Faithful readers will recall the story from May 7 about North Carolina mandolinist John Santa and his new book of nonfiction, Bluegrass Is My Second Language. On May 8, we had a piece about The Baghdad Bad Boys, a group of US servicemen stationed in Iraq who get together regularly to pick some bluegrass.
Not long after that pair of stories were posted, we heard back from Santa that Lt. Col. Greg Rawlings – who is quoted in the piece about bluegrass in Baghdad – had become a new friend of his, and further, that a group with whom John is affiliated was partly responsible for getting musical instruments and accessories into the hands of the G.I.s in Iraq. To make the coincidence complete, Santa told us that he and Rawlings had become acquainted through his book.
“When Greg went over to Baghdad he complained that the instruments there were in terrible shape so my group, The RDU Session Players went to work.”
I asked Santa to tell me a bit more about this group, and how they had contributed to bluegrass in Baghdad, and he shared this wonderful story – in the same roundabout, narrative style as he tells the many others in Bluegrass Is My Second Language.
“The RDU Session Players is a group I started many years ago, and which is described in more detail in my book.
I write music for films and commercials, and as I got more successful I was able to bring in some of the better local players to work on projects with me. We would knock out the music for the client pretty quickly (like I said, these players were the best of the best), and then sit around and play and always end up saying (as they were packing up their gear) we need to do this more often.
So I started inviting them over once a month and as we got older and they found better ways to make a living in music rather than constantly being on the road, more and more of them came to play. For a long time I didn’t allow spectators on the grounds that the best music played was played FOR musicians and BY musicians at three in the morning. Then one late spring night my neighbors down the street rolled in about 2 AM and saw us outside on the car port and walked up and sat down in the middle of a long jam.
At the end of the song, they clapped and clapped and cheered. The next tune we played was BETTER, different, and I realized we NEED the listener. Music made without an audience is music (art) made in a vacuum.
We now have over a hundred fifty names on our email invitation list, twenty or thirty of them players (from cello to banjo to flute to bag pipes to tuba) and MOST of them non-players (civilians I call ’em) who just like to come and listen. We meet once a month (usually the first Saturday) and playing with them, I often feel like I’m sitting in with the Beatles!! I can’t believe these people let me play with them!”
Once a year we play the Marathon Jam where we play for twelve hours straight and raise money for charity by having people and companies sponsor us for each hour we play.
Our proudest moment was this year in February when we presented the Fisher House of Ft Bragg, NC with a check in the name of Lt. Col. Greg Rawlings and XVIII Airborne with a check for slightly over $10,500. (Fisher House, in case you don’t know, is kinda like the Ronald Macdonald house for soldiers. it lets the families of solders stay for extended periods of time for TEN DOLLARS A DAY while their injured soldier receives treatment in another city.)
When Greg went over to Iraq, he sent a cheapo mandolin and guitar before he left, but when he got there, there was not much in the way of other gear, particularly at chapel. Even after raising the $10,500, when I went to the Session Players and asked for donations to buy some instruments and gear, they gave and gave big.
We sent a twin twelve Gibson digital modeling electric guitar amp, a five string bass and $400 worth of capos, guitar strings (and bass strings) over and then Jim Dennis (the owner of the local store, The Music Loft in Carborro, NC) had the brilliant idea to include a bunch of red, white and blue guitar picks in the bag.
It gives me GREAT pleasure to know that many of those soldiers are getting up in the morning and going out on patrol and performing their duties and along with their body armor and ammo and rations they carry a red white and blue guitar pick in their pocket.
When I saw that YouTube video of the guys in Baghdad and the camera panned around the circle on those soldiers, there was the five string bass we sent over along with the capos and tuners (and strings and red white and blue guitar picks!!) you see in the video.
What a great feeling, what a great coincidence and what a great story!
Since my book has come out I have been asked to sign a few guitars, something I initially refused to do. But i PROUDLY signed that five string bass in the video as follows: from the RDU Session Players to the Baghdad Bad Boys.”