The Country Boys came from Maine, which is pretty close to Vermont, where I used to live. They wore sharp red jackets and black pants, they slicked their hair back and smelled good, like something out of a bottle. They were CLARENCE, ROLAND and ERIC WHITE, dobro-player LEROY MACK and banjoist BILLY RAY LATHAM who could touch his nose with his chin. Sometimes they were firecrackers, other times the fuse didn’t quite take but everyone forgave those times. “That young Clarence,” said Doc Watson, standing in the kitchen eating a sandwich, “he’s comin’ right along. Right along.”
Now I want to talk about why the arrival of the Country Boys at the Ash Grove was a meaningful event in my life. In a lot of lives. I have to talk about who I was, too. It’s all knitted together.
I’ve said I was Jewish then. Since I wasn’t, it means I was sailing under false colors. This is not unusual for me, during those periods when I’m searching hardest for my true colors.
I was 21, with a baby and a husband, a Martin classical nylon string guitar and a deepening suspicion that there was a music—a deep, dark music from the mountains of Kentucky—that was sounding more and more like my true colors. Whenever I heard it, done the way I liked to hear it done, my soul felt full and strong, angered but at rest. I don’t know how else I could say it.
It’s very old music. John Jacob Niles knew that. My great-great-great-great-great rural ancestors sang and played it. It probably didn’t sound that different, either, if you know what you’re looking for. I felt and feel that I was raised up by it, schooled by it, churched by it, kissed, married and pregnant by it, laid in my grave to it many times. Over and over and over. That still house.
On the other hand, it was getting harder to be Jewish, now that I was becoming Appalachian. What matters it? I just wanted to be something, to have come from somewhere, to have the weight and power of some communally shared experience that would back and sustain me. I always felt the answer would lie among the downtrodden, but maybe I needed to change my downtrodden, pick some closer to home. Not that Kentucky coal miners were close to my home—wait, I didn’t even have a home, except the Ash Grove.
One evening I put the baby to bed in a corner of the dressing room and walked out, into the dark passageway that led into the kitchen of the club. I was going to see if there was anything I could slyly eat. Plus I wanted a glass of FICKLIN PORT, a newly discovered wine we carried because #1 was doing some of the menu-planning by then. I saw, squinting, that three or four unidentified people were milling about. And one of them had a guitar around his neck.
Playing it. Now, here was an odd thing: the guitar was HUGE, and the player wasn’t any bigger than I was. He wore that uniform red jacket, a ruby ring on his finger, and oh, wow, he was using a flatpick. YESSS—I was just starting to figure out about flatpicks.
Picks. All my life I’d been three-fingering on those nylons, but recently I found I wanted to pick, to make more noise, be more precise. I didn’t have a pick, so I would use either my first fingernail, which was pretty flimsy, or a folded matchbook cover, which was really flimsy and lasted about one song. [You do the fingernail thing by holding the tip of your first finger really tightly between second finger and thumb, should you wish to try it, and good luck to you.] Anyway, this boy was using a pick, perfectly easily, and really focusing on the picking, too. In the almost-dark, that was mostly what a person could tell: here was a kid of—as it turned out—sixteen who was completely, totally focused on something. Something that wasn’t a bicycle or a pair of skis or an engine, something uniquely important in my own life. A guitar.
Also: he had dark eyebrows, dark eyes with defined bags under them, a certain detached scowl. Just like me. I felt at once as if I was looking in a mirror. But a weird kind of mirror, one that showed myself as a > boy playing a > big >steel string > guitar with a > flatpick. Maybe I could do it; maybe I couldn’t. Maybe I could only watch him do it. Those seemed the two alternatives.
A third alternative was, I could be him. BE him. This was a strange feeling, because good lord, I certainly would never want to be anyone but who I am. Would you? Heck no. But I did want to be Clarence. I wanted to slip that guitar strap over my shoulders and take up a plastic flatpick and go to town on steel strings. I wanted to know a guitar that well.
All through the Country Boys’ Ash Grove gig, that sense of wanting to be him didn’t get any less. During the down-time when various players would be hanging out in the dressing room, and Clarence would be sitting on the couch—well, I’d even study the way he sat. I couldn’t sit that way, slouched back, an ankle over a knee, picking and picking and picking—over and over. I would have loved to, but girl folksingers didn’t sit that way in 1961.
Yeah, that’s how I wanted to sit. I would hold the guitar just that way. (Well, actually, I’d have to; we were both so small we had to kind of peep down over the top, if the guitar was a Dreadnaught.) I’d have a Marlboro burning beside me.
I’d play something a hundred times till I got it the way I wanted it. I wouldn’t ever smile, except when I felt like it. I’d feel at home in the middle of a busy room. I wouldn’t care who was listening or not.
Most of all, I’d know my guitar. I’d know all the strings, of course, and the frets, and the tuners—but much more than that. I’d know where the music came from, what the actual note fragments were like before they became music. I’d know how the wood inside the body worked, how it felt when the music was rolling around in it. I’d know its voice, its capacities, its needs. I’d listen, play, listen, play, and I’d never tire of it. The miracle of the music deep within the darkness of guitar would never end.
Am I saying I realized I wanted to be a guy? Nope. I wanted to be able to do what I would like to do if I were a guy, which I’d have to be if I were to do the things I wanted to do. Play a Dreadnaught with a flatpick, for instance.
Well, we are not done with this matter yet.