I don't know Robert Catlin -- I never met him -- but he and I have been friends on Facebook since September. I can tell he loves bluegrass music and his family, and that the experiences he has surrounding bluegrass seem to have been rich and varied during his 60-something-year life. This is what he wrote on Facebook early Monday morning:
You know, a friend of mine asked me why I had so many Facebook friends. He said, "You can't possibly be real friends with over 2,000 people." Here's my answer / What I kindly like about having a lot of FB friends:
First of all, I've about gotten to know a lot of you quite well after all. Second, folks have shared with me a vast treasure of their ideas, likes, loves, music, histories, personalities, opinions, stories, traditions, jokes, beliefs and sorrows. I have seen a lot of love and support that folks have given to one another. Third, I have seen pictures and videos of many interesting and beautiful places in this country that I would otherwise never have seen or known about; I have also heard a lot of good music and have learned about a lot of things that seem like they would be fun to do.
THANK YOU - and keep sending those posts, I am a much richer man for the experience!
Indeed, one's Facebook feed moves rather quickly, and, of course, I don't always see every post from all the Facebook friends I've accumulated, but Catlin expresses for me the power and joy of the particular little corner of the Facebook universe where we share some space. Thus, I decided to explore his page a little further.
Bob Catlin lives in Redmond, Washington -- a Seattle suburb known as the home of Microsoft, which is also the bicycle capital of the northwest. He plays guitar and sings lead in a band called the Powell Mountain Bluegrass Band, which plays gigs at farmers markets, the local Grange, a small folk festival, and some old folks homes. His profile on Facebook doesn't mention anything about his education or what he does for a living, so I didn't ask. I know he was born in Sumter, South Carolina, spent some time in Big Spring, Texas, and now lives in Washington State. That's enough to give me an idea of why he still gets together with others to play music that originated in the Southern Appalachians and has moved around the world.
When you go to a bluegrass event, after all, the common experience you have with other people there is the music which brought you together.
My wife and I know a regional New England band pretty well -- that is, we've seen them at festivals around New England for years. We enjoy their music, and them as people. They provide a good example of the diversity common in bluegrass. One member of the band is a retired member of the U.S. border patrol. His sister, who he's played music with since they were quite young, serves as a guidance counselor in an elementary school. Their banjo player is a professor of Sociology at the regional state university, a part of the State University of New York. I don't know what their fiddle player does for a living, but he sure can play the fiddle. When they play as a country band, rather than a bluegrass band, they have a drummer, too.
Even some of the most successful bluegrass bands don't make enough money playing bluegrass to support all their members full-time, but love of the music keeps them out on the road playing gigs when they can get them, or playing locally, often for free. That's the bluegrass way.
I also know that Bob Catlin has a big heart. In late September he posted that he had lost his friend and bandmate, Brian Michael Greear. It turns out that Greear was the nephew of bluegrass Hall of Famers Jim and Jesse McReynolds, who came from the Clinch Mountains of Virginia, also the home of Ralph Stanley. He was part Hatfield and part McCoy, members of two feuding families whose names have come down in Appalachian history, but who finally made peace. Other members of the band are from California, but fiddle player Angela Borning's middle name is Lee, suggesting her southern heritage.
Jonathan Fast, mandolin player for the Powell Mountain Bluegrass Band, became hooked on bluegrass from hearing the Bluegrass Cardinals in college. The Bluegrass Cardinals were one of the pioneer bluegrass bands on the West Coast, growing from banjo player Don Parmley's early association with Chris Hillman of The Byrds. The band later made the unusual migration eastward to Virginia, where they were joined by Larry Stephenson, still a prominent band leader in bluegrass. Thus the complex interrelationships that are often seen in the development of bluegrass players and the movements of the music.
If you were to scroll through Catlin's Facebook page, you'd find him to be an interesting and pretty commonplace sort of guy.
Along with his wife and son, he recently took a trip east to the Smokies. An old picture of him with his older siblings, sister Sarah and brother Ralph, dated 1953, shows three kids sitting on the front porch of a modest home in Sumter, South Carolina. I can't help but wonder: What became of that home? What brought Bob across the country, with a stop in the isolated town Big Spring, a dot on the road in the oil patch between Odessa and Abilene, Texas? He doesn't tell, but I bet it's been an interesting life.
At any rate, while looking through Catlin's Facebook page and considering all these connections, I couldn't help but think about this difficult election year, when we're divided in so many unpleasant ways. Yet there are still elements that make for deep connections.
During this summer and fall, Irene and I have been to ten or so bluegrass events, where we've shared meals with old and new friends, listened to music from dozens of bands who come from Italy to California to Japan, and heard pickers from as far away as New Zealand. Politics has not been absent, but it has been much more quiet than the nastiness we see on various social media as well as on television.
There's a great well of shared experience that bluegrass music draws together. There are listeners and learners, pickers and professionals. There's no other musical genre I'm conscious of where the skills vary so much, yet the relationships transcend nearly all the differences. And distances between people are still being reduced. That's what brings bluegrass music people together, and it's why Bob Catlin is an important cog in the great river of bluegrass.
Check out this great performance from Bob Catlin's Powell Mountain Bluegrass Band.