The old Rabbi said, “In olden days there were women and men who often saw the face of God.”
“Why don’t they anymore?” a young student asked.
“Because, nowadays,” he replied, “no one stoops that low.”
The first time my Uncle Mac invited me to listen in on one of his bluegrass jam sessions, I was just 11, and filled with fascination and awe. He was part of an amateur band that played at some of the regional summer festivals and some out of state. They met in a double-wide trailer at a wooded park south of Fort Worth.
I sat on the couch in the guitarist’s front room as five men sat in a tight circle of folding chairs, hardly speaking between songs, working telepathically as their fingers flew over their instrument’s fretboards. Guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, upright bass — all harmonizing seamlessly. Subtle gestures might mean a change in key or another’s turn at a solo (or a “pass” on to the next person). I wasn’t always clear about their meaning.
Every now and then, in the breaks between songs, Uncle Mac would turn to me as though he’d just learned something from the song and needed to pass it along to my young, hungry-for-wisdom ears.
“Tommy?” he leaned away from the group and back toward me.
“Yeah, Uncle Mac?” I said.
“Don’t make a habit of being human. It can get you into trouble.” They all laughed.
I smiled and laughed, too, for reasons I didn’t fully understand.
The songs they sang were often about the Civil War, murder, bank robbers, and broken hearts. They always told a story of some sort… tragic, humorous, longing. Being human could be a messy venture according to bluegrass.
Then he leaned back after the next song and said, “On the other hand, nothing ventured, nothing gained. You understand?”
I nodded yes and didn’t have a clue.
Some of Mac’s sayings were like Zen koans.
“Yes, Uncle Mac”.
“No matter how much the cats fight, there always seems to be a bunch of kittens around.”
I asked why and the guys all laughed. “You’ll understand when you’re married,” the mandolin player chimed in.
I was impressed by how each player was given a turn to shine on their instrument and affirmed for whatever they contributed, be it the next flat-picking wonder or a simple guitar-strumming accompaniment. The parts made the whole. Without them, the song would sound lonely, incomplete, helpless.
“It’s amazing how much you can accomplish when it doesn’t matter who gets the credit,” Uncle Mac would tell me later in his pick up as he reflected on the evening jam and we made our way home. “There’s a lot of humility and grace in a bluegrass band.”
“Sometimes bluegrass isn’t so much about getting the parts right,” he once said. “It’s about the story and knowing where the song came from. I mean ‘Rocky Top’ is a fun song. But it just doesn’t mean anything unless you know it’s about the mountain and having a place in this world.”
Yeah, none of that really made any sense to me — until much later, when I picked up a guitar and started seeing the songs myself. There’s a kind of paradoxical comfort in singing about death or loss or the search for love, especially when accompanied by a fast musical tempo.
That’s pretty true with the Gospel, I think. We don’t really understand it until we’re living it. We don’t really know love until we are loving toward others and life itself. We don’t really know what it’s like to have something until we experience the joy of genuinely giving it away.
The Gospel feels paradoxical — “happy are you when you are ignored, excluded, feeling disconnected and estranged from life. For you will find the deepest joy,” Jesus tells the crowd. Or, “The one who tries to save his life, will lose it. But he who loses his life on purpose, will find it.”
This Sunday we continue our exploration of musical genre and culture through the lens of the Gospel as we look at the human drama through storytelling and the fast-paced tempos of bluegrass music. It’s a different kind of Sunday this week, with upright bass, fiddle, guitars, boxes for drums, mandolins, and a banjo.
AND singer/songwriter Hannah Kirby joining us!!
We’ll hear stories of Still Bill and Agamemnon Jones and the “metaphysicians” down at the Terminal Tavern, as we think about the Beatitudes, the paradoxes of life, and the possibilities of finding love and wisdom at the heart of it all.
… and singer/songwriter Hannah Kirby joining us!!
This Sunday, June 23, at eleven:eleven, downtown,
The Gospel According to … Bluegrass!
featuring stories from Uncle Mac and Gamble Rogers,
singer/songwriter Hannah Kirby, the revolution band,
and the music of Nickel Creek, Sam Bush, Della Mae Band,
and Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou!
See you then!
Associate Pastor of eleven:eleven