Twenty-four years after Keith Arneson and his banjo walked out of boot camp, he played his final gig in uniform Friday night with the U.S. Navy band, Country Current.
It was a bittersweet moment for Arneson, and for a few dozen chilly fans who caught the performance at Circa Blue Fest in Martinsburg, WV. By the time the final notes sounded on the Navy’s fight song, Anchor’s Aweigh, and Arneson walked off the stage in his Navy whites, there were few dry eyes in the house.
When asked what was next, Arneson, who must have been class clown in high school, quipped, “I know I’m not going to get a haircut in two weeks.” But he was somber and mellow, for the most part, as he recalled his tour of duty in interviews before and after his last set.
“I wouldn’t change a thing,” he said. “I saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime chance.” The gig took him to 49 states (“I never got to Hawaii”), the Grand Ole Opry, a halftime show at a National Football League game in New Orleans and the White House. “I played for four presidents (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump). Three of them were two-termers, so it’s time for me to go,” he said, punctuating the sentence with a wry grin.
Arneson was 30 when he signed up, the oldest guy in boot camp. With a wife and family, he was looking for work. “My ideal job was a music job with benefits,” he noted. “This was perfect.”
“It’s kind of bittersweet,” he said before the set. “I’ll miss the guys and the traveling and playing. The haircuts, the workouts, all that; it hasn’t sunk in yet that I don’t have to do that anymore.”
Arneson has already announced that he’s rejoining former Navy Band colleague Wayne Taylor, and he’s been playing in the Washington, D.C., suburbs in a banjo-guitar-bass trio with Shannon Borges and Shelly Howard. He’s also been working up melodies for new songs.
“It was the greatest job in the world,” Arneson said. But he started thinking about retiring when he realized the band’s soundman was born the year he joined the band. “It’s kind of like I’m getting out of velvet handcuffs.”
He came in as a First Class Petty Officer and retired as a Senior Chief Petty Officer. Remarkably, Arneson is just the second banjo player in the band’s 44-year history. He replaced the legendary Bill Emerson. Bassman Danny Stewart will fill Arneson’s banjo slot until the permanent replacement finishes boot camp.
Shortly after he walked off stage, Arneson was engulfed in hugs from his bandmates and members of Danny Paisley’s band as they prepared to hit the stage. Then Arneson walked, alone, down a long hallway and into civilian life.
A few minutes later, he popped out of the dressing room, clothed in several layers of tie-dye shirts and jackets, his trusty five-string slung over his shoulder.
Keith Arneson’s watch was over.