Several years ago at Strawberry Park -- a bluegrass festival in a commercial campground near New London, Connecticut, about halfway between New York City and Boston -- I went to the workshop tent to hear Kimber Ludiker. She's that marvelous fiddler and founder of Della Mae, and was giving a fiddle workshop. Lined up along the front of the crowd that had convened at the small tent were about six little girls, each clutching their less-than-full-size fiddle in their hands, waiting to see one of their heroes.
After a half-hour or so of talking about fiddling and demonstrating a few techniques. Ludiker asked, “Are there any questions?” One of the girls piped up: “How much do you practice?”
“I don't practice at all,” responded the three-time grand-national champion, “but I try to pick up my fiddle and play it every day. That way it doesn't feel like a chore. Instead, I look forward to spending at least a few minutes with my friend. I do it every day.”
The girls left more than satisfied, feeling they'd been heard, having made a new friend. I, too, learned a valuable lesson.
Ludiker is a fifth-generation fiddler who's played the instrument since she was three years old. She's an articulate spokesperson for her band and a strong voice around some of the issues faced by women in a genre where men have largely dominated for generations.
Her band, Della Mae, began in the rich musical soup of the Boston area, nourished by Berklee College of Music, which has helped change the shape of bluegrass in recent years. Berklee's roots music program has brought nuances, colors, and an expanded range to bluegrass music, while helping settle forever the place and role of all-women bands, which are now beginning to proliferate. (See Sister Sadie, the Loose Strings Band, Sweet Potato Pie, and a number of other bands with women in front, like the Molly Tuttle Band and Missy Raines and the New Hip.)
As I write this, Ludiker is on a State Department tour of Vietnam with Della Mae, where she's bringing American roots music to an audience eager to hear and see it.
At any rate, Ludiker was right: There's a difference between performance and practice, and my guess is that persistence and passion have something to do with it. Two young, rising musicians and one band come to mind as we head into the summer festival season.
I remember watching Nathan Aldridge, then perhaps seven or eight years old, on the stage at an indoor festival in Burlington, North Carolina. His father, Mike "Precious" Aldridge, was playing mandolin in a well-known North Carolina band called Al Batten and the Bluegrass Reunion. That group was composed of full-time talents playing part-time music while they pursued other ways to make their living. Nathan was sawing away at his fiddle next to Johnny Ridge, one of the finest traditional fiddle players in the country. He looked like he was imitating, but he was learning as he played, just like any other kid.
Now, Nathan is playing full-time with Sideline, a band formed by five experienced road musicians. At age 16, he's a junior in the local high school, which has agreed to let him work with the band as long as he keeps up his studies. Here he is this winter playing the Lee Highway Blues.
Similarly, Ryan Paisley comes from a family that has been making music for several generations, at home and on tour.
The Paisley family moved to southern Chester County, Pennsylvania, from the North Carolina mountains when industrial jobs around Wilmington, Delaware, proliferated during World War II. Ryan's grandfather, Bob Paisley, toured nationally with Bob Paisley and Southern Grass during the early days of bluegrass. When he died, early in this century, Bob's son Danny, who had been in his band for many years, became the frontman. He rounded out the band with his brother and two Lundy brothers, whose dad had also toured with the senior Paisley.
Soon, little Ryan was coming along on tour, standing in the back, chopping on his mandolin for a song or two. Now, he tours full time with this deeply traditional band, continuing the sound and feel of a genre that emerged 70 years ago.
Last year, Marty Stuart brought Ryan to the stage at Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival, 40-some years after Lester Flatt had brought a 14-year-old Marty to the same stage.
We see lots of hot pickers doing amazing things. We say to ourselves, and others, “You ought to see young _______, who's a sure thing to become a star.” We see a little entourage of parents, grandparents, and friends who can only see the great future that's in store for nine-year-old little _______. Meanwhile, no one tells the kid the truth!
The truth is, at least in bluegrass, a great picker needs to become a member of a band and ought to be able to sing, too. It ain't all about the music, either -- you need to be able to put on a show. I never hear parents asking, “What will happen when his voice changes? What happens to passion when the young picker is faced with hours of driving, playing in cold, wet venues to small audiences? When does being cute not suffice enough any more?”
Don Dilling, father of Sideline banjo player/frontman Steve Dilling, who spent over 20 years with IIIrd Tyme Out after an apprenticeship with the 1980s band the Bass Mountain Boys, once told me of going up to his son's room to be sure he had done his homework, to find him sleeping in his chair, his banjo wrapped in his arms. “He was sure et up with playing the banjo,” Dilling said.
There are plenty of risks afoot for even very talented kids who want to make music. After all, it's a tough world, but it's probably worthwhile to get your instrument out every day and play it. It may be, as Ludiker indicated, one of your best friends for life.