So there we were at the regular Irish music session at O’Donnell’s pub in Douglas. They say to Donald “Give us a song…” He says “Well, I got one here that I’d really like to sing. I’m pretty sure you don’t know it, and I may forget some words, but it’s a great song. It’s called…”
And when he told us the title of the song, I said “If you forget the words, I’ll help.” I played along through the first two verses, then grabbed my camera and recorded the last couple of minutes. Note that the flute and accordion players had never heard the song before.
This is what happens when you start to think you know how the musical world is ordered, and which bits go where. The musical angels, they consider that a dare – so they just whip around and drop something where you least expect it.
For those not familiar with this song (“Wagon Wheel”), it was partially written by Bob Dylan and made famous by a band called the Old Crow Medicine Show. It’s all about a guy hitchhiking out of New England (“Lost my money playing poker so I had to up and leave”) to get to North Carolina. It’s so well-known and well established among the southern acoustic guitar crowd that a lot of the more “serious” musicians refuse to play it (their loss). The boys and I played it at their cousin Sarah’s wedding. I heard a busker on Biltmore Avenue in Asheville sing it and almost bring tears to a guy’s eyes.
Here’s Old Crow Medicine Show doing the song at the Orange Peel in Asheville, where it’s practically the national anthem. For a few minutes there tonight, I felt much closer to Asheville than the physical distance.
You may recall that the day after my birthday, I ran into some buskers in Douglas who invited me to come up to a pub gig they had in nearby Laxey that evening. I had a blast sitting in for a couple of songs and we exchanged emails. I really didn’t know if anything more would come of it. That was right up until the leader of the band, Martin Elvin, emailed me and asked if I wanted to come sit in on dobro for one song during a theater gig they had in their hometown of Buxton, Derbyshire.
That would require flying to Manchester, then taking a train to Buxton. Which meant I started checking flight and train schedules. I mean, <MissPiggy> “You want moi to come play dobro with your band? In front of an adoring audience? Where does moi sign up?” </MissPiggy>
The plane and train worked flawlessly and early Saturday afternoon I found myself in the middle of Derbyshire, which is actually quite lovely (though it’d be nice to see perhaps a dozen trees all in the same place). I checked into my hotel, which was an old farm that has been converted into a hotel, campground, and (future) petting zoo.
My room was simple, but comfortable (the bed and bedding particularly nice), clean, and the free WiFi rocked; I was a happy camper. I then made my way back into town, grabbed porridge and yogurt at the Nero’s Coffee (just because you’re on the road doesn’t mean that you’re allowed to eat junk), and headed to the Buxton Opera House to meet the guys.
On the way, I walked past a hotel that Mary, Queen of Scots stayed in for a couple of years during the late 1580′s. Okay, now this was starting to be pretty cool.
When I got to the Opera House, I threaded my way past a tsunami of 6-year-olds leaving a matinee and made my way into the main theater. I promptly ran into members of my adopted band, “Elvino and the Ragged Heads”. They explained to me that we’d be doing soundcheck in about 45 minutes, which gave us time to hang out, visit, and even run through the song I was supposed to play with them, “Christine’s Tune.”  We fired it up sitting around one of the banquet tables and they got the first taste of my Scheerhorn guitar.
The “Scheerhorn” is my resonator guitar, aka ”dobro”.
It’s the sort of instrument that gets oohs and ahhs when it comes out of its case. Like Rose, the Henderson guitar, I had to wait two years to get this instrument, but in this case it was merely a case of getting on the appropriate waiting list and waiting (the Henderson is another story for another time). Anyway, the Scheerhorn is arguably the finest resonator guitar you can own and I had just put new strings on it. After we ran through Christine’s Tune, Martin said to his band-mates, “What if he played on ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ too?” They were gracious enough to nod enthusiastically.
Now here’s the thing: I’m not that good a dobro player. Maybe I could have been if I’d really put my mind to it – maybe I will be one day in the future. But right now, I’m kind of tolerably good, and since there aren’t many dobro players around, well, in the land of the blind… [Here's what a Scheerhorn sounds likein the hands of a master]
So suddenly I was on the hook for two songs of their ten-song set, and I was pretty pumped about that.
