Monday, April 23, 2012

Spring's slick snow job

There's a reason folks up here atop the mountain advise against planting flowers or vegetables much before sometime in May.  You only have to look out the window to see why: it's snowing sideways, with fat flakes screaming along out of the northwest here on the, what, 32nd or 33rd day of Spring? The temps are in the low 40s, the wind has been howling a couple days and it looks like late January or early February, except that the trees have little leaves on them. Or did when this blow started.

About a month ago, there were a lot of daffodils and various other bulbs pushing up and blooming. Then a Saturday afternoon hailstorm shredded the blossoms, made salad out of the leaves and stripped even our tough old mountain laurels of leaves that had been there since, I don't know, the first Mills Godwin administration.  Perhaps I exaggerate.  But that storm was nasty.

Today's is nasty and cold. We hardly had a fire in March because the weather was so warm; I've fetched firewood five times from the woodlot down by the barn in the last couple days, and it looks like I've got four more trips ahead of me before we return to Spring in another day or so.

Should have known, of course, but we got spoiled by the mild weather. Driving down Belcher Mountain Road the other day I spotted the first firepinks, some impossibly red little starburst blooms near a burned-out shell of a house.  And I succumbed to the allure of some bright blooming rhododendron over at Felecia Shelor's Poor Farmers Market. I filled up the back of my pickup truck with five-gallon tubs of those beauties; now they're huddled against the wind at the back of the garage, shivering in the gale and looking doubtful about life up here on the ridgetop.

We'll look back with fondness at days like this in July, when the sun's out and flogging the daylights out of our hides while we scrabble at the weeds in the tomato patch or something,  but right now it seems like light-years away.  A man's got to believe in something, and I believe I will go fetch another cup of coffee and maybe a dollop of that snakebite potion we keep around for emergencies.  You just never know up here.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Remembering Earl Scruggs, and the Villagers

Time was, not so very long ago, when a few of us raised in Greensboro the 1950s and 60s thought we might make it in show biz.  We thought, incorrectly, that we could break in to the folk music business. We thought, naively, that some hard work and good luck would put us on the same stages with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, with Bob and Nick and Dave in the Kingston Trio, with the Limelighters and the New Christy Minstrels and Arthur Smith and the Crackerjacks over in Charlotte.

Of course, we also thought we might be astronauts, neurosurgeons or at least a starting pitcher, maybe a long reliever for the Dodgers or the Orioles. 

Funny how your dreams amount to one thing, and life gives you something else.

But we were children of the New Frontier, and anything was possible in those days. We had three or four sets of striped button-down collar shirts, and more instruments than we could play. There was a 6-string and 12-string guitar, a mandolin and a borrowed banjo-mandolin, a four-string and a five-string banjo, a tin doghouse bass painted to look like metal, even a cut-down Roy Rogers guitar that we hoped would look like that little Gibson (or was it a Martin?) tenor guitar Nick Reynolds played, but it didn't. There was also a zither and a dulcimer we didn't quite know what to do with, and a steel guitar that rang like the bell up at Irving Park Elementary the last day of school.

It started in 1961 or '62 in the cafeteria at Page High School in Greensboro, when Fred Birdsong was recruiting guys who could play or sing or, in my case, neither but at least had a banjo.  Over the next 40 years or so the Villagers played the Carolina League of small stages -- Greensboro and Winston-Salem and Burlington and Danville Va, and on to Meadows of Dan, Va and Helen, Ga. and fine nights in Charlotte, Turnersville NC, Cane Creek Valley south of Asheville and about any place they would let us in the door and even close to a mike.

Here's how it looked on a good night in 2005 up in Buncombe County:

 That's Woody Allen in the middle, and Jimmy Garrison on the right.  We played fund-raisers and fund-losers and birthday parties and high school reunions and a big July 4 celebration in the Gate City of the South. I think we played for Chuck Crews' 60th birthday party, and center stage at a nigh-deserted lunchtime concert in downtown Greensboro one fall day, and a barbecue for the cast of Prairie Home Companion outside the new Performing Arts Center in Durham.  Yep, Garrison Keillor heard us; nope, he didn't ask us on the big show.  We played a Christmas bash at Fisher's Grille in Greensboro, raising money for children's toys, that would have been better only if we didn't have to settle our own bar bill at the end of the evening. Remember that scene from the Blues Brothers?

We lost some good boys along the way.  Dave Safford moved out west.  Fred died returning from a prison ministry meeting, when some drunk driver ran into him in Alabama.  "Squirrel" Garrison, maybe the most avid Alabama fan in our part of the world, beat four or five kinds of cancer for just over five years before he went to meet his Maker and demonstrate some heavenly Piedmont Travis picking with metal fingerpicks and new strings forever.

 Woodard Ross Allen, the original Woody Allen before that other fellow hit the headlines, still sings like an angel and picks like the devil on fire. Fred could play any instrument. Squirrel could pick and harmonize at the same time and chew gum and holler Roll Tide at the same moment.  Me, I thumped away at a bass fiddle, most of the time on an old 1946 Kay school bass that burned up two years ago in a house fire.  I've gotten a newer and much prettier bass fiddle now, but it doesn't sound half as good as that old Kay. Maybe that was because we both were born the same year and one of us had mellowed enough to have a good deep, round sound.

