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Just when I thought I was making headway, covering some ground, having mastered—with the aid of Banjo Method Book I—the C, D7, G7, Em and D chords on my shiny banjo, with my now calloused and painful fingers, strumming a strained, discordant version of The Drunken Sailor, and Oh Susanna, along comes this guy with his band of string benders to remind me and my scaly finger pads that I've barely scratched the surface of the very layered, very complex world of stricken and plucked instruments.
Never mind notes. What I know about Christopher Thile is what a gentleman to whom I was serendipitously adjacently seated—in the coffee shop told me yesterday: Thile's a virtuoso who began playing the mandolin at the age of five, formed the band Nickel Creek three years later, and recorded his first album (with original compositions) when he was just thirteen years old. A year earlier he had won the national mandolin championship in Kansas.
This gentleman happened to be a singer/songwriter/ mandolinist himself, who's had his songs played by musicians like Alison Krauss. He had seen a teen Thile making love to his mandolin at a Carolinian festival. Making love, he said. In a coffee shop. In his radio voice. In No-Place-Special, Massachusetts. We were both surrounded by our respective laptops, books, notepads and coffee. In the sort of spousal disclosure that married people do with strangers, we had both dropped the "H" and "W" words as our conversation rolled along, so there was tacit understanding that discussing the intimacies of music was proper within certain confines. And it was. Confined. And proper. I took furious notes, but I couldn't shake the image from my mind. Making love. To his mandolin.
How does one make love to his mandolin?
You still with me?
It does evoke a certain sensation doesn't it? All that pulling back and thrusting forward of flatpicked notes, the intensely expressive music, the arousal of senses, culminating in a pleasurable and satisfying climax of vibrations...
... I know, how cheap.
So much for subtlety...
But I must tell you that I now understand what the gentleman with the radio voice in the coffee shop in No-Place-Special, Massachusetts was talking about. And as I gaze at my book of chords and quarter notes and forward rolls, and attempt to strum some kind of discernible piece of music from the simplest of chords, I am highly aware of the unfortunate fact that it may be a long time before I can bounce back and forth between Bach and bluegrass. Or make any kind of clumsy love to my banjo. (As if this will ever happen at all.)
It could be a very long time.
And until then, I'm going to keep beating down the path. Callous fingers and sore shoulders. No shortcuts. Straight forward, over the hills, through the potholed valleys, comin' round the mountain... banjo clutched closely to womb... when she comes. A long, long time from now.
Until then, enjoy Chris and the Punch Brothers.