Travels with MaryE

Most things I love best are about good light and good timing. That's where the adventures start. Don't be in no hurry here. Here you'll find a little bit about bluegrass music, fox hunting, life on the road, time on the mountain, and a whole lot about other things, too.

Saturday, July 07, 2007


So the guy who mows the lawn plays in a "bluegrass" (they use the term lightly) band and they have this gig at a bar that's easy walking distance from where I'm staying at 5 o'clock this afternoon so I put on my orange All-Stars and walk over there and grab myself one of those tall barstools and get comfortably seated with a Rolling Rock (before sundown, mind!) before they even get tuned up. It's a bass, guitar, dobro and banjo and I'm starting to get nervous. I don't really know anybody in this town so I don't spend too much time looking around for familiar faces but it happens that a neighbor and a guy I saw at the neighbor's party the other day walk in and so I had a bit of a small chat with them.

The band starts and let's see, well, they were okay. And the lawnmowing guy is actually a good bass player...except for some reason most of the band are turned down so far you can't hear them at all, you can just see their hands and lips moving. I start frantically giving him the "turn it up" sign. They turn it up a bit.

Some people have all the luck. This band plays two longish sets and in the process manage to do many of the "taboo" songs in bluegrass, you know Rocky Top, etc. But anyway the folks in the bar were having a good time letting their hair down and it was Happy Hour and they were definitely getting happy and there was no cover charge and this band was, well, okay.

During the break the dobro player (who is probably around 70 at least) comes over and starts talking to me and we're talking about Brother Oswald and I point out how I hear some Oswaldisms in his style and he tells me about how he liked Os and I didn't tell him about how I got to do the cover shots on what I think might have been Os's last album...a fun day of shooting, winding up on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium, but that's another story.

Anyway this dobro player, Tex, says he'll try to get the guys to let him do a Brother Oswald tune on the next set and durn if he doesn't do it first song on the set! It was really good and he points at me so I have to say "thanks, Tex."

Now I'd heard about a club in this town where they USED to have GREAT country music, you know cry-in-your-beer, sho'nuff belly-rubbin' two-steppin' shuffle beat honkytonkin' country music, the kind I REALLY REALLY like better than any music there is. And so I went on over to that bar after I left the first one (see above) and learned that they have live music six nights a week there. The girl didn't come out and say it but I think she was trying to let me down gently when she said they were going through a transition period and well they didn't really play old country anymore there.

So I go back there tonight at 9 pm and there's this band up there and they're playing some half-assed R&B song - an electric guitar, sawed-off funny electric bass, drums, a woman on piano (maybe it was electric but it sounded like a piano) and a pretty young girl with a really good voice who unfortunately acted more like she was at karaoke making hand motions and pointing....and having to read each and every word she sang off a page in a book. Do you know how much I hate that? Well, now you do.

Anyway, this girl did a pretty good job on "Crazy" which is not exactly hard-core country like I love it, but you really can't go wrong with Patsy Cline in a country bar (even if it's in a city). So I thought, well, maybe okay, if I close my eyes maybe I can bear this (but I can't bear to watch this girl reading off all the words no matter how pretty her voice is). Well. After a few pretty unconvincing country songs (the worst of which was "Stand By Your Man" and that does classify as a hard core country song, but not with this girl reading the words) the girl goes to giggle with a gaggle of her girlfriends at some corner table and the drummer starts singing Roy Orbison ("the Big O" as he called him) songs, not so bad except he sings like he plays the drums, square and not exactly in the right time (it was like out of four people playing instruments, three were playing in different time zones). Yikes, I am being too sweet here . Then the lead guitar player steps up to the microphone and sings 2 blues songs and it's like a magical transformation. I'm not sure about the old lady on the piano, but the other 3 (lead guitar, electric bass and drums) actually perk up and act alive and seem like they're paying attention and even enjoying playing! It was too miraculous for words. I realized how anesthetized they were being before (and here I thought I was just being a hyper-critical ex-Nashvillain.) Previously it had been clear that while this band were playing "country" music (some) in a country bar they would rather be playing anything else under the sun. Wow. So Mr. Lead Guitar actually shows his stuff and it's good! He plays some great blues and sings it just right and the bass player is on, too (whereas the entire rest of the set he was in la-la land somewhere mostly just snapping his gum and hardly playing and acting like he'd be anywhere but here). Geez, I mean why do people get up and play and not even try? So the best songs of the set were by far the two blues songs. I'm glad I heard them because otherwise it was a real waste of time to go to that "country" bar. I spoke with the owners who confided that this was only the second time this band had played together and I was wondering haven't they ever heard of getting together to practice? It wasn't like they were the best musicians in the world to why did this bar HIRE them? I think they should have paid ME for listening to an entire set of that. I am glad to be back at the house!

