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Home > Magazine > Music > Postscript: Bluegrass Serendipity Up North

Postscript: Bluegrass Serendipity Up North
February 05, 2004

An interesting postscript to our trip down south, where we got to meet Balder Saunders, is that a couple weeks after we got home, I got an email from Jack saying that his other boy, Owen, would be here in Detroit playing bluegrass the next day.

I'd never met Owen, but I'd read about him in Jack's novels, just as I'd read about Balder. I read as he went with his dad on book selling tours, as he grew up to go commercial fishing on his uncle's boat. All along he was always fiddling his fiddle, in parking lots, then in festivals, then in hardscrabble bands on the road, then in a Grammy award winning band. All along, cooking the best of the bluegrass tour crowd, hauling his crockpot along in the band bus, using the kitchens of places they played. Owen makes a circuit, sometimes, of the South, as he plays or takes time off, couch surfing, wherever he goes he brings and makes good food, using what he can find along the way, lots of wild foods, like venison and fish of all kinds, garden crops. Half a hog. Brings homebrew beverages. It's like a gift-giving totem circle, Jack says. Owen's age now is maybe mid-30's, Balder maybe just 30.

Jack writes wonderfully about his kids. Not about his kids. About art and life, via the life he's lived, with his kids. Too bad no one I know will read any of it. One of his recent books was "Cookin'" with chapters titled Cooking with Owen, Cooking with Balder, Cooking with Brenda, Cooking with Jack. Cookin' in the sense of music playing, too. Bein' on a roll. Cookin' is part of life, and a fine book. You'd learn a lot.

So it was neat to get the chance to meet Owen. This time the chance was here in Michigan. Just after meeting his brother on the Gulf Coast. It was almost funny.

The trick, though, was Jack didn't know what day or where. When I finally found out, on Friday, he'd already played his first set!

I called people, but only pal Tim Feldkamp could go. Tim is a road trip pro and is game for anything to do with the outdoors or with music. Martha wanted to go bad, but couldn't.

The event was called something like the first winter bluegrass festival in Michigan, I think, held indoors. Michigan has several world-class summer tent festivals. One of those promoters, an old cowboy hat guy, did this winter thing in a freeway exit hotel in Dearborn. He had a bunch of top acts in for the whole weekend.

Owen had gotten let go from his last band and was working a warehouse job when his car broke, then his wife's did, too, and he lost the job. Then a fine old band leader phoned and said could he play a show that weekend, and that he'd hire him for some time from then, too. Jack says his kids just keep landing on their feet.

So Owen hadn't played on stage in months or with this band ever, though he knew them, but the van picked him up nearby and headed north. He hadn't slept either---switching from dayjob to nightjob is rough. He had 10 minutes practice before their first gig here. Jumped in with all new songs. Well, I think Owen knows all the songs already.

We got to the hotel and saw a handmade sign saying "Greatest Show on Earth Inside." We paid our $20 covers to hear the evening's music and went in. A stage and flag duct-taped to the wall. Chairs for 500, about 60 in attendance. Michigan wasn't ready for a winter fest, or wasn't apprised right.

It was neat seeing the real bluegrass. The audience was all dressed in their Sunday best. Tight, pale blue leisure suits. Feed hats. I'd say it was a rural crowd. Maybe a few moderns. By and large it was an older crowd, yet there was some multi-generationality to it. The whole scene seemed built, anyway, to include and need all ages. But offhand it doesn't seem like such a purely Southern culture event would go over up here, but maybe it usually does, just in different circles than I travel.

Despite the small turnout, every act give it their best. The crowd enjoyed it and cheered for the hot solos.

Owen's band was Dave Davis and the Warrior River Boys, from Alabama. It was different from Balder's bluegrass. Dry, tight, pure, clean...yet still rich. Man, what wonderful voices they have. Dave Davis has the most mellow, silky voice, for talking and singing. His upright bass player is about 400 pounds and has a wonderful sweet tenor voice with great punch to it. Both of them used their voices like amazing instruments, in leaping, romping harmonies, swapping solos.

Going to this music festival was more of an exposure to a whole new scene than it was a chance to hear Owen. But what we saw of him was neat. I tried to catch his eye and give him the thumbs up when they came on. I think he knew I might be coming. But he was busy. He's a big husky guy, tan, darkhaired with bright blue eyes. A smoky, laconic style. I liked seeing his what they call "old long bow" style of playing. It seemed like he was bowing slowly, in long pulls, yet the notes were flying. He was calm and relaxed as he played. The other players usually attacked the fiddle. Owen got the music out without using stress.

It was neat hearing Dave Davis introduce Owen. He said he was new to the band, but that they'd met 10 years ago. He'd asked Owen who his fiddle inspiration was and Owen said Chubby Wise "and I like to cried," Dave said.

The Mullins Family had a snappy, curvy, young gal singer who really could sing (and play and clog dance). They'd done the Grand Old Opry. It was a treat to sit right in front of them.

