Is there life after bluegrass… even for banjo players?

Chris JonesIs there possible gainful employment after being a professional bluegrass musician most of your life? I realize it’s a question that very few full time bluegrass pros ever ask, because they almost never retire. Sometimes they stop working, but that’s not necessarily the same thing.

No, in bluegrass music, retirements are usually announced with the very sincerest of intentions, but then, you know, there’s this really good booking in California it would be a shame to turn down. Then while you’re doing that date, might as well turn it into a short tour. Having a new release to sell for the tour would be a good idea too, so into the studio you go. Very quickly you notice that you might actually be busier than before you announced your retirement.

But what if you actually did quit the business, and quit it while you’re still physically able to do some other kind of work? What would you do? It’s a question that strikes fear in many musicians’ hearts because, first of all, they worry they’ve only saved enough money to keep them living comfortably for two and a half weeks. Secondly, they feel they no longer have the skills to compete in today’s job market.

I can’t offer much hope for stretching your music income savings, especially since campgrounds have become so pricey. What I can do, though, is offer you hope in pursuing an alternate career. What most musicians on the road today don’t realize is that they have been steadily but humbly acquiring valuable job skills while they’ve been making a modest living doing something that many don’t consider actual work.

The challenge lies in identifying what kind of job can use those skills you may not even know you have. Here are some examples:

Music job: bass player

For years you’ve been the solid rock of your band, expected to keep the beat, while others around you are rushing and dragging. If you make a mistake, everyone looks at you because it’s always so obvious, but you wear it well, always refocusing on the job at hand. Is that kind of steadiness and dependability useful in today’s job market? Probably not. But you’re overlooking the thing you do day in and day out that you never get praise for: lugging the biggest and heaviest instrument in the band around the country and the world, hauling it up flights of hotel stairs, through airports, onto buses, etc. Now that’s a valuable skill.

New job possibilities:

  • Furniture mover
  • Weight lifter
  • Airline baggage handler
  • Sherpa

Music job: band leader

Forget your lead singing, fiddle playing, or songwriting; it’s your people and financial management skills that matter in this job. You’re the creative director, the personnel manager, and the person bearing the bulk of the responsibility. When things go wrong, as they often can, you take the blame within the organization, but do your best to hide it from the outside world. You’ve had to work with some real characters at times, enduring sociopathic personality traits in some people because of their professional contribution. Sometimes you’ve been forced to terminate employees with little or no notice. You often deal with large amounts of cash (“large” being a relative term) that are paid to you in back rooms or trailers. Your lifestyle is considered hazardous.

New job possibilities:

  • Mafia captain
  • County sheriff
  • Substitute teacher

Music job: banjo player

You have dutifully stood on stage, at times appearing to be in a trance, moving the fingers of your right hand in a highly repetitive pattern: thumb-index-middle-thumb-index-middle-thumb-index-middle.

If you’d prefer that in haiku form, that would be:

thumb index middle
thumb index middle thumb in-
dex middle thumb in . .

But just when you think you can fall into a meditative state, repeating this endless digital mantra, along comes a variation: thumb-middle-index! (see: “Dog, Salty”) So, not only do you need to be able to handle incredible monotony, you have to be prepared for sudden and rapid changes in this pattern.

In World War II, this would have made you an ideal radio telegrapher, transmitting vital morse code to the ships at sea. Today however, you may have to settle for these jobs employing your unique skills:

  • Court stenographer
  • Factory line worker (attach the thing to that other thing every time it goes by, with speed and good timing)
  • Three-card Monty dealer

Next week we’ll cover other skills that bluegrass musicians have acquired that could serve them well in careers ranging from accounts receivable clerk to war zone taxi driver.