We got up to do the soundcheck, and started Christine’s Tune. They were playing as they’re accustomed to doing, with two amplified guitars, electric bass, keyboard, and drums. Well, even playing right up against a very good instrumental microphone, the Scheerhorn was nowhere to be heard. 30 seconds into the song I stopped them.
“Hey guys – I can’t compete with you all playing at top volume. You gotta bring it down some.” I felt bad for saying that, but then the event promoter walked up from where he’d been sitting in the house. “Your man’s got a nice instrument there, but I can’t hear a single note he’s playing.” I wish you could have seen the embarrassed looks on the band’s faces. “We never thought about it – we’re used to playing this like heavy metal.” We started a second time, the sound men boosted up my microphone to near-feedback levels, and suddenly the metal-on-metal sound  of my guitar sang through. As that sound came through the monitors, Martin turned to me with a huge grin on his face.
Then we ran through Folsom Prison Blues and everybody was happy.
Afterwards, I went looking for healthy food, which, at 6:00pm in a small English town, is no mean feat. But I found the Waitrose open, got yogurt, rice cakes, fresh pineapple, and sparkling water. Everything was closed so I walked down the street eating them. It was not very civilized or even easy logistically (and the wind was starting to whip down the deserted shopping street) but as part of my new “be healthy” focus, it was simply a matter of putting good nutrition into my body. The niceties could wait.
With that out of the way, I texted Martin and he told me about a recently reopened pub where he and some friends were hanging out until the band showcase started at 8:00. I got there, and we shared a pint or two (okay, I shared a Diet Pepsi) and just talked. This pub is in a street that must be 500 years old, but they’ve made the entire front glass, there’s a fireplace, and the clientele wants to have a quiet drink and visit, not fight. It was a fine place to be.
When the showcase started at 8:00, we were pleased to see a large (not huge) crowd of people – most of them older – had turned out for the Saturday evening festivities. I find that in many small towns, it doesn’t matter so much what is going on as that something is going on. And if the band showcase at the Opera House was the hot ticket for Saturday evening November 3rd in Buxton, Derbyshire, then fantastic.
I had sort of expected to sit politely and applaud loudly through the first acts (that’s one of your jobs for your fellow musicians). But then first group came out with a guitar, accordion, fiddle, and slide guitar, and three people singing pretty damn good harmony. And when they said “We’re going to play a Steve Earle song”, I was paying attention. Then they did “Cowboy Song” by Garth Brooks,  and they had me.
Next act gets ready, MC comes out and says “Now for something completely different you’ve probably never heard!” That would be true if you didn’t have your roots in the southern Appalachian mountains. Come out a fiddler, woman playing claw hammer banjo, guitar player, and a guy singing and playing harmonica. And they swung into a fine old-time fiddle tune with the gal crushing it on the banjo. Well, hell, I woulda come over for this show even if I weren’t getting up on stage.
So now banjo-gal sets her instrument down in its case and walks off stage. I’m kinda disappointed, but the other fellows kick up a fine little tune and it’s all good. Then banjo gal struts out to the front of the stage (with her tap shoes on), and…
Well okay then. And as if that weren’t enough, they closed it with a gospel classic, “Are you Washed in the Blood of the Lamb?” Somebody at my table told me that the harmonica player (and lead singer) is Danish and an atheist. But he knew rule #1 of singing gospel music, which is “You don’t have to believe what you’re singing, but you have to sing it like you do.” The other fun thing was hearing him say “blood of the lom” rather than the laam that you’d get from a southern American singer. But by god, those people from half a world away were playing my music and I was tickled to death.
Then the intermission, followed by a pretty good indie rock band, who brought along their own set of groupies and fans. That made me nervous (you never want to follow the best act of the night). But Martin and his band got on stage and kicked off with “The Weight”, a classic by The Band, which took no prisoners; we were going to be fine. Two more tunes, and I tuned my guitar down front, ready to hit the stage. Martin said “We’d like to invite a special guest up…”
Then I just sat back down and basked in the emotional high of playing music with a bunch of really cool guys in front of an appreciative crowd. It really doesn’t get much better. They got to the last song of the night and the promoter gave them an absolutely clear “This is the last song and there is no encore” signal. Martin said “We’re gonna do a slow one…”
I thought “Really?” It’s a little dangerous to take a crowd that pumped up and try to get them through a slow tune for the last song of the night. But hey, their show and all. That’s when they rolled into Dylan’s “May as well Try and Catch the Wind”. They had me, and their whole audience, in the palm of their hand. Note at the end of the song when Martin is literally overcome and can’t finish the verse.
