A few songs into the show at the Birchmere, I realized I was smiling like I hadn’t smiled in days. Long. And hard. And irresistibly.
And then I was crying. Just a little.
Because: Music. Good, amazing, phenomenally played music.
I was lucky enough to be sitting 30 feet from a stage that would have collapsed had the bona fides of these musicians been that sort of heavy. These are my sorta bona fides.
Ry Cooder: mad skills, but perhaps more importantly: curious, unafraid to try something new, and always respectful of traditions at first unfamiliar, but quickly inhabited by his own fingers on strings, his own voice on harmony. Ry Cooder who played with and lifted up the Buena Vista Social Club, V.M. Bhatt and Ali Farka for western audiences. A guy from Los Angeles who played with bands like Little Feat, Captain Beefheart and the Rolling Stones and later turned to traditional music, seeking out masterful musicians from all sorts of traditions, learning their styles and offering it up to the rest of us.
Ricky Skaggs: master of and loyal to his own deep tradition of bluegrass music. Saavy enough to reach audiences that might not otherwise wrap their ears around his quick picking fingers on mandolin and guitar. The real deal. I first heard him when I was in college at Appalachian State University, close to his roots in Kentucky, and his technical skill made it clear that he was special even then. He’s been playing mandolin since age 5.
There they are, in that photo: Ricky, Sharon (his wife) and Ry.
The family band: blew me away.
Sharon White – Ricky’s wife; Chery White, Sharon’s sister; Buck White, their 85-year-old father on keyboards and vocals; and Joachim Cooder, Ry’s 37-yr-old son on drums. Blew. Me. Away. Each is talented in their own right, but there is something extra you get when families make music together, an added dimension of visceral connectedness. Is it because they spent their earliest years matching and mixing their voices and instruments together? Or is it in the blood? It is simply one more wonder to consider as the music reaches down deep and draws up tears and smiles because this exists in the world, and I get to hear it.
Yes I am gushing. The music was so fine-tuned but at the same time so natural, so easy yet so perfected. But also: I know this was just two silver-maned guys on stage, one with black jeans and black shirt, the other sporting a considerable gut and hippy/hipster eyeglasses, playing to a silver-haired audience. As my honey pointed out, every one of the people up there wore eyeglasses except for the old guy, and the youngest. I watched them connect across the instruments and behind the lead singers. Age is no object. But it was worth pointing out, as Skaggs did, that everything about this show was from pre-1965 except for the drummer. Now there’s some depth for you.
Meanwhile, the oldest musician was not up there just for show — Mr. White bounced all over the keyboard, when the others turned to him for his break he nailed it. And he could sing. Could we get any better than the traditional tune he lit into with his two daughters, a tune Sharon said they used to sing with their mama? I imagined the countless times that song’s chords signaled another round of a familiar tune, the snuggling in to that place where your voice belongs, buttressed by all the others, both nesting together and projecting out to the world this connectedness like no other.
And then there was Ry Cooder’s song about Christians who should unload their diamond-studded shoes. Maybe it was the result of reflecting on Ricky’s deep faith, his reliable testimony that he is blessed, and grateful to God who gave him the opportunity and the mission to share his music. Ry Cooder is no born-again Christian, but he slides right in there holding down the bass vocals as if he’d been raised up in a Southern Baptist church, and now writing a Gospel-ish song of his own, admonishing Christians who may have been blinded by all that crusted glory that can creep up on them like power.
Because in addition to this being deeply traditional, it is also being carried forward – there was a lot of banter about learning from YouTube videos, and of course there was that young guy anchoring it all down with drums. This sort of music is not just about sitting in your seat and listening to a show. It is about seeing the magic of connection among the musicians. Carry it forward.