by Jon Worley
They walked in the door tentatively and made their way to the bar. They moved together with an obvious intimacy. They might have been brother and sister or, more likely, lovers. They were probably in their early twenties.
She wore her long hair simply, a few strands tied up in back. Her straight-cut cotton dress probably came from a thrift shop. He could have been any boy off the street in jeans and a well-worn button-up shirt. His right hand kept a tight grip on a guitar case, and she looked like she would never relinquish the fiddle case in her hand.
Once they made it to the bar, they asked about the beer selection and then nervously ordered pale ales before hearing all the options. Before payment could be offered, the bartender said simply, "As long as you're playing, it's free."
Each with a beer in one hand and an instrument in the other, they made their way over to the circle of musicians playing in the corner. There was a fiddler, a couple of guitar players, a banjo player and a someone with a tin whistle. All were men. All were considerably older than the couple. Two spaces opened up in the circle--not next to each other. Was this intentional? Was it a slight? The two looked at each other for a moment, then each took a draught from their respective pints and opened their cases.
They took out their instruments and sat down separately as they had been bidden. After listening for a moment to the song--it may have had a name, it may not have--the two slowly worked themselves into the mix. A chord here, a short line of harmony there. A squiggle from the fiddle at an appropriate point. Then, quite abruptly, the song ended.
Like most folk traditions (jazz, for instance), Appalachian mountain music relies heavily upon improvisation within traditional forms. It's not terribly important to know the name of the song you're playing, or even necessarily the original melody or rhythm. When you're in a circle, what's important is fitting in with the other players. It's alright to take a solo now and again, but the soloist must make sure to bend his or her performance to the mood and swing of the group. If that happens, then the song is a success--even if it in no way resembles the original.
Without any discussion, the banjo player picked out a simple melody. One of the guitarists confidently strummed out a rhythm. The tin whistle player snatched a pair of spoons from his shirt pocket and began clicking along in time. Within fifteen seconds, the entire group--newcomers included--had the song swaying as if it had been going for hours.
After one or two more songs, a couple of the old timers took a break to purge and refuel. The couple quite obviously found the smaller circle more inviting. She took a solo on her fiddle almost immediately. Stumbling at first, she quickly righted her bow and picked up steam. By the time her thirty seconds or so were up, she was practically beaming with pleasure (not pride).
He took a solo a couple of minutes later. His fingers almost crushed the fretboard at first, though his face showed no tension. Like her, he quickly loosened up and began to play with delight. By the time the old timers returned with fresh beers, the circle had reinvented itself. There were no longer old hands and newbies. Just musicians.
They left just as quietly as they came, packing up their instruments quickly and walking out the door not two minutes after the close of the session. Apart from some hasty introductions, no one really knew anything about the two except that they sure knew how to play. Which is all anyone really cared about, anyway.