From The Side of the Road… bluegrass fears, real and imagined

You may think of people who have chosen bluegrass music as a profession as fearless types who proceed boldly into the future without a care for their material comfort, or family and financial stability. Perhaps you’re correct about the financial stability part, but in fact, professional bluegrass musicians and others who have chosen some related occupation in this small market business are often plagued with all sorts of fear. In fact, some may be even more fearful than your typical bank manager fretting about interest rates and their effect on his/her ability to make payments on a suburban McMansion and four cars. They’re just different kinds of fears.

Mark Twain said: “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” It may have actually been Hylo Brown who said that, but it’s a wise, if a little disconcerting statement. So for those prepared to die at any time for bluegrass music, here are a few of the most common fears among bluegrass professionals:

  • You’ll never eat another decent meal on the road as long as you live (I realize the word “another” implies that you’ve actually had one once).
  • You’ll never get your mandolin in tune before the show ends, or possibly ever.
  • You’ll travel 700 miles to play one set at a bluegrass festival and the MC/stage manager will cut your show to 20 minutes to get the event “back on schedule” (this one actually happened to me, and I lived to tell the tale, while prepared to die at any time).
  • You’ll be given the first award of your career, and even though you speak in front of large crowds all the time, you’ll be completely frozen when you go to give the acceptance speech, and just blurt out, “What the *%#*@*”
  • You’ll attend the IBMA World of Bluegrass and be cornered by that name-dropping blowhard guy you were trying to avoid and you’ll NEVER EVER escape.
  • You’ll be hired by one of the biggest names in the business and then be fired before playing the first show for some unexplained reason.
  • The backstage coffee will be mysteriously drugged and you’ll go on stage and forget the lyrics and chords to every song. You’ll also be naked (this is not the fault of the coffee).
  • There won’t be any backstage coffee, drugged or otherwise (if this is seriously one of your worries, you may want to choose another profession).
  • The locks will be changed when you get home from a four-week tour.
  • You won’t remember where you live after a four-week tour.
  • You’ll be signed to a prestigious Nashville publishing deal and then completely lose your ability to come up with any song lyrics other than, “the plans we made have gone astray.”
  • You’ll happen upon one of the rare events where people still buy a lot of CDs and you’ll have no way to get five dollar bills (the real reason $20 has gradually become the going rate).
  • With about 10 minutes to go before your show at a bluegrass festival you’ll accidentally find yourself outside the festival grounds behind a chain link fence with no gate in sight. In the process of trying to scale the fence, you’ll rip your pants. As you hear yourself being introduced on stage, you’ll fall and break your leg (no one said these were rational fears).
  • Times will get slow, forcing you to take a day job, whereupon you discover that you have no marketable skills beyond being able to play Red Haired Boy without a capo.

For sound engineers:

  • The band on stage will actually say nice things about you and you’ll become so disoriented that you forget how to operate your own equipment. Massive feedback ensues and people start throwing food at you.

For studio engineers:

  • The band you’re recording will get done so far ahead of schedule that you’ll have no idea what to do with your time, never having been in that situation before. You’ll become light-headed and slightly nauseous due to the confusion and boredom. You might even go outside and be exposed to natural daylight. 

For luthiers: 

  • A flood will destroy your shop and all your instruments, and you’ll discover that your insurance premium payment never went through because of a credit card that had expired a few days before.

Finally, and I realize these are a little far-fetched, but fears are sometimes difficult to explain:

  • You’ll have a full house at the Station Inn in Nashville for your album release party and you’ll lose your voice entirely.
  • It will be Tuesday night at around 10:00 p.m., and you’ll still have no idea what you’re going to write about for a column due Wednesday morning.