Road games for bluegrass musicians

The road can be dreary.

This fact struck a deep and resonant chord with me again recently while driving between West Memphis, Arkansas and Cape Girardeau, Missouri en route to a show in southern Illinois.

The following description has many slight variations, and is often used to describe being in the military, flying a plane, competing in extreme bowling, etc: “It’s hours of boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer terror.” Simply substitute “music” for “sheer terror” and it’s a pretty accurate description of the road musician’s life.

So much has changed since the advent of electronic communication and entertainment devices (toys). Now four or five musicians can go down the road, staring at a little screen in silence, with only the driver occasionally looking up to see where they are and check the rearview mirror for flashing lights. While this has been an improvement in many ways, now people are actually missing when spectacular scenery is just outside the window (like the kind you might see between West Memphis, AR and Cape Girardeau, MO, for example):

Banjo player: “Look, isn’t that the Grand Canyon?”

Mandolin player (looking up briefly from computer solitaire): “Ah.”

And so it goes. It makes me wonder: have we succeeded in making the road even more boring than it was before? Now we don’t even know or care where we are, and we can’t be bothered with a conversation.

I still believe there’s no substitute for a little person-to-person human interaction when going down the road, even if you feel like you’ve done just about all the interacting you care to do in this lifetime with some of your bandmates (I’ve worked with a few of those too). It still makes the miles go by faster.

The problem, of course, is that some musicians don’t even know how to interact with each other. The issue remains the same, whether you’re traveling in a large bus, or a ’97 Ford Focus with a trailer.  I was in a band once where, after rolling along in stony silence for an hour, the bass player piped up: “Boys, I believe Ralph Stanley is the finest banjo player there is.” No one replied, and he then returned to his vow of silence for another 45 minutes, then blurted out: “Boys, I believe Larry Sparks is the best guitar player there is.” More silence.

This just isn’t going to cut it. Even an abrasive political discussion would be better than that. Well, maybe it wouldn’t. In any case, there has to be something better, and I think to help generate a little road camaraderie that doesn’t end up in fist fights or gunplay, what’s needed are road games for the bluegrass musician, and I happen to have a few suggestions:


Game #1: How Long WIll They Last?

When a new bluegrass band forms, and it’s full of personalities that guarantee a very short life for said band, take turns guessing how long the band will last before splitting up (e.g., 4 months, 6 weeks, half way through the recording of the first album, half way through the first rehearsal, etc.). Write each estimate down, and then refer back to it when the band does break up. I would never encourage gambling, but if it’s something that you like to do, you can consider placing money on your guess too.

Why musicians have so little self-knowledge when they make career decisions like that (“It seems there’s always one jerk in every band I’m in. It never fails!”) is the subject of a future column, but it seems to happen all the time.

The variation of this game is guessing how long a particular side musician will last in a band situation that everyone in the world—except the musician in question and the band leader—knows is a complete mismatch.


Game #2:  All-Star Bands

This game involves putting together all-star bluegrass bands, but not just any all-star bands. These will be bands built on certain themes and character traits. Here are some examples:

The All-Star Tall Band: This is a bluegrass band made up of all tall bluegrass musicians, the kind that can have the basketball equivalent of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys baseball team going on the side. When Steve Huber was in my band, we had a decent start on this. John Pennell (who also played with me, but unfortunately not when Steve did) could play bass, and he has the advantage of actually being a good basketball player. Michael Fagan is definitely the fiddle player. You get the idea.

Other possibilities:

  • The All-Star Short Band
  • The All-Star Talk-the-hind-leg-off-a-mule Band
  • The All-Star Strong Silent-type Band (the opposite of the above)
  • The All-Star Hair Band
  • The All-Star No-Hair Band
  • The All-Star Drunk Band
  • The All-Star Huge Ego Band (some fans might argue this is every all star band anyway)
  • The All-Star Bat-Sh**-Crazy Band
  • And the All-Star Band unique to the 21st century: The All-Star Techno-geek Band

This game may just get you across the entire state of Nebraska, if you stretch it out just right (the game, not Nebraska).


Game #3: Anybody Can Write a Song

Co-write songs starting with really difficult titles. I was challenged by a reader two weeks ago to write songs using these titles (which had been mentioned in that week’s column):

  • I Held Her Close To My Face
  • I’ll Just Keep it There
  • Rocky Tonk (or, if you prefer, the Canadian version, just in time for the NHL lockout, mentioned by another reader that same week: “Hockey Talk”)

Another method is to write songs using words seen on highway billboards in the title, like:

  • Varicose Veins
  • Bigger Payload
  • Circuit Court Judge
  • We Grow Hair
  • 1-713-REVERSE (Houston)

It turns out that some 20 percent of country songs written on music row were inspired this way (if “inspired” is the word I’m looking for). I know because I see the billboards myself on the way into Nashville. You could be curing boredom and making yourself a pile of money in the process (note: I want half the publishing).


There are more games, but this should get you started. If all else fails, just sit around, playing with your portable electronic device, pausing occasionally to look up and say: “Boys, I believe Barry Bales is the best bass player there is.”