Written by: Brandon Godman
Over the years as I’ve continued to study the fiddle, I have spent minutes, hours, days, and probably weeks listening to the recordings of my heroes. I’ve only gotten acquainted with some players, while others I have nearly brainwashed myself with. Listening over and over to this break, that kickoff, the harmony part they played over there, and that one really, really killer back-up lick they did leading into that third chorus on a board tape from a live show they played while on tour with that one band.
My absolute favorite is to watch or listen to interviews of these players. I remember always being perplexed by the playing of Vassar Clements. Why would he play that lick there? Or why was he slurring that phrase when everyone else was driving each note with a different bow stroke? It wasn’t until I saw his instructional video that I really felt like I started to truly hear Vassar. I got to watch his face while he was playing those bluesy licks, and hear him say, “And sometimes I might play something like this here… And sometimes I’ll hum a fourth part to this triple stop run…”
Through studying these interviews, various recordings, board tapes, instructional videos and recounting the live performances I may have been fortunate enough to witness, I feel like I can start piecing together their personalities, and see it reflecting through their music. I understand where their licks and intricacies of their style are coming from. It’s almost like I can feel their conviction, and hear their truth, without them saying a word.
When I played my first show in May 2017 as an official member of Laurie Lewis and The Right Hands at the Freight and Salvage, I was introduced as being new to San Francisco, only having lived here for a year at the time. We had a really great time on stage, a fantastic audience, and the musical juices were just flowing. One highlight, in particular, was getting to perform my original tune, “General Kuster,” which I had recently written in honor of Ted Kuster and the battle to place a bluegrass float in the upcoming San Francisco Pride parade.
After the show, a new friend named Andrew approached me and said, “I don’t know how you sounded before you moved out here, but you sound free now. You really pour every ounce of your soul into your playing.” This really hit me. I realized it was the first time I had really ever been comfortable being 100% myself on stage. But what changed? I had been surrounded by great, loving musicians in the past. As her fiddler, Dale Ann Bradley wanted nothing but my true self to show up in her music. I was one of the founding members of my band, the Music City Doughboys, so I had nothing but myself to give there. But this was different. 2017 was the first year for Bluegrass Pride. Everyone in the west coast Bluegrass scene had been so welcoming, encouraging and accepting of me. I had absolute affirmation that this is a safe place to be me, and 100% me. And I was now pouring that into my music.
As we are well into our second year for Bluegrass Pride, my hope is that everyone will revel in this freedom to be themselves. The true gift of music is that it’s a medium where you can come undone, be completely vulnerable with your audience, and be unapologetically you. You never know who might be listening.