This weekend, I had the opportunity to go to Connecticut with some of my best friends to play at a church in Greenwich. On Friday night, I had a late gig up near Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, and got back to Nashville past midnight. The alarm was set for 5:15 so we could get to the airport by 6:30 to catch our flight. I put on my three-piece suit and red tie, which is my uniform of choice these days, and Mike Bub picked me up about 5:45am. We went to get our favorite fiery fiddle, Shad Cobb, and met Brad Folk, formerly of the band Open Road, at the airport. We flew into LaGuardia, getting there about 1:00pm.
Keith Reed, also of Open Road and now bluegrass professor at Colorado College, met us at the airport. He had gotten a call from his wife's best friend's husband, Kevin, who is the music minister at the First Presbyterian Church in Greenwich, asking if he could put together a band to play for their spring concert series. Keith's a great banjo picker and well-connected fellow and we were all looking forward to the trip even though that particular configuration of pickers had never all played together at the same time.
Shad, Bub, and I play a lot together in Nashville. Brad and Keith played for years together, and Brad and I have done a few shows together, so we were all confident that we could find the common ground and pick out some tunes and it would all work out. We all love traveling with Bub, who is a seasoned veteran and pro road-dog. He always seems prepared and is very resourceful, as well as being full of great stories to amuse everyone from his thirty plus years in bluegrass. Between Bub and Brad there were already a whole lot of laughs.
When we got to Greenwich, we headed straight to the church to check it out. It was a beautiful old granite building with a large, wooden, sanctuary featuring some of the finest stained glass windows I have ever seen. They had a gigantic pipe organ, which Kevin plays, behind the alter.
At that point we were all starving so we went and had a bite to eat at a local diner where Kevin joined us. After a good visit there, we headed back to the church for sound check. We were using just one mic, a large diaphragm condenser that Bub had brought, for all the instruments and vocals. Since it was such a great sounding room, that was plenty of reinforcement.
After deciding on "Pain in My Heart" as a good number, we launched right into it and from the get-go, we knew that the music was going to work out. Brad started singing and the grass was driving fine. Bub added the baritone and I added the tenor on the chorus and we had a powerful bluegrass trio and we were aces into the fiddle solo. Shad dug in and started stomping his foot and he rendered another heaping helping of the nail biting, intense, flawless fiddling. We got through another verse and chorus fine and then the only glitch was during the mandolin solo. Because there were no monitors, it was hard for everyone to hear exactly what was going on on some of the leads. I lifted the mandolin up to the microphone and charged impetuously out on the front side of the beat to play my break, and the beat ended up turned around because I had hit the gas so hard on it. Growing up picking with Mom and Dad, and Casey on the bass, I never had to think about where I was putting the beat because we were all so accustomed to the surging nature of leads that our family band played. I hadn't considered that we weren't playing in a circle where everyone can hear exactly what and where everyone else is playing. I was a little frazzled, but didn't say anything. We finished up all together and packed up the SUV and left for our lodging quarters.
We drove through some beautiful million-dollar neighborhoods and got to the residence of Steve and Sandy Waters who were part of the congregation. They had offered to put us up for the night - a generous and brave couple! They warmly greeted us and showed us each to our rooms and I took the opportunity to get some rest because I was already exhausted from the night before and traveling. Steve has one of the best collections of Yankee baseball memorabilia and in my room were great autographed pictures of different moments including Don Larson's perfect world series game.
I thought a long time about the mandolin break and what had happened, and why. I felt frustrated because I didn't feel like I had the communication skills to appropriately address the issue, and thought it was interesting that no one else said anything about it either. After a couple of hours of meditation on it, I figured it would be a good strategy to back off from where I frequently feel the leading edge of the beat to stay on the safe side. The rest of the guys spent the afternoon lounging and laughing in the Waters' back yard by the pool and I got some rest.