And with that, the show was over. We went downstairs to pick up our stuff and put instruments in their cases. Martin was sitting in the dressing room area, with the streaks from tears still on his cheeks; it was a fairly epic moment. I went back upstairs and helped Mike the drummer gather up all his gear (it’s hard being a drummer).
That’s when a couple of the band members came to me, holding some of money in their hands. “Here – it’s for you. Everybody that played gets £25.” “Aw guys – I just played two songs. I mean, seriously, I’m not here for the money.” “We know that – it’s not the money for us either, but…” Then I looked again. I may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I got it. I looked at the face of Vic, the bass player. He meant that this money, not quite a couple of rounds of drinks, was simply my due as part of the band. It was their lovely way of saying, “You’re one of us; you get your share.” I folded up the two notes in my wallet, ensuring that they’d go back into the community and hopefully into my mates’ glasses.
Eventually we made it back to the pub where the evening had started. I had to drink three Diet Pepsis because well-wishers from the show (both musicians and listeners) demanded to buy me a drink. Too soon, I had to head back to the hotel – Sunday morning trains from Buxton to the Manchester Airport are few and far between and I couldn’t afford to miss the train that got me to my plane. I got hugs from every single band member and they said, “Any gig, any time. You’re the sixth member of the band now.” What do you say to that?
I grabbed a taxi and was asleep before too long. Which was good because the alarm went off far too early. But I stopped to get a picture before I left; there was that guitar case sitting in the corner. The Scheerhorn has gotten a few dings and scratches since the picture above was taken, but every one has been worth it. Trying to shake myself awake at 7:00am for a 7:15 taxi to the train station, I looked at it and thought, “Yeah, now look what you’ve gotten us into.”
So, a bow of appreciation to Martin, Tank, Mike, Mike, and Vic. I hope we get to do this again soon. But whatever happens, you shared your music and your talent with me; I am honored and humbled.
In closing, an image that pretty much says it all. You know, it’s only rock and roll…
 Weirdly, I’ve played the song dozens of times, but knew it as “Devil in Disguise” (the word “Christine” does not appear in the lyrics). This can only mean that some poor woman named Christine well and truly pissed off Gram Parsons in the early 70′s.
 We’re not supposed to call them “dobros” because Dobro was the actual brand name (think “Band-Aid” and “Kleenex”), which is now owned by the Gibson guitar company. But for obvious reasons, it’s easier to call them dobros.
 The “metal-on-metal” reference is because I use metal finger picks striking metal guitar strings. It’s one of the loudest sounds in acoustic music (along with the banjo, by the way), but it still can’t compete (even amplified) with unrestrained electrical instruments.
 This is an astonishingly good song, which has been covered by a number of people including my personal favorites, Dry Branch Fire Squad. Weirdly, I can’t find a decent version on YouTube.
Four years ago, I was in Asheville, North Carolina working for the Democratic party to get voters to the polls. It was an amazing evening, as my country elected a black man president – something I was certain would happen only after I died. I wrote it about it here – the memories are still fresh.
This year, 5000 miles from Asheville in the Isle of Man, I needed to feel connected to the most important thing the U.S. does every four years. So at about midnight GMT, I put on my “Life is Good” pajamas with guitars (for good luck) and settled into the home office for a long night. Ostensibly, the intent was to make some last-minute trades on Intrade (more about that in a minute). But the real reason was because I wasn’t going to sleep until I knew who had won; there was no point in lying down until the outcome was virtually certain.
I filled my 30″ monitor with browser windows watching the results, doing trades, and monitoring Twitter; Skype and MSN chat windows to talk to friends; iTunes to provide a soundtrack for the evening.
