The tips of his forefinger middle finger and ring finger on his right hand were on fire. The calluses Bob had developed over ten years of playing upright base in a symphony were no match for the relentless bluegrass worshiping crowd at the Mt. Gilead Music Barn. The joints of his left hand ached and tingled from three hours of non-stop playing, too. And, his legs and calves felt weak from the long hours on his feet. At least at the symphony, Bob had a stool to perch on between movements. The Music Barn stage only had microphones and Ball jars full of water for the band.
When Bob joined the Bluegrass Journey a month ago, he had needed the extra money during the symphony’s offseason. This year had been an emotional and expensive one. Both of his sons were in college, his wife of thirty years had divorced him, and his aging hound dog, Earle, needed more and more cancer treatments. Bob was numb with guilt when he left Earle in the animal hospital for three weeks while he went on tour, but at age fifty-seven Bob just couldn’t face the fact that he would be bankrupt if he didn’t crawl into the cramped band bus and wander the back roads of North Carolina to play small town gigs.
Ever since he began studying upright bass in high school, Bob had wanted to be in a real band. But his parents, and German classical instructor, had demanded that he focus his time and energy into something “substantial.” Within a year, he was the youngest first chair stand-up bassist in the City Philharmonic. Thirty-five years later, Maria, Bob’s soon to be ex-wife, reminded him that he had always wanted to join a band. But he had failed at that, just like he had failed at the rest of his life and their marriage.
The week Maria finally got the last of her boxes out of the house, Bob had played the upright bass to soothe his anger, violently drawing the bow across the quivering strings in anguish. His horse hair bow shredded in two before he tossed the instrument down, hoping it would shatter. The bass did nothing but thud, empty and wooden just like Bob, against the floor.
A month later, when he saw an ad in the Independent Classifieds on a rainy Tuesday afternoon and called on a whim, Bob was actually nervous. But, becoming a full-fledged member of Bluegrass Journey had been simple. Bob barely had to audition. He met the other band members at one of their houses, told them a little about his life, plucked out a steady and even bluegrass bass beat, and was welcomed aboard.
“You ever toured with a band before?” Jerry, the band leader because he was the most charismatic, asked him.
“No,” Bob answered, frowning with ineptitude.
Louis, the jovial one, laughed loudly. “He ain’t got a clue what he’s getting into.”
“We’ll be changing places every night, right? Living on the road?” Bob’s eyes lit up as he imagined a clearly romanticized version of what television and movies had always told him life as a musician was all about. There would be hotels, women, and lots and lots of liquor.
“Where did you grow up, Bob?” Roger was now finished tuning his mandolin and interested in the conversation.
“Raleigh. Well, I was born in a small town called Pittsboro, but we moved when I was four.”
Louis sighed and turned to Jerry. “He’s got the rhythm at least.” Jerry nodded.
Bob was about to ask what he didn’t have that Bluegrass Journey needed, but Jerry tapped his foot to count in a song.
“A 1, 2, 3, 4…”
Bob’s fingers jumped to the strings and he plucked out the same bass beat while the other men whirled their instruments into every bluegrass tone he had ever heard. They slowed down, sped up, changed keys, and switched singers. All to the same, consistent, resonating, high lonesome upright bass beat. Bob’s foot tapped along, counting the simple time, as Louis, Roger, and Jerry improvised with their instruments. As they moved into their second song, Jerry started singing about the three men of Bluegrass Journey. The tome was called “Low Highsome.” The title of the song was a play on words that Bob only sort of understood.
Jerry, Louis, and Roger had all been high school friends. They grew up together in southern North Carolina. They learned to play the fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and acoustic guitar together as teenagers. The earnestness with which they had picked up their instruments was fueled by the empty, airy loblolly pine stands, and the innocent, lonely, backwoods mountain girls. Bluegrass was the only entertainment anyone knew and understood. Years later, all three men migrated to the city, in search of more sophisticated women and steady jobs. But, the mountain music never left them.
When Jerry finished off the wild, fast and slow, song, the instruments all sighed with relief. Bob was charmed by the deep connection these three men had just shared with him. Roger turned to him as he put his mandolin back in the case.
“You got the rhythm all right. But you’re still trying to find your soul.”
Bob couldn’t agree more, but that was the end of his audition. The next time he saw the men, they practiced for an hour straight, packed up their gear, and headed out to their first gig. They drove only two short hours south of the city, but it was a completely different world to Bob.
The Mt. Gilead Music Barn was less concert venue, and more old and crumbling store front. It was nestled between a pawn broker, ethnic hair dresser, and thrift shop. Since the tour van rolled into the small town at night, all Bob saw was a Walmart on the edge of town, a few historical marker signs, and the two block area of Old Main Street. Roger, Jerry, and Louis started unpacking the van right away, making it obvious to Bob that there was no time for questions about the town or the venue.
Louis just reassured him. “We’re the biggest happening here this whole month. They’ll be people from all three counties. Farmers taking their one night off in a year. It’s six dollars to get in ya know?”
