You may already know that comedian Steve Martin is an exceptional banjo player. Though perhaps not the very best at any one style of banjo playing, Martin is remarkable for his ability to move from one style to another, sometimes within the same song. In the recent album, The Crow, available on-line from Amazon.com, Martin displays Scruggs style finger picking, melodic work, and old-time frailing, along with clever lyrics. I love the album. End of commercial.
I had one of Martin's banjo tunes stuck in my head, and so thought I might as well listen to the album. As the music started, my mind leapt back across 30 years of time and space to graduate school in Minnesota, and my music playing buddies, Kevin and Dan. Kevin and I played together, both for fun and for profit, with Kevin on the guitar and me on the banjo. Dan, our downstairs neighbor, would hear us playing and seek to join in with his mandolin. Dan wasn't a bad mandolin player, at least when playing solo. The problem was, Dan couldn't count, I mean HE COULD NOT COUNT, which made attempts to play with him nightmarish. Kevin became pretty adept at waiting for Dan to get by the pick-up notes he seemed to stick in at the beginning of every phrase. I just couldn't manage it, partly because of the nature of bluegrass banjo, and needing to think a measure or two ahead in pick patterns of 8. The awkwardness of these attempts resulted in my doing my best to avoid playing music with Dan.
Fifteen years ago Dan's and my paths crossed again. I filled the pulpit at Dan's church in Kansas a couple times when he was on vacation, and brought my banjo along on one occasion. Hearing that I still played, Dan invited me to drive out for dinner and an evening of music. I was surprised to learn that Dan had moved from the mandolin to the fiddle, and not very surprised that he still couldn't count. But for some reason it didn't seem to matter as much. Maybe the years had improved my ability to improvise. Or perhaps they had softened, just a tiny bit, my perfectionism and need to get the music just right.
As I listened to Steve Martin and remembered Dan, I thought about the ways in which life throws unexpected pick-up notes in our way. There was the time my brothers, our cousins and I planned a wonderful island picnic, but forgot to include cooking vessels or cups for our famous hot chocolate (thus the origination of the Order of the Minnow Bucket). There was my father in laws' heart attack when Sally and I were planning to take the kids to the Grand Canyon, and ended up harvesting cherries in Colorado instead. There have been countless examples of weekend plans interrupted by rain, recipes that called for one egg or one cup of sugar more than we had in the house, and vacations stalled by the need for emergency root canals.
I know John Lennon said, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." But at my worst I still stumble over life's pick-up notes. There are gracious times, though, when I remember the sweetness of an unexpected cherry harvest, the squeals of laughter as a bucket of hot chocolate is passed around, or the blessing of healthy kids who have survived emergency root canals. In those moments I find myself more open to what this day might bring. And I'd give almost anything to have the opportunity to wait for Dan, now departed, to get past the pick-up notes so we could play just one more tune together.