I met Kris in a side room of the winery where there was a long wooden table with two place settings at one end. It was 7:45am. Jack’s wife came in and served us food. It was the first time I had met her. She was about as wide as Jack but two feet shorter. The plates were filled with bacon, sausages, eggs, toast, and then to the side was our individual plate of apples slices. She talked for a few minutes on the importance of a well balanced diet, especially butter, and the virtues of a clean water source. She then somehow got talking about her friend who was the best painter she ever saw but won’t paint for other people because she’s afraid of losing her government check. It was another whirlwind conversation that dabbled in politics. We made a pit stop on Mitch Mcconnell and how he had visited the winery but she wasn’t going to give him his own seat. He had to sit on the bench just like everyone else. Finally we landed on the fact that I was in desperate need of iodine in my diet. My god, just look at my skin! Do I ever feel down and low energy? Maybe a little self conscious? I should be checking my Thiamine levels for sure.
I drove to the local elementary school, found my way into a packed cafeteria and sat down at the end of yet another long table. Kris saw me and came over to say hey. It was a mixed group. It seemed full of children but when I looked closer I realized it was half adult, half teenager. There were about 15 people of Kris’s age. Most of whom had a fiddle.
It’s a funny thing this whole internet bit. The class I signed up for was South East Kentucky Banjo Styles. I chose this mainly because the guy teaching it was someone who I saw on youtube one or two times. It wasn’t a video that he himself posted. Rather it was posted by someone that wanted to profile him and his playing. It was shot at night with a flashlight illuminating him against the wooden wall behind. He wore a short sleeve button down plaid shirt and tattoos went from his wrists to I imagine the rest of his body. He played “Hook and Line” without a moment of silence, without a set count in between verses. The whole time his lower lip set on top of his upper like he was meditating on when it was time to sing again. I tried to go down a youtube rabbit hole with him but he was tough to find. The only videos were from random festivals that he participated in and then one about how he had won an apprenticeship to study with a master in Kentucky when he was younger. But then, during another internet rabbit hole, I found this weeklong school every summer in Appalachia to learn mountain music from the local culture. I scrolled through the teachers and there he was.
We made our way into our respective classrooms and I was surprised to see that instead of there being ten 12 year olds and me, like I expected, there were eight other adults, serious looking musicians, and one ten year old. This ten year old just happened to have won Clifftop music festival for his banjo age group which pretty much means he’s the best banjo player for his age in America and therefore the Universe.
The teacher, John, came in and sat down. He talked for a bit about what we’d be doing and then we dove in. Some of the other people had taken his class before. For two guys this was their third time.
“He always teaches it different,” they said.
He brought in his “house banjo,” an old one with real animal skin pulled over the hoop for it’s head. He told us that there was still some hair on it. He talked about how he learned, always referencing the people who taught him, and the different techniques they used. He would start playing, close his eyes, his lower lip jutting out, head leaning over. Then he would play with hypnotic force, once in a while yelling out a verse in his high pitched mountain voice. It was some of the most beautiful live music I ever heard. It had everything that Dock Bogg’s music did. Hell, Dock’s hometown was only a 20 minute drive from that school. I had trouble keeping up. Back in Maryland I left thinking that I was one of the best banjo players around but this class put me right in the hole I deserved. When this guy played it sounded like three or four instruments at once.
We would go into a new tuning. He would talk about it, play a song or two and then casually ask if we wanted to learn it. I learned 15 tunings for the banjo in that one week. And two or three songs in each tuning.
The songs were incredible but it was the storytelling that really pulled me in. The banjo was always a fretless instrument so to get different sounds they would tune the strings differently. However, tuning takes time, so old time banjo players naturally talk in-between songs. That first class someone knocked on the door and came in.
“Hey Randy,” John said.
“Well,” said Randy, “I’m gonna do a bit of storytelling for a moment. Something a little different.”
Randy wore an Indiana Jones hat and had an old, beaten down banjo. He sat in a chair, opened his bag and pulled out a long taper candle. He put it on the ground and lit it. Someone shut off the lights. He gently touched the strings and went into a story about south east Kentucky, how it was discovered, what the land looked like.
“Lay down boys, take a little nap, 17 miles to the Cumberland Gap” he sang. A little talk about the Native American tribes that lived there while he up-picked with his right hand (no picks, just fingers on the strings), banging the skin of the head like the drum that it was, “Cumberland Gap is not my home, I’m gonna leave old Cumberland alone.” More talk about how the Union and Confederate army fought for control of the gap, “If my wife ain’t there when I get back, I’ll raise hell in the Cumberland Gap.” Then just as abruptly as Randy walked in, he walked out.
And this is how class went from 9-12 every morning. Three hours of different tunings, stories, technique, and culture. It was the best week of school I’d ever had. And that was only the class portion.