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.