Great opening lines for your favorite pickers

After last week’s column, I was inundated with requests for more uninteresting stories from the world of bluegrass, or any other worlds that may contain tales of the boring and predictable.

I had no idea there was this unfulfilled need out there, but now that I know there is, I’m at work on a whole new boring web site that will feature in-depth profiles of people you’ve never heard of that have very little to say, reviews of bland recordings, and a forum for dull and tedious discussions. After we launch it (we’re projecting 2019, or possibly never) the first 100 visitors to the site will receive a pound of our specially blended, extra weak, half-caff, “timid roast” coffee, along with a beige keychain with someone else’s initials on it. Yes, we have big plans.

In the meantime, though, since I’m just returning from a European tour that wasn’t nearly boring enough to produce any suitable stories, I’d like to address an issue that may generate some controversy, or at the very least has a decent chance of being misunderstood: The accessibility of bluegrass artists.

Bluegrass music may lead all forms of music for having performers that are completely available to their fans almost all the time. This is a reflection of something very positive: bluegrass artists generally understand that they are no better than the people who come to hear them, and they feel no need to create artificial barriers that create that impression. Our world is mercifully lacking in security teams, press agents, handlers, and entourages, though just one time I’d really like to see Dave Evans with an entourage.

This is one of the many good aspects of our music: performers have a strong bond with the members of the audience because of our easy, unfiltered interaction with each other. I personally enjoy spending time with fans (even some of the crazy ones), and many people who started out as fans have become close friends (especially the crazy ones). Those friends are for me part of a worldwide community that I cherish.

I have noticed, though, that there can be a down side to this approachability: the expectation that artists should be available to anyone at all times, and that it’s okay to say anything you want to these artists, and that they should be able to take it because, after all, “they work for the fans.”

Then, of course, there’s the whole issue of social media, and artists feeling pressured to stay in touch with their fans at all times, and their fans in turn feeling that they should have total on line access to the artists. Chris Stuart articulated this problem very well here when he suggested that a band try to differentiate itself completely by rejecting all social media. I loved the idea, yet without social media, fans would never get to see artists’ constant tweets and status updates like “Coffee at the Dayton Holiday Inn Express. Mmmm. . .” or the self-promoting: “We rocked a full house last night in Bozeman. We love you, Montana!!”

I remember once being threatened (mildly, I’ll admit, just some small-scale arson) on more than one occasion by fans because I hadn’t added them as Facebook friends. After all, how dare I use social media just to keep up with family and friends! I learned then that there needed to be separate fan sites and personal sites, and yet there still may be hard feelings because I don’t add people I don’t know to my personal social media sites.

We all use social media, though, because today everything has to be part of a “conversation.” But does the conversation ever end? There’s very little opportunity now to simply say, “Well, I’d better move along” or, as has always worked for me, “Excuse me, I have to go change the chips in the hamster cage.” Even the cable news people, who are fond of saying “We’ll have to leave it there,” add that “you can join the conversation” on the various social media sites. Welcome to the endless discussion.

The primary point of physical access for fans and artists is the record table, as some of us who are fond of quaint terms still call it. There, fans can come up, chat with the artists about whatever’s on their mind, buy one of the artist’s CDs, or their new logo-emblazoned tooth brushes.

This is usually a good thing, but for some reason, some fans consider this an opportunity to say almost anything they feel like to the artists, including commentary on the weakness of their show, the increased weight of the lead singer, the banjo player’s grey hair, or how good the band used to be when so-and-so was still in it.

I can’t tell you the number of times people have come up to me and said “You look tired!” It’s likely that I was tired, since I had probably just driven 600 miles to get there, but I finally realized that people just think I’m younger than I am, but that I’m having a bad day. I finally started coming back with, “No, I’m just old. This is how I’m supposed to look.” I got even testier on day 4 of a particularly grueling IBMA World of Bluegrass when someone told me I looked tired (who doesn’t there?), and I replied: “Is that the best you’ve got for small talk?”

Artists are also not always in the mood for an instant critical analysis of the show they just did, but most take it with a smile anyway: “You guys started out kind of slow but you got going there after the fourth or fifth song. I even liked that joke about the goat and the pizza, even if no one else laughed. I’m not a fan of the originals, but that’s just me.” I can’t help but think that Elton John and Shania Twain don’t get a whole lot of that after a show.

I’m not saying that bluegrass pickers should adopt the sheltered public lives of the superstar types (people would just laugh anyway), but maybe there’s a happy medium somewhere.

Female bluegrass musicians get some real zingers at the record table. When I played with Lynn Morris, I recall all the variations on “You pick that banjo pretty good for a girl,” which included (and I’m not making this up): “You’re no Roy Clark on the banjo, but you’re pretty good.” Some women, I realize, are steeled from having gone through a lifetime of inappropriate comments, but it doesn’t make it any better.

A more exhaustive list could be offered here, but highlighting just a few, it’s a good rule of thumb not to say these things as an opening line to artists, or to anyone in the world, really. These have all been said to me or to someone I was standing next to at a record table at one time or another:

  • “You’ve gained weight since last year.”
  • “Is that picture on your CD really you? You look so much older now.”
  • “Are you pregnant?”
  • “Too bad you can’t keep a band together. I really liked the last bunch a lot better than the ones you have now.”
  • “Dying your hair a different color now, I see.”
  • “I normally don’t like your stuff, but that show was pretty good.”
  • “I’m still waiting for you to blow me away.”

