Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A Visit to Danby Four Corners Store - Danby, VT

If you attend bluegrass festivals in New England or New York, you’ve probably seen a black trailer and awning setup along vendor’s row saying Danby Four Corners Store, Danby, VT. Under the awning you might find Linda Ralph or her husband Harry (Butch) selling a variety of gear. If you look further, you’d find an assortment of very high quality Martin and Gibson bluegrass guitars, banjos, and mandolins. Sometimes, especially if they have plenty of space, you’ll also see musicians stopping in to play their instruments or spreading out to jam with the Ralphs. Perhaps Eric Gibson or some other touring musician will be sitting in. Their son, Harry Ralph, Jr., is likely to be there, especially if Cabin Fever, for whom he plays fiddle and sometimes mandolin, is on the bill. Sometimes the Ralph’s band, Family and Friends, is part of the lineup so you can see this actively involved bluegrass family on stage presenting classic country songs as well as Linda’s own pleasant and accessible compositions. You may have stopped at the Ralph’s booth for a chat, to buy some strings, a capo, some picks, or a tab book. Chances are, however, that you never took the next step and travelled through rural Vermont to visit the Danby Four Corners Store. We had been talking to Linda for a couple of years about coming to the store to look at a Martin guitar for our son, but we don’t think she really believed we would ever appear.

On a sunny, clear late August Monday morning, we arranged to meet Alex at Danby Four Corners Store. We drove east from Glens Falls, NY through the lovely rolling countryside with corn ripening in the fields. The verdant Green Mountains rose in the background. We crossed into Vermont at Granville in the Slate Valley. At Pawlet we found the Pawlet – Danby Road as the hills became steeper and the road narrower. Farms and country homes dotted the landscape as the timber covered mountains provided the typical Vermont scenic wonder, a sense that around each corner some professional landscaper has arranged for a picture postcard view to be placed for your pleasure alone. In a few weeks these hills will be alive with autumn colors and leaf peepers from the city and arriving in RVs from the South, but today the road was quiet and practically empty. We come to a corner intersection with Tinmouth Road just past a riding stable and there stands a small, white frame building housing the Danby Four Corners Store. A sign on the side of the building says “Martin Guitars and Gibson banjos, mandolins, dobros Sold Here.”

As we walk into the store, Linda recognizes us and says that Alex is already in the backroom playing the Martin D18 Golden Era model we had wanted him to try. Danby Four Corners Store, like many country stores, stocks a little bit of everything. The nearest supermarket is probably in Manchester, VT, an important tourist center, about fifteen miles down the road. There’s a single gas pump offering regular gasoline outside, easily blocked by the limited number of parking spaces available. Inside the double door, necessitated by the harsh winters in this part of the world, is a cramped jumble of groceries, soda coolers, boots for sale, sunglasses, bug dope, chips, candy, beer and cigarettes presided over by the busy, but smiling Linda Ralph. A few inexpensive instruments hang high on the walls. But walk through the narrow aisles into the cluttered back room and a new world is revealed.

There’s a leather office chair, a computer, a boxed snack cake available for employees, stacks of bills, letters, and papers, and, hanging from the walls, placed on stands, and in cases everywhere – acoustic instruments. A big doghouse bass fiddle stands just inside the door. Turn right and there are instrument straps, boxes of strings, racks of tab and instructional books and, sitting in the midst of all this, our son Alex strumming a guitar, a blissful smile beginning to suffuse his face. He strums and picks – Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Doc Watson. Irene sings harmony to his lead. I pick up an Earl Scruggs model Gibson banjo, but it’s too loud for him to be able to hear the instrument he’s playing. Linda suggests he try the standard model D18 and takes about a minute for us each to recognize the difference between the two instruments. Alex returns to the Golden Era. He’s beginning to nod and we quickly settle with Linda on a price. Irene writes a check. Linda sweetens the deal with some t-shirts, strings, and a humidifier which nearly makes up for the VT sales tax. She talks to Alex about ways to care for his new instrument. Butch installs the hardware for a strap and Linda throws in a leather guitar strap and we head for the door.

We go outside the store and Alex puts his new instrument in the back seat of his Volvo, neglecting to tighten the seatbelt, then opens the window to keep it from getting too hot. As we lean on the back of our truck, not kicking the tires, a load of wood on a truck passes by and a voice yells out, “Hey Alex, getting a guitar?” Vermont is really a small state. We chat and the big revelation comes out. “I’ve been listening to Bluegrass Junction [XM radio, channel 14] and it suddenly hit me. I see all these connections to Americana and roots music. I’m beginning to find all kinds of things I like about the music. I’m sorry the two of you didn’t bring your instruments.” Could there be a more wonderful day?

Linda and Butch Ralph
and Grandson Zachary