One of the constants throughout the night was my friend and colleague, Brad Willis, who had been live-blogging the election since about 7:00am his time (on the East Coast). Yet again, Brad’s narrative was funny and deeply insightful and it was ongoing source of joy as the night progressed. I had Skype chat open with my Intrade betting mentor (who shall remain nameless here). He was busy looking for good bargains and has been unfailingly generous in sharing them with me.
The early returns had everybody’s nerves on edge and reports abounded of emotional eating (“I just ate half a pizza”). I succumbed as well, including a banana that somehow went MIA and didn’t reappear until the election was called for Obama. But as the good news continued to arrive, the mood lightened. Twitter began to shift from nail-biting to humor and relaxed conversation (ultimately ending up at pure schadenfreude watching Fox News as dawn rose here).
On the Intrade front, I made a healthy last-day profit, closing some trades that had reached an asymptotic price (e.g. 96 or so) and plowing the money back into trades that hadn’t seen the light yet. By far the most delectable trade was pouncing on the Indiana Senate race early (thank you, SR), and betting on the Democratic candidate there to destroy that unspeakable rape-apologist Murdouck. I got that one at 63 and cashed it out around 96 to put the money to work elsewhere. At that time, Obama was still trading in the high 60′s (more about that in a minute).
Eventually, there were no more profitable trades to be done, so I just sat on the sideline, watched, and communed with my friends online, loving being part of the whole experience. Here’s what I learned during those six hours:
Say what you want to about Obama, the man can turn a speech into a sermon. And furthermore, he was exactly on message in his victory speech. His speech reached out to all Americans in a way that Romney’s never could and never would have. And that is probably the most important thing we need now – to stop thinking about the guy who voted for not-your-guy as the “enemy”. Obama said:Whether you pounded the pavement or picked up the phone… whether you held an Obama sign or a Romney sign, you made your voice heard and you made a difference.
Can you imagine Mitt Romney saying that? No, neither can I. As I said, Obama is not the best president we’ve had in a long time, but I believe he has the right vision and that counts for a lot.
The cultural norm is changing. Four states (MD, ME, MN, WA) passed same-sex marriage. Two states (CO, WA) legalized recreational marijuana, and voters in three pretty conservative states (MO, IN, VA) threw two rape apologists and a closet racist out on their sorry asses. We are not there yet, but the writing is on the wall.
If you are a “movement conservative” as they’re called, Tea-Partier, whatever, you should be livid. Your leaders, your media (Fox, Limbaugh, etc) lied to you. They told you that Romney was going to win, perhaps by a landslide. Can they possibly be that ignorant? They just sat there in their studios and told themselves (and their poor listeners) that everything was going to be great. I could go on about this, but Conor Friedersdorf at Atlantic Wire said it much better than I could. Old guard conservatives such as Newt Gingrich and Lindsey Graham are saying mea culpa and that they’d better figure out what’s going wrong. I doubt they’ll be listened to, but the honest conservatives in this country should demand that they are.
The “mainstream media” is really no better. Have a look at this Tweet that I sent out in the late morning GMT yesterday. How can we possibly expect to have an informed nation if the media is so egregiously clueless? Then again, the BBC said exactly the same thing when I was at the gym, causing me to pedal the bike at some ridiculous rate in frustration. I suppose I was stupid to expect better from them, but really – you’re the frigging BBC – I used to listen to you late night on NPR. Just those accents should make you more intelligent.
But the biggest outcome of the night? Two words: Nate Silver.
Nate Silver, keeper of the FiveThirtyEight blog, is a poll consolidator (for lack of a better word) and a genius statistician. In 2008, he correctly called the outcome of 49 of 50 states in the Presidential election. This year, he improved on that. Nate collects polls, reviews them, weights them based on his quality criteria, and melds them via some algorithms that must be an astonishment to see. And then he makes predictions. Throughout the run-up to the election, he published his predictions, “showing his work” in gory detail. The conservative media (of whom I spoken) derided him, accused him of bias, of dishonesty, and every other possible sin. He largely ignored them  and just kept putting his numbers up.
Peggy Noonan (in the Wall Street Journal), Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and others said they knew what was going to happen – a Romney victory. Nate simply said “There’s a very good chance that Obama is going to be reelected, and this is how it will happen.”
