Last week I was preoccupied with another side business I have, which is the raising of prize miniature llamas (one of the llamas had gone off her feed and would eat nothing but stir-fried alfalfa pellets, and the whole thing got very labor intensive). I want to thank the editorial staff for reposting an earlier column about bluegrass euphemisms.
What came as a surprise to me was that I got a lot of comments about the rerun post, leading me to believe that no one read it the first time around. Maybe people were put off by Bluegrass Today’s original headline for it, which was The Life Cycles of Bluegrass Parasites. In any case, people are clamoring for more bluegrass phrases, translated into plain, blunt English.
As I’ve pointed out before, we have our own language in bluegrass music. Professor Augustus Black, in his critically acclaimed work, Women are From Venus, Banjo Players are From Mount Airy, describes what he refers to as bluegrass music’s Five Love Languages, which are as follows:
1. Fast pickin’/high singin’
2. Hyping, “blowing smoke,” and/or out-and-out deception
3. Random violence
4. The lyrics to Molly and Tennbrooks
5. The Nashville numbers system
These languages naturally lead to a lot of misunderstandings when they clash with the more familiar languages of the outside world, like English, Spanish, or Pig Latin. Therefore for the use of people outside our little community, I offer the following translations for a few more common bluegrass music phrases.
These are some common ways of glossing over the faults of fellow musicians:
Answering the question of whether a bass player is good or not: “Well, he keeps pretty good time.”
Translation: “He considers a B flat to be close enough to a B, and be thinks the low E string is for decoration, or a way to store spare strings.”
About a fiddle player: “You should hear her sing.”
Translation: “Under no circumstances should she play the fiddle in public.”
Referring to a mandolin player: “He’s an enthusiastic player.”
Translation: “All his pairs will be simultaneously out of tune, and he rushes so badly that every tune will end up being Rawhide even if it started out being My Last Days On Earth.
About a dobro player: “He’s a good picker. Just a little different.”
Translation: “Having him travel in a separate vehicle is advisable, and keep the Department of Mental health on speed dial when left alone with him.”
About a guitar player: “He’s confident.”
Translation: “He has an ego the size of Australia.”
About a musician’s resume: “She’s played with a lot of different bands.”
Translation: “She’s been fired by almost everybody.”
Then there are the situations in which someone is trying to be nice, but the code words reveal what’s really being said about the musician and/or band. In the old days of Bluegrass Unlimited album reviews, there were some pretty scathing reviews, especially of progressive bluegrass, but at other times, reviews were couched in nicer terms. This line occurred fairly often in the “nice” bad review of a band:
“Fans of Steamy Ridge will want to pick up one of these albums as a souvenir.” In other words, no one with properly functioning hearing outside the band members’ immediately family should even consider blowing their hard earned dollars on this mediocre effort.
For a really bad band, this line sometimes read, “Fans of . . . may want to pick up one of these albums as a souvenir,” i.e., even the lead singer’s wife should think twice about it.
To a band that just came off the stage: “I enjoyed your show.”
Translation: “You’re the worst band I’ve heard in five years.”
“I enjoyed your show” is a line employed by people that are habitually honest, but not honest enough to be hurtful, so they go with the theory that it’s possible to “enjoy” bad music. No lie was told, and no one got hurt (until now).
Then there’s the whole category of insincere musician excuses:
“We did this one earlier, but we had a request to play it again.”
Translation: “We ran out of material exactly two songs ago.” This isn’t a lie either: the request came from the member of the band who’s stuck writing the set lists.
Avoiding a request (this one sent in by Tom T. Hall): “We’d love to do that for you, lady, but we don’t know all the words to Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”
“The guy who normally sings Wagon Wheel with us fell off the roof of his house this week. We’d appreciate your prayers. He’s in a lot of pain right now.”
These are less excuses than simply an effort to downplay the reality:
“Our bookings are a little down this year.”
Translation: “Our last gig was over two years ago at a bowling alley in Omaha.”
“We could have had a few more people there.”
Translation: “It was just us and one drunk guy at the bar who kept shouting ‘Freebird!’”
Not to let sound engineers off the hook, I’ve heard this one a few times:
“This is a tough room for sound.”
Translation: “I just bought all this equipment, and I have no idea how to run it.”
Last, but certainly not least: A bluegrass pickup line, concealing a hidden agenda more devious than a romantic liaison:
“You have the most expressive eyes.”
Translation: “I really wish you would sell me your banjo.”