After stopping by Shelton’s Treasures Thrift Shop and ridding myself of a backseat-full of unwanted items that had inhabited an upstairs closet for many years, I popped into Lynch Creek Floral on Railroad Avenue for a latte. (Parked permanently across the street is Simpson’s loggin train, the “Tollie.”) I love and frequent Lynch’s for its good Batdorf Bronson brew and its line of beautifully chosen gift items. This particular early January morning, a man at the counter, waiting for his coffee, was whistling. I liked this because I had been whistling as I walked down Railroad Avenue toward Lynch’s. Now and then, I whistle when I’m walking, though aware that some people a. loathe whistlers b. think it is unladylike c. think it brings bad luck, especially if done inside. I felt an instant camaraderie with the man at the counter, another whistling fool. I’d been whistling “How Can I Keep from Singing.” I didn’t recognize his tune. He offered his place in line to me and said, almost under his breath, “There will be music soon.” This announcement took on the gravity of a prophecy. I didn’t know what to think.
After a few minutes, one of Lynch’s proprietors, more forthcoming than the gentleman who had now headed to the rear of the store, told me that there was about to be a “bluegrass jam” in the back and why not take my coffee, pull up a chair, and stay awhile. I did.
The whistler, John Rodius, a quiet, self-effacing man, set up a few chairs and pulled his Tacoma guitar out of its case. Turns out, I’m told, he is one of the founding organizers of Shelton’s Blue Grass from the Forest, an annual music festival. (It’ll be May 17, 18, 19 this year.) He and others play at the Senior Center in Shelton as well. Occasionally, the jam group plays in public under the name “Down Home Fiddle and Bluegrass.” They’ve appeared at the Puyallup Fair and assorted other venues.
John has lived in Shelton for thirty years. He grew up near Mt. Rainier in Graham. It was his brother-in-law, a musician with Buck Owens in Tacoma, who got him started on guitar, he tells me. That made me curious. Turns out, Buck Owens (1929-2006), who had 21 number one hits on the Billboard country music charts and is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, moved to Puyallup in 1958 and had a live TV show on KTNT in Tacoma. Don Rich (1941-1974), a young and talented Tumwater Hill fiddle player and guitarist, was recruited by Buck and helped develop, “The Bakersfield Sound.” Rich and the Buckeroos even produced a song and album called “Tumwater Breakdown” named for his hometown, still considered to be a suburb of Olympia in Rich’s day. So John listened to his brother-in-law and the pre-fame Buck and Rich and the others who made up Buck’s entourage.
When he got older, John says, he went to work and stayed on the job for 37 years. During that time, he says, he didn’t play at all. He talks slowly while he takes out some bandages and tape and begins to wrap his fretting hand. He was working on a house project recently when someone dropped a 2 x 4 for him to catch. It slid through his hands and deposited some nasty splinters. He is in pain and there is some nasty looking red swelling where he says he extracted a sharp fragment of that board. He says that spot is healing. It looks iffy to me.
While waiting for his colleagues, I asked John if he does indeed play bluegrass as in Bill Munroe. “No.” He says. “We don’t play any Bill Munroe.” He pauses. “We play old music and Civil War stuff.”
A man enters from Lynch’s backdoor, cold and slim as a reed. “There’s Herb,” someone calls out. Herb has fiddle in one hand and a small plastic bag of cookies in the other. Another man, Al, had come in a little earlier and taken a seat across from me. He calls himself a “wannabe.” He says, as a boy, he always longed to play guitar but discovered he has “no music in me.” He’s wearing what look like stiff new blue jeans, a bit oversized. He says, “They play at my house sometimes.” Then he says, “My nephew plays the banjo.” Someone jokes later that Al thinks he is a music critic. If so, he is an awfully quiet one.
We are in a small circle, surrounded by the scent of flowers and in sight of bridal bouquets and large, colorful arrangements the women behind us are creating for customers. One or two young women can be heard discussing their wedding dates and placing orders. We sit quietly, waiting for other musicians to arrive.
The nephew and his banjo come in and join the little circle. This is Paul. Paul wears jeans that ride very low on his body. He has to give them an occasional tug to keep them up. He wears a billed cap with a construction company logo, a work shirt with ticking stripes, and heavy soled work boots.
I ask John if the group members have song books or just call out tunes. He says they just call them out but “might have to guess for a couple of licks” til they are together. He says someone’s always coming up with something new. Later, I notice he has a stack of cards with tune names and chords. Someone else says, “I forgot my session book” so there is, somewhere, a list of favorites.
Last to arrive while I’m there are two women, a grandmother and granddaughter named Janice and Danielle. The men have done a little warming up, but things get started for real when Janice and Danielle get their fiddles out. Danielle seems to be a spark. She is young and well practiced.
As the group prepares to play in earnest now, someone suggests “Up Jumps the Devil.” Instead they strike up “Whistling Rufus,” a popular cakewalk from circa 1899. Paul says, “There’s one song I want to learn before the year ends.” It is “Pig Ankle Rag,” a tune that shows up in “traditional” collections and has been passed around in jams probably for at least a century. The fiddlers seem to know it, but Paul, on banjo, needs practice. Next tune is “Ice on the Road,” another traditional tune and one that shows off Danielle’s talents.
Paul has trouble keeping his picks on his fingers, his hands are so cold from the outside. Al says he’s sorry he didn’t bring his super glue.
Before I leave, Herb asks the group to play a waltz and he bows his fiddle sweetly. He tells me that his wife died just before Thanksgiving. He was her caretaker for many years and he is just beginning to get out and play again. It’s been ten years, he says, since he’s picked up his fiddle. I’m hoping for Herb that this is the beginning of a new, joyful musical life.