And he was right, down to the last state. He blew the pundits out of the water, making them look like the fools they are. And we, the people who believe in numbers, in the immutable truth of statistics, simply bowed with appreciation and humility. A website has sprung up called isnatesilverawitch.com. And xkcd, an incredible cartoon that you should read simply because it’s awesome, summed up the situation perfectly.
This was, as a dear friend put it, the Revenge of the Nerds. It is what we have been saying all along: that the data, the evidence, the numbers pointed in one direction. By the way, the chances of getting all 50 states correct if you randomly guess: one in 2 to the power of 50, or about 1 in 1,000,000,000,000,000. It is the same thing we have been saying about evolution, climate change, etc. This is the data – there’s a chance we’re wrong, but the highest likelihood is that we’re right.
Nate Silver has taken the lamp of truth and shone light in places where the darkness of punditry has prevailed. That light has given hope and strength to millions of people and the pundits will ignore it at their peril. It goes without saying that election coverage as we know it will never be the same. Any media company that wants to be taken half seriously will be scouring the bushes to find the next Nate Silver.
And speaking of Intrade, those of us who believed Nate had what amounted to a crystal ball leading up to the election. We went in and mercilessly slaughtered those who bet on what their leaders told them. First it was the Ron Paul supporters who knew, because it had to be so, that he would be the Republican candidate. Then we turned on the believers who kept Obama’s price at 70, even as the European betting sites were paying off the Obama bets (48 hours before the election). Like good poker players everywhere (and yes, Nate is a poker player), we cashed in on the information gap. I made a return of about 50% on my money in the eight months leading up to the election, 10-15% of that in the last 48 hours.
Ignorance is costly.
If you haven’t heard the name Nate Silver yet, you will. In fact, it just occurred to me: put your money on Nate as Time’s Man of the Year.
Those of us who live and die by numbers saw Nate and his methods – the methods that all decent scientists use – vindicated. And in many ways, that was even more rewarding than seeing President Obama back in the White House for four more years.
In closing, I need to thank all my friends and colleagues who shared the nerves, the nail biting, and the gradual realization that it was going to be a very good night in America. Throughout, I felt connected, included, and part of the process. For those who slipped me Intrade hints, who responded to my Tweets, who pinged me on Skype to say “W00t – we just got Virginia”, thank you. It was an honor to be part of your community. I’ll be back with you, one way or another, in two years. It probably won’t go as well, which will make it all the more important that I’m hooked up to you all.
Finally, I offer this video of Brad’s eldest, who (like Nate Silver) gets to the heart of the matter immediately. This kid ever wants to run for office, I’m on his team.
 Until he finally lost his temper in the last few days prior to the election and unleashed a searing series of Tweets on his attackers. They were a joy to read.
A couple of months ago, I got an email from the Queen of Koala, Lisa Burns. She said that two of her Bay Area friends were actually visiting the Isle of Man (!) and could they get in touch with me? Any Friend of Lisa Burns is a friend of mine, so I arranged to have coffee with these folks at a downtown Italian restaurant.
While we were having our cappuccinos, they told me that the tour group leader alerted them to a traditional Irish music session (Irish equivalent of a jam) at a pub along the main shopping street. Zoiks? I hadn’t been able to find any acoustic music on the Isle of Man, though truth to tell I hadn’t been looking that hard. But now I was told there was live acoustic roots music two blocks from where I was sitting.
Needless to say, I wandered down there after we finished. Got my socks blown off.
There were 8-10 people sitting around in the big room of the pub and they were playing some Irish fiddle/accordion/pipe tune really well. There were a couple of accordion players, couple of fiddle players, people playing various flutes, two guitarists, and occasionally somebody would pick up a bodhran. I sat for over an hour just enjoying the tunes and trying to learn about Irish session etiquette.
Needless to say, I asked them if I could come down sometime, despite the fact that I know absolutely nothing about the musical genre. This is where an amazing thing happened. I guess it all kind of derives from Mary Malloy, a ridiculously good accordion player who is the organizers and mistress of all these gatherings. Anyway, Mary acted as if they’d been sitting around playing just waiting for me to show up.
