Thursday, October 8, 2009

Bluegrass in a Surprising Place

This column was published in The Lebanon Democrat before my poem "Hands" was published last Monday. I am trying to catch up. I am also trying to figure out why i am putting these on the web for free. Putting my writing out there for others to read is really becoming a passion, something my friend, Pete Toennies, and i discuss often. But we will see where this goes. i hope you enjoy.

SAN DIEGO – I was not a country music fan growing up in Lebanon.

The family listened to the Grand Ole Opry on our Saturday evening rides over Monteagle Mountain to and from Chattanooga. There weren’t any options as WSM was the only station we could receive.

My cousin, Graham Williamson, a fiddler who eventually played in Roy Acuff’s band, would let me sing Hank William’s “Kawliga” when his band practiced.

But I was into The Searchers, the Platters, and yes, eventually Elvis.

At Vanderbilt, bluegrass began to grow on me. On Saturday afternoons, we rarely missed Flatt and Scruggs with the Foggy Mountain Boys on WSM-TV. We occasionally watched the earlier “Porter Waggoner Show” but only to see Miss Norma Jean.

My friend, Alan Hicks

My close friend, Alan Hicks, became a bluegrass fan. Born and raised in New York City, Alan’s family roots were in Rockwood. Now he is learning to play the banjo, Scruggs style. Bluegrass made a connection.

In recent years, Alan and other friends gather in Nashville for Vanderbilt sports events and reunions. These visits usually include an evening at the Station Inn, the underground bluegrass venue, just behind Union Station.

Recently, Alan, who has had a successful career in the shipping industry, became the Director of the Southern California Gateway for the Maritime Administration in Long Beach. I have made several trips to Long Beach for business and continuing our friendship.

Alan asked about bluegrass festivals in San Diego. Soon after, he informed me there was a bluegrass festival in San Diego on the third weekend of August.


So while the Wilson County Fair was roaring two weekends ago, we spent that Saturday at “Summergrass.” Perhaps the most amazing aspect was my wife, Maureen, after initially declining to attend a ballet performance in Balboa Park, changed her mind and went with us. She had a wonderful time.

The three-day festival was at The Antique Gas and Diesel Engine Museum in Vista, another small community in the Southwest corner burgeoning with new housing developments. The museum has kept an area about the size of the Wilson County Fairgrounds exempt from the urban sprawl. Among relic engines and several hundred tractors of various vintage, we sat on a grassy knoll and listened to bluegrass.

Folks back home may be surprised to find bluegrass as a thriving genre in the Southwest, but it is alive and well. Of course, the second set featured New Found Road with all but one of the four-piece band from East Tennessee. I bragged a bit about the roots of bluegrass.

The day was idyllic in many ways. I seldom relax in such a manner. People watching, one of my favorite past times, was ideal, and I realized the folks in the Southwest corner aren’t a great deal different than the folks back home.

I wished for my parents as I know they would have enjoyed the scene, especially my father checking out the myriad of engines.

Food and Weird Signs

The festival in the Southwest corner did come up short in the food department compared to what I know was available at the fair. There were three small buildings, not much more than shacks serving hamburgers, hot dogs, chili, and the much ballyhooed barbeque with ice cream and pies vended in the corner of a large barn. One shack featured Mexican fare. The best was corn-on-the-cob sold by a Boy Scout troop from a tent.

The primary eating establishment had a menu posted above the order window. About two-thirds down were two line items. One item read, “Chili Bowl, No Beans, $3.75.” The next line read, “Add Chili to above item, $1.00.” I am still trying to figure out what one would get ordering a chili bowl with no beans and no chili. I was afraid to order and find out.

It was a full day and we were likely just as pooped as we would have been from a day at the fair.

On the way home, we passed the pet psychic building and discovered she had gone out of business. I wondered out loud how she should have known from her psychic powers. After all she knew my dog had been a cat around King Tut.

Maureen observed that maybe the psychic did know.

It was a good day.

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