Another point that should be made is that not all musicians and artists are particularly social people, and that’s actually okay. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re stuck up or aloof. While it’s certainly helpful in the realm of PR when an artist is also an outgoing “people person,” this is not actually a requirement of a musical performer, as long as that person is doing a good job on stage. But people tend to judge artists that are reluctant to chat with people for hours after a performance.

There’s no doubt, of course, that even introverted artists need to spend some time with their audience. It’s a responsibility, and if they avoid it completely or are rude to fans, fans have a right to consider them unfriendly, and shouldn’t be blamed for scheduling a ceremonial burning of their 8×10 photo.

For the more outgoing artists, the post-show chatter is as rewarding as audience applause or CD sales. They thrive on it, and could probably stand and visit for hours. That’s okay too. In that case, it may be the fan that suddenly remembers some pressing domestic responsibility.

Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to change those chips.

  • Brent Sterling

    This is one of my all time favorites;

    “You’re pretty good on that guitar, but I’m way better than you.”

  • Brent Sterling

    Oh…another good one;

    “I see you play a Martin. I’ve never played a Martin I liked.”

  • Jack Lawrence

    Here’s one I’d get regularly when on the road with Doc Watson. A fan would come up after our set and give Doc long, flowery compliments on his playing. Upon noticing me standing there, they would add “And you’re no slouch, either.” I would then reply “I don’t know, I’ve been told that I’m a pretty good slouch.”

    Jack Lawrence, journeyman guitarist

  • While I am not an artist, I receive my fair share of “bad lines” as well. One of my favorites which I am asked constantly whether at a Radio Ramblers show or at the radio station is:

    “When are you going to make something of yourself and learn how to play the banjo?”

    One of my other favorites is one time Dad and I were doing a radio remote from a local county fair in WIlmington, OH and someone came up and this conversation took place:

    John Doe: Is this station based out of St Louis?
    Dad: It’s based right here. Right out of Wilmington, OH.
    John Doe: I’m pretty sure it comes out of Missouri.
    Dad: Nope. We broadcast right here in southern Ohio.
    John Doe: Nope. You’re wrong. You come out of St Louis.

  • Jon Weisberger

    Just to dispel any rumors that might arise from careless reading: no, Ned Luberecki is not pregnant.

  • Lisa Jacobi

    After my initial few years as a professional musician, I was SO grateful to the first fan who FINALLY used the word “hear” to replace the word “watch” in a *compliment* I would regularly receive after shows:

    “I love to watch you play.”

    But, I now regret having kissed that person for it… which leads us to a future Christopher Jones column? –> The Happy Stalker.

  • Janet got that pretty-good-banjo-player-for-a-girl thing one time. The guy said, “You’re about the only girl banjo player there is!” and when Janet started rattling off all the great women banjo players, the guy stopped her by saying, “Nope! You’re the only one.”

    • Uncle Billy Dunbar

      Chris; Maybe he has led a Sheltered bluegrass Banjo life. I have talked to some men who come into the cha troom and didn’t even know there were women actually playing in any bands, Male or Female.

    • Chris Jones

      That fits right in with Daniel’s radio remote conversation above: “Let me explain yourself to you: You’re the only woman banjo player, and you’re from Missouri.”

  • fdwil111

    From neighbors : “when are you going to get a real job?”

    But watch also the comment after your first set “the sound was so loud people were moving back or covering their ears”. That a fans comment you can do something about.

  • Uncle Billy Dunbar

    Well Chris, there’s a possablity of just going Social Media like some know star’s and musician’s. And never have any contact to live Fan’s or audiance at all. What kind of social life is that? I need some face to face time once in a while.

  • Shawn Cramer

    As an amateur player, I love the accessibility of bluegrass professionals. I like being able to ask the performer\songwriter what key they were playing a particular song in, or what chord progression is etc. etc. Very few other genre’s will you have the chance to ask these questions and receive the attention and willingness to converse on a one to one basis. And then maybe even have the chance to play with the artist in a jam session as occurs at many festivals.
    A big thanks to all you pros from me and a lot of other folks who enjoy being able to listen to you play and then talk to you after the show!
    Shawn

  • Dennis Jones

    “Are you sure you didn’t play with Jimmy Martin?”…”About 35 years ago?”…”In Texas?”…”Oh yes…I remember you.”…to a 30 year old mandolin player 🙂

  • Dick Bowden

    Good article Chris!

    Best comment I ever heard directed to an artist: A guy at a festival with an old D-18 slung over his back walked up to Ralph Stanley’s record table and boldly asked “How did Carter get such a dead sound out of his guitar?”

    And, I HAVE seen Dave Evans with an entourage. Can’t say any more than that.

  • Chris Jones

    Ha ha! (that’s a 15 days late “ha ha”, Dick). I have a new addition to this list from this past week in Elkins, WV. A guy looked at the picture on my 12 year-old DVD and said “GOD you’ve aged!” I had no witty reply ready, so I just said “Thanks.”

  • Shawn Cramer

    A guy looked at the picture on my 12 year-old DVD and said “GOD you’ve aged!” I had no witty reply ready, so I just said “Thanks.”

    Chris, a good come back to this (if it ever happens again) “Isn’t it amazing what a good photographer can do?”

    Shawn

  • Willie Payne

    “I’m at work on a whole new boring website that will feature…a forum for dull and tedious discussions.”

    Just go to any instrument-specific site and ask, “What are the best strings to use?” You’ll get more dull and tedious discussions than you can shake a stick at. You can also substitute capos, picks, tuners, etc for strings and get equally dull and tedious discussions.