I told her that I played guitar and dobro, but had zero experience with their music. She said that was no barrier at all. The others were equally encouraging for me to come down, introducing themselves and saying that I should be at the next session. I exchanged email information with Mary and the next week, her regular announcement was bcc’d to the usual suspects about the session being (as always) Wednesday night at O’Donnell’s. And there was a postscript:
“American dobro players welcome”
Well, when you put it that way…
So for the last few weeks, I’ve been carrying both guitars down to O’Donnell’s around 9:00 pm. Last call comes at 10:50 or so, and then it’s pretty much lights out at 11:00. Apparently that’s because they’re in Douglas proper – I guess if they were outside town they bar could stay open later. Anyway, the first time I went with instruments, I went to the barman and gave him some money for the musicians’ drinks. They do get their first round free, but playing Irish music is thirsty work.
The pickers (can you call Irish musicians “pickers”?) were overwhelmed at my generosity and pronounced me their new favorite American dobro player. 
I have to say that it’s hard getting into the swing of this music if you don’t know it. Nobody ever calls out a tune name - in fact, they tell me that they don’t know the names to a lot of the tunes. They just know the tune. So some fiddler or piper or accordion player will start playing the melody, and off they go. Mary drops into a semi-trance state, staring off at five meters while she plays the living bejeezus out of the accordion. I find myself trying to shape chords around the melody, watching the other guitar players, seeing if I can discern the chord pattern.
Traditional Irish music is very much like American old-time music, in that the structure is all about the melody. Basically, everybody who has a “lead” instrument plays the melody pretty much straight up, without embellishment or improvisation (here’s an example). So if you want to play along with the melody, well, either you know it or you don’t.
But don’t get me wrong – I’m having a blast trying to work out and/or make up chords as I go. And while that’s happening, I’m sitting in the middle of amazing acoustic music being made by people who are incredibly kind and welcoming to me.
There’s another bonus: every once in a while, they’ll stop playing fiddle tunes and say “We need a song.” Then one of the guitarists plays a song and sings. It’s permitted (though not obligatory) for other instrumentalists to accompany as they see fit, but quite often everybody in the circle is quiet, and for good reason. The 2-3 guitarists who I’ve met there play, sing beautifully, and tell a great story. I usually grab the dobro and try to add a little something to the song as it goes. Couple of weeks ago, the guitar player on my right, John, broke out a lovely version of Richard Thompson’s classic 1952 Vincent Black Lightning. I added a dobro backing without even asking – it was too wonderful not to.  I’ve gotten to sing a few songs myself with my Martin guitar, and I’ve really enjoyed that. I keep trying to play tunes with easy chord changes, hoping that one of these days some of these ridiculously good musicians will step in and add their talents to my mediocre singing.
Which brings me to Halloween, which happened to fall on the regular Wednesday evening of the session. “Wear costumes” said Mary. I am all but morally opposed to adults dressing up in Halloween costumes,  but who was I to be churlish with people who have been so welcoming and given me an acoustic music outlet this far from the Blue Ridge? So I dressed up as a runner, right down to the yellow reflective arm-band with blinking red LEDs (“What – is that a metronome?” “No, the lights blink when I play a wrong note.”). The ladies, in particular Susan, Jackie (Jacque?), and Mary, went full goth and we got this:
But even the Goth sisters weren’t enough to save us from Rude Drunk Women (RDW), who turned out to be the scariest thing the whole evening. She was about to fall over, or fall out (it was even money which was going to happen first; neither option looked appealing). She marched right up and said loudly, “I want you to play…” “Danny Boy.” Now, I actually found this fairly amusing, because I should have known that Danny Boy would be the Rocky Top of traditional Irish sessions. The song that all the “tourists” want to hear and the musicians don’t want to play. 
Anyway, the musicians here very graciously performed a lovely version of Danny Boy, with Susan singing so as to break your heart. That caused RDW to plop herself right down in the middle of the circle and commence to talking. I was amazed that the musicians put up with it, but it’s their session, not mine. She did get sushed quite effectively by one of the men when she started talking during a song one of the guitarists was singing. Then she got up and wandered away.
