It is a subtle shift.
Sometimes I play music; and sometimes the music plays me. It has been a long time coming, for I am not very musically inclined, and you wouldn't say I come from a musical family. Yet now, on rare occasion, there are times when I am playing that it is not about me but about the music. That's progress.
Two factors in my life, I think, have fueled the shift.
First, my good friend Doug B., the Ripon, Wisconsin guitar player I jam with, said he wanted to play acoustic rather than plugged-in, so about a year and a half ago I purchased a cheaply-priced flat-top acoustic bass guitar made by R.W. Jameson. Suddenly, "practicing" became so much easier - I didn't have to get the electric bass out of its case, plug into the amplifier, plug the amplifier into the wall, and fire up. It was as simple as lifting an instrument from the the stand and playing it. And this got to be addictive - there came a certain time each day when I had to pick up that bass and work my way up and down the neck, playing the same pattern in several keys. Then changing the pattern and going through the various keys again. It got to the point where I couldn't not play. That's a delicious state.
Second, forty-two years after our graduation, I reconnected with my high school classmates Doc and Dean. They had been a folk duo in high school, and as I have written about they ended up performing some of the songs from those old hootenanny days at a school reunion in June of last year. I talked myself into the position of bass player for their reunion gig. We all met for a long weekend in Kansas and worked up 42 songs for the show. Doc sings lead and plays the front guitar; Dean sings harmony and plays rhythm. Tom plays bass and keeps his mouth shut, pretty much. Doc's son Chuck, a true musician, joined us on keyboards, provided intros and endings and instrumental breaks in the middle of songs, and made us sound like we knew what we were doing.
We went out for breakfast at 2:00 a.m. when the gig was done, and over pancakes and eggs we wondered if that's all there was to it.
Turns out, that wasn't all there was to it. By the end of June last year we'd hatched a plan to create an album of "fairy-tale" songs, which we did. I compressed eleven fairy tales to song-size lyrics and wrote one nonsense song; Dean wrote music for them; and Doc made them sound sweet. We're all together there on Fairy Tales & Nonsense, Doc and his guitar, Dean singing harmonies, and me on bass.
The Fairy Tales album was "Dean's album," created for a grandson born at the end of October. Dean got an album, so you'd think Tom should get one, and Doc should get one, right? Right. Tom's will be an album of original train songs, and we are well along towards finishing lyrics and music, and this summer we will set about recording the 14 or 16 best songs we've written on the subject of trains. These days I practice the train songs for at least an hour a day.
And then, too, Doug and I have gone back to playing music regularly, three or four or five hours every other weekend or so, with Doug concentrating on guitar instrumentals of blazing beauty - either songs intended to be instrumentals, like "Under the Double Eagle" or some of the fiddle tunes Doug learned from his dad and adapted for guitar; or some old favorites we've adapted for guitar and bass, such as "When You and I Were Young, Maggie." We may even record some live acoustic versions of these songs at some point.
I am having terrific fun. The calluses on my fretting fingers now have calluses on. I am playing music and sometimes the music plays me.
I still have poems to write and the middlewest to explore, don't get me wrong. I recognize that I need to get back out on the Vagabond trail, and I will this summer, once I have finished with my teaching this semester at Lakeland College. I have to be at school on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, which doesn't leave much space for travel until the semester ends. I am looking forward to getting back at it. I may pack the car in May and not get home til September, I just don't know.
I do know that, at this point, I am ready to buy the last instrument I'll ever buy - a flat-top acoustic bass of excellent quality. I am on the lookout for a good one that booms sweetly. I mean, it has to be loud when it is played unplugged, and it has to sound sweet. It has to be easy to play, and not go out of tune as you go up the neck. It has to be well-made. As I say, it needs to be good enough that it will, indeed, be the last instrument I ever buy.
A week ago this past Saturday Doug and I drove up to a store in Appleton where I played seven of the acoustic basses they have in stock. Doug would take a guitar down off the wall, and I would pick up one of the basses, and we'd play one of our instrumentals. The basses I played ranged in price from $199 to $899. And you know what? The one that sounded the best was the $199 model.
But I don't need another $199 bass. I already have three low-end instruments. Now I want a good instrument that sounds good and plays easily. I have my eye on the Martin BC-15E. Oh, how I want it to boom and sing and be easy to play.
Yet I can't know any of that without playing it.
So sometime later this month or early next month, Doug and I will trek over to Elderly Instruments in Michigan. Doug will pick up a Martin six-string he is interested in, and I will pick up the BC-15E, and we'll play some of our songs.
And if we're lucky, the songs will play us.
And, if I am luckier still, that bass will play me, and I will have found the last instrument I'll ever need to buy.
When the music plays you, there's nothing you can do but keep on playing, keep on playing, and hope it doesn't end.