Geez, I'm starting to sound a bit like Andy Rooney but come on. Oh, the drummer did "Fox on the Run" just as out of time as possible and I thought how could he have possibly made my day more complete after hearing Rocky Top by that other band? To hear Fox On the Run done so poorly was just icing on the cake of my discontent.

Considering myself very lucky indeed I escaped this formerly terrific country bar (so "they" say) less than an hour after I'd gone in. Yikes, I think maybe I'll stay in from now on if that's what a Friday night is going to be like!

Tomorrow morning, the Farmer's Market. That's sure to please! And I'm not kidding. A delicious slice of Americana.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Independence Day in Illinois

So here I am in Illinois and it's the 4th of July. The friends I stay with here are away for awhile and I don't know another soul in this city, but I found out about the 4th of July parade held here on Lincoln Avenue and I've just returned from it. It lasted some 1.5 hours, pretty impressive.

America has changed. The veterans get half-hearted, polite applause and the folks at the parade are all sitting down, even most of the kids. Hello. When I was a kid we all stood up and cheered and waved - and most of the adults stood up too. I guess folks nowadays can't stand up for that long. Too many trips to McDonald's.

Right at the front of the parade were the services that keep us safe from fires and "foreign invaders" and bad guys with guns...firemen, military and police. They got some applause and I'll admit I got a lump in my throat. I think it was not so much about the guys parading before me as it was thinking back over all the 4th of Julys I spent with family and friends and how I'm just here in a strange city on my own. But never mind!

The parade was interesting in that it had a gay rights (to equal marriage) group, a scary bunch of folks called "Guns Save" (whoaaaaaaa...frighening bunch, those). Yeah, I'm here in the heart of Republican America and a place where the NRA sits at the right hand of God. Scary. This is a college town, though, so I'm proud to say the Democratic Party and the Green Party were also well-represented in the parade. There were an overabundance of what we used to call squirt guns, though they were more the size of tanks. The kids (and quite a few adults) had a ball with those. Some of the fire trucks had loaded up with water and the kids had fun dueling with the guys operating the fire hoses.

As always kids ran for the candy that was tossed by various floats and vintage vehicles. There was a really cool old city bus in the parade and even the Bookmobile. Bunches of Shriners on wacky vehicles made us all grin and there was a convoy of 4 wheelers, a bicycle built for two and all kinds of interesting conveyences. But in all that 1.5 hours there were only two horses! I simply couldn't believe it here in the heart of the Illinois corn belt. Maybe all the farmers are harvesting today. I sure wish the Amish had brought along some of their fine horseflesh to show us what horses should look like. But never mind, I had to be content with several beautifully restored vintage tractors, mostly Farmalls, that paraded before us. There were the usual complements of teen beauties, flag twirlers (in shorts and t-shirts!!! remember how the bands used to really dress up for parades? Hey, I'm not THAT old), overweight kids puffing on tubas and skinny boys banging on drums bigger than themselves. There were the Daughers of the American Revolution and the Army, Marines, Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Brownies, the Church of Christ ("our faith is over 2000 years old") and Women for Hairy Legs and Pits but the one that got me was the nut cases in the Guns Save cavalcade. Corpulent brutes, yuck. They stuck them toward the end of the parade, probably so some of the sensible citizens of Urbana didn't boooooooooo them off the street. I tried but didn't get any support. Maybe I'm in the wrong town.

Guns Save Lives. Huh. How's that?