Finally it was time to play one last tune, and RDW wandered back over and said “I want you to play…” “Danny Boy.” “Already did that one” I said (she was right at my shoulder) “And it’s no-repeat Halloween.” Mary launched into some rocking tune and that was the end of Danny Boy (though RDW stuck around to enjoy it). Unlike bluegrass tunes, it’s customary for a single tune to jump into a completely different tune at some point (a “set” is a group of multiple tunes segued together). They went through 2-3 (it’s hard to tell sometimes) and I managed to stay with them most of the way.
It was a rocking good way to end Halloween.
Oh, and if you want to see what happens when professional Irish musicians just get after it, here is the Chieftains with the Corrs  and dancers and, well, just watch…
 When I went to square up with the barman at the end of the evening, the total damage was £32. Every one of my investments should produce such returns.
 I actually emailed Mary the next day saying that I hoped I hadn’t stepped on any toes by doing that. She replied saying that it was 100% fine, and included John, who said he appreciated the addition.
 Rocky Top, in my opinion, has gotten a bum rap in the bluegrass world. It’s actually a fine, fun song. But over-requesting (maybe because of the Disney connection?) and/or a need to be hip and cool on the part of the musicians, means it gets dissed. Pity.
 To see the Corrs on their own, check out this video at 14:27. Wow.
So whenever I get back to Asheville, I always time my visit to include a Thursday night – that’s because it’s bluegrass jam night at Jack of the Wood.  I was there a couple of weeks ago, so of course I was down at the JotW on Thursday evening. My friends Joe and Steve lead the jam “opening band” to warm up the crowd and the room. They were kind enough to let me come up and play a couple of tunes with them. Had it ended then I would have counted myself lucky enough. Anyway, Lisa showed up and then our friends Tom and Brandi, then Tom’s boss Lisa and her friend Kia. We were eating (killer good) salads and having a big time as the “pre-jam” ended. Joe’s wife Kathy came by and we hugged on her. Place was packed, it was good to be in Asheville.
Then I started to spot the instrument cases coming into the bar. One or two people I didn’t recognize, but then the usual suspects started to appear. There, it’s Grif Martin. Fred the mandolin player near the front of the stage. Bobby Miller. Rudy the mandolin player from L.A. And praise be to Vassar Clemens, there’s Nicky Sanders over by the bar. Nicky is the fiddle player for the Steep Canyon Rangers, which is a regional legend that got vaulted onto the (inter)national stage when Steve Martin decided to tour with them. Nicky plays a zillion dates a year with Steep Canyon, but when he’s home in Asheville, he routinely shows up at JotW to jam. Yeah, Asheville is really cool.
So this has gotten pretty weird; the entire packed bar is a target-rich environment of serious bluegrass musicians, but nobody’s heading for the stage. Paraphrasing that little kid:
I see hot pickers.
I’m wiggling in my seat like a kid waiting for the Star Spangled Banner so we can get the baseball game under way. It’s a perfect spring day, the infield grass is electric green, and we got nine innings of greatness awaiting us. What are we waiting for?!?!? Brandi to me: “They need a stage captain! Go round ‘em up!” Wish I could.
That’s when Stig walked in with his bass. Shoulda known; can’t start the jam without you have the bass player and Stig is a bass player’s bass player. He heads directly for the stage and suddenly musicians commence to converging. Of course, at about 3-4, critical mass is formed and they all head up to be sure they get a place on the relatively small stage.
Next thing we knew, they’d torn loose some tune and a tidal wave of bluegrass music was crashing across the room, making standing waves in the Green Man Mocha Porters. Locals smiled and nodded; things were as they should be.
“Writing about music is like dancing about a painting; MP3s or it didn’t happen.”
I wish I’d had my MP3 recorder with me. Badly, I wish I’d had it with me. Here’s the best I can do: 
The out-of-towners, though, are the most fun to be around when the jam really cooks. “Who are these guys? What band are they?” “Band? That’s no band – it’s just some random musicians off the street in Asheville – it’s how we roll here.” A bunch of bikers were at the long table with us; they were just tooling along I-40 and decided to stop in for the evening. They were blown away and kept telling us how lucky they were to drop in. “Ya, just a typical Thursday night here in Asheville.”
