Introducing the competitive spirit into bluegrass

Greetings from Bean Blossom! The Night Drivers and I are hitting the road hard this week, traveling from here to Tottenham Ontario by tomorrow night, so I’ve asked Bluegrass Today to pull one out of the vault for this week. This one fits the busy road week as it’s all about turning typical bluegrass musician road travel into a competitive event:

Several years ago, there was an event at the IBMA World of Bluegrass that was called the “Bluegrass Pentathlon.” If my memory serves me correctly, it was the brainchild of Pete Wernick, but I could be wrong; he has a lot of brainchildren and it can be hard to keep track of them all, let alone remember their birthdays. It was a brilliant idea, though: it was a competition among bluegrass musicians in five basic skills we all have, or wish we had. Each participant had to change a string, set up a microphone, read a station ID, sing a verse and chorus of any song, then race to the finish line.

When I competed in this, the Swiss team, represented by Jens Krüger, was the easy winner. I came in dead last, partly owing to the fact that while everyone sang a very fast Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms or the equivalent, I chose to sing a slower-than-usual Legend of the Rebel Soldier. I was accused of not having the right competitive spirit for the event, and that may have been a fair criticism. On the other hand, I got a bigger laugh than Jens, and yes, I knew he was going to win, even if I sang the fastest version of My Long Journey Home on record (the current record has been held by the Johnson Mountain Boys since 1986).

The entire event was meant to be somewhat ironic, because bluegrass musicians, in fact musicians in general, are not known for their athleticism. Sports, after all, are by definition a healthy activity, risk of injury aside. “Healthy” is not our strong suit. I know this all too well from having once helped to organize a softball game for the artists and composers constituency of the IBMA. Bass players, it turns out, are very poor fielders; I’m not sure why. And don’t even get me started on composers. I guess it’s hard to tag someone sliding into third while simultaneously pitching them a song.

It was while we were sitting in an unnamed restaurant, somewhere on an unnamed road, eating some kind of unnamed (and possibly carcinogenic) food, that Ned Luberecki first proposed the idea of “Bluegrass NASCAR.” I thought it was the ideal alternative to golf, softball, or a pentathlon. NASCAR, after all, fits our lifestyle much better: it involves sitting down, driving as fast as possible on a seemingly endless road, making the occasional pit stop, and breathing in more carbon monoxide than we used to at the Station Inn before it went smoke-free.

In a bluegrass NASCAR competition, we could have two classifications of vehicles: buses and conversion vans. All would run a 500 mile course. There would be pit stops, based less on the need for fuel, but more on the fiddle player’s bladder capacity (van division only). During a pit stop, each participant would get out of the bus or van and wander aimlessly through a simulated gas station convenience store, picking their favorite packet and flavor of beef jerky and/or M&Ms. One pit stop would require a democratically-run band to quickly decide on which fast food restaurant to choose (in bands with passive-aggressive members, this can account for serious delays in the race). In the bus division, a pit stop may sometimes involve a longer delay while someone puts in a new (rebuilt) $25,000 engine.

Occasionally one member of the team is left behind at a pit stop, either by accident, or because he or she has been fired.

At the finish line, it would be necessary to screech to a halt in order to speak to someone wearing a volunteer T-shirt and explain who you are and that you would like to get to artist parking. The winner would be allowed to park right next to the stage, get out to play a 45 minute set (those who run overtime will be disqualified), and would then receive a T-shirt and a cashier’s check in the high three figures, presented by a fashion model (in this case, a short man in his 60s). All losers would have to drive the course again.

Leave Olympic-style events to people who run, hike, ski, and occasionally see more than 45 minutes of daylight at a single time (e.g. the Swiss), and let’s compete in something we’re really good at: driving, stopping occasionally, driving some more, and eventually playing music.