He’s got such a supple wrist

Some time ago, I proposed a video game for songwriters that would allow them to experience simulated hardships to enable them to write soulful songs without having to actually experience the heartbreak and tragedy that usually feeds that kind of art.

It occurred to me, though, as I was playing an Aerosmith pinball machine in a Buffalo bar (also called The Aerosmith Bluegrass Band or “Steven and them”), that a bluegrass pinball machine would be much more appropriate. After all, video games are the things played by young, or formerly young men in dens and man caves. Pinball is what bluegrass musicians playing in taverns in Dayton are most likely to play. 

I understand that pinball, like the decent paying bar gig, is a bit retro, so there may be a generation or two reading this who won’t relate that well to this. Let me just explain that the pinball machine in a bar played a vital role for musicians, because this is where you could go to kill time during breaks in a three or four set night. It helped to clear the mind, and more importantly gave you an excuse for not engaging drunks in riveting conversations about their days hitchhiking in Bolivia. “I love the South American people,” as one such drunk slurred to me once.

Pinball has been around more or less forever, or at least since the 18th century. It has endured ever since, and today’s computerized version is still related to the early models of the machine. The tradition will remain as long as there’s a need for a machine you can push and yell at, and as long as there’s a need to launder money.

Today, of course, there are other ways to distract yourself in a bar. On a timeline from 1978 to the present, including the disco era and the urban cowboy craze, the most common form of band break diversion at a typical North American bar gig progressed more-or-less in this sequence:

  • Pinball
  • Ms. Pac-man
  • Mario Brothers
  • Cocaine
  • Actually talking to someone
  • Staring at two college football teams you’ve never heard of on a giant screen
  • The smart phone

And yet, through all these changes in methods of alleviating boredom, pinball is less common but still with us.

Today, pinball machines have various themes, like the Aerosmith one I just played. I’ve also played Elvis, The Sopranos, and Simpsons-themed machines. Nowadays, there are lots of sampled sounds that add to your experience, for example, on the Simpsons machine, when you lose a ball down the middle, you hear Homer issue a loud “D’oh!” The beauty of pinball is that if you’re good at one, you’re likely to be good at them all. They all have different features and different strategies for scoring points, but studying up on those ahead of time is considered nerdy. You just put your money in and play, trying to figure out the tricks as you go.

I believe the world is ready for a bluegrass pinball machine. Here are some of the features I’d like to see (and hear): 

When you put your money in, you’ll immediately hear the voice of Lester Flatt saying, “Oh pick it, Earl.” As you try to keep the ball in play, you hear an uncomfortable blend of I’m a Man of Constant Sorrow by the Stanley Brothers, and Dooley by the Dillards, playing alternately. As you hit various bumpers, you either hear a G-run or the classic banjo Cripple Creek ending. Timing is key in both bluegrass and in pinball, so as you use your flippers to send the ball back up, you need to time it just right to go up the ramp to the “bluegrass festival grounds.” Mandolin players may be a little early on this for the first few tries. The festival area has a stage with five slots, and you try to get five consecutive balls locked in these slots, whereupon the machine goes into a dark, nighttime pickin’ session mode, and you hear the strains of Blue Moon of Kentucky, whereupon all 5 balls are released, and you try to keep them all in play while you hear five different songs simultaneously: Sunny Side of the Mountain, When You Say Nothing at All, Foggy Mountain Breakdown, Ruby Are You Mad, and Oh Death. This simulates the chaos of several jam sessions at a festival within earshot of each other, and this is all designed to distract you while you try to keep these five balls alive. This is when you can really begin to rack up the points.

A unique feature of the game is that the longer you keep the ball in play, the more contemporary the music sounds, starting off with the sounds of 1940s Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe, eventually turning to Punch Brothers and Yonder Mountain. Nudging the machine, or even lightly pushing it may increase this progressive effect, but you have to be careful: if the music suddenly goes too far, the machine goes into tilt mode, you hear an elderly voice saying, “that ain’t bluegrass!” and the machine freezes up and all the points and credit you’ve built up are suddenly taken away, and your game is over. It will be as if you had never played at all.

In the upper left hand corner, if you can hit the right flipper just right, you can send your ball up to “Name Dropper’s Corner” where as your ball hits each bumper, you’ll hear phrases like, “I just got a call from Rhonda,” and “Oh no! I left my jacket on Doyle Lawson’s bus.”

Pinball machines have experienced score inflation through the years: I believe the Aerosmith one required 30 million points to score a free game. We in bluegrass music work with more modest numbers, so points build up more slowly, and a score of 30,000 is a massive victory and is enough to earn you a replay.

Naturally, if you lose your ball down one of the side ramps, you’ll hear the voice of Bill Monroe saying, “that ain’t no part of nothin.”