Anyway, this goes on for an hour and the jam is absolutely raging. Lisa, Brandi, and Tom are prodding me, “You gonna go play?” I’m dying to play, but a jam can only have one bass player and Stig, man, he’s a one-man rhythm section and can sing beautifully. But finally I climb up where he can see me – ask can I play a song or two. He practically throws the instrument into my hands and leaps off the stage smiling – guess he can get a drink and step outside and visit with the sidewalk smokers.
Now, I haven’t played bass in quite a while, and when you do that, your calluses disappear. Which means that playing the bass bluegrass-style (i.e. all pizzicato all the time) any can tear your hands up – playing the bass hard for even a moderately extended period, well, it’s not pretty.
Trust me, I didn’t care. As Stig handed me the bass, he said “They’re doing Cherokee Shuffle“. Fiddle player glanced at me,  and we were off to the races.
Maybe the coolest thing was that Nicky was standing at the back of the stage, right next to me. He was seemingly having the time of his life playing amazing lines in the tunes, jumping to the mic to rip off an amazing break when it was his turn. This is a guy who played for 250,000 people at the Capitol on July 4th a year ago and I was getting a private concert. During a break I told him how much I enjoyed his playing on the Rare Bird Alert record, including one of my favorites: Go Away, Stop, Turn around, Come Back. In fact, you should listen to it:
Listen to it twice: first time, enjoy Steve Martin’s very funny lyrics (yes, he wrote the song). Second time, concentrate on Nicky’s playing. Listen to how musical it is, but how he inserts these wicked little shuffles, turnarounds, and other fillips. You think he’s ended a phrase, but then he drops a half-beat shuffle on the fourth beat. I mean, seriously, where does he get this stuff? 
30 minutes into it, I feel the blister on my right index finger pop; it hurts like a sonofabitch. I turn my hand slightly to damage a different stretch of finger. I don’t even think about the pain, my thought is, “Damn, do I remember the chords to this tune?” At 45 minutes, I am very worried that my playing will be affected by my shredded right hand. I signal Lisa to go outside and get Stig to come back in. Lisa gives me the international sign for “I can’t hear your hand signal”. 
Somewhere in there, a mildly (and later very) drunk chick came up and sang a tune; it was surprisingly good and she certainly knew how to work a crowd. The second time she came up (drunker) she sang happy birthday to a friend. Nicky led it and then started a pretty cool jam on Happy Birthday. Who knew?
I guess the most emotional moment for me was when Billy Constable appeared out of nowhere, jumping onstage in mid-song and taking one of his copyrighted outrageous guitar breaks. The last I’d heard about Billy, he was fighting serious health issues. To see him there at the front of the stage, guitar neck pointed skyward (to get the sound hole near the condensor mic), that was the last piece in place; the universe was perfectly ordered.
At 60 minutes, Stig came in and I frantically waved for him to come grab the bass. If nothing else, protocol demanded that I give him the instrument. And I wanted to sit down front and drown in the musical wave.
I shook hands with many of the musicians, thanking them for the gift of their time and talent.
As I’m getting ready to leave the stage, Nicky gives me a wicked grin and says:
“G, Bb, and a D walk into a bar. Bartender says, ‘We don’t serve minors.’” <pause> “So the Bb leaves and the G and D have a fifth between them.”
I so can’t wait to get back.
 True story: I got hooked into the Asheville poker scene via Jack of the Wood. On “2+2″, the major forum for poker players, I had entered “Jamming at Jack of the Wood” as the subtitle under my name. An Asheville poker player (and prince of a fellow) named Matt Gellert was reading 2+2 and saw that. He thought, “How many Jack of the Woods  can there be?” He dropped me a private message on 2+2 saying that they had a game and a keg of Asheville Brewing’s IPA. I showed up at the next game and now count many of those players as good friends.
 “Jacks of the Wood”?
 Okay, I was able to do better than I thought I would. Thanks to YouTube, I found a recording that somebody made at JotW, with Nicky in it. Here’s another one, just be sure to come back:
 Nice thing about being a bass player in a jam. They’ll start with nobody else having a clue about what’s going on, but they always make sure the bass player is locked and loaded; if your bass isn’t ready things rarely end well.
 There’s also a four-bar mandolin solo that is as sweet as Mount Pisgah branch water.
 This was later verbally expressed as “I don’t give a damn about your poor hand. You’re in the jam of a lifetime. Shut up and play.”