In that crazy business called show, there are few pursuits offering less glamour than the life of a bluegrass musician. Most practitioners of this highly disciplined form of music believe its greatest rewards involve communing with other skilled and reverent bluegrass musicians to master the intricate melodies of ancient fiddle tunes. In contrast, most rockers just want to snort coke off a call girl’s derriere.
That’s not to say that a few bluegrass gigs don’t get a little out of control. And my flat-pickin’ brothers James and Jack have great stories to tell about the many nights they’ve spent playing in roadhouses filled with rednecks. Some of those tales focus on the usual exploits of the over-served. Others involve random acts of violence that seem like they were lifted from songs of death and sorrow by the Stanley Brothers.
James, who played in a popular north Florida bluegrass band back in the early ‘70s called the Flying Aces, recalls one gig at a bar on St. George Island that took a particularly chilling turn:
“I was sitting at the bar during a break when I heard a commotion behind me and turned around just in time to see a woman tumbling backward into the band equipment, mic stands falling like dominos across the stage. She had just been swatted by her husband who walked away as if nothing had happened. When we ran up to help her to her feet she said, ‘Just get me to my truck’… which we did. A few minutes later I noticed some guys sitting by the window gesturing wildly toward the parking lot outside. They were yelling ‘no, no, no’… then a shot. The woman had retrieved her pistol from the glove compartment and shot her husband – ‘in the kidney,’ they later reported. About the time the ambulance arrived the bar owner came to me and said, ‘Don’t you think it’s time for you guys to start playin’ again?'”
I sat in with the Aces on several occasions. On one trip south, I joined James and the boys for a week in Melbourne, FL, where we worked on an archaeological dig for a shrimp boat captain (don’t ask… I’m pretty sure drug money was involved). We stayed in the captain’s house, which was nice but sparsely furnished, although it had plenty of canned goods in the pantry. One night we decided to start an impromptu picking session at a nearby bar, which went fine until one of the locals grabbed James’ guitar and started singing a tune that sounded like it wouldn’t have been out of place at a Ku Klux Klan rally (or a David Allan Coe show). It opened with the less-than-inclusive verse “Martin Luther King was a Ni…” We snatched back the guitar before he could finish, hurled a few f-bombs on the way out the door and high-tailed it back to the captain’s nest.
Sadly, I don’t show up at all in my favorite story about a bluegrass gig. It unfolds at the Pastime Tavern, a dive on Tennessee Street in Tallahassee – just a short stumble from the campus of Florida State University. That’s where James and Jack took the stage in the early ’70s as The Quine Brothers Band. On one of those evenings, they were greeted by a quiet but friendly gentleman with a beautiful banjo. I’ll let James pick it up from there:
“We were both on stage when a sharp-dressed, well-groomed guy – especially for the times – walked in carrying a banjo case and asked if he could sit in. We didn’t normally encourage sit-ins, but this guy was clearly something different, so we said OK. That’s when he pulled out his banjo – gold hardware and mother of pearl all over the place. As I remember, he just stood in the back of the stage mostly playing rhythm. When his turn for a solo came around, I would glance back at him to see if he wanted it. I think he pretty much played on everything… definitely knew a lot of fiddle tunes.
“After he left, somebody said he was a former writer for the Smothers Brothers who was doing comedy shows on campus the next couple of nights. I don’t think anybody in Tallahassee had actually seen his act. Jack saw the first show and made me go with him to the second. I hurt myself laughing. He was definitely at the top of his game… Wasn’t the least bit funny when he played with us, though.”
The mysterious banjo player turned out to be Steve Martin, who had reached a critical point in his career by the time he hit Tallahassee in ’73. He had already appeared on the major TV shows – Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas – and had written for Sonny and Cher and the Smothers Brothers. But he was still performing at small clubs that seated less than 100 people.