Let me tell you about the night my fingers snapped off and fell onto a beer-stained wood floor.
A tremendous rainstorm had its way with the sky as I moved across the Hudson River. I pulled up to a roadhouse about ten miles north of Manhattan. Juggling my guitar case and an umbrella, I brushed past the determined smokers huddled outside by the front door, walked down the length of the bar to a small alcove in the back, and nodded to a couple of folks I recognized. For a few months I'd heard talk about a bluegrass jam in the neighborhood, and this was my first chance to check it out.
Despite having been a finger-style player for over 50 years, with an interest in all sorts of old-time and roots music, I'd never attempted to do any serious flatpickin' before. Still, I figured it couldn't be all that hard. Three or four chords, a good capo, and a Fender 451 medium pick would do the trick, right? And after all, this is New York, not the hills of Kentucky. I'd step up, dazzle, and shred.
Right. Can you see where this train wreck is headed?
Tara Linhardt is an award-winning multi-instrumentalist from rural Taylorstown, Virginia, who moved here less than a year ago and has already earned recognition in the relatively small but highly talented New York bluegrass scene. In addition to organizing the monthly jam that attracts a large and talented group of musicians, she also teaches mandolin and guitar, plays in several bands, is an excellent photographer, and has put together a number of festivals and events. She organized and broke the Guinness Book of Records for the world's largest mandolin group. Tara & The Galax Fiddler's Convention Mandolin Ensemble featured 389 mandolins that performed four tunes. Including this one:
She's also a founding and managing member of The Mountain Music Project, which works to preserve, promote, and educate folks about traditional music throughout the world. That project focuses mostly on the Appalachian region of the United States and the traditional music of the Nepali Himalaya.
There's a film documentary about the project that's been released on DVD, and a collaborative album that, along with Linhardt, features other American musicians like Sammy Shelor, Tim O'Brien, Curtis Burch, Mark Schatz, Abigail Washburn, Danny Knicely, and Tony Trischka.
That rainy night jam, which I thought would be a piece of cake, ended up serving me a big slice of humble pie.
The 15 musicians who stood in the circle were by and large regulars on the festival and jam circuit, professional performers, parking lot pickers, and other assorted but exceptional players. From the opening notes, which seemed to be going at about 220 beats per minute, it took every ounce of energy in my body to keep up.
I kept my eyes glued to the left hand of singer/guitarist Christian Apuzzo, whom I had met previously when his band opened for Billy Strings and Don Julin. I could strum the chords but felt like I was on a roller coaster with no brakes. My mouth was hanging open most of the time in awe of the musicianship. I thought I did pretty well until about an hour and 45 minutes into it, when Linhardt looked over at me and yelled, "You're behind the beat ... step to the back." Now I didn't take that as being mean spiritied at all, but instructive. This jam is a welcoming and friendly place for all players.
Nevertheless, given how easy I expected this to be...cue instant exhalation and deflation.
Two songs later, I called it quits. My fingers were as crispy as fried clams.
I wasn't quite finished foolin' around with this bluegrass excursion yet, though. I showed up two weeks later for another shot. This time I swapped the jumbo cutaway for my more traditional dreadnought, put on heavier strings, and grabbed a handful of Dunlop 1.14 mm picks.
I still couldn't last more than a couple of hours. I apparently, desperately need to lock myself in a room with Tony Rice videos, but as long as Lindhart keeps the door open I'm going to try to walk through it again. Because while it's great to write about music, it's even better to make it.
Matheus Verardino, who played harmonica in that first video, and the aforementioned Christian Apuzzo are members of Cole Quest and the City Pickers. They have a new album that's currently being mixed. And it might be of interest to know that Cole 'Quest' Rotante sings and plays Dobro. His mom's name is Nora and his uncle is Arlo. You can figure out that lineage. I like this band.
Linhardt has been touring this year with Shyam Nepali of the Mountain Music Project. At this year's Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, they played with percussionist Raj Kapoor, Apuzzo (this dude is everywhere), and violinist extraordinaire and fellow jammer Mary Simpson, who was a founding member of Whiskey Rebellion and now tours with Yanni.