Sunday, April 6, 2008

A Bluegrassers Dream Day

Darin Aldridge
Irene and I drove down out of the mountains to spend a day in the Piedmont region of North Carolina just looking around for some bluegrass. We found ourselves driving into the town square of Shelby, NC. Now, folks who know a little bluegrass history know that Earl Scruggs came out of Shelby to join Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys in 1945 sporting a new three finger style of picking the banjo that was lightening fast, pure, and exciting. He revolutionized the way the banjo was played for all time. We saw the Shelby Music Center sitting on a corner and know that a music store is as good a place to try to connect to the local bluegrass scene as anywhere. After a few minutes we found ourselves chatting with John Reid, the owner, about the instruments he sells and the folks who come into his shop. He has wonderful Taylor and Martin guitars as well as Weber mandolins and more. While we were jawing, Darin Aldridge came in through the door. We had seen Darin with the Circuit Riders several years ago and knew that he had played mandolin with Charlie Waller and the Country Gentlemen around the time Charlie, sadly, died. We talked for a while about what bluegrass opportunities there were in the area, and then Darin said he’d be happy to show us a couple of unusual places and then take us to where he’d be jamming in the evening.

Joe DePriest's Tribute to Don Gibson
We got into a car and Darin directed us to the Shelby town cemetery. We drove through it for a while, not quite sure where we were going in this large graveyard on the cusp of spring bursting forth with all the trees in bloom. Soon we saw a large monument and then the name Gibson along the top, the grave of country legend Don Gibson. Born in 1928, Gibson dropped out of school after second grade. He wrote great country songs like “Oh, Lonesome Me,” “Lonesome #1,” and “Woman (Sensuous Woman)” all of which were hits for him, as well as numerous others. “I Can’t Stop Loving You” has been recorded by over 700 artists. The quiet and dignified grave stands silently to allow visitors to meditate on the prodigious talent often coming from unlikely sources.

The Scruggs Home Place
After a while we climbed back into the car and drove out into the country. We went past a sign for the Flint Hill Baptist Church, and I thought of Earl’s great instrumental piece, “Flint Hill Special.” We turned into a dirt driveway guarded by a withered old apple tree and pulled up beside a ramshackle country house. As we climbed from the car, the front screen was swinging on its hinges in the slight breeze. On the porch an old hanging rocker swayed back a forth. It didn’t take too much imagination to reach back eighty years to a couple of young boys sitting under that tree tossing a ball. There’s a story about Earl and his brother Horace standing back to back in front of their house and kicking off a song. They would walk away from each other around the small house and meet face to face in the back. Their goal: to be on exactly the same note when they met. Earl’s mantra – tone, taste, and timing remained the hallmark of his style throughout his career. No matter how fast he played or how elaborate the licks he created, those three elements were always present. A softball lay neglected on the ground in front of the house. I could see the two brothers tossing it back and forth before picking up their instruments and taking another trip around the house. After a few quiet minutes there in front of the humble home where music history was changed, we left the door to swing in the wind, the seat to move back and forth, and the ball to lie there waiting for another boy to pick it up.

It was getting dark when Darin started to drive us out of town. We drove for perhaps half an hour, and I have no idea where we were. We pulled behind a comfortable house and saw perhaps twenty trucks and cars parked near no recognizable building. A few men were clustered around a large fire smoking and sipping on beers. We walked behind a square dirt mound and found ourselves going along a narrow cinder block passageway painted white. We emerged into a room covered with signatures, beer cans, advertising signs, tools, and bluegrass memorabilia. A group of men were clustered in one small room pickin’ and singin’. We were introduced to Jack Bingham, owner of the Bluegrass Bunker, who told us he’d hosted bluegrass jams there since the late sixties. The structure itself was built during the period when folks took seriously the threat of both nuclear attack and invasion by foreign powers.

Wives and fiancees in the Bluegrass Bunker

Dean Jenks Plays my Deering
The quality of bluegrass was quite high. Dean Jenks, member of a local band called Flint Hill, played fine banjo. Darin is a rising young mandolin player who will be all over Merlefest for four days in a few weeks. Irene had asked Darin to play her mandolin, which he did with seeming enjoyment. I brought my banjo out for Dean to play. It’s so nice to hear an instrument sound the way it’s supposed to sound.

Eddie Biggerstaff and Jack Bingham

Brooke Justice and Darin Aldride ( a duo to watch)
We were also glad to see Eddie Biggerstaff. He had played bass for Blueridge and sung high tenor very effectively before the band broke up. Recently he’s been playing for Darin and his fiancee Brook Justice’s band, which is about to release a gospel album on Pinecastle Records. Eddie picked the bass a little and sang a couple of songs before returning it to one of the other players. A bluegrass jam can stand multiple instruments except for the bass, which is such an important instrument and has such a profound influence on everyone else’s playing that there’s only room for one at a time. Eddie still picks with the same power and rock solid beat we remember his having. There was also a guy named Bob Jones playing the guitar as well as a couple of others with guitars. Brooke and Darin’s voices blend perfectly to make a moving and lively sound.

Bluegrass Cabin Porch


Living Room
Jack and his lovely and gracious wife Judy invited us to go see the cabin where the jams are held in summer. The Bluegrass Bunker is too confined for summer use. We drove a couple of hundred yards down a dirt road and emerged from the woods to see a lovely, small log cabin, chinked to keep out wind and rain. The porch was decorated with cedar stick work and inside was an extensive collection of bluegrass souvenirs as well as mounted heads, a wonderful half wood, half electric stove, and other treasures. Jack has been working on the cabin for over twenty years. Beside it is a small stage where bands can play. Essentially, he owns a private bluegrass music park for his friends and their friends. We felt honored to be included and welcomed into the warmth of the bluegrass circle.

Bluegrass Cabin Stage

As we left a little after ten, I looked on a table and saw a business card of Dr. Tom Bibey’s. I asked if he was there, but they said he comes from down in the low country and had only come to visit a few weeks before. We’ll catch up to him along the way. It really doesn’t matter if he was there, though, because I’m beginning to understand that wherever bluegrass music is played, Dr. Bibey will be there.

Hosts Jack and Judy Bingham