As they hefted their instruments and small amps through the front door of the Music Barn, Bob was surprised to see the long, skinny make-shift room packed with people. The high-ceilinged space was filled with laughter, conversation, and the mouth watering smell of fresh popcorn. As Bluegrass Journey trundled down the center aisle with their equipment, Bob noticed that all of the chairs that had been set up looked like they came from a garage sale. Not more than two matched, and the folding chairs had ill-fitting cushions strapped on to them with hand-knitted yarn creations.
The majority of the men and women sat as couples, but also as a part of a larger group that socialized and talked. Not knowing what to expect, Bob wasn’t surprised that the average age in the room was over 55. He was a little curious about some of the outfits he saw though. An elderly man, with a sloping back wore a pink button up shirt, tucked into black jeans. He proudly sported a black cowboy hat, black leather bolo tie, and shiny black cowboy boots. The woman next to him had her grey hair done up in a fancy top knot. She wore a black top and pink poodle skirt that matched his outfit exactly.
The band members set up their instruments, plugged in the microphones, and got organized. Bob tried not to stare out at the audience, but he was curious. In one far corner was a whole collection of single men, all wearing sweatshirts with hunting dogs and ducks on them. Right in the middle of the whole crowd, was a group of women knitting blankets and telling stories. Bob was fascinated by the whole scene, but his eyes were continually drawn to the eager faces he saw in the front row. These men and women watched the band’s every move. Some of them were already tapping their feet to an imaginary beat. But something was strange about the sound their shoes made.
Louis caught Bob’s eye and followed his gaze. He leaned close to Bob. “Tap shoes to help us stay motivated.”
Bob was clueless. Louis just laughed and put his banjo strap over his head.
Right in front of the small, raised stage was an open area, presumably for dancing. A hand lettered sign warned, “All children must be attended by a grown-up. We don’t want any accidents on the dance floor.” Right next to that sign was another sign directing people to the restrooms behind a black curtain sagging in an oversized doorway. An old man in overalls leaned on the wall next to the sign, hoping the building would hold him up.
Roger grabbed Bob’s arm. “Nothing out of the ordinary to see here.” Bob flushed red and dropped his eyes to the ground. He wasn’t embarrassed, but he didn’t want to screw up his first gig.
Jerry nodded to each of them in turn and counted off a song.
“And a 1,2,3,4…”
Bluegrass Journey launched into song, and played, and played, and played at least ten songs without stopping. Between each song, Louis whispered another song title and Bob just kept playing a beat as he tried to keep up.
As soon as the music began to fill the room, the dancing started. Sometimes the love songs drew all the couples up to the front. They twirled around each other, some dancing slow and steady, others trying to keep up with each other’s feet in a frenzy. All the songs about life on the railroad inspired the single men to march to the front and tap their feet as their arms dangled stiffly. During the really high lonesome songs, the old man in the overalls left his perch by the wall and swayed to the beat. His feet only shuffled, and his head lolled back and forth, but his dance was his dance. The music was his life, steady, unrelenting, soft, and ending sadly.
The band never took a break and the dance floor was never empty for three hours. The scheduled show time was only 7pm to 9pm, but also long as someone was on the dance floor, Bluegrass Journey played.
Jerry finally let the men catch their breath and moved to the microphone to speak. He crouched down a little, not wanting to raise his microphone higher than its level at his guitar. “Hello, everyone. We’re Bluegrass Journey.” The room erupted in cheers. “Thanks for letting us come out tonight. And, thanks for dragging yourselves here too.” Everyone laughed. “As you know, Roger and Louis and I grew up just around the corner in Troy.”
The room was quiet, now. Bob felt everyone’s eyes settle on him.
Jerry laughed. “Well, ya’ll know the story. Tom, from Charlotte, well he quit the band awhile back due to artistic differences, I guess you could say.” Everyone laughed again like they all knew the inside joke. “So, we dug up this new guy, Bob. He’s fresh off a divorce and his sons are away at college far off. He’s from the city, but we reckon he knows a little bit about suffering like the rest of us. And, his old hound dog, Earle, is dying of cancer too.”
Bob wasn’t sure how to react. People in the room gave him sad smiles, while Roger clapped him on the back.
Jerry cleared his throat. “But, we needed an upright man or this band just wouldn’t have rhythm.”
The Music Barn crowd nodded like an absolved congregation at the end of a church service, satisfied with the preacher and the take home message. As Jerry counted off again, and the band flung itself into “Low Highsome,” Bob felt the spirit in the room, too. His whole body literally ached from the music and the strangers who had forgiven him just because they could. The loneliness of Mt. Gilead’s Music Barn washed over him, steady like his instrument, but dancing like the banjo, mandolin, and guitar over his heart.
On the last verse of the song, the highest string, the E, gave way and split in two. It sent a whiplash of high-tension metal straight into Bob’s hand, but he just shifted his fingers and kept playing. The crowd jumped to their feet at the twang of the broken string and clapped. Bob breathlessly finished the song as tears sprung to his eyes.
Jerry, Louis, and Roger just stepped back and let the last notes resonate around the room. Everyone was silent. Bob bent down to speak into the microphone in front of his bass. “I’ve never broken a string while playing before.”
The Music Barn erupted with laughter. With that, the people began to file out and onto the dark, deserted street. Bob waited for the room to clear before he unstrung his upright bass and struggled to stretch the new string in place to repair it.