A tribute to bluegrass heroes

On Friday night, while Vince Gill was playing a gig in the Washington D.C. suburbs for $110 a ticket, Norman Wright was finishing up a shift at his day job and doing some work on his son’s car before making a long, late-night trip down a lonely stretch of Interstate 81 so he could play a couple of sets and participate in an early morning workshop at FiddleFest in Roanoke, Va.

After his show, Gill was quoted in the Washington Post about why he stepped away from bluegrass when he was a young picker. “If I kept playing,” he said, “I would never own my own home.”

I didn’t see Vince’s show, but I’m sure it was good. I did see Norman’s two performances with The Travelers on Saturday, and I guarantee you he had more fun. During both shows, and in a between-shows rehearsal in a cramped dormitory room at Hollins University, a big smile never left Norman’s face. His love for the music was evident, as was his talent. The former member of the Bluegrass Cardinals and the Country Gentlemen is clearly thrilled to have another chance. You may not know about The Travelers, who are working on a CD that should come out later this year, but you will.

Bluegrass fans are fortunate that the Norman Wrights vastly outnumber the Vince Gills. We owe a debt of gratitude to those who play – and play exceptionally well – more for the love of the music than for the money.

The list of these folks is endless, but I want to mention a few special examples. Claire Lynch, one of the top two or three female vocalists in bluegrass, once turned down a gig with a major talent because she was nursing one of her children at the time, and she took a break from the road for several years because she decided her children were more important than her career. Claire never complains about any of this. She goes out with a great band and, show after show, plays and sings as well as anyone. That’s what a professional does, regardless of the size of the paycheck – or the crowd.

This was driven home to me in early 2010, when I saw Missy Raines and the New Hip play a gig near Columbus, Ohio, for the gate. After the band arrived, a heavy fog rolled in. The band ended up playing for six paying customers, which had to be dispiriting. But it remains one of the best shows I have seen.

The same thing happened a few months ago in Washington, D.C. Mike Conner and John Miller, half of The Travelers, booked a gate gig at a small venue, but before the show date rolled around, the promoter quit. The performance was, unintentionally, a well-kept secret. For about the first hour, my wife and I were the entire paying audience. No matter. They played their hearts out.

It’s a rough business for songwriters, too. Some of the very best write at nights and weekends while working a day job to pay the bills and provide benefits. With many bands printing just 1,000 or 2,000 CDs, and a royalty rate of just over 9 cents per unit, the cost of making a demo and registering a copyright can quickly eat up most of the “profit.”

But don’t feel sorry for those who will never amass a fortune. Be glad they do what they do, support them when and how you can. Buy their music, of course. But even a simple thank you can go a long way.

Saturday at FiddleFest, after a show in 90+-degree heat left the players looking like they showered with their clothes on, one fan stopped by The Travelers table with ice cream. That gesture left everybody smiling.