Quite a few of the bands are families, and everyone knows everyone, going all the way back.

They sing old and new songs alike. And always a few gospel numbers. --Which, often as not, they bust out into a wild dancin' pace after a solemn first stanza.

It was also fun hearing the introductions and patter between songs. It was almost like part of the music. They'd introduce a song and ask a player to lead in and be playing all in one breath. In between, they'd pause and look at each other and tease and joke.

The Sullivan family, which has been playing for 50 years, in various forms, of course, was led by their grampa, who had flowing white hair, handlebar mustache and big, ornate pointy muttonchop sideburns. A real character. He said when he was little his momma said if he wanted to play guitar he'd better play it like Maybelle Carter, which weighed heavy on him but it stayed with him his whole life. He said his wife Marge, who sang great and played alongside him, had a sharecropper for a daddy in Louisana and when they were dating she outpicked him in cotton 5 to one. He couldn't believe it, but she said he hadn't had her daddy. He said Loretta Lynn had a coalminer for a daddy, but Marge had her daddy, too. Marge had a great style and outfit, with big beehive hairdo and highbuttoned lace blouse under suit. A real pro. Her hand was swollen, due to being broken but she played on. Gramps said they had CDs to sell in the back and please buy some coz they had 2 big growing boy mouths to feed standing next to them. Very cute tall skinny laughing mandolin boy and short chubby banjo boy. There were more, and they all rocked hard. They played a Carter tune, Keep on the Sunny Side, and everyone sang along.

We followed Owen backstage after his set and I introduced myself in the practice room while they were all changing back into street clothes. He had a similar sidelong, raspy, deep voice as his dad and brother. He reminded us with a slow chuckle that it was his first gig. Poor guy was tired. Then they packed up and took off an hour later, for Kentucky. Whew! I made myself a token fan, but I don't think anyone minded me and Tim being backstage.

It was neat hearing the various players backstage talking, with their Southern accents. All the performers in all acts were Southern. It was interesting hearing the song lines about the Mason Dixon Line or the hymn with "many a rebel gave his soul in those old brush arbors by the road."

We chatted about old books of his dad's, and stories. He said he'd just helped his folks make some "scuppernong" wine, that it would maybe end up like a light Zin, I think maybe he said, due to certain blossoms and currants that he'd added to the 5-gallon batch.

Missus Marge Sullivan came in and made a few observations about the show. Owen said "Yes, ma'am" to each of them.

Grampa Enoch Sullivan was coaching a youngster in the fine points of mandolin.

Outside, waiting for the van, Owen and I chatted about the hippy, redneck, church people combinations in bluegrass and folk music. I think that Michigan is bigger into the hippy side. I hadn't heard of one of these kinds of rural bluegrass shows in the state before. But we have huge hippy-type fests---with traditional bluegrass players at them. I'm not sure how much it crosses the other way. There weren't any hippies at this show.

One of Jack's points---and something Jack has quoted Owen talking about before---is that the rednecks and hippies have to get together. They're often the same people anyway. They like the same music and books. Their events and groups need to merge and come out with this bond. Then extend it. Blacks, hippies and rednecks have a lot in common. If the People of this land ever got together, they'd be far better off. They don't need to be at each other's throats. If they made alliances certain other parties would simply not be able to walk an inch over any of them. Such as the big corporations that think they own them all, then can scrap them in a blink.

Back at the CD table I said Hi to the big bass player and bought a couple CDs. Explaining why I picked the ones I did I said I was there because I knew the Saunders family but hadn't met Owen before. That opened his eyes a bit. I got CDs with Owen on it. They were from years before when Dave Davis was playing live on the radio with a band Owen was in.

While I write this up, I've been listening to the CDs. What a neat way to cement the whole experience. After Owen took off, we listened to some more music, then called it a night. We stood at the back of the room, looking around. It was really something. What a scene. The promoter's fliers looked like punk fliers, all cut'n'pasted together with red'n'black and different typefaces. They say bluegrass is punk unplugged...plus the Lord, I'd add. And that's how it seems. It's full heart music.

Also, it's been cute hearing Owen on the CDs. He makes these slow sidelong remarks. Like, his famous band leader boss, James King, was warmly impressed with his solo song and said Thanks, he was sure proud to have Owen with him, and Owen replied "Thanks, James, I'm much obliged, and it's sure good to have a place to sleep." ---The boys all cracked up at that one in the background.

It was neat seeing yet another new kind of music. We don't get the Southern live bluegrass up here. That our circle listens to anyway. We avoid both crowded commercial fests and fairgrounds with their tractor pulls. I probably prefer Balder's style in the end. I think that the people up here would really go for Balder's style. It seems like Owen would like to play that way more often, too. Man, it would be something to see them get a brother act someday. If I could get a tape, I'd give it to a booking agent I know.... Those boys have great character, with their slidey ways and deadpan humor and tossed-off funny remarks. I'd think they could show people something new. Chips off the old blockhead, all right.

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