Back in the days when I was trying to learn to play the banjo, Earl Scruggs was the man I tried to figure out. I tried never to miss the Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs TV show, back when they were still speaking to one another and playing as the Foggy Mountain Boys.  I was a two-finger picker, and not that good with two.  Earl picked with two fingers plus the thumb plus, it often seemed to me, some other fingers as well, if only you could see 'em. It looked like a blur to me on our snowy old TV screen as he raced through things like Foggy Mountain Breakdown. I don't know how many banjo strings I broke trying to do that funky thing where he loosened and tightened a string in the middle of a riff, giving the sound a dip and a rise back to where it ought to be. Amazing.  To this day I'm not sure if he invented that style of picking, but he surely perfected it.  As Greensboro editor Irwin Smallwood might have said, he may not have created it, but he owned the Southern distributorship for picking Scruggs-style.

When he died the other day (March 28) in Nashville at age 88, I thought about how many good players have come out of the places like Shelby, N.C., including song writer Don Gibson.  Something in the water there, or maybe the soil, that produces people who can make musical magic.  I long ago realized how rare that is, and collected their albums and then their cassettes and then their CDs and now hold 'em on my iPod, and sometimes jack up the sound until the light bulbs tremble.

I don't know if Earl Scruggs was an Alabama fan atall, but I fancy that he and Squirrel Garrison and Fred Birdsong, an Auburn fan, might have had the chance to work that out by now, and maybe sit in a corner somewhere to pick a few tunes while they get up a new band over on the other side.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A hoarder's story

Woodworkers are among the worst hoarders. It's a character flaw, but there it is.  Among my conceits is the idea that one day I'll know enough about joinery and dovetails and turning and planing to make museum quality stuff from the wood I've been hoarding for decades.

 And so I hang on to the walnut coffee table top I made in 8th grade shop class, the heart pine door panels that came out of a Greensboro house William Sidney Porter (O. Henry) played in as a child, the burl, if I can still find it, said to have been cut from a tree where they hanged one of Mosby's Rangers in 1864, the rough-cut walnut from a Wake County tree bought by four college friends in 1977, the cherry that my father-in-law and I rounded up somewhere the other side of Willis back in the 1980s, the mahogany that came as part of a pallet made somewhere in South or Central America and discarded by a dealer after arrival of some gizmo or other. Even the mahogany cutoffs from a Raleigh billiards table maker.  And I always regretted not having bought some of the old maple floor from UNC's Woolen Gym, the same floor where Lennie Rosenbluth and Tommy Kearns won a lot of the 32 games they took in that 1957 run to the national championship.

But the thing that made me feel rich was the 2,500 board feet of clear Southern Yellow Pine that I got from a Chatham County, N.C. mill after a foulup over a botched order of flooring back in 2007. We were building a log home then, and had ordered pre-finished pine flooring, six inches wide with tongue and groove edges. The builder was putting it in the first week of December that year, and I was sitting in a State Board of Community Colleges meeting when the cell phone beeped with the bad news: the tongue sat a couple of hundredths of an inch higher than the groove, which meant that the flooring would not fit together in a smooth way. In fact, it would tend to rock as it dried out. It was a mess.

Long story short, that batch of flooring went back to the factory, which could not deliver a new batch for weeks.  In a sweat, we found locally-produced oak flooring in Hillsville and the contractor went on to install that.  I didn't find out until much later that the oak flooring had a similar problem, and had to be ripped out after half a room was done, to be replaced with proper flooring. When that (third) floor was finally down, it was lovely, exquisite, perfect.  And it stayed perfect for several weeks, until the appliance store tried to roll a refrigerator with a frozen caster across the floor and etched an interesting pattern in the wood. Duck fits ensued. But that's another story.

What I wound up with was some lovely 12-foot and 16-foot lengths of 1x8 Southern Yellow Pine that the mill in Chatham County sent me in exchange for the bad flooring. Mostly straight and mostly smooth, it looked mighty good. I built pantry shelves with some of it, and bookshelves in the great room with more of it. Looked fine right up until lightning struck and made a big pile of ashes and rubble in June 2010.

We've rebuilt, and my winter project this year was replacing the bookshelves. I started on the side away from the stereo system and TV and about two dozen kinds of wires that looked too complicated to even think about for awhile. Once the easy side was done, I started labeling the wires and running speaker cable beneath the floor and figuring out which speaker was going to go where. And instead of shelves that went to the floor, that side had to have a base cabinet large enough to house a receiver, CD player, Blu-Ray player and set-top box, plus a lot of CDs and the subwoofer, and hold the flat-screen TV at the proper height.

For a couple weeks I did nothing more than turn 1x8 boards into 1x18 inch boards, for cabinet sides, shelves and top.  I used every clamp in the shop and quite a bit of Gorilla Glue, and then a good-sized batch of 3x21 belts and six-hole oscillating sandpaper discs trying to get everything flat, or at least reasonably smooth.

It all came together about 10 days ago, and since then has soaked up a couple cans of hand-rubbed satin finish.  For a batch of botched flooring, these shelves and cabinet look pretty good. But you still can't walk on 'em, nosireebob.

Now, if I could just find a couple boxes of missing books....