About 5:30 we were treated to a wonderful supper and had a good time visiting with the Waters discussing topics of local interest all the way to political fundraising. Mr. Waters had gone to Harvard Business School with Mitt Romney and it was neat to hear him talk about the presidential candidate as being just like he remembered him in school. It's unusual for us to be dining with folks who have ties to that world, so that was fun. It was the first time I can remember eating supper and having bread with a little plate for dipping olive oil like in fancy restaurants. We usually put butter on the bread, but I liked their way a lot too.
We finished up about 6:15 and Brad and I started tossing around numbers that we thought would come off all right, as well as a couple of gospel tunes we thought the folks would enjoy possibly singing along to. Bub, who has has so much experience with off-the-cuff stage shows, was confident we didn't need a set list, but Brad and I were a little nervous about the prospect, so we went ahead and dialed one in as well as we could.
When we got to the church, Kevin led us up to the music rehearsal room inside the large, four-story church complex. We hit a little bit of "Roll on, Buddy" and again felt good that the set would go well.
I went down to the sanctuary a little early so I could set up my computer to video the show. We were hoping to get some good footage in case we could use it for future bookings. There was a modest crowd seated already with more folks filing in.
Kevin gave us a nice introduction and Shad started us off on the fiddle with Old Joe Clark. It's a great tune, everybody knows it, it's up-beat, and has easy access to three-part harmony. They loved it! We were off to a good start and rolled through the set doing mostly traditional material. I sang "Walkin' West to Memphis", and Mike Bub took a great break on the bass. Keith expertly rendered a great version of "Sledd Ride" and that got a rousing response. We brought it up and slowed it down three or four times trying to vary the material as much as we could but still sticking to a good quotient of hard-driving hardcore bluegrass. Other numbers included "Close By", "Roustabout", "Voice of My Saviour", "The Luckiest Man Twas Born", "Sally Goodin'", "Rank Stranger", and we ended the set with a gospel medley of "I Saw the Light", "Will the Circle Be Unbroken", and "I'll Fly Away". They gave us quite a nice bit of applause before we took a short break.
After stepping off stage, we all agreed we were happy and relieved that things had gone so well and had a glass of water after stepping outside into the courtyard for a few minutes. Kevin advised that we back away a little bit from the microphone because it was overdriving the system a little bit. That's a problem I have had for many years. Since I grew up playing and singing into a dynamic microphone, like an SM58, I never had to worry about overdriving the system and it was business as usual to be an inch or closer to the mic. With the larger diaphragm condensers, they are so sensitive that it's fine to stand a few inches or more away from them while singing and they'll pick up everything just fine.
We didn't plan out the whole next set because by that time were were confident we could pull it out of our back pockets. We played for another 30 minutes or so and ended up with a short version of "Orange Blossom Special" and invited the crowd to a reception with coffee and some snacks.
We were pleased to meet so many folks who hadn't seen much bluegrass and the responses were all very positive. I felt great that we had been able to pull it together and bring a good show to many folks who had never seen bluegrass live. When we had shook and howdied till all the folks left, we cut a trail back to the house, where I was happy to get back and relax.
The next day we went back to the church and met up with some of the folks in the choir who were having a picnic and we followed them out of town a little way to one of the congregation's lovely home and picked for about twenty minutes, had a good lunch, and sold about ten CDs. Since I do so much live streaming from my shows in Nashville I was happy to have a good number of 5X7 cards with all the contact information on them in case they want to tune in sometime to the show. We met a lot of nice folks and then cut out about an hour before we needed to be at the airport. We dropped Shad off at the Delta terminal and had good time visiting with Keith before catching our flight back to Tennessee.
So now, about 30,000 feet above probably somewhere like Kentucky or southern Pennsylvania, I'm writing this blog to share with you another adventure in the life of a bluegrass musician. We were able to rely on the core base of the music we all knew to put together a good show, pretty much on the fly, and spread the good gospel of bluegrass to Greenwich, Connecticut. I hope we can come back to pick again!