords, songs that changed key, some i'd never heard. it was like, what do musicians play, when they get to play what they want. and in this regard i was speechless. as a fiddler i should have dozens of these, and be able to call them out, and start them, and lead them, and even tell the guitar players what chords to produce, but no, in this way, i'm entirely silent, speechless. i'm definitely unorthodox as a fiddle player in that i can't seem to get out of the harmonist's mode, listen, play beneath, come out only when called, though the fiddler is called out sooner than the rest. first, generally. the pressure's on.

in lubbock, i've become a bluegrass fiddler. i like it; most of the tunes are familiar and they come around regularly. the people i play with know each other, know bluegrass, and play well together. these songs are more predictable; people like them for the way they harmonize and the way a banjo can play beneath them. most of the time i like it; sometimes i want out of the box. in kerrville i got out of the box, at least that once.

at one point somebody called out, 'let's get religious!' at which point, i, being from lubbock, expected some true gospel, like for example, at the crossroads. a strain of gospel runs straight through bluegrass, at least half of bluegrass is gospel, and you don't go into bluegrass unless you're comfortable with that. but that's not what 'religious' means in austin, apparently; their songs, totally unfamiliar to me, reflected the antagonism generated by being 'austin' in 'texas'...a sense of tongue-in-cheek community rejection of a state's overarching values. that's all i can say. i really didn't know the songs, and had to listen very carefully just to keep up with the tunes.

it was a fantastic night. i tried my best to keep up. i have a list of names i caught, songs i heard, etc. which will appear shortly. i try not to lose such stuff.


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