Once again ’round the old town, or Stave Two in the night

’Tis the busy season, and I’m doing lots of SiriusXM fill-in work this week, so I’m going to pull one out of the archives. I just recently saw a fine production of A Christmas Carol by the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, so it put me in the mood to revive this one (slightly edited):

The following is a contemporary interpretation of “Stave Two” of a A Christmas Carol (with sincere apologies to Charles Dickens), in which the Ghost of Christmas past visits a 21st century Scrooge, who is a bluegrass musician and widely-disliked band leader. As the scene opens, he is staying in a hotel room at an indoor bluegrass festival. The phone rings with a 1:00 a.m. wake-up call, even though he requested 10:00 a.m., and his door is suddenly opened:

His hotel room door was opened, I tell you, not by an overanxious housekeeper ignoring the “do not disturb” sign, but by an unearthly phantom, strange to behold. It had snow white hair, and the elderly appearance of Ralph Stanley, yet with the youthful, feminine face of Sierra Hull. It wore a green dress similar to one worn in a recent Rhonda Vincent promo picture, and its legs and feet were bare and shapely, yet masculine, muscular, and slightly hairy. It wore around its shoulder a sparkly gold guitar strap which was attached to what was clearly a pre-war Martin D-28 herringbone, yet, on further inspection, appeared to be a Korean knock-off. It had the words “CHRISTMAS PAST” in block lettering inlaid on the fingerboard. That, and its legs underneath the dress made it more than a little creepy to look at.

And yet, as Scrooge observed the spirit more closely, these were not its strangest qualities, for as its guitar strap sparkled and glittered, now in one part and now in another, so the phantom itself fluctuated, suddenly appearing to be a mandolin/guitar duo, then an entire five-piece bluegrass band, singing what sounded vaguely like My Rose of Old Kentucky, then in a glimmer becoming itself again, a single guitar-playing ghost.

It wore a High Homburg-style Stetson hat, which, when it was removed from the spirit’s head, revealed both a bald spot, and a jet of blinding white light emanating from its forehead, like a stage spotlight, which shone directly on Scrooge, attracting moths and other insects to him, as had happened to him so often during night sets at summer festivals.

It spoke to Scrooge in soft, muted tones, reminiscent of Alison Krauss, but with the accent and pace of Little Roy Lewis.

“I am the ghost of bluegrass Christmas past,” it said.

“Are you the spirit whose coming was foretold to me by the ghost of Carter Stanley?”

“I most certainly am. Come, let’s take a ride on my bus!”

“I think I’d rather walk” retorted Scrooge.

“Wearing that?!” asked the spirit (Scrooge was dressed in boxer shorts and a “Got Banjo?” T-shirt). “It’s cold out tonight. And since when do you walk anywhere, anyway?”

Scrooge boarded the waiting coach reluctantly, and the spirit’s bus sailed through the night sky until it landed in a small parking lot behind a small country school house. The air was crisp and clear, there was snow on the ground, and it was clear that it was the Christmas season and that a concert was taking place inside the building. Scrooge and the spirit passed through the walls of the school till they were in a backstage area where he saw his former self, wearing a dark suit that was two sizes too big, tuning up a mandolin. A portly, jolly-looking band leader spoke to him:

“Well, Ebenezer, are you ready for the show? It should be a good one! I want you to sing Christmas Time’s a-Comin’ if you’re up for it.”

“Why that’s old Henry Briscoe!!” exclaimed Scrooge’s present self to the spirit. “Old Henry, alive again! He gave me my first gig!!”

“Yes, and you weren’t very good, were you?”

“No, it’s true, Spirit. I rushed badly, and I played the crappiest version of New Camptown Races you’ve ever heard, but old Henry was patient and gave me a chance. He always encouraged me.”

Scrooge fell silent.

“What is it?” inquired the ghost.

“Oh nothing,” replied Scrooge.

“Something, I think.”

“It . . . it’s just that I should like to have a word or two with my fiddle player right now,” said Scrooge.

“You mean the one living in a one-bedroom apartment in Nashville with a family of four, including a crippled son?” asked the spirit.

“Yeah, that’s the guy. I just paid him $50 for a Christmas party at which I made $1,500, and I wouldn’t let him put his wife on the guest list.”

“Ouch!” replied the ghost. “Let’s see another Christmas.”

“Do we have to?” asked Scrooge. The spirit did not reply, but grasped his hand firmly and pulled him back onto his bus.

They arrived, in what seemed like an instant, at a simple office which looked very much like the headquarters of a record label. Scrooge again saw himself, now a more experienced musician. His face had begun to wear the signs of road weariness and artistic frustration. Behind a simple desk, a balding gentlemen was addressing him, while gazing out the window at nothing in particular: “It matters little to you, I’m sure. Our contract is an old one, made when you were a lot younger and had a much better band, and before I knew better. With a heavy heart, I release you.”

“Have I ever sought release?”

“In words? No. Never.”

“In what, then?”

“In a changed nature, in an altered spirit, and in two dud albums in a row. A Bluegrass Tribute to Engelbert Humperdink? I can’t believe I approved that turkey! No, I’m afraid we’re done here.”

“Spirit, show me no more!” implored Scrooge. “Why do you delight in torturing me?”

“Hey, pal, don’t blame me for your lousy choices.”

With that remark, Scrooge seized the Stetson and pressed it down over the head of the spirit in a desperate attempt to extinguish its light. He suddenly felt overcome with exhaustion, and became aware of being back in his own hotel room. After fumbling in vain with his alarm clock, he fell back into a deep sleep.

He missed his plane the next morning.